Sunday, July 29, 2012

The course that’s been changing lives in Mumbai

MUMBAI: Every evening, when St Xavier's College turns on its yellow lights, a thousand canteen boys, sweepers, hawkers, labourers, milk vendors, clerks and receptionists wrap up a tough day's work and rush in for their lectures. Once in, they are in a world where all they are expected to do is hold a pen and pay attention.

Few in the city know about the evening course at the college. Started 24 years ago, the commerce section is perhaps a little out of sync with the loud Malhar and the campus fashion a sharp contrast to what one sees in top colleges. Also, most students don't return to a home or comforting security each day. Principal Errol Fernandes said, "The morning section was started to provide excellent education. The criterion to admit students is merit. The evening classes were started to cater to the distressed section of society and give them hope of a better life."

The classes begin with a short prayer of silence. "Students are asked to take a deep breath so they can get rid of the grime and tiredness of the day," Fernandes explained.

As the section enters its silver jubilee year, it has turned autonomous. Unlike other colleges, the attendance here is high, probably because the reason to study is different. There are no free lectures, and very often extra classes for weaker students are held on the train, during the faculty's journey back home.

For long, excellent education has mostly been the privilege of the moneyed and the meritorious. The commerce section at St Xavier's was started with the aim of breaking away from that norm. "These students are the ones who really need the help," said economics professor Kamaji Bokare. "The rate of change of life you see here is really high."

Akshay Shetty, who used to run a roadside stall outside Old Custom's House, is today a senior executive at a mutual fund firm. "I went on to do my master's and am also a cost accountant. The biggest change has been the respect I get today," says a proud Shetty. Till about five years ago, Prabhakar Poojary was a canteen boy in BEST earning Rs 600 a month. Today, he heads the Singapore, Dubai and Mauritius markets of a private fund and takes home an enviable pay packet of Rs 30 lakh. "When tough life becomes a routine, the rest becomes easy," he says.

Teachers take pride in the fact that two ex-students have made the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad—one is the vice-president of a private bank—but most importantly, they speak of the values the course has instilled in their students. Ravi Gaba was always a bright student; he bagged several cash awards in his years at St Xavier's. "When he graduated, he gave us all the cash prizes (totaling Rs 18,000) that he had won and said he wanted to leave it back for another needy student," recalled accounts professor Rajesh Vora.

Going to college means different things to different people. For some, collegiate education rebuilds their lives, for some others it is the bridge to a better path. For many others, it's a plunge out of a dark a day that shines as bright as the lights on the campus they walk to each evening.