This is the season when we feel compelled to give. We give our time at homeless shelters, buy bags of food for the hungry and write checks out to charities that help people in far-flung places. Sometimes, it’s difficult to choose an agency. Many of us are cynical about how effectively the money will be spent. Or we question whether it will do any good at all.
I do not pretend to know the answers to solving global poverty, but I will share with you a story about one family whose life is about to change radically.
Ibrahim Gulam lives in a part of central Kolkata that is usually not seen by visitors to the city. I would guess that many of my friends and relatives have never even been to this part of town. The main road still bears its British name — Colin Road.
the streets are overflowing with workshops and warehouses. Gulam lives in an area where plaster molding is manufactured. Some of the men and women look like aliens, their dark faces perpetually smeared with white dust.
Crime and drug addiction is rampant in this part of town. So, too, are broken hearts. Broken dreams.
You have to snake through tiny lanes bursting with humanity to get to the room that Ibrahim shares with his parents and three siblings. He and his brother sleep atop the hard bed, his mother and sisters share the floor and his father, an asthmatic who has not been able to hold down a full time job because of his respiratory ailments, lies under the bed.
In the summer, the heat and humidity are so intense that the whitewash on the walls peels off. Little adorns the dark, cramped room save scripture from the Quran. Ibrahim’s mother cooks on a coal-burning stove on the floor outside, where shoes heap up and the cement is incessantly wet from household use.
The family shares a latrine with countless other people. Often, bathing is done is public at the local tubewell.
The smells here are like nothing found in America — a mixture of life and waste and human misery.
Westerners dubbed this “the city of joy.” I heard a businessman on my flight back telling the flight attendant that he had taken his young son for a tour of Kolkata slums. He leaned back in his $4,000 business class seat and talked of how “fascinating” the lives of the poor were.
He should talk to Ibrahim.
To say that his life has been a struggle is an understatement.
I met him when he was in grade school. He was one of several children my brother and I sponsored. We paid for their schooling so that they would have a chance in life.
No one in Ibrahim’s neighborhood has finished high school. His father, Gulam Siddiq, studied in a Bengali medium school but dropped out in the second grade, later learning how to be an electrician. His mother, Rabyia Sultana, stopped in the fifth grade in her native Bihar.
I wanted Ibrahim and his siblings not to live the life of his parents. I wanted to do everything in power to preserve his joie de vivre.
I watched him grow, visited him when I went home every year. He did well in Navjjyoti, a school for poor children that my friend Vijay helped establish. He was admitted to the reputable Assembly of God Church school. So was his brother Zahid and sisters Anjum and Zahida.
Ibrahim is now 24 and will soon earn a degree from Seacom Engineering College. I visited him in early December and his latest report card showed him excelling in almost every subject.
His brother and sister followed in his footsteps and are also in college. His youngest sister will enroll in college next year. She wants to study microbiology.
Ibrahim’s mother beamed with pride as she talked about her children. She knows that one day soon, the family will leave that dismal room. On Ibrahim’s salary, they will be able to afford a flat in a nicer part of the city, put better food in their bellies.
Ibrahim had the fortitude to win against all odds — to study in dim light, distracted by the hub-bub of the slum. He persisted when I had half expected him to give up. Yet, year after year, he delighted me with his report cards. A few years ago, he came to visit me with his grades in hand. That’s when he told me: “I want to be an engineer. I want life to be different.”
In India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, sometimes, not even an education is a ticket out of poverty. But without it, a young man or woman stands no chance of success. There, vocations do not pay as well as they do in America. Labour is cheap and the life of an electrician like Ibrahim’s father is far from comfort.
I sponsor other children in Kolkata as well. I talk to their parents, who want to pull them out of classrooms and put them to work instead. Many of them are not supportive of their children and even punish them for wanting to sit down with their books. But it’s not easy persuading a poor person to give up another source of income.
Not all my kids have been as successful as Ibrahim. Ranjeet Shaw is struggling to pass his high school board exams, though he told me when I saw him a few weeks ago that he was not giving up. He has seen hope and he is not going to let it go without a fight.
I don’t have children of my own, but my Kolkata kids have filled that void in my life. And then some.