Kabul School

Meet the Bihari tuition teacher for South Delhi’s Afghans

An English class in progress at the Afghani School in Jangpura. Prawal Mani Tripathi, the manager of Afghani School. {{name}}
01 November, 2011

WHEN I FIRST SET MY EYES on the manager of the new ‘Afghani School’ in Jangpura, he has his back to me as he fusses over a brass statuette of Saraswati. Bent over a cabinet next to the reception, Prawal Mani Tripathi dusts the metal, replaces the old garland and fumbles through the drawers for incense sticks, turning his head from time to time to gently chide his staff for not sufficiently respecting the gods.

The Afghani School looks out over Bhogal, a multiethnic ghetto abutting Jangpura on the east. A few shops away Afghan Burgers once stood. Across the street one can see signs for Kabul Restaurant and Kabul Medical, and if it’s mealtime, a long queue at the famous Afghan bakery. Bhogal is one of three neighbourhoods in Delhi where the  city’s roughly 11,000 Afghan refugees (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh) have settled. The refugees began to arrive in the early 1990s to escape the chaos of post-Soviet Afghanistan and continue to make their way to Delhi to this day.  The close-knit community in Bhogal, comprising 300 odd families, has tried to replicate the feel of their distant homeland.

The receptionist tells me that the Afghans in Bhogal are tired of the constant interest in their lives, and that it would be kind of writers and journalists to leave them alone. She adds that their “concerned person” is out for 10 days.

I’m all set to retreat when that “concerned person” turns in my direction and pleads, “Let me finish my pooja, it will take hardly four or five minutes, and I will answer all your questions.”

And so I wait. In a classroom to my left, two girls, both in headscarves, sit and watch as their teacher writes ‘Present Continuous’ on the whiteboard. As promised, Tripathi completes his daily ritual and briskly leads me to a spare classroom. The school seems poorly attended today, but he is quick to explain that one of their primary teachers is on leave.

Tripathi’s career in private tuition began in 2002, when he moved from Champaran in Bihar to Delhi right after high school. “A local, influential person gave me a letter of reference that set me up with an important person in Delhi for the first few years. On the request of his wife, who had heard about Biharis being very bright in maths, I started to teach their kid who was doing poor in maths in school. He topped his maths test the next time; and I took up teaching tuitions for a living.”

At first by geographic coincidence, he has focused much of his career on teaching Afghani students from nearby Bhogal, initially as an employee at a tuition centre in Jangpura, and later at his own ‘Learning Academy’. Tripathi stumbled through the initial years, but the turning point, he says, was “tutoring rich Stephanians for their ‘Hindi C’ exams”. Hindi C, a compulsory paper at Delhi University for those who studied the language till the eighth grade, was a well-known nightmare—but it was apparently a jackpot for Tripathi (“I earned `160,000 the first month”), and a decisive push towards financial security. It was those St Stephens students, as well as wealthy foreigners looking to learn Hindi, who have subsidised the tuitions of many of the Afghans Tripathi has taught over the years. He says he charges Afghans only as much as they can pay and takes in some for free.

Recently, in response to the increasing demand from Afghans, some of whom have trouble with regular school admissions because of their refugee status, Tripathi opened a separate Afghan education centre down the street, where he says 60-70 students enrol each term. English and computers, he says, are what most Afghans seek to learn. “An Indian certificate in computers is considered respectable when they try to find work back home.”

There have been some curious exceptions to the trend, though. He shares a story about a young Afghan man who had signed up for a Hindi course, paying up-front. After attending just a couple of classes, he insisted on being taught to write the word ‘Krishna’ after which he quit, claiming that it was all he ever wanted to learn Hindi for. If we had more people like him, Tripathi says, our country would be a better place. I want to ask him what that means but he seems so moved by his statement that I think better of it.