A Rupee for a Life

Parveen Afshan Rao is perhaps one of the most charming and driven women I’ve met in my entire life. Not only has the woman singlehandedly breathed life into her childhood reverie of educating children from the most beleaguered sect of our society, she’s managed to secure herself a decent education despite many hardships she faced while growing up, and is constantly striving to “do more and make a bigger difference”—something most of us seem to have forgotten the true significance of.
Parveen’s endeavors may not stand out as extraordinary to most people, but I could not help but be completely blown away by the woman’s vision and resolve, which, to be honest, sounded rather fanciful while sitting and talking about in her drawing room, but assumed a whole new meaning inside the four walls of her school’s small building in an area that is feasibly one of the most neglected neighborhoods of Karachi.

The forty-five minute drive from Parveen’s home next to the Expo Center to Khuda Ki Basti in Surjani Town is anything but pleasant thanks to hardcore traffic and bumpy, unpaved roads most of the way, but that hasn’t stopped her from making the journey to ‘Amal-e-Danish’—or ‘The One Rupee School’ as it is better known—every morning for the last sixteen years. “It’s a long drive, but I chose this area because it was comparatively peaceful and I knew the school wouldn’t be thronged as there weren’t a lot of houses out here back then.” She tells me as we make ourselves comfortable in her modest yet well-equipped office. “I understood my limitations and knew I had to start on a small scale and this was the perfect place… when I asked the Katchi Abadi Association for a plot to open the school they said that they would only consider my application once I had actually opened a school. They needed to make sure I wasn’t a con-woman trying to eat up their land!”

The people of Surjani Town were always on her side though, and when they heard about the woman and her proposal, more than 20 families came forward to offer their small homes to get things started. “It was very moving… the families were so desperate to send their children to school that they were willing to offer their two-room homes for the purpose. That was when I knew I had come to the right place.” Fortunately, she didn’t have to take any favours and her unrelenting endeavors finally paid off when the Katchi Abadi Association agreed to allot her a plot. She then brought the adjoining plot as well, and later on her husband gifted her the neighboring plot. A few years later, her nephew also bought the one behind that, bringing Pareen’s dream one crucial step closer to reality. “We started with just four rooms and now we’ve built more than 20 rooms.” Parveen beams, and I can’t help but be impressed for I can only imagine the many hitches she must have faced to get where she is today.

But what’s the story behind the implausible one Rupee fees? Surely the measly sum that adds up to cannot be enough to run the whole school, which, on my way in I noticed even has a small computer lab with three or four running PCs. “During the first few months alone, I had rounded up about a hundred children from the streets whose parents simply couldn’t afford to send them to a proper school. I set the fees at 30 Rupees a month, which was nothing keeping in view the costs involved, but soon realized that those people couldn’t even pay that! The parents started to pull their children out and that panicked me. I refused to turn it into a free school like the parents were urging me, and so I finally decided to slash the fees by 29 Rupees and turn it into ‘One Rupee School’. The only objective of one Rupee fees is to assure the students that they’re not getting a free education; that they’re paying for their schooling… and you probably won’t believe this, but getting even that one Rupee from the younger children is very hard: instead of submitting it with the teacher, they go out and buy a toffee!“

Once the building was in place and the new fee was set, Parveen’s next itinerary was raising finances—on her own. Eliminating the customary route of hunting for donations, Parveen and her husband decided to start a small printing business, the profits from which they would use to run the school. “This might sound strange, but I couldn’t possibly have gone around asking people to donate money so I could fulfill my dream!” She laughs matter-of-factly, “It’s easier for students to raise funds. By the time I opened the school, I was a married woman. I was too proud to ask others for help… and then there was also the question of my husband’s honor!” Luckily for Parveen and her husband, the printing business flourished and she didn’t feel the need to look for anyone’s help for a few years… until 2005, which according to her turned out to be a very bad year for herself and the school. “For almost five years, the money I was making off my business was more than enough. For the first time ever, I had actually started spending money on school supplies with an open hand and it felt great. Suddenly, as the number of students started increasing, the money started to fall dramatically short.” By then, the school’s monthly expenses were easily crossing the hundred thousand mark and Parveen recalls herself slowly breaking down because of all the stress. “I was driving from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to Surjani Town and back during the days and from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to I.I. Chundrigar Road and back during the evenings, daily! In between all the work and driving I had to look after my home and give my husband and daughter some time too. I was constantly short on personal money because I’ve always believed that once you take up a responsibility, you have to see it through. I knew that if things were ever to get seriously bad, I would probably cut down on my home supplies rather than delaying my teachers’ salaries.”
It never got to that, thankfully, and things started to look up again when, thanks to the unassailably potent marketing tool that is the word of mouth, Parveen started getting emails from people who had heard about the school and wanted to help out. One of the emails was from an Indian gentleman who was quite impressed with the concept of One Rupee School and has been a regular donor for years. “These regular contributions have finally helped me relax a bit and now I only have to put in 15 to 20 percent from my personal account and that too if needed.”
And now that things have settled down, Parveen has also finally found the time needed to work on her own four-dimensional educational model, which she has been planning to develop ever since she was a kid. The first dimension is the One Rupee School for underprivileged students whose parents are going through a temporary financial crisis. Parveen calls the second dimension ‘Tez Raft’, which involves accelerated tuition for children who were not able to go to school at the right time and are thus lagging behind. “For example, when a twelve year old child’s parents finally decide to send him to school, no school would take him in because he’s too old to attend nursery and too ‘dumb’ to attend sixth grade. I give everyone an admission, no matter how old they are, and make them sit through a separate class called ‘Tez Raft’ where they study a specially devised accelerated syllabus until they’re ready to join the class they should ideally be in. Right now we have about 150 students just in ‘Tez Raft’.”
The third dimension is for boys and girls who have reached their matriculation or intermediate level but their families cannot afford to educate them any longer and are essentially forcing them to start earning a living. Parveen gives these children teaching jobs in the school which satisfies their parents. ”Then in their free time, I tutor them and pay for their books. Whether they want to do matriculation or intermediate; bachelors or masters, I pay for their education if they agree to teach younger kids at the school, so that the tradition continues!”
But what she’s most excited about is the fourth dimension, which I too find rather pertinent and fascinating. “‘Taleem-e-Baalghan’ is all about educating the mothers of our students. I’ve written a special exercise book for these women which includes things like Urdu and English alphabets, basic sentence construction, addition & subtraction, and learning to write their name, ID card numbers etc. There’s also a section to help them learn to read the names of public buses, hospitals and famous markets. The book is basically like a ‘Qaida’ but a little different in pattern because some of the women actually stopped coming to school because their children were mocking them for studying a book they had studied years ago! The new, personalized format makes it look different and the children can’t point out any similarities between their ‘Qaida’ and their mothers’ ‘Meri Kitaab’.”
“My own family had always been against me studying,” She recalls with a sniffle as she gives me a quick tour of the classrooms before I leave. “They didn’t want me to go to university because I was a free maid for them. They used to say that I could start next year. Next year they’d say I should start next year… this went on for so long that suddenly I realized that everyone—including my other siblings—had all done something or the other with their lives and I was still right there…without an education, doing housework!”
And that’s exactly what’s propelled this incredible woman to take on the challenge of bringing about a small change in whatever capacity she possesses.
Parveen is kind enough to see me off to the school’s gate, and I’m so incredibly glad she did, because otherwise I would never have known that the 80-year-old woman with a tightly-clinched ‘Meri Kitaab’ in her hands who had just entered the building was in fact the school’s eldest student!
Watching the woman quickly rush to her class, I am completely dumbfounded and overwhelmed with emotion. Parveen, however, is beaming ear to ear, “If crazy people like me continue to work for these people, Saad, then I’m sure one day things will definitely start to look up!”