Pratibha (right) and Pinkie.Eager to explain how well her rich classmates at the expensive private school she attends in the Indian capital treat her, a slum dweller, Pinkie's words tumble out in a rush: "They talk to me, they play with me, they are fine, they are normal with me," she says, speaking in fluent English, which makes the families who have gathered around stare in awe and her parents beam with pride though they don't understand a word.
Pinkie Bharati, 11, has been going to Sanskriti in Chanakyapuri, one of New Delhi's top schools patronised by tycoons and top civil servants, for the past three years. She is the happy beneficiary of a 2009 government policy which forces the country's private schools, where the children of the elite are educated, to give a quarter of their places to poor children and educate them alongside the rich, free of charge.
No one sneers at her, makes fun of her or taunts her? "No, no one," Pinkie insists, happy to chat despite the suffocating May heat that has forced most of the people in the Sanjay Gandhi slum outdoors. In fact, her ''bestest'' friend at school is a rich girl, Priyanka, who lives in a mansion, holidays abroad and comes to school in a chauffeur-driven Ford Endeavour.
Pinkie with her mum and dad."She's very nice and normal with me," says Pinkie, who has just finished helping her mother fill jerrycans with water which the whole family will use for bathing, cooking and washing.
AdvertisementDo she and her friends socialise outside school? After all, Pinkie's father is a barber, her mother works as a maid for a nearby rich family that is probably just like Priyanka's and her family's two-room shack has no tapped water and only one toilet shared with 70 families.
"Yes, Priyanka invites me to her house and we have a wonderful time," says Pinkie excitedly. But Pinkie has no means of transport to reach Priyanka's house. So she walks to school and waits for Priyanka's chauffeur to pick her up. When the playdate is over, he drops Pinkie off at the school again, not at her home.
Pratibha (in pink) and Pinkie (far right).Extracting the meaning of this arrangement is difficult. Perhaps Priyanka thinks the Ford Endeavour won't be able to squeeze into the slum's alleys. Or perhaps both sides sense that the class collision represented by a swanky SUV coming to pick up a poor girl from a hovel is just too unsettling?
Whatever the reason, this one small arrangement exposes the maze of class complexities that Indian schoolchildren negotiate every day as they are thrown together as part of a government experiment likened to a ''social revolution''.
The purpose of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (known as the RTE), enacted in 2009, is to ensure that all children aged 6-14, regardless of their background, be given an elementary education.
Akshay (in yellow tshirt) with his mum and friends.The requirement for private schools to take in poor children is an attempt to reform a profoundly segregated education system. The children of the elite receive a superb education in expensive private schools for fees that can go beyond 60,000 rupees ($A1100) per quarter. The poor go to free but overwhelmingly inadequate state schools where the buildings resemble cow sheds and the teachers are often absent.
After the 2009 Act, a group of 30 private schools challenged the legislation. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, upheld the constitutional validity of the 25 per cent rule. All private schools will now have to fulfil this requirement aimed at narrowing the chasm between rich and poor.
Children like Pinkie and her friend Pratibha, 11, (who also attends Sanskriti) pay no fees and get free textbooks and day trips. Without the RTE, these children would have been doomed to walk past the school gates, peering into a world of privilege, without the slightest hope of ever passing through them, let alone receiving the sort of education such schools offer.
Akshay (in yellow tshirt holding soccer ball) with his dad.In the classrooms of private schools implementing the new policy, rich and poor sit side by side, eat together, play together and socialise in a way the rich and poor never do in any other sphere of Indian life.
The juxtaposition of class and caste are astounding. The child who comes to school in a chauffeur-driven car sits next to the chauffeur's son. The untouchable sweeper's child sits next to a high-caste Brahmin. And the child who has never enjoyed tapped water, flush toilets, air conditioning, playing fields, computers or swimming pools, experiences such comforts for the first time at school, only to go home to squalor.
In New Delhi schools such as Springdales, Shri Ram and Sanskriti, which started taking in low-income children from 2009, teachers have been coping with the challenges of breaking down social differences. How do you integrate children whose worlds are so far apart that the poor child has never heard of, say, Istanbul yet the rich child has visited the city?
Yashwant with his granny.How do you help poor children not to feel ashamed when they open their snack of chappatis and sabzi (unleavened bread and vegetables) next to classmates tucking into smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels? How do you ensure that poor children get invited to birthday parties? When a rich child's monthly pocket money is the same as the income of a poor classmate's father, can they relate to each other as equals or will it always be distorted - heartfelt gratitude flowing from one side and disdain, or at best grudging acceptance - from the other?
Khalid Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is a study of friendship between social unequals in Afghanistan: Amir, the rich master's son and Hassan, the servant boy in the household. While Hassan shows unwavering loyalty and love for Amir, reflected in the remark ''for you a thousand times over'', Amir's feelings are infected by the inequality and he fails to return Hassan's love. In India, the walls between the affluent and the destitute are much higher.
"It's hard educating rich parents," says Anita Joshi, a teacher at an elite Delhi school. "Even the liberal ones start muttering about how the kids will be unwashed, infested with lice and have bad toilet manners.
''Then they pretend that their main concern is that the poor kids will hold their children back because the teacher will have to devote all her time to the poor students."
For Shampa Bahadur, whose daughter has just left Shri Ram School, there can be no question that the poor need to be helped. But she was concerned that her daughter was being held back. "Look, when we moved to Delhi from Goa, it took my daughter six months to break into the class and make friends. Think how much harder it is for a poor child to adapt. They don't know English and that holds back the entire classroom because they can't understand what the teacher is saying," she says.
Among the poor, their apprehensions revolve around lack of social confidence. For a cook or a plumber to walk into a Parent Teacher Association meeting surrounded by wealthy women wearing Prada and diamonds is enough to daunt a middle-class Indian, never mind a slumdweller.
In another part of the capital, at the Babar Singh Camp slum near Shri Ram School, house painter Ram Kishan, whose eight-year-old son Akshay attends the school, is in a quandary. He came home for dinner to find Akshay brandishing a birthday invitation from a rich classmate.
Pleasure is mixed with anxiety on the father's face. Kishan knows that rich children are accompanied to parties by maids. He has no maid; his own wife is a maid. "I or my wife will have to stay there with him and I don't know how the parents will react. How will I talk to them? What if they show me into the kitchen to sit with their servants?" he asks. But take Akshay he must because the boy is thrilled and talks of nothing else.
For this, as on all matters that he cannot quite fathom, Kishan plans to consult Akshay's teacher.
"She has always given us good advice. Once, a girl kept poking fun at Akshay's hair and she told my wife that we should oil his hair only at weekends," he says.
Apart from this incident, Akshay says he has made friends and mixes with the students. A friend of his, Yashwant, attends Shri Ram too. Both boys smile and say they have faced no difficulties from rich classmates. Yashwant is a class monitor, as his grandmother, Khushi Devi, proudly points out.
Perhaps the fact that they started attending Shri Ram at the age of five has helped. At that age, children are less conscious of social differences, less affected by their parents' prejudices and more likely to make their choice of friends straight from the heart - choices that can continue into later years.
For teachers, the RTE presents a huge challenge. They have to integrate the children socially, help the poor ones catch up with their English, guide the parents and ensure the rich students do not get all the best roles in a school play or overawe their less fortunate classmates.
Janani Aiyer, who teaches history to Class 6 students at Shri Ram School, is a huge supporter of the RTE - ''we have to stir the waters,'' she says - but acknowledges that classroom dynamics can be difficult and that teachers have to work much harder.
"When you give holiday homework, you have to remember they have no books or computers at home. You have to find ways of making topics relevant and meaningful. It's tough but very enriching. It's a joy to see their hunger to learn.
''Change is always difficult but you have to find solutions to the problems," she says.
The problems can range from educating rich parents to be more sensitive to tackling reactions to classroom theft. "If someone's pencil case goes missing, is everyone going to suspect the poor child?" says Aiyer.
It is not only the poor students who benefit from this social experiment. Lavina Gupta, a former English teacher at Springdales School, says rich children learn ''to be accommodating, sensitive and tolerant''.
''They are forced out of their social bubbles to learn about the problems faced by other Indians," she says.
In any case, achieving social integration is not quantum physics, she feels.
You can de-glamorise birthday parties - which are often obscene displays of wealth - by suggesting picnics instead, or holding the party at school. At parent-teacher meetings, teachers can make the poor parents feel welcome and explain how they can help their offspring.
Not all teachers are as willing as Aiyer and Gupta to put in the extra effort. Even if they are, some struggle. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Shri Ram School principal Manika Sharma as saying: "The teachers have come into my office and broken down. They say 'help us, there is no learning happening for the affluent children. What we achieved in one week before is now taking three weeks'.''
Critics of the RTE regard it not as a blow for equality and social justice but as a gimmick that represents a drop in the ocean as private schools make up only 10-15 per cent of all schools in India; around 75 per cent of Indian children attend government schools.
Even if every private school was to give a quarter of its seats to low-income families, the vast majority will still be obliged to attend government schools with low scholastic standards.
Writing in the Hindustan Times, political commentator Ashok Malik argued: "The real crisis is the government school system. We need to improve government schools. That's the only way to give a good education to most children.''
EVEN those who support the initiative worry about the issues it throws up. These extend beyond issues of social integration to matters of psychological adjustment.
Is society placing a psychological burden on poor children by expecting them to adjust to studying with well-off students in private schools? In their anxiety to ''fit in'', will they lose their own identity and self-esteem? Will it be a Sisyphean struggle every single day?
"Some children can become alienated from their parents. They start looking at them critically. I know a boy whose relationship with his mother was destroyed because he was ashamed of their home and their poverty," says special needs consultant Vijaya Dutt.
Supporters of the RTE appreciate these difficulties but are convinced that India's future lies in children of diverse backgrounds learning together.
"The worlds of the rich and the poor have to intersect so that future generations can live together harmoniously," says Bindu Atwal, whose daughter studies at Modern School, another prestigious private school.
Certainly, Pratibha, who wants to become a police officer, rejects any notion of ''alienation''.
Despite never having been invited in three years to an affluent classmate's home, she seems comfortable in her own skin and with her family. Intelligent, pretty, and confident, she has just taken up jazz dance classes at Sanskriti.
Pressed on whether the contrast between school luxury and home penury troubles her, she replies: "No, I'm happy with my parents. We're OK, honestly, we're fine with our life," she says.
But shame and snobbery can certainly lurk on the fringes of the unconscious.
Pinkie, who had been so adamant about her rich classmates' acceptance of her, suddenly asked, at the end of the conversation: "Will this article appear in an Indian newspaper?"
On hearing it would be published only in Australia, she exclaimed unselfconsciously: "Oh good, I don't want anyone to see photos of my … my home," she said.