Dark complexioned, five feet seven inches tall, with ageing but a sturdy body, leg amputated below the knee, Shakti Singh was just another face in the crowd. However, in his military uniform, with a chest laden with medals, he looked an impressive Subhedar Major as he proudly limped across with crutches in a bustling Bombay neighbourhood.

Shakti was a war veteran, demobbed two years before his actual retirement age, because of the physical disability. He was also a diabetic, sometimes controlled. Shakti’s wife had died of tuberculosis quite early, leaving behind two school-going daughters. He used all of his funds to purchase a two-bedroom flat. He now had to live only on his pension. It was clearly a lower middle class living.

However, that never even once interfered with his lofty ideas and steel-like determination, to do something good for others, especially the less privileged. Shakti was a Giver. We used to walk together in the morning at the promenade; even though he walked with some pain, yet he never indulged in self-pity. I greatly admired his steadfastness and altruistic attitude and would love to listen to his wartime stories; he never brought the instances of his individual bravery in his narrative. At times, Shakti would indulge in philosophizing and say that we must all learn to Give. His belief was that one becomes richer only by Giving. I would then tell him that he had already given much too much to his country and now he must look after his daughters and lead a comfortable life. The daughters went to the Army school. He only paid for the bus service. Food was simple and cooked by a part-time help or by Shakti himself at times.

Then one day he came, bursting with radiance, and wanted an hour of my time to discuss his dream project. It was to set up a roadside school that would teach three R’s to slum children and other needy people. He was convinced that it was a great idea since it will dissuade them from begging on the streets and qualify them for jobs like that of peons, cooks, valet and domestic help. He had also spoken to some other friends who had volunteered to teach gratis on footpaths between 6.30 to 8 a.m. Shakti straight away set about the job; he got flyers and posters printed, bought floor mats for children to sit. Most of us helped with pencils, stationary, notebooks etc.

The syllabus comprised teaching three R’s in English or Hindi on the choice of the parents and elementary Maths. There were the usual teething troubles; children would arrive at the Footpath School straight from their bed – hungry and at times without answering Nature’s call. As it was a totally free school, some passersby, onlookers and petty donors would serve tea and biscuits. The school was fast gaining popularity and more and more children joined. The only condition imposed was that children must come after morning’s ablutions and to wear washed clothes.

A nearby milk kiosk promised a daily cup of milk to each and every student. Soon, the school presented a pleasant sight; about 15-20 students and three teachers with Shakti sitting in their midst in full military regalia, medals and all, on his chest. People really liked the idea of “Vidya Daan”, spreading literacy and lighting a candle, in children's life. A visiting NRI donated a whole bunch of chappals so that no one came barefoot. Donations in cash or kind were offered by several well meaning people. However, Shakti only accepted donations in kind -- No CASH. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon with school bags and water bottles. I was Shakti's friend and PRO of the school. Approaching multinational and big companies bought us food packets. One donated a Mini bus to take children out on school picnics and sightseeing. The Municipal Councilors were also very kind. They got us an NOC from the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) as long as we did not litter and /or spoil anything. The local Lions Club built us a Rain Shelter which could be mantled and dismantled easily.

The news from his family was also good. Of his two daughters, one got married to a JCO in the Army and other worked as a clerk in a lawyer’s office. Newspapers went to town covering the story of this unusual footpath school. TV channels were not left behind. Laudatory stories appeared in some American papers. Soon the school became the talk of Bombay. Even movie celebrities visited it on Diwali and Eid and brought clothes and sweets. The SNDT University suggested this extraordinary project be included in training of social workers.

Accolades came in plenty. Wonder of wonder, the school became a tourists’ attraction. Charity minded people came and freely opened their purse strings. More and more people volunteered to teach. Soon it became a problem of plenty.

One night Shakti went into Diabetic coma. Two days later he died. He left, no advice, no instructions for his children or for the school. There were suggestions from his family to close the school. But parents, teachers and other well meaning friends said NO. Shakti's ideas must live on. Shakti must continue to live. We appointed two old teachers as principal and vice principal. The school now had strength of 90 students and 14 teachers. On hearing and reading about it, some local schools offered to take the students in 3rd/ 4th std in case they wished to study further. A local NGO “Education for All” agreed to support the School. That really bestowed a special status on the school. A well wisher made a short documentary that was telecast twice over Doordarshan.

Shakti's dream had come true. Although the school remains nameless and without any walls it has lit a lamp of knowledge. It will forever remain an epitome to his vision and courage. A living example of how a sick man, despite all the handicaps, wanted to GIVE. One day somebody searched his papers and found his Will. It was only a five-sentence document. He had left his life’s entire savings – a princely sum of rupees 1,48,000 -- to the School.

(Dr. Prithvi Madhok is a recently retired widely-respected Mumbai surgeon)