The Alaknanda river is blue in November. It seems still from a distance, but is raging. From a place where the river was out of sight, we started climbing after getting out of the car. Despite the clear skies and direct sunlight at 1,800m, it was cold.
We climbed for about 30 minutes on a 45-degree-incline mountainside on a winding path. On the way, we passed a few houses—all with grains drying in the sun. When we reached the school, my shirt was soaked with sweat. It was the familiar extreme discomfort, which would go away if I sat still for 5 minutes in that dry cold air.
She asked me whether I will have tea and I said yes. She was sitting with classes I-III, and a group of younger children, in the sun. The small courtyard, hung out on the slope, like a stage in the sky. The mountains across the valley seemed dwarfed by the glinting 7,000m peaks of Chaukhamba, though it was almost 70km away.
I chatted with the students of class I while she worked on math with classes II and III. Their ability to read and write, with comprehension, was unusual.
Without hesitation, they wrote the following sentence in Hindi, “Uma was sitting under the tree, when the cow came near her.” And then they went on to develop the sentence by adding, “Uma got up and took the cow home.” And so the exercise continued.
The class-II children were doing multiplication of three-digit numbers. The younger children were not students, but she was taking care of them, since their elder siblings were in the school and parents were out working.
Inside the neat two-room school, all the children from classes IV-VI were together. They had no teacher, the head-teacher who is the other teacher in the school, was on leave.
They were busy sorting out leaves and fruit, categorizing them, and then writing down details of the plants, including their use in daily life.
They stopped and started a conversation with me. They were familiar with my city—Bengaluru. Most of their interest was focused on what it was like, living in a big city.
I went back to the courtyard and sat down with her. She asked me whether I was visiting because I knew that the head-teacher was on leave. I told her that was not the case.
We talked about why all her 56 students seemed to be doing well on everything I could observe. She responded that there is no great mystery to it. All children are good, the real question is whether the teachers try or not. And whether they have empathy in their hearts.
I asked about her challenges and problems, and she said that her only problem was the head-teacher, but she had almost solved it.
The head-teacher was transferred to her school two years ago. He is 10 years older than her. He arrived with the bluster of a bully legitimized by official authority. The happy school was stricken with terror. The children went into a state of shock.
Violence, both physical and verbal, was never far away. She would often be the target of his verbal assaults, as would the lady who cooked the mid-day meal. He treated the parents of the children no better, especially the mothers. He was a misogynist—perhaps even to the core.
With 25 years in schools, he had figured out how to cross all lines without leaving a trail. He was also known to be politically connected. Even as she described her nightmare unfold, she shared her story with me in an even tone. For six months, she remained terrified and conflicted, all her friends and family wanted her to take a transfer out of the school.
But she chose to stay and fight.
Like most bullies, he stopped mistreating her when she confronted him. Thereafter it was a hard grinding struggle to get him to change.
She rallied the parents, talked to sympathetic officials, and kept pushing back against him. His behaviour became worse before things improved.
As her relentless mobilization gathered momentum, he couldn’t take it any more, and he disengaged from the school. And that is how it is now, he is often absent. When he does show up, he sits sullenly all alone.
Why fight and take its misery? Her response was a lot more poetic in Hindi than it sounds in English. She said, “my retreat would have been the end of education for these children”.
That November night in my hotel room, sleepless like millions, I was exchanging emails with my colleague Indu on the state of the world. She wrote back to me: “Went back to the Mahabharat today—to a conversation before the war. Draupadi realizes she is going to lose all her children, and is furious. And Krishna says: Did I ever tell you that you would get happiness and prosperity after this war? This war is to re-establish dharma—that’s all. Fighting for dharma is not your duty—it is a choice you make. And you take all the consequences that come with it.”
She has chosen and taken the consequences, on her stage in the sky. We must make our choices, on our own stages. The world is unmade and made by that.
P.S.: I have masked her identity, since her war continues.
Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.