Making Nimbu Paani at Karuna Vihar

“Yesterday Pratima didi’s class (didi means ‘sister’) had a cooking session scheduled, and nimbu pani (literally ‘lemon water’) was on the menu. Now most of us would absent-mindedly squeeze a few lemons into some water, add some sugar and stir before serving, without giving this process much thought. Pratima opened my eyes to what might be most accurately described as “the mindfulness of nimbu pani”.

When the beginning of the session was announced, the students washed their hands, then helped collect and position chairs around the round table in our room. This gave the opportunity for 1-to-1 matching (one chair for each person), an important pre-counting skill. With Pratima’s guidance, they then gathered all the materials needed for the preparation and placed them on the table, in full view of everyone. The students were asked what items were and how many there were; basic counting is a skill all the children practice at every opportunity.

Once all the necessary tools and ingredients were assembled, Pratima did some sight word practice, using teaching aids prepared by the teachers at Karuna Vihar, Hindi words such as pani (water), nimbu (lemon), chammach (spoon) were held up, and some children read, while others matched words (pani to pani, for example), and the words were placed by the items they represented.

It was almost time for the operation to begin, but Pratima extended the learning to a lemon, asking the children to identify its color, taste, and shape. Lemons are round in this part of the world, and once the students correctly ascertained this, they were asked to look around the room and identify other examples of roundness, such as the table they were seated at.

Finally, with the children all focused and interested, the actual drink preparation got underway. The children told Pratima how many glasses of water to put into a bowl, and counted as it was poured. They all then helped cut the lemons, squeeze the juice into the bowl, and stir the refreshing-smelling concoction once the sugar (and salt – yes, salt!) had been added (again, spoonfuls were carefully counted!). The resulting juice was passed through a strainer, the seeds in the strainer were examined and discussed (Why don’t we want to drink these?), and the nimbu pani was finally poured, carefully and slowly, into our waiting glasses, where it didn’t last long, as we gulped it down gratefully; it’s still quite warm in Dehradun, and after the exertions of the preparation, it was well-deserved!

But the learning didn’t stop there. Students gathered up the materials, returned them to the kitchen (where I presume they played a major role in washing and redistributing them to their proper places), the table was wiped, and order was restored in the classroom. Phew.

To those with young children in many schools, this may seem a familiar scenario. To me, this was an inspiring revelation. I had no idea that an activity like this could be so genuinely milked for its educational potential! To attempt to summarise what went on, the students practiced fine and gross motor skills, independence skills, taking turns, sharing, passing around, measuring, sequencing (what happens next?), 1-to-1 matching, sight word recognition, counting, relating shapes to each other, and probably much more that a better trained observer/participant could elucidate. Oh, and then, in the afternoon, the students were given the opportunity to draw what they had done and explain it to Pratima, who wrote their ideas next to their drawings.

On an educational level, it was fascinating. On another level, it was a wonderful reminder of how much there is in such a simple activity if we give it our full attention. It all succeeded in bringing a sense of the extraordinary to the ordinary, like a good poem, with a number of different stanzas integrated into a fluid image, the energy sustained throughout. The children were captivated, felt a sense of achievement, practiced numerous useful skills along the way, and had fun!”

(Recounted by one of our volunteers)

Shefali’s story

Shefali was six years old when she was admitted to Karuna Vihar. She was dirty and unkempt on her first day and her mother said that she was completely dependent: she did not understand anything and except for indicating her most basic needs – hunger, using the toilet – she was unable to communicate in any meaningful way. “I don’t know why God has burdened us with a child like this,” she said.

Less than a month later, her mother came into the office and spoke to the school director. “Are you giving her drugs?” she asked abruptly. “Injections?”

“Of course not!” the director said, horrified. “What gave you that idea?”

“She’s not the same girl,” she said quietly. She went on to describe the changes they had observed at home, the keen interest Shefali had begun to take in her surroundings, the increasing efforts made to communicate and, most especially, her eagerness to go to school every morning. On Saturdays and Sundays, she insisted on being taken to the bus stop in spite of being told it was a holiday. One Saturday, returning home disappointed, she slipped away and made her way back to the bus stop herself, just to make doubly sure. “She’s not the same girl,” her mother kept repeating.

Although Shefali’s attendance at Karuna Vihar was regular from the start, in the beginning, she was adamant about not participating in any group activities. Nothing would induce her to join the other children in games, story time or singing. She was incapable of sitting still for more than a minute and her social skills were non-existent.

She was allowed to set her own pace for integrating into the school routine. As each new activity was initiated with the other children, she was encouraged to join in, but the moment she lost interest, she was allowed to go off where she pleased with a staff member for company. The slightest overture toward the group met with praise and encouragement from the teachers.

Over weeks, the loving, accepting environment of the school began to work its magic with Shefali. More and more, she joined in group activities, responded to the teachers’ directions and reacted in a friendly way to the other children.

Ten years later, Shefali is a happy, sociable young woman who loves to help around her house in a variety of useful ways. She has learned to wash dishes, chop vegetables, make chapattis and run little errands for her mother. She can dress and feed herself and is able to take her own bath. Her speech is still limited, but she can make herself understood to her family and close friends. Her family now takes an active interest in her well-being and she comes to school every day in clean, pressed clothes.

Shefali is not alone. Other children whose parents had given up hope have come to us and learned to walk, talk and behave appropriately in their families, neighbourhoods and communities. The services offered at Karuna Vihar are unique in India. The loving, happy atmosphere of the school makes it a place where children can blossom and grow, becoming the people they were meant to be.