Boom boom… off to school

Light of the matter: For the Adyan community, Diwali is often the favourite time of the year - Sibi Arasu

Festivals meant a time of begging for children of a marginalised nomadic community in Tamil Nadu. It took one school to put some cheer back in their lives

For Sami (14), Lakshmi (20), Sudha and Murugammal (both 19), Kumar (11), Mahalakshmi (9), and their 150-odd schoolmates, Diwali or any festival, for that matter, would have been an agonising affair, if not for their school.

These children belong to the nomadic boom boom maattukaran or Adyan community, which is so marginalised that even the scheduled tribe status has eluded it so far.

A familiar sight across Tamil Nadu during festivals, members of this community go from door to door seeking alms in the company of an ox, which nods its head to the ‘boom, boom’ drumming by its owner. Out of sheer desperation, they push even their children to beg or sell cheap wares on the streets to supplement the family’s meagre income. And festivals are seen as lucrative opportunities, as people are usually willing to part with a few more rupees than usual.

However, it’s a different kind of Diwali for the children of this community studying at Vanavil, the decade-old school in Keezhakarayiruppu village, about eight kilometres from Nagapattinam town.

The school raises funds specially for this festival every year, and the children are given new clothes, crackers, festive meals and sweets for the celebrations. “If we did not do this, the children, out of an eagerness to celebrate the festival, would have most likely taken to working or begging to come up with the money,” says R Revathi, founder-member of the school. Even during the summer break, the school keeps the children engaged by organising art camps and other events. “Often, after a long holiday, fewer children return to the school. A high dropout rate is one of our biggest problems,” says Revathi.

Formerly employed in the Tamil film industry, she had set up the school with the help of fellow-volunteers she’d met in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

Recalling the horrific scenes of devastation left by the tsunami, she says, “The first few days, the only thing to do was to clear bodies; there was even a dead child. I was not able to do this, so I started looking for other ways I could help. It was by chance that we met Murugammal, who later became one of our first students, when she came to us begging with a malnourished child. This was strange because Nagapattinam was littered with relief material and I was surprised nothing had reached her. When we probed further, we realised that her community, the Adyans, had received no relief since they were not in any administrative datasheet.” Revathi and a few other volunteers stayed back in Nagapattinam for the next few months and decided to set up a bridge school of sorts for the children of this community, who were overwhelmingly illiterate.

“We wanted to break the begging habit. The community was completely against this, but the children liked to come... We got cycles, took them to movies every so often and slowly tried to introduce literacy and numeracy,” says Revathi. “A bridge school was not enough though. The children could not fit into government schools after just six months with us. So the idea kept evolving, bringing us to where we are today.”

Vanavil has grown into a full-fledged activity-based learning centre, spread over two acres, and with a 15-acre farm abutting it. Children are admitted from kindergarten up to Class V. Those orphaned or otherwise unable to go home can stay in the school’s hostel till they finish high school in one of the nearby government schools.

In the last 10 years, more than 1,500 children from the community have been educated. Three of them, M Lakshmi, K Sudha and Murugammal, have gone on to college, and many more are set to follow suit. A community which was beyond the margins is clawing its way to claim its rightful place in society.

To hasten this process, Vanavil plans to set up two more learning centres for the Adyan community. That, in turn, would mean more Diwali celebrations for more children. As Sami, who was rescued from begging in Kerala along with his two orphaned siblings, exults, “It’s my favourite time of the year. Everyone bursts crackers together… semma jolly-a irukku (it’s jolly good fun).”

(Sibi Arasu is a journalist based in Chennai. This article was produced with assistance from Building a Voice for Children, a PII-Unicef fellowship.)

Published on November 13, 2015

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