I want to study but rarely understand what is being taught. I have returned to school after a gap of six years. I’m Hannan Ansari, I’m 14 years old and I live with my parents and younger brother in Benipur, a small village near Ranpur Khurd.
When I was six years old , I had an accident and I hurt my left eye. The wound healed, but I cannot see through that eye anymore. If I try to concentrate, my other eye starts to hurt and I get a headache.
For the first few years after the accident, I stayed home waiting for my eye to recover; I didn’t attend school from the age of six to 12 years. Instead, I joined my father, Mohammad Bismillah Ansari, who works as a motor vehicle painter and began helping him. During those years, I saw my friends going to school and felt left out. So, in 2019, my father decided to send me back to school after a gap of six years. The teachers were reluctant to admit me and said I was too old to join primary school. As I was 12 years old at the time, they put me in Class 7 in the government school – Madhyamik Shala, Benipur – the hamlet where I live. Now, I have just completed Class 8 and am 14 years old. I am yet to enroll in Class 9. My nine-year-old brother Lukman Ansari is studying in Class 3 in the primary school also in Benipur.
My family has been living in Benipur for more than 80 years now. My great-grandfather migrated here from Jharkhand. Most people in my village work as labourers, mechanics and tailors here and in Ambikapur, the district headquarters, around 50 kilometres away.
When the lockdown started in March 2020, the school asked me to attend online classes. I do not have a smartphone. I thought I would attend the class in a group with other students who have smartphones, but my classmates had already formed groups when I was busy doing daily wage labour to help my family. So I couldn’t attend a single online class from April to June 2020 when they closed for the summer.
During the lockdown, my father had no work at the mechanic shop so he switched to daily wage work and I would accompany him. We worked on a construction site in Ambikapur, carrying heavy loads of bricks and sand. Carrying this huge weight on my head and shoulders causes a lot of pain in my eyes and gives me headaches, the same kind of pain I get when I have to concentrate to read.
When school re-opened in October, teachers started conducting ‘mohalla classes’ five days a week near the village mosque – an open ground where we could sit at some distance from each other. Around 25 students from the village attended these classes. We had to come to the open space with textbooks and notebooks. I could only attend these classes twice a week as I had to continue with helping my father at the mechanic shop, which had also reopened the same month.
Second year of lockdown
In March 2021, my mother Sahira Bano, 30, fell ill and developed a pain in her back and needed medicines; we used up most of our savings on her healthcare. She usually wakes up at 5 a.m., cooks and then takes our eight goats to graze. But when she fell ill, she couldn’t do any of this.
The second lockdown was announced in April 2021. This time, instead of wage work, my father and I decided to start selling vegetables. We would wake up at 5 a.m. and go on his motorcycle to the villages Parsa and Bariyon in Dharamjaigarh block, 15 and 25 kilometres away, to buy vegetables. From there we would travel another 10-20 kilometres to reach the outskirts of Ambikapur town to sell the fresh produce.
We can earn up to 80 rupees a day. There are days when we are able to sell more or have a larger variety, and can make 150 rupees. In the beginning, we rented a thela (pushcart) from our neighbour for 30 rupees a day; it’s expensive, so we instead sit on the footpath and sell. Today, I bought 5 kilograms of peanuts and 5 kilograms of karela (bitter gourd) from the village to sell.
The only relief for us right now is the ration we receive from the government. [Under the Chhattisgarh Food and Nutrition Security Act, 2012, from 2014, families like the Ansaris are entitled to 35 kilograms of rice and wheat at one rupee per kilogram each month.] These rations are not sufficient for us. On Eid, May 14, 2021, my father bought us sewai (a vermicelli dessert). My younger brother kept pleading for some non-vegetarian food, so my father went to the nearby butcher and bought some chicken. More than a day’s earnings went into that purchase.
When things go back to normal, I want to finish my studies and start a clothing business. My father says he will help me. We want to buy a scooter for me and purchase clothes in bulk. Then I can drive to nearby localities and sell them. I think this job would be ideal for me, since it is unlikely to bring more pain to my eyes.
The accident and the aftermath
I know the date I lost my eye. It was the 10th of October, 2012. Although I was young when it happened, only six years old, I have seen that date on my documents so many times that I know it.
I was in my maternal grandmother’s village Bhadar in Surguja district. I had gone to help with the rabi harvest of the arhar crop. I left the fields and went back home to bathe and have lunch. My maternal uncle was eating freshly picked cucumbers and I wanted to eat some too. While peeling them, the knife I was using accidentally went into my left eye. I screamed in pain and rubbed my eye. All I can remember now is the blood, fluid and mist.
My father was at work in the mechanic shop almost 50 kilometers away in Ambikapur town, and he came rushing home. He rushed me to the closest big town, Rajpur, and took me to a private doctor who refused to operate because the cut was so deep. Next, we tried a private clinic in Ambikapur town. They advised eye drops for relief, and told us to go to the capital city Raipur. The next day, my grandfather, parents and I took an overnight bus to Raipur and reached the B.R. Ambedkar Memorial Hospital. We were all desperate to get there as quickly as possible. Later I learnt that my parents spent all their savings and that our relatives contributed around 30,000 rupees for my treatment.
We visited the doctor for regular check-ups six to seven times after the accident. In a few months, my eye healed, but my sight did not return. Private doctors in Raipur asked for two lakh rupees to remove the eye and fix a stone there instead. My father decided not to go in for it since the stone would serve no purpose without my sight being restored. We lost hope that I would ever see from that eye again.
We eventually ended up spending around 50,000 rupees on my treatment, including medicines for six months and travel to and from Raipur.
It has been a long time since my eye injury. I don’t even remember a time when both of my eyes were fine. In my neighbourhood, people talk behind our backs; they call me andha (blind). I’m used to seeing the world through one eye, so if people tease me, I don’t really know what they are teasing me about.
My friends and those who are close to me don’t make fun of me. I used to love spending time with them. We would sit together by the lake near our village for hours. Now, because of Covid and the lockdown, they have gone to their grandparents’ homes. I miss them.
Shaista Naaz is a recent graduate of the Center of French and Francophone studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She is currently a Teach for India Fellow, and teaches primary school students in a government school in Munirka, New Delhi. While visiting her hometown Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, Shaista met Hannan who was selling vegetables on the footpath; he was the youngest vegetable vendor there. She says: "I wanted to get him to talk about his life. I feel strongly about education equality. Social change can begin with young students. I was curious to know why he was out of school. Working with PARI Education helped me explore and understand the many factors that affect a child’s future, especially with Covid in the backdrop.”