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School for slum children

The school on GB Road

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BONDS OF AFFECTION: Kat-Katha founder Gitanjali Babbar with children from GB Road on an outing in the city

Kat-Katha is one woman's struggle to take education to the brothels on GB Road, Delhi's red light quarter.

Kat-Katha can easily pass for a typical school for slum children: Six students from age 3 to 17 sit on a floor mat supervised by a teacher busy explaining place value on an abacus when we go in. Two bedsheet-covered computers are perched on a table in the adjacent room. The dilapidated walls are covered by sketches made by the students.

However, at the entrance of the school, on the same wall that displays a chart of 23 enrollments, hangs a curious vending machine which makes it apparent that this is not a typical slum school - a condom dispenser. The space was once a brothel and the students are the children of sex workers and brothel owners. The teacher, Gitanjali Babbar, 26, is the founder of Kat-Katha.

Kat-Katha, which translates into 'story of puppets, ' originally intended to provide life choices to sex workers. Before establishing the centre, Babbar was working at the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), the body that had put up condom dispensers at brothels including the now dysfunctional one at Kat-Katha.

However, when some of the sex workers urged Babbar to think beyond condoms, the idea of Kat-Katha came up. "Kat-Katha was first conceived to equip women who do not want to be in the sex trade with skills like tailoring, dancing, literacy, etc. so that they could pursue alternative livelihoods, " Babbar says.

Babbar began operating from a youth centre but as soon as she started bringing prostitutes there, the owner of the space who had donated it to the centre asked her to vacate the premises. Thereafter, Babbar quit her job and along with some volunteers entered the brothels and began to educate the sex workers.

It wasn't smooth sailing in the beginning. "The didis (Babbar addresses every sex worker as didi) used to abuse us because they thought we were a part of some NGO that would make big promises and then manipulate them, " Babbar says. But slowly, she gained the confidence of the women and their children too joined the classes. Finally, the children ended up absorbing most of the time and attention at Kat-Katha though about 25 women still come to the centre to learn dance, to study, or to simply chill whenever they feel like it.

Kat-Katha is located on the infamous GB Road in Delhi that houses more than 3, 500 female sex workers and their 1, 500 kids in about 77 cage-like brothels. It is 1 pm and on the ground floor, the shops selling hardware, paints, mobile recharge and such have already done half a day of business. Babbar clambers the narrow, steep and sneaky staircases between the shops which lead her to her students. The sex workers have just woken up and are idling around. Some are having brunch, while others are getting ready for their 'day trade' in deep-necked spaghetti tops, lips painted a bright red.

Babbar heads for the rooms where she knows that she will find children who are regulars at her class. She asks them to rush to her "school" as if she were a school bell. Babbar cajoles Nisa (name changed), 6, to bathe before leaving for her class. Nisa pleads for a compromise: She will change clothes but will not bathe. Babbar does not give up. In another brothel, a shy boy lying on his stomach, hears Babbar's call and pops his head down from a dark space similar to a dingy storage in a footwear store.
Passing a few brothels on both the sides of one such staircase, she reaches Kat-Katha. One by one the students start coming in, some loaded with a school bag, others just with their curiosity and amusement. Randhir (name changed), 11, is the first one in. With the air of one who owns the space he heads straight to the computer room, uncovers a machine and shows us a PowerPoint slide he made: It is a picture of a house in the countryside pasted from the internet and superimposed with the caption: "My name is Randhir. "

"We will structure the curriculum and activities but first, I want these kids to enjoy the freedom that they have always been deprived of, " Babbar says. She points out that these children and their mothers never step out of the brothels for fear of being abused.

A sex worker, 42, peeps into the room to see what's happening. Babbar encourages her to find the letters of her name, Sita, from the bits of paper printed with Hindi alphabets. She looks on as Nisa assembles Sita's name on the floor. This is probably the first time Sita has seen her name written. As Babbar coaxes her, Sita reluctantly copies her name in a notebook.

Babbar plans to open another centre dedicated to imparting vocational training to sex workers as and when funds come in while reserving the current space for kids. Some sex workers have requested Babbar to find jobs for their grown-up children above 17 who have become pimps. But because these children are uneducated and are past school age, Babbar wants to train them. Thus, Babbar's idea of Kat-Katha has organically evolved to incorporate the people associated with the brothels of GB Road.

It is 6pm. The children at Kat-Katha refuse to go home from this space which has no closing time and operates all seven days of the week. In a couple of hours, the cramped brothels will be transformed. There would be bright lights and the strains of filmi mujras will be heard through the windows. Randhir has seen his mother step out every day when it's dark, wearing seductive clothes. He says he is determined to take her away from GB Road some day.

Babbar says she has plans to spend a few nights at Kat-Katha. "It's good bonding time with the kids who then understand I am not a visitor from an NGO, " she says.

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