Early morning commuters in suburban trains on the Kolkata-Hasnabad route swear by Kanailal Saha’s kachuri-alur torkari. Within a couple of hours, Saha sells his entire stock of Rs 600 worth of kachuri and is home in time to take over as principal of Little Planet, a primary school the 42-year-old has been running since 2007 in Kadambagachhi, an LIG (lower income group) residential colony 30 km from Kolkata.
Saha was the first secondary school graduate among the 350-plus families in the colony. He was born in a household of traders in Barisal district, Bangladesh, where he went to the village primary school. Following their forced migration to West Bengal in 1980, Saha dropped out, helping his father sell samosas in Kolkata.
“My father said education was a luxury in a family where arranging the next meal was a challenge,” says Saha. They finally struck a deal whereby he could attend school if he sold 100 samosas a day. He has since self-financed his school education. Teachers encouraged him by lending him books and recommending students for tuition. “In Class 7, I had my first student,” smiles Saha. But the Rs 500 admission fee for college was beyond his means, and he had to end his formal education.
Saha resolved to build a school. “I cannot stand a poor student suffering simply because s/he does not know English,” Saha says. Twelve years, two children and several family crises later, Saha and his wife Alo managed to buy a small plot in 2007 for about Rs 50,000. A kind contractor agreed to take payment in small instalments and up came Little Planet.
A majority of Saha’s students are first-generation learners. Most often, their mothers work as domestic help and fathers as masons, rickshaw pullers and other such professions. Yet, the parents rarely miss the monthly parentteacher meeting. Teachers are often Saha’s old tuition students who have all been to college and received teacher’s training.
At their thatched home, Saha’s elder son Abhijit, a rank holder in West Bengal State University, is preparing for his final-year undergraduate exams. The boy says he wants to be a teacher like his father.