The pose was just perfect. Bright eyes. Pursed lips. Looking up impatiently at the camera, waiting for the photographer to finish his job so that she could get back to reading the book on her lap. Blurred in the background was a schoolbag, another book, and a pillow. I was scouting for a freely available picture to represent an online bookstore for kids.
She looked about eight. Add a pair of glasses and make the hair longer, and it could easily have been my daughter. Maybe this lovely kid also wants to be a "wildlife photography journalist" when she grows up. Maybe Sudha Murthy is far more accomplished than Narayana Murthy in her opinion because the former writes great books. Maybe there was a phase when her favourite superhero was Matilda. Maybe she also saw the news item about a nine-year old with her own news website and started one of her own. Maybe her parents and teachers genuinely believe that she's destined for great things when she grows up. She would have been a perfect mascot for a kids' bookstore.
Except that she wasn't.
Since I first saw that picture, I've encountered it in a few more places, the latest being on TNM itself. Always in a specific context.
Forget everything else about her. We don't know anything about where she lives, how rich or poor her family is, how educated her parents are, what her parents do, which school she goes to, what her social circle is like.
Just a picture. And she's gone from being a mascot for a bookstore to being a poster child for charity and social awareness, even among extremely well-intentioned people.
Now add a name. It is probably not Vidya Krishnamurthy or Neha Sharma. What chance does she have in life?
Amidst the hoopla over RTE implementation and minority status, one item of consensus stands out. That RTE handicaps schools. That it affects the quality of education. But does it really?
My daughter's classroom is extremely diverse. Kids hail from all parts of India. Several were born in other countries. Some kids are super talented, some less so. Some are articulate and pushy, some are shy and withdrawn. But there's not a single kid who seems to be intrinsically motivated to study and learn. All are kids of privilege. Following the script their parents and family have written for them. Either running from coaching classes to training centres, or taking it easy and letting their mommies and daddies do their homework for them.
It would be great education for my daughter if she had friends and classmates who challenged the status quo. Kids who want to break free. Kids who want to go beyond where their parents have been. I'd be willing to pay much more for that kind of education. The money I'm willing to pay out of pure self interest can fund the other kid's shot at having a better life. It seems a perfect fit.
But the school has failed to take up the opportunity, sheltering under minority exemption status. Because, it does not make business sense. Most parents would be up in arms claiming that 'quality' is being compromised. Yet another generation of kids will grow up, taking false pride in middling achievements, and blaming everyone else for the state of the nation.
The kid in the photo will have a big impact on the future of my daughter - regardless of how RTE is implemented, or how minority status is defined. She might end up being a smart and articulate colleague or friend, helping my daughter achieve her potential. Or she could end up being a housemaid, preserving my daughter's privilege and letting her continue wallowing in the cesspool of mediocrity that our society has become.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.