Twenty-two year old Gayathri S says she has done it all. From marketing to promotions to driving an auto rickshaw and even a stint as a model, she has taken up all kinds of odd jobs to support herself and her family of three. It shows on her frail, skinny frame. Gayathri completed her four-year Bachelor’s degree in information sciences engineering course just last month.
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A resident of Vyalikaval in north Bengaluru, she lives with her mother, her school-dropout brother Purushotham G and younger sister Usha G, an eighth standard student. Gayathri’s father Srinivas passed away when her mother was eight-months pregnant. Later, when Gayathri was four, her mother remarried and had two children Purushotham and Usha. However, the step-father left the family five years ago leaving them to fend for themselves. Her 45-year-old mother Rajeshwari’s eyes well-up as she narrates the ordeals that the family has gone through since and continue to.
It was at a young age, when she was studying in the government school in Vyalikaval, that Gayathri began working part-time to earn money for herself and her family. Her mother sold guavas outside schools in the area, while her step-father was an auto rickshaw driver. Gayathri herself used to take tuitions for students in primary level classes and earned meagre amounts to cover household expenses.
She managed to complete her schooling and went on to study at the government college in the neighbouring Malleshwaram, after which she planned to do her bachelors degree in science. However, she couldn’t get admissions in any institute, thanks to the high fees they demanded, she says.
"My uncle suggested I try for an engineering college seat. I had to try for management seat, as I hadn’t even written the entrance exam", she says. Even as the college initially refused admission, Gayathri had applied for a loan of Rs 2.5 lakhs with the State Bank of Mysore, which was cleared and she was admitted into the college, Sri Revana Siddeshwara Institute of Technology located in Chikkajala, on the northern outskirts of Bengaluru.
But Gayathri couldn’t even attend college. It was about the same time that her step-father abandoned the family, after raking up debt of around six lakh rupees. So her days were spent in doing odd-jobs to earn for her family, as she was their main source of income. Her mother made and sold agarbathis (or incense sticks) which she continues even today.
One of Gayathri’s most talked-about jobs is her one and a half years behind the wheel, as an auto rickshaw driver. A skill she learnt casually from her step-father during her school days, came to good use to support her family. "It happened by chance. I was dropping my grandmother home one day in the auto. While returning, I got a passenger and then some more people. In one day I earned about 300 rupees", she says. So she quit doing her other odd jobs, and decided to drive the auto to earn money. "She used to carry a packet of chilli powder with her while driving", interjects her mother, lamenting about the difficulties her daughter has had to face.
During her days as an auto rickshaw driver, curious passengers would initiate conversations with Gayathri on why she was doing this. "Some of them used to never take back the change. If the meter was 32 rupees, they would give 50 rupees and not take back the change. One aunty gave 100 rupees when the meter was some 56 rupees", she says. Gayathri later quit driving the auto because she couldn’t pay the loan she had taken to buy the vehicle.
In 2009, Gayathri also gave her shot at being a model, again by chance. Though she knows no details of the agency that approached her, she shows profile photographs that were taken of her. "They said you need to adjust to everything and that they will take care of all our problems", she explains, adding that they wanted her to not object to any kind of clothes to be worn for photo-shoots. "I got about 2000 rupees. They even offered to send me to Bombay. But I refused knowing their intentions".
"But none of them really helped me." She is thankful to the few donors who helped with Rs 2000 or Rs 3000. "The media has incorrectly reported that I have got lakhs of rupees through donations", she says.
During this time, Gayathri attended college only to write her exams and had almost no attendance (a prerogative in most colleges to be allowed to sit for an examination). She would study on her own, photocopying text books from classmates just a day before the exam. Despite all these hurdles, Gayathri continued to fare well in academics as she studied meticulously in the nights. Just last week her final examination results were announced which she passed with 62% marks average, with 80% in the final semester. She is now an information sciences engineer.
Now the sole bread-winner of her family, Gayathri is desperately on the look-out for a job, anything to do with software developing and testing. She recently attended an interview at BridgeCo Software Services Private Ltd in JP Nagar, but couldn’t get through the technical round where she was required to write a program. "I found it difficult. I studied without a computer right? I’ve learnt on my own", she says.
Gayathri has also written an interview test at Accenture (the technology services company) for the post of developer. She is yet to hear from the company. She later also wishes to pursue her Masters of Technology (M Tech) but her mother Rajeshwari prefers that she get a job and pay up her loan.
Working part-time for some quick cash
There are many like Gayathri who have been forced to fend for themselves. While Gayathri has managed to get a decent education for herself, there are others who are still on their way.
Chinnayya K, 20, is one such youngster. A final year Bachelors of Commerce (B Com) student in a Jayanagar college, Chinnayya distributes newspapers part-time, to earn money. He has been doing this for the past ten years.
Chinnayya started working part-time since he was a little boy in school. His father, a plumber, is a daily wage earner, while his sister works as a receptionist in a Puttenahalli-based company. "At home they never gave me money. So I started working. I just wanted to earn some pocket money for myself", he says.
While his sister’s earnings help meet the family’s expenses, Chinnayya says he spends his money on himself. "I recently bought a second-hand Pulsar bike for Rs 24,000. I next want to buy the Nokia N73 phone. Then I have to spend money on my girlfriend as well!", he says, grinning.
Chinnayya hopes to open a newspaper agency and later set up a business in real estate. "I do not want to work for others. I want to be self-employed", he says.
"I want to be an RJ"
And then there are those who have benefitted with some intervention and guidance from city organisations setup by the better-off.
Take the case of Sangeetha R. This 18-year-old Bachelor of Arts (BA) student at St Anne’s Degree College for Women in Ulsoor, is studying psychology, communicative English and journalism in her degree course.
Hailing from a low-income family based in Cambridge layout, Sangeetha’s father works as a house-keeper in a government office. Her family is accommodated in government-provided quarters. Sangeetha’s mother previously worked as a house-keeper in a local office, but later quit because of her ailing back.
Sangeetha’s education has been funded by an Ulsoor-based non-government organisation, Ashwini Charitable Trust (ACT). ACT targets children in and around low-income neighbourhoods of Ulsoor, and supports them till they are gainfully employed. If not for their assistance, Sangeetha says she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study subjects of her choice. "My family would have educated me, but according to their wish. Maybe I would have gone to a small college and then worked in a small company."
Sangeetha’s type of aspiration at this stage may already be no different from those of her companions who reach St Anne’s from the city’s well-off families. She now wants to become a radio jockey (RJ), saying she would enjoy interacting with the public through a ‘faceless’ medium. "I like the way they present just with their voices", she says. Her favourite RJ is Tapori Rachna of Radio Mirchi.
Through the radio, Sangeetha hopes to create awareness about helping children, the environment and safety. "It’s not just about entertaining", she adds.
Spiralling aspirations of Bengaluru’s urban poor
There are very likely hundreds of Gayathris, and perhaps thousands of Chinnayyas and Sangeethas in the low-income neighbourhoods of Bengaluru. Even as resources have been limited, their aspirations are sky-high.
Anita Reddy, Managing Trustee of the Bangalore-based Ramanarpanam and Ranjni Dwaraknath Reddy Trusts, has worked with low-income citizens for the past 32 years and specifically with children (between the age groups of six and 18) from this strata for the past eight years. She says, "The children dream like any child. They hope for security, they hope for opportunity. But when opportunity is given to them, they lap it up a hundred times better", adding, "These kids want to be environmental scientists, wildlife experts, astronomers, artists, tabla players, sports coaches, experts in sustainability. They all think at a high-level." Anita is a member of the Chief Minister’s Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure Development (ABIDe) task force. In 2009, she authored ABIDE’s report on the development of policy for Bangalore’s poor.
N P Samy, President, Karnataka Kolageri Nivasigala Samyukta Sanghatane (KKNSS), says the aspirations of these people are based on what they see around them. "They see the lifestyle of those who work in the IT sector. So their ambition is more", says the 56-year-old activist. KKNSS is a state-level slum-dwellers federation, started by slum-dwellers, to fight for their rights and their place in society.
Congress leader and professor of economics and social sciences at the Bannerghatta Road-based Indian Institute of Management, Rajeev Gowda seconds Swamy’s views. "Their aspirations are spiralling, increasing tremendously. They are in the midst of all kinds of opportunities. They are seeing wealth being created", explains Gowda.
"To swim against all odds"
Meanwhile, for Bengaluru’s young poor, the fight is to take one step forward, and then another, and then yet another. They have dreams, just like anyone else. Whether to become a doctor, engineer, lawyer or journalist, they have not sat still, submitting themselves to the poverty that has befallen them. Instead they work for themselves and their families, for a better life.
Gayathri who has "done it all" doesn’t want to stop. She aspires to become an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer. Ask her why and she says, "To help the public. If I get power, I can do something for society." She also wants to help in the education of students who have suffered like her.
Her mother Rajeshwari, though doubtful about all the finances involved in studying further, still wants the best for her daughter. "She has gone through so much. She should be first in anything she does".
Chinnayya, on the other hand, hopes to be able to live in a big house and buy a car. "My girlfriend is from a rich family. So I need to come up to a level", he says.
RJ-aspirant Sangeetha wants to buy a house for her family. "I don’t want to live in a rented house. I want to give them what they gave me – support and finance. I don’t want to give them difficulties. They should be happy."
And as Gayathri says, they will continue to "swim against all odds." ⊕
Updated July 26th 2010: Gayathri S has received a Bachelor’s degree in information sciences. The bank loan for her engineering degree was for Rs.2.5 lakhs.