Babar Ali doesn’t ever remember wanting to play football, the game kids of all ages in his home state of West Bengal, India, follow so keenly. ‘What I wanted to do was to play teacher-student,’ the now 22-year-old says, a shy smile lighting up his face.
And he found his pupils right in his backyard – the poor village children who could not afford to go to school. The reason? His district of Murshidabad is among the poorest in the country. Seventy per cent of the population is mired in poverty and ignorance is rampant.
Of course, Babar did not know any of this. As a nine-year-old, he was more concerned with helping his village mates learn what he was lucky enough to study at a proper school. ‘I’d see children of all ages either loitering about or working in the fields,’ he says. ‘I just felt that it was wrong – all of them should have had the chance to learn like I did. That was when I decided, on a whim, to give them that chance.’
Babar’s jute trader father, Mehmood Naziruddin, 50, had always been determined to give his son an education, and sent him to Beldanga CRGS High School, a government school some 10km from his home in Bhabta village. Although the education was free, Babar had to pay for his books, uniform and rickshaw ride to school, a total of Rs1,800 (Dh100) per year – a huge sum in 2002.
Babar’s day used to start early. He’d wake up at 5am and pitch in with the household chores before beginning the trek to catch a rickshaw that would take him the rest of the way to school. He was back in the afternoon, and that was when he got time to indulge in his passion of teaching children.
‘I truly wanted to share the knowledge I had picked up while at school with my neighbourhood children,’ says Babar. ‘Many of them were genuinely interested to learn and I was hoping that over time, more children would come and join in the classes.’
The poor kids in his neighbourhood were forced to help the family by doing chores such as tending to grazing cattle or working on the field. Those who did not would just while away their time playing the whole day. They had never been to school, nor did they have any idea of what it was like to learn – until they saw Babar leave early in the morning and return in the afternoon bursting with what he’d learnt that day.
That was when it occurred to Babar that he could teach them what he had learnt in class, by making it seem like a game.
‘But though it started as a game, I soon realized that every child has a burning desire to learn,’ says Babar. ‘That made me determined to teach every child in my village, to give them a school to go to.’ Just nine years old at the time, he made a makeshift school under a guava tree in his backyard, gathered the curious children and started teaching them all that he learnt at school – subject by subject. If he’d learnt English and history that day, the kids would get the same lessons – in a modified form. ‘I had to start from the basics, so they could not catch up immediately,’ says Babar. ‘Of course, with most of them I had to start with the alphabet. But even before formal teaching, I would talk to them about what I had learnt in school, connect it with everyday stuff, and they would grasp the core of that lesson easily. It was then a matter of learning the letters and numbers.’
One problem was the lack of reading or writing material. Babar could not afford to purchase books or a blackboard. Instead, he fashioned a board out of terracotta tiles, and used old newspapers as reading material. He begged for broken chalk pieces from his teachers at school, but when the teachers found out what he was doing, they gladly gave him new boxes of chalk.
‘Initially, the kids were reluctant to stay put in my school for even an hour as they were not used to such formal rigour,’ says Babar. ‘But after a few weeks, some of them started getting serious about learning.’ Soon he had eight regular students, including his younger sister Amina Khatun, who is now 19 and a graduate student.
Within a few months Babar no longer had to go in search of his students – they’d be waiting for him when he returned from his school. ‘I wouldn’t even have time to eat anything,’ he laughs. ‘I’d quickly change out of my uniform and we’d begin our lessons.’
The classes would start around 3.30pm and would stop before dark since there were no lights in his backyard. His mother and siblings too fully supported him, though it took some time for his father to agree to the lessons as he was worried it would distract Babar from his studies.
The number of students increased, and so did the needs of the school. Babar decided to approach the parents of his students to see what they could do. Few had any money to spare, but offered to donate rice instead. ‘I sold the rice I collected and using the proceeds bought books for the students,’ says Babar.
This continued for a few years, until, noticing his sincerity, a local village head suggested that Babar apply to the block development officer, a local government official, for books and school supplies. Slowly things started falling into place. The official got him books, a blackboard and chalks. Babar’s father too contributed Rs600.
‘We could have gone on like that, but I wanted to make it a proper school,’ says Babar. ‘I didn’t feel it was impossible at all, and perhaps seeing my enthusiasm the villagers encouraged me.’
So, at 11 years of age, Babar formally inaugurated his own school after inviting panchayat (the local village body) members and village elders. ‘A family friend named my school Ananda Shiksha Niketan, which means House of Happy Learning,’ he says. With each new step Babar’s confidence grew.
He set up a school committee consisting of village elders. He then requested Firoza Begum, the headmistress of a higher secondary school in the nearby village, to become the secretary of his school. The boy’s earnestness won her over; she agreed.
‘Enlisting the support of influential people who could help the school was a good move,’ says Babar. It also meant that the school could be registered. It is now recognised by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education.
The inauguration of the school was covered in the local newspapers and picked up by the bigger ones in Kolkata, the state capital. Word spread, and two years later, when Babar was 13, he received a call from the office of eminent economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ says Babar. ‘He invited me to Shantiniketan, a centre of learning in Kolkata, to give a talk to an audience that included former finance ministers of West Bengal, and eminent professors.’ This made it on to national news channels.
Throughout, there was nothing personal Babar wanted to achieve with any of this. ‘I was only interested in creating a proper school for kids. I know it sounds unbelievable, but that’s all I wanted; still do.’
Babar started meeting people in power to get things done for his school. He would go after school hours, still wearing his school uniform, to request books and school supplies. Babar says he was never turned away. Slowly, the number of students increased; there was much jostling on the few benches in his school. But that didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.
One of the boys, Mohammad Ekhas Hussain, now 22, was drawn in by curiosity. His father was a grocer and when he went out to fetch supplies for the shop, Mohammad would watch Babar teach. Soon, he’d skip out when he could and join the class. Now, he teaches there.
In 2008, Babar passed the class 10 exams with a top grade. ‘People told me to join a professional course and I wanted to study physics, but my father wanted me to study English literature,’ says Babar. Which he did.
In the meantime, his fame grew. The next year Babar was chosen to receive the CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award from superstar Aamir Khan. This led to him being featured in Aamir Khan’s popular TV show Satyameva Jayete (Truth Alone Triumphs). Then the BBC travelled to his village to write about him. He became a Ted Fellow, talking about his school at the Ted Talks in Mysore, Karnataka.
More accolades followed. His biography was included in the Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus for the 10th grade, and the state government of Karnataka included his story in the 12th grade English text. As a result, Babar is hugely popular among students in the state. ‘They write to me regularly, and some of them are attempting to start such schools in their state,’ he says.
A year later Indian TV channel NDTV honoured him with an award, calling him the Extraordinary Indian of 2009. Among the other awardees were music maestro AR Rahman, Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy.
The school has expanded in his backyard, and now there are classes up to grade eight with 300 regular students. There are 10 teachers, all volunteers, and four of them are past students who have graduated after leaving his school.
Babar is in the process of regularising his school, and has commenced construction of a building on a plot of land he bought with the Rs500,000 prize money he got with his CNN-IBN award. ‘We’re building four rooms and a toilet initially,’ he says. ‘The upkeep, though, is expensive and costs around Rs200,000 annually, even without any salary being paid.’
Money is the major constraint for the world’s youngest headmaster, and he tries to cope by giving inspirational talks across the country. ‘If anybody is willing to donate to the school, I’m willing to speak,’ he says.
For Babar, his school has become a magnificent obsession, and he wants to go beyond his village with it. ‘I want to spread this idea of running free schools, with only volunteers, across the country. I know I can do it.’ And there’s no doubt that he will.