ABU DHABI // Some might have said Rakesh Mani had the most enviable of lifestyles. He had a very well-paid job at a leading financial institution and enjoyed the Manhattan apartment and plush social life that went with it. Then he gave it all up. He now spends his days in a crowded, basic classroom trying to help a handful of poverty-stricken pupils find a better future. He has embraced the life of a teacher in India - a country where many children are not educated at all - and home is a shared two-bedroom flat in Mumbai. But the rewards, he said, are immeasurable.
"It's a very fulfilling thing to teach," Mr Mani said. "I was working in what people call one of the world's most selfish professions." He grew up in Abu Dhabi, the son of an investment banker. After studying at the International School of Choueifat in Abu Dhabi, Mr Mani left the UAE at the age of 17. He was accepted into New York University, where he majored in finance and statistics. After graduating a year early, he returned to the UAE but he did not stay long. By the age of 20, he had landed a job in New York on JP Morgan's fixed-income desk, where he worked for three years.
By the time he was 23, however, the soul searching had begun. "For a while, I was thinking about what I could do to satisfy the soul," he said. "I heard about Teach for India [TFI] through a friend four to five years earlier, when it was just an idea. His family's foundation were thinking about setting it up, but they didn't. In the end, it did get up and running. My friend said, 'Here is the website, why don't you take a look?'"
The TFI organisation has a rigorous application process; only 10 to 15 per cent of applicants are accepted. Mr Mani was one of 88 chosen, and is the only teacher from the UAE. He now works in a school in Malad, a northern suburb of Mumbai, teaching children up to the age of 12. "Manhattan is a very different place from Malad," he said. "The kind of restaurants, the social connections, friends and colleagues, a lot of the social angle is missing.
"The biggest difference and the biggest difficulty is commuting. Where it was once easy to stop a cab or catch the subway, which was quick, efficient and clean, it is somewhat different and more challenging to take local trains in Mumbai, where you are jostling for space and holding on to rails." Despite his travels, he still considers Abu Dhabi his home. "I miss a lot of things about Abu Dhabi: I miss the people, I miss the food.
"It's just one of those cities where you grow up. I have nostalgic memories of the streets, alleys and buildings. "A lot of the initial homesickness has worn away. While in New York I would go out with friends, go to brunches, bars, clubs, restaurants. In India, so far, I have a few friends but they are on the other side of town. I go out at weekends and meet up with them." But he remains fully focused on the TFI programme's goals.
"Our hope at TFI is to start with primary education so that we can have a strong foundation in this country," Mr Mani said. "People say it is not possible to have a society where everyone is highly educated. We want to go to the lowest common denominator and raise the bar five notches. What sort of effect that creates for society is what we are interested in. "The mission of TFI is to get high-quality teachers from banking, advertising, engineering to academia.
"They come in and teach children in mostly underprivileged schools and areas. "The idea is to bridge the educational gap in India, and [address] the inequality." He would love to see more people from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the programme. Mr Mani is unsure what the next step will be for him after his two-year stint with the programme ends. He has developed strong ties with the Umed Bhai Patel school and its pupils.
"It's amazing how attached you get to the kids," he said. "I spent five weeks in a summer school and it was sad to see them go. "They have your phone number and we try and visit their homes too." TFI aims to bring new teaching methods to the classroom, including drama, multimedia and even mixed-gender classes in a traditionally segregated school. Mr Mani teaches history, science and English to classes as large as 75 pupils, and employs some of the same lessons he once experienced at Choueifat.
"We are bringing the best practices from our own education and bringing it to a place with no education," he said. And although he is new to the programme, the social problems at hand - including some exacerbated by the parents - have quickly become evident. As much as he wants to change things, he said, the way forward can be tricky. "The idea is that as you become closer, you can develop relationships where they can share this with you," he said.
"We will try to help and hold workshops for parents." email@example.com