Heramb’s Story

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We rang the bell to a white door on the third floor of a building that read ‘Sister Siddhi’ on the nameplate. That was Heramb’s mother who was the chief matron at a public hospital. She wasn’t home yet. Familiar eyes peeked through the gap between the slightly ajar door. Heramb recognised us. It had been four years since he left Saraswati Mandir School for children with mental retardation and joined a regular BMC school in his area. We didn’t expect to be recognised but his assuring smile showed that he was expecting us. He opened the door and pointed at the sofa. We sat down. When we asked where his mother was, he informed us that she was at the hospital and should be on her way home.

Four years ago, he would’ve shied away from any question, and even if he did answer, one wouldn’t have been able to understand the words he spoke. Heramb Naik, was born with Down’s Syndrome, a syndrome that delays developmental milestones of a child. These children may often have mild to moderate mental retardation. They usually have no social skill problems and can interact well with the world around them.

Heramb was a quiet child with no behaviour problems and was blessed with parents who were determined to give him a “normal” childhood. Mrs. Naik, Heramb’s mother was sure she wanted her son to be an independent adult. He was fit to go to a regular school and that’s what he did for his pre-primary years. But the moment he stepped into Standard 1, the teachers at the private school began complaining about Heramb “misbehaving” and not showing any interest in academics. They had to take care of 50+ children in one class and could not give Heramb the special attention he required. With no choice left, Heramb took admission into Saraswati Mandir School for children with mental retardation. We, at the Saraswati Mandir Trust, stuck by our philosophy of inclusive education and within 4 years, at age 8, sent Heramb back into a mainstream school. Only this time, it was a Marathi-medium BMC school, where the number of children was low and the sole focus of the teacher was not academics alone.

4 years ago, when Heramb left Saraswati Mandir School, he could barely recognise his name and some numbers. Today he can write his name and even do single digit addition. But his mother insists that going to a regular school has helped him beyond basic academics. “He isn’t interested in academics. Exams and tests are just a formality that his teachers find a way around, says Mrs. Naik, “Heramb’s education is different even though it is in a regular school. He is learning social skills and discipline. He is treated equally with other children and his confidence has risen. There is clarity in his speech now, without any additional therapy. This is his education.”

Just as we’re discussing Heramb’s school progress, Netra, Heramb’s elder sister, who he adores more than anyone else in the family walks into the house and Heramb who has been watching television all this while tells her that she is late. How does he know? “Because our favourite cartoon on television, which we watch together every afternoon, is already over,” says Netra. “You see, Heramb is intelligent,” says a proud Mrs. Naik, “He only learns differently.”

While we wrap up our photo shoot with Heramb and his wonderful family, we ask his mother what she thinks of Heramb’s future. The big question: What after he passes out of school? A very thoughtful mother says that she would never want Heramb to be a burden on his sisters and would like him to be as independent as any other adult. After retirement and once her daughters are married she would like to take him back to their village where she has bought a piece of land for Heramb, so he can work and be his own boss. Who knows? Someday he could even employ a few people to work for him.

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