It’s a mildly warm afternoon. The megaphone on Platform 1 of Sion station crackles as a lady’s voice announces that the next train to Ambernath will be arriving shortly. Monday blues and the hour on the clock have commuters entering and exiting the station in melancholic swathes. Siddhesh Ratnamala Madan Suryavanshi, however, glances eagerly at his watch, as he awaits the familiar clanging of wheels pressed between a string of 12-bogies and serpentine tracks: in other words, his ride to Ulhasnagar.
Meanwhile, in Ulhasnagar, the children’s home is abuzz with excitement. Eleven boys, in particular, are restlessly anticipating their workshop, questions swirling in their heads: What will we learn today? Are there any exciting activities in store? When will Arvind Dada (a term of respect and endearment for an older male, someone you may see as a brother) and Siddhesh Dada get here? It seems that Siddhesh’s eagerness has travelled faster than him, it is mirrored in the eyes of these boys. And it’s hardly surprising. As children who are either orphaned, have single parents or require the support and protection of the government for other reasons, they have lived on the margins of the margins, their imaginations confined within the walls of the home, and the fellowship may very well be the only breathing connection to the universe outside.
Once on the train, Siddhesh finds a seat next to the window and parks himself there. It’s going to be at least another hour till he reaches Ulhasnagar. He fishes a slim book out of his bag and begins reading. The goal is to finish one book every time he travels to and back from Ulhasnagar, which means that a fair few books have seen the beginning and end of their journeys with Siddhesh in the past six months. Since September last year, he has been mentoring the group, ‘Children See Dreams’ – the one made up of 11 enthusiastic boys under the age of 16 – in their research on the status of children’s homes in Ulhasnagar.
A Youth Fellow in 2016/17, Siddhesh and his group examined the freedom to access the internet for college-going girls. Even before that, Siddhesh was associated with the NSS (National Service Scheme) in his own college and as a volunteer with Akshara and other NGOs through which he worked with kids in under-served communities. A 22-year old science graduate, passionate about articulating his thoughts on socially relevant issues through poetry, Siddhesh expresses a growing interest in the development space. Evidently, his thoughts match his actions.
He says, “I love to travel, I don’t like to sit idle”, as an explanation to why the long commute to Ulhasnagar every week doesn’t faze him. “I don’t think of it as work, I think of it as an adventure.
As a student, I was limited in the ways I could work with communities, but now I have an opportunity to work at the grassroots. I enjoy my time mentoring the group. My experiences as a fellow mean that I can give them useful tips when they’re stuck. As a mentor, I have an added set of responsibilities but this only helps me grow. I can learn and earn at the same time, and I think that’s a great combination.”
His involvement has definitely provided Arvind Sakat, a facilitator on the Youth Fellowship Program, tremendous support; he vouches for Siddhesh’s work ethic and dedication. Arvind elaborates: “Siddhesh can handle the group alone. We have seen him do it a few times, he steps in and assumes the role of a facilitator when required. The kids always want to make sure that he will be present for the next session.” It would be safe to say that it’s this budding leadership quality complemented by an analytical bent of mind, and a humility when it comes to learning that make Siddhesh popular with the Ulhasnagar kids.
Siddhesh alights in Ulhasnagar. He makes his way out of the station, the book still in hand, and hails an auto to get to the children’s home. About 20 minutes later, his auto comes to a stop, and he steps out. He sees the boys waving out to him. He smiles; it’s time for him to tuck his book into the bag and focus on the book of the world that is vast and infinite and always open, revelling in the knowledge that learners like Siddhesh will never stop reading it.
For years, PUKAR’s ex-fellows kept returning to the fellowship in informal capacities, generously investing their time and energy in guiding the succeeding batch of fellows. In 2016, these efforts were formalised through an exciting collaboration with the Sinha-Kikeri Foundation, Chicago. The alumni mentor or as it is commonly referred to, Alumentor (alumni as mentors) component in the Youth Fellowship Program officially creates a space for ex-fellows like Siddhesh to actively engage with current fellows and guide them through their research. It also provides them with a monthly stipend to help manage expenses in relation to the fulfillment of their roles.