Finding riches in the sand.

Claire HooiLSE


The bell is rung by the man with a scarf on his head, his arms swinging left and right. This bell signifies the start of the next period – it is the abrupt disturber of daydreams, a chance to chatter to friends, an unspoken clock.

“Lunch time, mam! Join us mam! Join us!!!” screech the mob of girls surrounding me. It is fifth period in Shayama Devi Inter-College, a time where tiffins are brought out of colourful backpacks, where hands are dirtied, and friendships are made over chapati, sabzi and curry.

“I have no food! You eat!” I respond in garbled Hindi. Shouts of ‘no!’ are followed by squeals and chatter. I am told to sit, as they scream “2 minute, mam, 2 minute!” to me. I do not know yet what I am waiting for.

We continue in a unique form of communication – single words, smiles, nods of heads. “Dance, mam?! Sing, mam!” I am taught to twirl and shake my hips while one of the girls serenades us with a Bollywood hit; everyone is laughing. Before I know it, steaming tikki and bread pakora appear. “Yours… mam!” I am confused, hesitantly tearing off a piece to eat – am I eating someone’s lunch? Their eyes are on me, watching expectantly. I melt as I devour India in a bite: salty, sweet, spicy and crunchy swirl together. I give it back to them, delirious from the bursts of flavour. They smile and yell back that it is mine. “Only mine!” – “bought from downstairs! That is why they needed 2 minutes.”


In Shayama Devi, most girls are first-generation school-goers, whose families struggle to provide. I was warned that Bahraich would be one of the most backward districts in India – that I would have to shed Western expectations and come to grips with poverty, open defecation, language barriers, dirt. Shayama Devi’s surroundings depict the epitome of what I was warned about: goats, buffalos and rickshaws plod alongside mud, squatters, piercing horns and bad smells. The girls I have interacted with have never known clean toilets, security, the wider world – but they think nothing of pooling all their money to feed me.

It is my desire to empower them, to expose them to opportunities, that drive me. This has come through making them realise that a girl can travel 10 hours by plane to India, without a ‘male companion’; through teaching them to type with more than 2 fingers and how to use Google for their homework. It is showing them what lies beyond high school education, and how to build better lives.

But the learning goes two-ways, and my biggest lesson has come in accepting Indian generosity. Sharing someone’s tiffin, allowing my meal to be paid for, being offered someone’s already-cramped room – “without cost!” – because she wanted to take care of me: their insistence has been hard for me to receive given my relative privilege. I have been gifted bangles, bindis, biscuits. They have served me tea, taught me to milk cows and use a hand-pump, given me proud-house tours, offered me goats. As I desire to expose them to opportunities and privilege, so they desire to show me that poverty does not always mean inequality. Riches, in this ‘backward district’ of India, are found everywhere: in their undying spirit of community, in their contentment, their generosity, kindness and laughter.