Every afternoon, by the rear entrance to St Andrew’s school in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, gather dozens of women. Some are in burqa, most work as servants, all are from the large Muslim slum at the edge of the suburb.

From the balcony of my ground-floor flat next door I watch them squat in the sun, awaiting the bell signalling the return of their children. Girls in blue pinafores, boys in blue shorts and white shirt (and a tie after class V) come out to mothers who carry tiffin boxes. Almost inevitably, the women pass a hand over the child, fondling it, ruffling hair, proud. What were the tiffins for, I wondered, till I understood. The children weren’t going home directly but elsewhere, a tuition class perhaps.

The school-going children from the slum are many and rising, and a newspaper reported the school’s response: applying a system of reservation by religion. A third of the children admitted would be Hindu, a third Christian and a third Muslim. Because the slum dominates the local population, this ratio works against them. Middle-class Muslims in the area, and there is a range of them, from Gujarati-speaking Bohras and Khojas to Urdu-speaking Shias and a few Sunnis, also favour this division by faith. Their thinking, which is correct, is that even if the entrance pool were narrowed, their English-speaking children were safe because they would edge the slum children out in the admissions process. Few Indians are enthusiastic about their child studying and sharing a bench with someone from the slums, who is thought to be dirty and foul-mouthed. The slum Muslims are Urdu speaking, going by the banners for religion and politics that clutter the area, and their homes are across the road from Bandra’s largest mosque.

Raised in Surat, trained to place people by caste, something about the people who left and entered that mosque disturbed me. In traffic slowed by the crossing devout, I often scanned the calligraphy on the mosque’s signboards out of a moving car trying to pick out a clue. One evening, I realized I was looking at the wrong language. On the mosque’s wall, in English, were the words I sought: Kasai Jamaat (butchers’ community).

The leap: (clockwise from top) A student practises English at the nearby Urban Community Development Centre classroom in Bandra, children going to school in the area; Pushpa’s daughter is at a boarding school in Mumbai, english and vocational training classes take place side by side at a community centre classroom. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

In an old building on Bandra’s 14th Road is the Urban Community Development Centre. Asked for directions, the pretty girls working for the dental clinic on the floor below do not know of its existence, but it is easy to find for those who seek it. They are English seekers of the current generation: drivers, maids, cooks, all in their 20s. I spotted the young man who delivers my laundry take a class for class I. They hope English will get them out of servitude. It will be difficult to learn a language and its grammar at that age, difficult to persist, but they look quietly resolute, running their fingers over children’s texts, mouthing the unfamiliar words.

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The man who teaches them is Creswell D’Souza. When I first visited the place, we chatted and he asked me if I could come and teach. When I offered to give money instead, he told me to get copies of a textbook, N.K. Aggarwala’s Elementary English Grammar and Composition, Book 2. It is for some reason a difficult book to get, and Creswell telephoned me three times till I managed a few copies, each costing Rs55, for people who might find it difficult to buy or locate.

The book’s opening line, for students to rearrange into a proper sentence, reads: “is girl a good Mary".

About Mary I cannot say, but about her son there is little doubt. Christ introduced a horizontal relationship into religion, from man-God to man-man. “Do unto others..." What an exceptional message: simple, effective and powerful enough to have produced the most mighty and most civilized culture on earth.

The message of individual redemption through good work, unselfish work, is easy to see in action in Bandra.

As we leave the Bandra mosque and go towards the old business district, just before the Shiv Sena building, is the turn into the municipal corporation’s sweepers’ colony. There I visit the Purabiya family. Ramji used to be a sweeper, cleaning toilets and collecting garbage, and after he retired a couple of years ago, his son inherited his job. Neither man is particularly bright, and the house is managed by the daughter-in-law, Mina, who sweeps offices, including mine.

She has two children, Varsha and Rohan, and they go to a private school run by a charity. Mina’s husband draws Rs3,000 a month as salary. Of this, Rs1,000 is deducted against rent for the house—one room and a kitchen—the family of five lives in. The houses are 12 to a row, four rows in all, with three toilets to a row, one for every 20 people.

The Purabiyas are Harijans—they admit this easily—but vegetarian. The pictures of gods are all around the room, but not the usual ones. There is the headless warrior goddess Ful Jogani Ma, whose picture also has two women lying on top of one another. And, like many Gujaratis, Ramji believes in Ramdev Pir, whose Hindu-Muslim shrine is near Jaipur. The green standard of the saint is on one wall.

None of the Purabiya adults can read, but Varsha, who is 10, can. The children are too shy to talk to me in English. I look at their notebooks, and see the writing on it, perhaps replicating what the teacher is saying: “Monday is for English." The teacher had corrected a page, and marked a lesson: “Good!"

Mina makes Rs3,000 cleaning offices. The Purabiyas wish they had the money to send their children to a computer class, which they say is Rs500 a month, but they cannot afford that. The children’s school fees are Rs200 a month and their monthly electricity bill alone is Rs700. How do they manage to pay that, I ask. They let it gather till the power is cut, and then they go to the moneylender.

In the corner are a bat, a pair of pads, gloves and a helmet. Rohan, who is 12, isn’t that keen on school, but goes to Shivaji Park for coaching every day. I ask how much the coach is paid: Rs1,000 a month, a fifth of the family’s income. It is not easy to come to terms with such sacrifice, and such ambition.

Pushpa works at the home of scriptwriter Arpita Chatterjee, who wrote the movie Bheja Fry. Pushpa is 25, or perhaps 24, she isn’t sure. She is slim and quite beautiful. She must know this, for she is quite confident in her manner, face thrust out in conversation. Pushpa cleans seven homes, starting at 6 in the morning and working through till 5, making Rs10,000 a month. With that money, she sent her daughter Sneha to boarding school in a distant suburb of Mumbai called Vasai five months ago.

Sneha attends St Anthony’s, whose fees are Rs325 a month. Her hostel is part of a Christian family’s home where 30 children, boys and girls, stay. This costs Pushpa Rs5,000 a month, leaving enough money for her own Rs3,000 rent. Sneha’s hair is cut short, because Pushpa found lice in it during one visit. She does not see her daughter often, perhaps once every three weeks, and takes wafers and biscuits when she does, though she must surrender these to the family (“I make sure Sneha sees me hand them over," she says). Sneha does not like being away on her own and when she first brought her to the hostel, Pushpa told her they were going on a picnic. Why did she not send Sneha to a nearby school, I asked. Sneha would never learn English if I were around her, she says. She wants to keep her daughter away from her for another four years, till she is in class V. At that point, Pushpa feels, Sneha will know English enough not to be affected by her environment.

“I have a cousin, he studies in the 15th class," Pushpa said, perhaps referring to college, “and I asked him a question in English. I had learnt these words because I was interested and I asked: ‘Where do you stay?’ He said he understood the question but he couldn’t reply. He could read and write English, he said, but he couldn’t speak it in conversation." She would ensure Sneha didn’t turn out like that, and she was happy with her life. She says with Sneha not around, she does not need to cook, eating what she is given in the homes she works in.

She heard of the boarding school when gathered around the slum’s tap, when a man she knew called Suresh spoke of having sent his daughter there. A friend of Sneha’s, also a maidservant, decided she would send her daughter too. Suresh gave them the magic contact, and Pushpa showed it to me. It was a crumpled chit with a phone number and the words “Faustin Aunty", the lady who ran the hostel in Vasai.

Of the children in Pushpa’s slum, in the suburb of Andheri, most go to private school. Of those that do, most go to English school. Girls may study Marathi for free but they must pay for English.

Parents with two or more children had a problem, Pushpa said, because they did not want a child to be more privileged than the other. This was leading to one-child families.

A problem had arisen in these schools, Pushpa said. Slum children have no training in doing “potty"—she used the English word. Parents would drop the child off at school where the child would defecate in class. The school calls to complain about this. The parents felt they paid much money to the school, and expected that the school provide this service of cleaning the children up. This matter of raising a child correctly occupied Pushpa first when she was a sweeper at a kindergarten school. She watched parents bring their children to class. “Maine dekha phool ki tarah rakhtein hain apne bachchon ko. Uski koi wajah hogi (“there must be a reason they raise their children like flowers")," she said. She is determined to raise Sneha that way.

Doing research for a book I am writing on servants, I have come across many such people. I know of a cook, Renu, working for CNBC’s Udayan Mukherjee, a Bengali woman living alone, who put her nephew through IIT and sent him to Germany. I know of another, Manju, cooking at director Saeed Mirza’s home, both of whose children are corporate executives. Many of the servants are shy, and do not wish to speak of their lives. Their children are not as reticent; access to English, to middle-class friends has given them confidence.

These stories are all just from my circle of acquaintances. How many million such stories are being written across India? How many people are poised to obliterate the disadvantage of birth, of caste, of faith? More than we might think.

A storm is gathering on the horizon. It is called the right to education Bill, and it will be applied this year. It requires all private schools, every single one, to set aside 25% of their seats for the poor, whose fees the school’s other students must effectively bear. How will this affect the children of Dhirubhai Ambani International School, where parents pay Rs7.57 lakh just for classes XI and XII?

Middle-class Indians are trained to ignore the poor, but our children will grow up with school friends who share their bench but who do not watch television, or go on vacation, or eat pizza or have shoes. How indifferent can our children be to them?

The great missionary schools that raised a century of middle-class Indians efficiently and cheaply can no longer cope with the rising numbers of those who demand English education. Can India produce solutions internally? I do not know, but I am not optimistic.

And yet the faces of those women waiting in the sun are touched with certitude: They know their children will get there, and while we may wonder, they have already set off.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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