Monday, October 30, 2017

Amir teaches the Teach for India teachers!

Vipul Shaha, May 30, 2009 

‘When you wish upon a star…all the dreams that you dream come true.’  I had always dreamed of personally meeting Amir Khan—not so much for him being a film star but being the person that he is.  His role as a teacher in Taare Zameen Par, particularly, had a deep impact on how I perceive the ‘small world’ of children and the crucial role of a teacher in shaping young lives.  Sometimes, dreams come true unexpectedly sooner than we could ever imagine them to.  And so it happened this afternoon when Amir Khan stepped in a class full of Teach for India fellows like me--my dream had come true and it seemed unreal for a moment!  The two hours of friendly interaction that followed will continue to inspire me in my new role as a teacher and as a human being.  Here is a brief attempt to capture what Amir had to say on education in India.

An average student in his school days, Amir did not know what to do with his life until when he developed an interest for dramatics and filmmaking.  Amir did not continue his 'formal' education after completing his class XII.  Being a stubborn and determined person that he is, he defied all the concerns that his family expressed about his ‘extra-ordinary’ decision.  He firmly told them, ‘I was only having a good time so far, my real education begins now!’

Amir has done an extensive amount of research on child psychology, children with special needs and the education system for his movie TZP.  He spoke of the four basic emotional needs of every child and that of every human being: security, trust and faith, dignity and love.  Amir spoke at length about how each child is special, has his own pace of learning, abilities, areas of strengths and weaknesses.  He urged us (to-be teachers) not to force education upon a child and let the child be his own natural self and happy.  When asked about what he thinks as the purpose of an ideal education system, he responded with firm clarity—to enable and empower a child to deal with life in a happy manner, to be curious, to ask questions and to communicate confidently in whichever form suits him the best.  Once provided with right skills, tools and mindset, the child will be empowered to define and choose his own path in life.

Amir posed an intriguing question--why is it that if a child is not doing very well in sports, arts or music, it is considered okay, but when it comes to mathematics and science, everyone must master it all?  Referring to societal obsession with stardom and race towards the top, he mentioned how not everyone can be a film-star or a cricketer, but there is a 'hero' hidden within every child, which needs careful nurturing and attention.  Amir values everyday little successes of ordinary human beings more than the extraordinary success stories of a few.  'If you can cheer up the mood of a grumpy conductor on a bus, who might have had a bad day, you are successful!'.  Redefining the idea of 'success', Amir said that success depends upon one's core being and happiness.

Not undermining the importance of a child's academic progress, Amir endorsed and spoke highly about the need for ‘creative teaching’--by making learning an exciting process. He compared the role of a teacher to that of a film director.  Just as a director facilitates the process of filmmaking by trying to bring out the best in each character, a true good teacher facilitates the process of learning by bringing out the best in every child and inspiring every child to bloom.  Drawing example from his own self, and why he makes only a few films, he said ‘if only you have a story to tell, you will tell it well.’  Each day when the teacher enters the classroom he shall be so excited to ‘tell his story’ that he will put in fullest of  his energy, belief and patience to deliver knowledge. 

Amir cautioned us not to be judgmental towards our students and make every child feel very special.  Building an emotional bond with each child is important.  Amir placed his emphasis on ‘creating good human beings’ at primary school level.  This will naturally result into a society that grows up to be a more responsible one, he believes.

Amir signed off by sharing his own dream—‘I have a dream that one day in this country the tide will turn—that parents, educators and society will move away from forcing competitive spirit on innocent young minds and start instilling in them the value of caring for others.’

Friday, October 27, 2017

Teaching—A Journey of Transformation

-By Vipul Shaha, Fellow, Teach for India.
January 15, 2010

“Bhaiyya* I want to become a pilot!” shouted Ameya*—an 8 year old boy, bubbling with energy and confidence in my Superstars class. “But Bhaiyya, how do I write Pilot? See na Bhaiyya—P—I—L—E—T? Correct?” followed his impatient question. As I turned to Ameya to help him with his spelling, 33 other equally enthusiastic young minds were scrambling for my attention—“Bhaiyya, I want to be a want to help people...” I had asked them to write about their ‘Dream Job’—even as I had found mine in teaching a class of Grade 3 children at Epiphany High School—a low income private school in Pune. Everyday, as I step in my classroom, I can see the dreams in my kids’ eyes and feel the eagerness in their hearts to learn new things.

Ameya came in as a so called ‘failed’ student in my class. When the school started, his parents came to me, visibly very worried about their child’s future. They even had to carry out a psychometric analysis test—the results of which suggested a low level of IQ and the suggestion that the kid should be moved to a Marathi school. I pleaded for time. Seven months have passed and Ameya, today, is one of the finest students in my class. He does his homework regularly, he wrote one of the most beautiful letters to his pen-pal in a school in England (through an international link-up). His parents don’t beat him as often as they used to and are happy with his progress.

The journey for Ameya and his classmates is nowhere as smooth and promising as their counterparts in well-off schools. As statistics reveal, as many as 50% of India’s kids drop-out of school by the time they reach Grade 5. Not because their parents don’t want to send their kids to school, but simply because kids are not keeping up with the system of rote learning and poor quality of our education. With no support system and exposure at home for learning, the potential in these kids remains unexplored and even suppressed. Their dreams and ambitions in life fall victim to their circumstances --never to be remembered by anyone. This reality keeps me driving everyday to work even harder for my class, so that the Ameyas in my class can go on to give wings to their dreams.

When I first accepted my two year teaching assignment with Teach for India* in April 2009, little did I know that I am about to set off on a most challenging journey in life. The job demanded from me not merely an effective teacher in the classroom but an effective human being at every moment of my existence. Soon it was clear to me that unless I transform myself, I cannot hope to transform the lives of these beautiful young minds in my class. ‘Teaching As Leadership’ as defined by Teach for India, began to assume meaning even as I struggled to keep up with the challenge in its initial phase. I realize that over the months kids have taught me how to be more patient, more forgiving and more cheerful. Eight months into teaching and I truly feel that I have come a long way from the first day when my world was oceans apart from the mysterious little world of children. I can relate with them better now. So much so that, they have become an inseparable part of my life— even in my dreams my students do not seem to leave me! I find myself more and more engaged with the mission that ‘One Day All Children Will Attain an Excellent Education.’

The truth, however, is that I find myself greatly limited in my capacity to bring about a drastic change. I often wonder to myself after school, whether the kids learnt anything today? Am I making any difference to their lives? How do I reach out to their parents and communities who have a larger influence on them? How do we tackle issues like mal- nourishment, domestic violence, alcoholism, corporal punishment and child abuse which threaten a child’s healthy growth? Exploring answers to these questions may be a lifelong journey. Down the years, kids may or may not remember the Nouns and Adjectives in English grammar. My only inner belief and hope lies in helping these kids slowly turn into independent and creative thinkers to face their own challenges in life. The unconditional love I receive from my kids, the purity of smile on their faces and their anticipating sunshine eyes shall keep me going. The journey has just really begun...

*Bhaiyya--a respectful way of calling an elder brother in Hindi / Marathi language
*Ameya--name changed to protect identity
*Teach for India a national movement of young leaders who will work to eliminate educational inequity in India. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My ‘Learning From India’ Journey

Vipul Shaha, Baramati, Pune, Maharashtra
vipulshaha [at]

November 2013

I have been on a roller-coaster ride since my return from America last year.  With a degree in educational psychology from Harvard and the promise of lucrative jobs around the globe, I should have been all set to start ‘changing the world’.

Instead, committing to follow my inner voice, I put myself through a series of travel and internship experiences that have brought about a ‘change of the world within my own self’.  This reflection is an attempt to share with fellow pilgrims, some of the insights that I have gathered from my yearlong journey trying to better understand what it means to live and learn in a holistic sense.  I have so far been blessed with so much inspiration and goodwill along the way that I feel compelled to pass it forward.

Looking retrospectively, I can now see how the motivation for taking this year-on[1] was slowly building up during my studies, work and travels in America. My principal area of interest while at Harvard and in the US in general was to grasp hold of the ‘cutting-age’ theories and innovative models in education and to better understand how learning can best take place.  I visited over two dozens of schools and educational set-ups of various hues and colors.  I even spent a summer at a democratic school in rural Minnesota, which I found to be the most authentic in its approach towards self-directed project-based learning, building hope in students and community strengthening[2].  Unfortunately, America, as it appeared to me, was tightening its grip on education so much so that such innovative ventures were finding it increasingly difficult to survive and replicate.  

An American educator friend, who deeply cared for the natural learning processes of children, complained to me that the standardization movement and excessive federal controls were obsessed with ‘making robots of children’ in America.  A handful of public and charter schools that I visited confirmed for me the frustrations expressed by him.  My friend had further expressed his concern saying that, “India is now desperate to improve the quality of education for children throughout the country, and hasn't had the time or the resources to make the serious mistakes we have, but is in the danger of doing so.”

The deeper I went with my independent research on educational psychology and its application, the more it pointed me in the direction of Nai Talim system of education that Gandhiji had propounded several decades ago.  Although the larger American education scene had left me somewhat disappointed, it had offered me hope in the informal learning potential that India is blessed with especially in its rural areas thanks to the paltry system of our public education.

Apple picking on an organic orchard being entirely managed by the students of Minnesota New Country School.

America also challenged many of my pre-set notions about ‘development,’ as I witnessed the ‘occupy’ movement take shape in the face of rising socio-economic inequity in that country.  I could sense the disillusionment and the urge with which fellow American friends were seeking alternatives to the dominant systems that have controlled their lives for too long.  

It was heartening for me to learn about the growing research and interest in yoga and mindfulness techniques, a significant movement towards organic food, veganism and vegetarianism as well as homeschooling. I saw that the local farmers’ markets and cooperatives are becoming increasingly common in the US.  While on the West Coast, I got a chance to visit and learn about a few sincere attempts at intentional living eco-communities. There is also a collective sense of regret about the demise of Native American tribes and new efforts are emerging to reinstate some of their original languages and culture.

Participating in the 'Sawhorse Revolution' in America--a largely volunteer run program that involves young people to work with the body and wood and build structures of public utility

Having grown up in an Indian village myself, it became increasingly clear to me that what the growing lot of conscious Americans and people elsewhere are desperately trying to revitalize (a vibrant localized economy, volunteerism, a sense of local community and family values, sustainable living practices, spirituality, gift-culture, creative self-expression through stories, music, arts, co-operative games and so on) has been an integral part of rural life in India and perhaps other indigenous communities and ancient civilizations around the world for time immemorial.  It has been passed down for generations in the form of living wisdom, rituals and traditions and vocational skills.  I grew sensitive to the fact that while the West is slowly waking up to many of the inherent flaws in its current consumption-driven technocratic model of development, India at large is now crassly moving in the opposite direction in its quest for higher GDP growth and superpowerdom, often leading to mediocre imitation of the West. The country is fast exploiting its natural resources, dislocating the tribal / rural communities from their farms, forests, mineral and water reserves and trying very hard to bring everyone into the fold of the ‘mainstream’ race towards scarce, often dehumanizing urban industrial jobs.  The 'American Dream' has largely captured the imagination of India, whatever it may cost to its current and future generations.  A documentary film named ‘Schooling the World-the White Man’s Last Burden’, offered words and pictures highlighting many of these intuitive musings that had already been bubbling up inside me.  It gave birth to a strong urge to re-connect with my roots and to tap into some of the living wisdom that still remains in rural pockets of India and to see for myself whether my growing sense of unease towards mainstream education and its role in accelerating the crisis of modern times was ill-founded or had any real substance to it.

Soon after returning home from America, I plunged myself in two of the most powerful internship experiences of my life.  The first one was at Shikshantar Andolan/Swaraj University, Rajasthan,[3] which was followed by a monsoon season hands-on work experience on an organic/natural farm in a tribal village of Gujarat[4].  This came with a sincere intention to fully immerse myself in grass roots living and learning experiences—a self-directed, self-funded action research of sorts that I would call my “Learn From India” journey.

To my own surprise, the past year has led me to do things, which my ‘highly educated’ mind might have earlier considered as being ‘too menial’ ‘insignificant’ ‘unproductive’ or ‘irrelevant’ best suited for un-skilled workers!  Instead, they opened up to me a world that went far beyond my once narrowly understood measures of productivity and success.

Be it harvesting rice and wheat or milking cows and buffalos, or making trenches for better water management, making organic fertilizer or doing the floor lipai work using cow dung, spraying natural pesticide or weeding in the fields…each one of these farm job required from me very intricate skill and often hard physical work for several hours a day. 

A day spent picking up corn in the fields with a large tribal family.  What a great team work!

For someone like me whose hands knew hardly anything more ‘productive’ than typing well and tactful play with words on my laptop, it was extremely humbling to work on the farm.  For the first time ever, I got involved with growing and cooking the food that I was eating.  All these years, it seemed, I had been missing the joy of integrating all my senses—head, heart and hands—in a meaningfully creative work that had a direct impact on my wellbeing.  Somewhere in my quest for achieving ‘worldly success’, I had, to an extent, weaved a web of ignorance and pride around my own self, not realizing that my authentic self was eluding me in the process.  Like the school kids that I once used to teach, the farm was strengthening my ability to be patient, to be flexible, to constantly experiment, to have faith in natural creative processes, to respect the diversity around and to recognize the dormant potential in every patch of soil and every tiny little seed. Also, the law of impermanence and the need to accept the ultimate outcome became apparent when it rained almost 30 inches in 3 consecutive days causing great losses to the vegetables and crops that we had planted.

Using the hand-operated plough to plant Jute seeds on the Soneji farm—a true test of strength and a great workout!

Experiencing how demanding farm life can be, I began to have doubts about the fairness of an economic system that compensates the producers of our food so low that they are left at the mercy of often-corrupt bureaucratized welfare services.  Something must be not right when India competes globally for continued economic growth even as a wave of farmer suicides sweeps the nation.

My learning journey also widened my perspectives on how authentic learning can be ‘owned’ anywhere and anytime when there is an inner drive to connect with our surroundings in a very deep mutually nourishing relationship.  Several faculties of knowledge can be practically learnt and meaningfully applied on the farm.  Many of my already forgotten concepts from sciences such as physics, chemistry, geography and biology started to come alive as I got in the rhythm and flow of life on the farm and started to pay close attention to the process of energy conversion from the Sun into the food and back to the soil, the factors that lead to effective pollination or photosynthesis, the topography of land and the type and quality of soil, the unique micronutrient needs and features of different types of plants, animal husbandry, the types of birds, pests, insects and snakes on the farm and their delicate interdependence...I was absorbing so much all the time—not due to fear of any exams, but simply because it was well-integrated with everything that makes farming a skillful art and science.

Collecting natural fertilizer and mulch to spread around in the farm. 

The less formally educated tribal folks may not have words and theories for all the natural phenomena that they constantly engage with on the farm and surrounding forests.  I now actually think that it is unnecessary to overload our mental space with digitized or textual information, which often blunts many of our natural senses.  The tribal farmers with their sharp observation and listening power convinced me that there are multiple ‘other ways of knowing’ and living.  It seemed that they could very instinctively and intuitively draw from their surroundings just enough to fulfill their most basic needs. 

I was amazed to meet farmers who, despite very little or sometimes no formal education at all, could easily do the necessary mental math to keep track of their produce and its market price.  I met up with a wood craftsman in Rajasthan who had taught himself how to read and write Hindi script by using a twig on the ground.  He had run a successful furniture business and could maintain all his basic accounts himself. 

Champakbhai, a 52 year old Tadavi tribal became my ‘guru’ in a Gujarat village where I spent a monsoon season.  He would very enthusiastically share with me his knowledge of various medicinal plants and herbs and their Ayurvedic significance.  He also taught me how to make plates, bowls, pouches, ropes and a gofaan using parts of various plants.  I also enjoyed building a bamboo roof for a house under his keen guidance. His ability to predict the monsoons several months ahead of time left me quite awestruck. It was based on a very detailed observation of the sky over a period of time and what certain species of birds do in a particular season.  Champakbhai is also very skilled at making household furniture and wooden farm tools. He sews and stitches clothes at home, regularly goes to repair motors on farms and fixes up broken water hand-pumps in the region. Anytime there is a large-scale village gathering such as during a wedding, Champakbhai loves to offer his assistance in cooking the regional specialties.  He has no regrets about being a 10th class ‘failure’ and having left school several years ago.

The village youth gathered around Champakbhai who's teaching us how to make 'gofaan'--a hand-operated tool to scare away the birds in the field

My grassroots ventures took me to varied places and allowed me the opportunity to experience multiple worlds that co-exist and thrive all around us.  I went swimming in local water streams where the tribal kids exhibited flips jumps and various water sports that they have invented. We used to exchange magic tricks, songs, games and food. They were extra keen to teach me my own ancestral language—Gujarati, which I picked up very fast. I played my flute on mountaintops, sang bhajans with the tribal folks and performed garbha in a community circle.  A ‘learning-exchange’ was taking place all the time as the boundaries of age, culture and socio-economic background simply vanished in the process of our mutual friendship.  

The tribal kids are teaching me a self-invented game that they play with Sitaphal seeds.  The entire village and the surrounding forest were like a one big ‘Children’s Play Park’ without the need for any adult supervision or manufactured toys.  'Experiential Learning' and 'Socio-Emotional Development' in education lingo!

Be it while picking up flowers to make natural colors and selling them in hand-made paper bags or helping out a friend sell his natural jewelry on the street-side, hand-grinding the grains or making umbrellas with teak wood leaves, making soaps with cow dung, aloe vera and neem leaves…I was learning something new and tangible everyday.

Another important transformation has been underway for me.  It is my growing sense of respect for a very simple, self-reliant lifestyle and the dignity of labor.  In a way, it is liberating myself from the bondage of having lived a life of luxury and my constant dependence on household help, technology and ready-made solutions.  When, for instance, I created a pin-board out of waste materials and painted a design on it or when I fixed up a bicycle tire puncture, I was slowly discovering that the joy of ‘doing-it-yourself’ far exceeds the joy of shopping or hiring help for everything. 

In the past year, I have made chapattis and tried out new recipes in the kitchen, hand-washed my dish and clothes with natural detergents, cleaned up the toilets and swept the floors, and helped out with many such household tasks that I had often ‘outsourced’ and taken for granted.  It began to bother me that I have, in the past, been so indifferent towards the work done by my mother—an Indian housewife, whose effective household management skills and often invisible but a very crucial role in keeping the family intact goes almost unrecognized in modern economics.

Grinding the grains on a gatti.  A good warm-up at the start of the day!

Of course it took tremendous amount of inner churning and de-conditioning before I could see meaning and significance in everything I was doing—a part and parcel of my years of institutionalized education perhaps.  What kept me going was the immense joy, beauty, creativity and inspiration that I found in such ordinary moments when I stepped out of my comfort zone and connected with fellow beings and my natural surroundings at a very deep personal level.  It has also taken a constant process of open communication and negotiation with my parents to try and get them to understand the not-so-usual choices that I have been making.  I have felt extremely fortunate to have their support, patience and faith in me at the end of the day.

I also found it wise to ‘un-plug’ myself from my over-dependence on information-technology—an experiment I called ‘techno-fasting’.  My Vipassana experiences[5] earlier had convinced me that in order to clearly hear our own authentic voice and dive deeper within, sometimes it helps to simply leave aside, at least for a while, many of the external influences, conditionings and the baggage of our ‘normal’ routine lives.  Therefore, while in the tribal village, for over 3 months I switched off my cellphone and barely ever checked my emails.  I almost forgot that there exists something called ‘Facebook’ in my virtual world out there!  Instead, I made conscious efforts to make new tribal friends and meet them face-to-face everyday.

My techno-fast may sound like a form of escapism. It, however, offered me glimpses of a kind of mind-body intelligence that often eludes us—the ability to work with hands and body skillfully, to be rooted in the ‘here and now’ and be sensitive to the needs of our body and our surroundings, to be spontaneously creative, to be a keen observer, a compassionate listener and so on.

My co-learning and co-creative interactions with tribal folks, village crafts-persons and farmers, housewives, cottage industry entrepreneurs, social activists, education psychologists, anthropologists, development sector workers, spiritual healers and seekers, and, most importantly, the large masses of what I would term as ‘ordinary inspiring people’ have made me rethink everything and question some of the fundamental issues of life, such as what it means to be truly ‘educated’? Am I truly ‘privileged’ and ‘empowered’? If yes, why do I harbor so much inner-turbulence and a sense of de-rootedness? What is real wealth? What we call ‘modernization’ and ‘development’—is it truly in our collective interest?  Has the technological progress made our lives truly more fulfilling?  What is the very purpose of life itself?  What direction is the human civilization heading and am I contributing to its evolution or destruction?

While each one of us arrives at our own evolving version of the truth every moment, I would like to offer an illustration of why some of my pre-held assumptions about education and ‘development’ or ‘progress’ have been challenged through these times.  It may throw up many new questions and perhaps shed light on a few others. I believe that everything is ultimately inter-related and thus must be looked at in a holistic sense.

It is the story of spending a day with Amar—a Vasava tribal who accompanied a friend and I on our long walk in the woods.  We were visiting his very beautiful small village located on a mountaintop and surrounded by Satpura forests.  A makeshift dirt road and no electric supply gave the village a very ‘lost-to-the-world’ feel.  Sensing our need for a local guide, he readily agreed to show us around—despite the fact that we were complete strangers to him and that he was busy grazing his cattle at the time when we met.  “My neighbors will look after the cattle”, he said confidently.  As we walked around the village visiting the small patches of multi-crop farms on mountain slopes, we were greeted by children and elders alike, invited in their homes and treated to freshly picked Sitaphal fruits from the surrounding jungles. In one such Vasava house, we were offered lunch. It was a large family consisting of parents and their nine children—all of them working together on their own ancestral land.  While we were carrying our own food, they insisted that we must taste the food that was just being prepared.  I cannot put in words how tasty and love-filled this simple meal turned out to be—containing the desi millet of bajra and tuver daal mixed with bhendi leaves and green chillies all grown organically in their own farm and cooked on a chullah and a tavaa made out of mud. 

The 'rotalo' (thick chapati) being prepared on a mud tavaa and a mud chullah.

The houses were very simple but very beautiful—built using natural materials available locally—mud, bamboo, cow dung and a variety of forest wood.  Many of the village folks, including Amar, have traditionally been wood and bamboo artisans.  Earlier, oil lamps using the oil extracted from locally and abundantly available mahuva tree kept the houses lit after dark every evening.  Now the government has installed solar panels on house rooftops for lighting at night.  Amar has only been to the city two times in his entire life, and rather prefers his ‘poor’ but ‘peaceful and healthy’ life in the village, as he puts it.  He later took us to the water-stream running through the valley where we could have a bath and drink water.  “This is very tasty water, coming from the surrounding forests and mountains,” he proudly proclaimed and also expressed his disbelief at the fact that now they ‘sell’ water in plastic bottles in the ‘outside world’.  He and his fellow village mates were not aware of the land acquisition plan that the state government has recently come up with—his village will be part of a larger ‘area development authority’ that is set to turn the tribal region into a ‘world class’ tourist destination.  When we mentioned the proposed project, he was quick to respond “We have lived here forever, and this jungle is our God…we cannot even think of selling it…we take from this forest only little bit of what we need and we are supposed to protect the rest.  We are well taken care of in return.”  I was awestruck by Amar’s unflinching loyalty for his land.  Ask him about any plant or tree, and he could tell its name and multiple uses for making household materials or providing herbal medicines in case someone got sick.  As smiling faces greeted us every place we went, it occurred to me that there were no hospitals, no cinema theatre, no police station, no hotels or shopping centers in his village and yet the people all seemed to live an extraordinarily harmonious life in tune with their community and natural surroundings.

The tribal folks seeking permission from village deity to start harvesting the green vegetables at the start of the monsoon season.  Traditional Indian views of ecology have preserved the environment through many such rituals 

As the sun-down approached, Amar very kindly offered us an accommodation for the night if we wished to stay there.  Instead, we decided to head back to the village where we were stationed.  Amar happily accompanied us all the way until he felt sure that we could now follow the route on our own.  When we finally parted ways, what embarrassed me was the fact that when we offered him some money for his ‘services’, he almost took it as an insult—“We are Vasava people, we think of guests as our Gods.  How could you even think that I was with you for money all this time?” was his firm response.  I was deeply touched by the generosity of this complete stranger and realized the futility and worthlessness of my abused source of self-esteem—and effort to rely on my conditioned use of the almost abstract concept of ‘money’.  All at once, I remembered that there was something more worthy that I was carrying in my other pocket that I should offer to the fertile forestland—Sitaphal seeds that Amar and his community may get to enjoy the fruits of someday.  Amar, who has never been to a formal school, radiated peace, generosity, good health, a sense of self-belief and concern for his community and possessed multiple skills to fulfill his most basic needs.  Not to say that there are no hardships or challenges in his village life, but there is also resilience to continually learn and live as a close-knit community.

A somewhat functional primary school now operates in his village.  I say functional because at least the two appointed teachers do show up regularly, unlike the time when Amar was growing up as a kid.  The older children who pursue secondary schooling do not stay in the village. They have special government run ashram shalaas or boarding schools, in towns and cities that will make sure that the kids can have a chance at ‘better livelihood’ and a ‘higher standard of living’ someday in the distant future! In a comparatively more ‘developed’ tribal village located in the same region, I noticed the youth hooked to their mobile phones and television screens, many of who do not share the same loyalty and self-respect to their traditional way of life as the village elders still do.  Neither Amar’s village, nor my own Maharashtra village is any more immune to the rising influence of market forces in our lives.  It is likely a losing battle trying to convince the ‘educated’ youth in the villages to not give up their physically arduous, but healthy and well-integrated traditional way of life.  So many allurements await their destiny. 

If my experience with Amar and his fellow villagers were a one-off instance limited to a particular region, I would have probably tucked it away as a sweet memory and nothing more.  As my mind and heart slowly opened to it, I have encountered such extraordinary stories of ordinary people over and over again—so much so that I now feel that I belong to an ‘elite’ minority in India, who have been cunningly smart to take advantage of an illusionary system of meritocracy—knowingly or unknowingly exploiting the human and natural resources and thus keeping intact the fundamentally inequitable socio-economic structure on which ‘development’ and ‘modern progress’ have depended for too long. 

I left Amar’s village overwhelmed with many emotions, trying to grasp the dichotomy between the frenzied world that I move about in and his self-content, self-reliant, almost utopian community hidden in the mountains of southern Gujarat.  Trying to connect the dots, I could now see how my mechanized and consumption based ‘high-lifestyle’ could be causing that tribal community to be uprooted off its land and put into cheap labor jobs in a city-slum or that river to be turned into a mega-dam project or that forest wood to be turned into furniture.  Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of Swaraj—rule over self and Sarvodaya—welfare of all kept running through mind—“Impoverished India can become free, but it will be hard for any India made rich through immorality to regain its freedom,” had warned the great soul over a century ago[6].   While those of us bitten by the ‘education’ and ‘development’ bug may struggle to find that holistic balance within and outside, we must at least pause and deeply question the impact of our well-meaning intentions to ‘change the world’ under the banner of educating and modernizing the ‘less privileged’ lot.  “Am I trying to putout the fire with one hand while adding wood to it with another?” is what we need to be asking ourselves.  There is also hidden arrogance in me assuming that just because a funnel system has worked for me (or has it really?) it must work for all and therefore I have the obligation to ‘help’ (read, impose it upon) the not-so-fortunate people.

I am aware that it may not be entirely feasible to switch back to the rural lifestyle of a tribal farmer.  My own efforts at embodying a truly ‘down-to-earth’, holistic, simple life have remained at a very superficial level so far.  To start with, there is a huge disconnect between my current reality and the ideal future that I envision for my self and the community.  My existing sense of inertia towards hard physical work, the temptation to seek comfort and remain ‘on top’ of the game that I have mastered well to play, a subtle sense of uncertainty and insecurity, a deeply entrenched habit of hitching my self-esteem on externally defined measures of success such as money and a job title, the constant tussle between ‘idealism’ and ‘practicality’, the wide gap between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’, the need for a community of like-hearted people and my hesitance to ‘let go’ are some of the factors that have made me realize that it takes a lot more than mere intellectual understanding to bring about radical shifts in our lives.

I am convinced, however, that the future reform and the reversal of the socio-ecological crisis that is already underway calls forth an honest self-dialogue and a channeling of our talents and energies into the re-integration of sustainable living practices and community values that have been the hallmark of Indian civilization since ancient times.  The hardest to accept is the fact that there is so much healing (or un-learning) that has to happen within our own ‘educated’ minds before we can start to re-imagine and create a different paradigm. Multiple layers of conditionings, starting with over-parenting and schooling, have smothered the authentic voice of our childhood inclinations.  It is endowed with immense creativity and unique potential.  It is never too late to reclaim that child within!

While life itself is an endless learning journey, when both--learning and conscious living, merge together, it creates a beautiful synergy, is what the journey so far has convinced me.  I am fascinated with the idea of each one taking complete charge of his/her own learning and living.  My brief stint on the farm and the tribal community offered me the opportunity to experience how learning simply emerges and life blossoms when we are attuned to something most meaningful and authentic to us.  I envision for myself a farm life that could beautifully turn into a community learning space, combining many of the sustainable and holistic living ideals.  It may be a long and perhaps difficult transition back to the roots and the soil; I am willing to walk the path however.

[1] To know about the Year-On Campaign visit:

[2] After graduating from Harvard, I spent a summer living on an organic apple orchard being entirely managed by the students of Minnesota New Country School, Henderson, MN. The experience highlighted the need for freeing up education from the stranglehold of excessive federal controls and standardization.  For more about self-directed project based learning at MNCS: 

[3] Visit http://www. and
 for several useful resources on the topic of development and education

[4] Visit for a very inspiring essay on the unique farming lifestyle adopted by the Soneji family.  Written by Nipun and Guri Mehta during their walking pilgrimage across western India.

5  Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique as taught by Buddha and now revived in India.

6 Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule by M. K. Gandhi.  Page 81.  Navjeevan Publication

A tribal friend shows me how to make an umbrella using teak-wood leaves.

Some reference resources that have inspired my journey—

Education related:

1.         Dumbing us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction—John Taylor Gatto
2.         Learning the Heart Way—Samyuktha
3.         Education and the Significance of Life—J. Krishnamurti
4.         The whole movement of life is learning—J. Krishnamurti
5.         A Call to the Youth of India—Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
6.         Free At Last—Sudbury Valley School—Daniel Greenberg
7.         “So Live”—Jyotibhai Desai on the Nai Talim system of education in the modern context
8.         Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation—Parker Palmer
9.         Passion for Learning: How Project-Based Learning Meets the Needs of Students—Ron Newell
10.     Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Freedom—Paulo Freire
11.     Democracy and Education—John Dewey
12.     Swapathgami—a quarterly newsletter by Shikshantar
13.   Education Toward Inner Transformation--Chinmaya Mission publication
14.   Diwaswapna--Gijubhai Badheka
15.   The Fall of the Human Intellect--Parthasarathy
16.   Thoughts on Education--Vinoba Bhave
17.   Our Land, Our Life--A curriculum on farm based learning
18. Totto-Chan, The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
19. Education for Life by Swami Kriyananda

Development / Farming / Sustainable Living—

1.         Hind Swaraj—Mahatma Gandhi
2.         Ringing Cedars book Series—Anastasia—Vladimir Megre
3.         Tending the Earth— Winin Pereira
4.         Ancient Futures—Helena Norberg-Hodge
5.         Garden of Democracy—A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government— Nick Hanauer 
6.         To Hell With Good Intentions—Ivan Illich
7.         The Other Way of Knowing— Lilian “Na’ia” Alessa
8.         Grassroots—the Universe of Home—Paul Gruchow
9.         Rooted in the Land—Essays on Community and Place—Wes Jackson
10.      One Straw Revolution— Masanobu Fukuoka 
11.      Ahead to Nature—Dilip Kulkarni
12.      Gatiman Santulan—a monthly newsletter by Dilip Kulkarni
13.      Bhoomi Magazine by Bhoomi Network, Bangalore
14.      Sacred Economics, the Ascent of Humanity and The More Beautiful World that Our Hearts Know is Possible— Charles Eisenstein

15.      Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives--Jeff Schmidt

16.     Walk-Out and Walk-OnA Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now—
        Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze
17.    The Development Dictionary:  A Guide to Knowledge as Power
18.    The Yes Magazine
19.    Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher

Documentary Films:
·       Schooling the World—the White Man’s Last Burden
·       The Forbidden Education
·       Modern Servitude
·       What the Bleep Do We Know?
·       The Story of Stuff and The Story of Solutions
·       The Corporation
·       Money and Life
·       Rabbit Proof Fence
·       Food Inc.
·       Thrive
·       Race to Nowhere
·       Affluenza
·       God Must be Crazy
·       Freedom Ahead
·       The Economics of Happiness
·       Ancient Futures