The Mandal van slugs from village to village on rain soaked roads. Often narrow roads turn into streams and streams become impassable bodies of water. Getting to some schools means parking their vehicle up to 3 kms away, trekking up hills and wading through knee-deep water.
What pushes them along are memories of earlier meetings where eager faces awaited them; of successes they have wrought. In 15 years they have touched and assisted 650 schools; helped create 27 graduates, including an engineer. Many more under support, are still young but will one day realise their potential.
Smitha Vilas Khamkar of Kurne, Lanja, now 13, lost both her parents within a year when she was but 7. Since then she has lived with families for a month at a time, helping them with their chores to earn her keep. But that hasn't dampened her spirits: she consistently tops her class, making other children wonder how she finds the time for books. Mrs Pravin Bhatt pays Rs 2,600 a year for her schooling. The Mandal finds another Rs 4,500 for her other expenses. Everyone is convinced she is a rising star.
Amrutha Athalye and Vidya Shinde are both studying to be accountants. Their education has been underwritten by donors. Their teachers in school championed their causes as they are very bright girls. They will soon be graduates.
Tejaswini Sanjay Mistry, now about 10, wants to be a doctor. Her friends and teachers believe she will make it since she has always effortlessly topped the class. Her father died young. Her mother works in the fields. But the Mandal has found a backer for Tejaswini.
Nanda Bapu Gorule is something of a legend in Lanja. The Mandal had supported this gritty, self-confident girl since Class-9. She went on leaping over every hurdle in front of her to become an engineer. She continued to work in the fields, keeping close to her roots. She is now a married woman, a mother and a role model to many.
Ished Saved Fernandes of Rajapur taluka is the pride of the Mandal. He is the first boy who showed them that their work and help mattered. Ished is physically challenged. His sister carried him on her back to school everyday. He topped the taluka list in the public high school examinations. The Mandal then put him through college, paying his course and hostel fees. He earned a diploma in education and is now a teacher at the Zilla Parishad School. When he sent his first salary to the Mandal in gratitude, they knew their mission would endure. They returned the money of course, but Ished keeps chipping in with his contributions. He is the Mandal's point man and does the rounds with them every year.
These little known clerks know ways to make some rural dreams come true. So they keep their dates. They arrive regular as the monsoons. They have done so, for fifteen years, now. Even as you read this, they are getting ready for this year's tryst.
Lanja Rajapur Sanghameshwar Taluka Utkarsha Mandal
9/5, Arya Nagar
Tardeo, Mumbai- 400034
Gen. Secretary: Madhukar K Pawar [Mobile:0-98694 28469]
This story was adapted from a longer, comprehensive article by Shruti Parthasarathy based on her interviews. The group photograph is also by her.