It is evening at Loreto Convent, in the crowded Sealdah locality of Kolkata - stacked with shops, offices and flats, swarming with commuters and residents, and teeming with homeless pavement dwellers. In the school courtyard, seated on durries spread on the ground, little girls as well as teenagers are hard at work over their homework.
In the principal's office, Maya, 7, is learning English grammar from Natalie, a young Englishwoman visiting India, and the child scampers round the table when the lesson gets a little too difficult. Walking past, the principal looks in at the scene and a smile, like a sunburst, spreads over her face.
The moment encapsulates the mission of Sister S.M. Cyril's life - providing an education to working class children - for which the 71-year-old Irish nun has just been awarded a Padma Shri by the Government of India in the social work category.
Under the Rainbow Home Project, Loreto, Sealdah - an English-medium day school - provides education and shelter to 247 homeless girls; their costs are subsidized by the regular students of the school. After school hours, these former street children turn the classrooms into their living quarters by lining the desks against the walls. The older girls cook and serve meals. Every morning, the children rearrange the classroom desks, bathe in the school toilets, put on uniforms and go to school.
Some attend classes in the school itself, others go to a Bengali-medium municipal school nearby - the Sashi Bhushan Day Street Corporation School, which was once about to be shut down due to lack of students. Today, nearly all its students are children from the Rainbow project, which has been extended to three other Loreto schools in Kolkata - Loreto, Bowbazar (181 children), Loreto, Dharamtala (30 children), and Loreto House (120 children).
A 1993 UNESCO study found that there were 128 million children worldwide without access to education - over half of them in India. Kolkata has an estimated 80,000 such children. The Rainbow project aims to house 1,000 street children in the city's five Loreto schools by 2008. Rainbow also provides free schooling to poor children. Additionally, Loreto, Sealdah, runs a Resource Centre for Social Transformation, which helps over 4,50,000 poor people through projects involving micro-credit, old-age support, medical treatment, slum and rural teacher training, challenged children, child labor and the building of secondary schools.
Much of these projects' success is owed to support from the Loretos' regular students and their parents. The older upper-class and middle-class children teach the poor children. New arrivals are coached individually until they know enough to be slotted into a regular class according to age group. "The very young ones go into English-medium schooling, but for the ones who are over 10 years, it's too late to start them on an English-medium education so they go to the municipal school," explains Sister Cyril. The involvement of privileged children is also crucial in another way. "We can transform society if we make our children agents of human change. If we involve them emotionally, they become committed to social change," she says.
Sister Cyril's own commitment to social change was sown in childhood, long before she arrived in India 51 years ago. The third and youngest child of a farmer-turned-building site worker in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, she saw her mother "never turning away poor people from the door" without some food or clothes. The family itself was not well to do but her Second World War childhood saw butter and eggs on the table from the family's own Jersey cow and hens.
Swimming in the sea, riding horses and bicycles, and playing tennis in the Loreto Convent grounds were offset by a great deal of reading and embroidering. "Rather than ask my parents for their hard-earned money, I would make gifts for people by embroidering their initials on hankies and my gifts were cherished," she recalls. This was the foundation for the values that she was to carry through life and, in time, teach to impoverished children in India. "These children here are now learning the very same thing, to be proud of oneself with whatever one has," she says.
The journey to empowering poor children with education began one morning in 1949, when she found her vocation as a 13-year-old trying not to fidget during a silence-enforced retreat in school. "The Father quoted a line from the Bible: 'Going there for teaching all nations' (St Mark, chapter 16, verse 15). It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I knew I was going to be a nun and I sat there the rest of that morning in the wonder of what had happened to me," she recalls.
She had to wait till she left school and turned 17 before she could enter the Loreto congregation in September 1953. With a flash of the humor that characterizes her in the minds of thousands of Loreto alumni in India, she says, "The hardest part was giving up horse riding. Now I had to walk sedately in my habit!"
Sister Cyril took her vows in June 1956 and embarked on a ship for India three months later. She was never to see her mother again. "My first visit home was after 12 years and my mother had died," she says evenly.
It was while teaching at Loreto Convent, Lucknow, and earning a doctorate in zoology in 1964, that she began her life's work. Appalled by the poverty outside the school, she began a social work programme with the resident students - teaching slum children and working in nearby villages. In the 1970s, as vice-principal of Loreto House, in Kolkata, she involved the city's privileged children in social work through various organizations such as the Leadership Training Service (LTS) and the Child In Need Institute (CINI).
Finally, becoming the principal of Loreto, Sealdah, in 1979 gave her an enormous opportunity to work for the pavement children outside the school gates. The Rainbow project began in 1985. Nine years later, when a four-year-old Rainbow child was raped on the pavement outside the school, Sister Cyril turned the school into a home for street children.
In the last 20 years, the impact of Sister Cyril's work has been recognized internationally: a UNESCO award in 1994; the International Christian Stewardship Award from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002; in 2004, she became the first Loreto nun to speak at the United Nations - on empowerment of girls through education.
Yet, fittingly, the most touching - and disarming - recognition of the significance of the Rainbow Home Project has come from her own senior school students - in these heartwarming words: "Our Rainbow project is not just a step ahead - it is a revolution" and "Our aim is not to show the world the state of the present, it is to show the world what we can make of the future."