Marginalised child: Will Nirmal, the daughter of a woman who irons clothes, get a chance to study in Delhi University?


It is 1:30 am as I sit down to type this. It took me 15 minutes to fill out the Delhi University Admission Form, which is an achievement considering that it took other people almost an hour. There’s a simple reason for this: most people prefer to fill the form in the morning or the evening with their parents peering over their shoulders telling them to “apply ECA Indian Music” for a prize they won in Class 4. Not me, though. I started working on the DU Admission Form at 1:12 am, with my parents fast asleep in the next room. But then again, it’s not my form I’m filling. It’s Nirmal’s.

This form is the result of a year’s preparation, and of late, many weeks (if not months), of research on the previous years’ cutoff lists. We have multiple lists: of colleges sorted by their distance from her home, of cut-offs sorted by course and then by college, even by the advantage or disadvantage she will get in each college for each course. There is a list for everything down to the last detail. We’ve scoured the DU website for information and dates. We have a strategy of sorts in place, a game-plan if you will.

But who, you might ask, is Nirmal?

Not my sister. Not a junior from school that I’m fond of. In fact, a year ago, I didn’t know her. And it was only last month that I learned that her name isn’t even Nirmal, it’s Sonia. Nirmal, you see, is the daughter of a woman who irons clothes in H-Block, Saket, and everyone calls her Nirmal.

Her father passed away years ago, and her brother is paralysed from the waist down by a particularly virulent form of TB. I have hazy memories of him running around delivering clothes when I was very young, but that’s about it. Her mother can’t read and write, but she’s doing everything she possibly can to make sure that Nirmal can. They’re an odd pair, the two of them – they rarely talk, but you can sense the sort of mental and emotional support each is to the other. I’m friends with both of them, and in my third week of college, it was Nirmal’s mother who taught me how to iron a salwar when I came to Delhi.

Tonight, as I select the 19 courses that she could potentially study in DU (we choose most of the courses available), I remember one Friday when I sat on the charpoy with Nirmal watching her mother iron the creases of a bright yellow salwar. With all the arrogance of a first-year college student, I remember asking Nirmal the course she wanted to do. “BCom,” she said. “Math hai?” (did you have math as a subject in Class12) I asked. “Lene nahie di, school ne”, (My school did not let me take up the subject), she said. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I told her what everyone else knows, “Math ke bina lene nahie denge (they won’t let you take BCom without math).”

I can understand, of course, why the school “refused” to let her study math. Her teachers, in their wisdom, must have decided that she wouldn’t be able to bear the burden and pressure of math. What frustrates me, though, is that there is no one to tell kids like Nirmal that she needs to have math if she wants to do BCom or economics honours. Or that physical education is absolutely useless as an additional subject because it won’t be counted in her Best Four. These are things that no teacher bothers to tell kids like her, because they just assume that Nirmal, and students like Nirmal, won’t get the marks to make it to any college, let alone DU. Had someone given her some good advice, Nirmal’s decent 79% in her Class 10 Boards (she’s a student of Ishani Govt Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Delhi) could have easily become an 85% (by conservative estimates).

But I digress.

Last year, I changed subjects thrice in my college, Lady Shri Ram (LSR), in Delhi : LSR sociology in the first cutoff, LSR history in the second and LSR English in the fourth. Each time, my father went with me to LSR, laptop charged and internet dongle switched on, the payment gateway already open on his desktop. And each time, he shelled out at least Rs15,000 to secure my admission. It seemed like a small sum to me – and anyway, it would get refunded eventually.

Now, as I wait anxiously for the first cutoff to be declared, I am hoping against hope that Nirmal will get the college and course of her choice in one go. Fortunately, another neighbour, Mohit, an engineer working in Gurgaon, is willing to help with Nirmal’s fee payment. So the first list admission won’t be a problem. The problem will arise in subsequent lists, if and when we decide to change subjects or colleges – because if the deposit isn’t refunded early enough, Mohit, who is also on a budget, might not be able to help. And in each list, this problem will only become more acute. I try not to think about this when I fill the form.

But that, then, is my privilege asserting itself. I can afford to not think about it. Nirmal and her mother can’t. And while my father thought nothing of traipsing all over Delhi with me – from my Stephen’s interview to my LSR admissions, Nirmal’s mother can’t do that. Distance isn’t the only problem. Who will look after her brother? Who will iron the clothes? In the deadly heat that defines the admission season, there is no way that Nirmal and her mother can go from one to south Delhi college to the other, her brother in tow, withdrawing admission from one college and taking it somewhere else.

Nirmal isn’t the only one in this position; there must be thousands like her. And that’s the tragedy of every admission season in DU: people who will actually benefit most from admission to, and education in, a DU College are systematically pushed to the periphery first by the lack of moderation of marks between boards (it’s easier to score in some state boards, but that is never taken into account), then by Annexure II/List-A (or some such thing) of the Admission Guidelines and finally by DU itself.

Quality higher education at affordable prices shouldn’t be such a rare commodity, but it is. And in this mad rush for seats, it is kids like Nirmal who have the most to lose- even subsidized education doesn’t come cheap, if it comes at all. Their effort pales in comparison to the likes of Raksha Gopal who have been born into privilege, because for DU at least, only the number on the mark sheet matters- the effort that goes behind that number, the number of hours spent under the lamp-post studying, the sheer distance from home to school, the clothes ironed just to afford a help-book for Accountancy, all of these numbers are worthless.

One day perhaps, I don’t know when, but one day, someone will finally find a solution to this. But until then, it is the system that wins, and shall keep winning against Nirmal. And Nirmal shall wipe the sweat from her annoyingly pimple-free forehead and keep fighting, keep struggling. She’s no heroine, but this kid’s tough. She’ll make her own way. But the point is, and I cannot iterate it enough, she shouldn’t have to struggle for something so basic. One day, things will be better.

For me and Nirmal though, it’s a long, long wait to that day.



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