The thorny, overgrown shrubs scraped our car as we entered the village. On the road stood a girl; she was probably 14 years old. She remained on the road and so our car had to stop. She was stooping and turning around slowly on the same spot, there was a wound on her left cheek. She paid no attention to us, with eyes focused past us, on some distant nowhere. Then in a flash she was gone. The car started and we reached the school.
The thorny shrub is the plant of the hot semi-arid climate of Yadgir district. The surprise is when the landscape breaks into acres of lush paddy fields. Wherever the waters of the Upper Krishna Project reach, landowners have shifted to paddy cultivation. They used to grow coarse cereals suited to the region’s naturally arid climate and land. The effects of this change in cropping, incongruous with natural conditions, are not understood well and many are apprehensive.
If the irrigated tracts have led to livelihood improvement, it is not visible in the villages. The houses and the people, even along the lush paddy fields, look scorched by generations of poverty. Most locals are farm labourers, excluded from the economic benefits of the irrigation projects; the landowners live in Hyderabad. Halbhavi—the village that we were visiting—seemed to be on the same precarious edge of economic survival.
The school has one large classroom on one side and a kitchen on the other. It is an old building, but one that wears its age well. Thirty-seven students of classes I-III were together in the room with Chandrakala, their teacher.
The room was crowded. Charts hung from the ceiling. One wall had open cupboards neatly stacked with files and books. The opposite wall was lined with teaching-learning material. Everyone was sitting on the floor, in five groups, each in a circle.
We sat along the wall in the front as the teacher and her students went about their work. The movements and the voices echoed the confidence of being in a space that is their own, of enjoyment, and of trust. Two seven-year-olds came to us asking us to look through their notebooks. Their arithmetic seemed sound for their age. They read Kannada fluently. They had also written words in English. There were simple words and more complex ones; for example, “cow”, “evening”, “agriculture”, “girl”, “canal”. Many of the complex words were misspelt, but phonetically all were faithful to the spoken word.
Then the two children started a conversation with us in halting English. They found their own effort amusing and giggled. My colleague Rudresh commented on their proficiency in English. Chandrakala said that her own English is very limited, so it is the children who teach each other. By now many children had gathered around us.
A nine-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy both held their baby siblings on their laps throughout the 90 minutes that we were there. Both were cheerfully engaged in the proceedings. There were three other babies in the room playing on their own—siblings of other students. These babies are not students, but unless the children and Chandrakala take care of them, their siblings will have to stay at home and drop out of school.
On a whim, Rudresh asked the children around us if they knew the great social reformer and poet Basava’s vachans. It was impossible to stop them after that. Everyone wanted to recite a vachan, and most of them did. Rudresh played along, and asked them if they knew the districts of Karnataka. An eight-year-old girl made a song out of the names of all the 30 districts, almost without taking a breath, knocking out our breath.
The children then launched into a rapid-fire round of questions. They knew the capitals of every Indian state, and those of many other faraway countries. With each correct response they would laugh and clap. Chandrakala laughingly dismissed all this as entertainment, saying real learning was in their language, in their conceptual clarity and in their confidence.
That classroom seemed like a magical mystery ship of happiness to us.
With generations of social discrimination and unrelenting, debilitating poverty, most of the children are living in extreme circumstances. These conditions have a severe, adverse effect on them. To overcome much of that in the educational context, and to bring these children to where they are, is magical.
I asked Chandrakala how she does this. She said that it’s her job and she tries to do it responsibly. There is nothing more to it, she added. I persisted with my question. She said, “Well, it is 1% because someone like you comes in a very long while and says I am doing something good, but it is 99% because I am responsible for the future of these kids, what else do they have?”
Hundreds of thousands of teachers in our country face similar circumstances and identical battles. This is the real front line of the war for justice and equity, for social change and for economic development. The teachers need all our support in this long war.
By then the girl with the stoop and distant eyes was sitting outside the door of the classroom. She had a pen in hand and was making undecipherable patterns on a notebook. Chandrakala tries to care for her, she wishes she could do more. There are no limits to her sense of responsibility. There is no limit to empathy and compassion.
Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads the sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns here.