Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Being superwoman

So long as we don't understand that education requires efforts equal to climbing Everest, we won't climb it

The inspector of schools knew that only one student in that cluster of villages had passed grade 10 in the first division. After the summer vacation when the schools opened, he went looking for her. He couldn’t find the girl in any school. She had not taken admission in class 11. She was up in the high mountain terrace farms, working in rice transplantation. Word reached her family; she went and met the inspector, who insisted that she join school.

That was over 30 years ago. Last Thursday she was walking uphill steadily in front of me, leading me to the school in Baun. The visible strength of her forearms, within her small frame, tells of a lifetime of hard work. Harsha is now the deputy block education officer of Dunda in Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand.

The maze of narrow paths took us through a steady climb in Garhwal to the far edge of the village. At one place a bent figure carrying a big bushel of millets crossed us. The person was not visible. Harsha bent down to look under the straws. It was a young girl. Harsha chatted with her, enquiring why she had not gone to school. She made up her mind quickly that the girl had to go on, so she told her to study tomorrow what she had missed today. Her tone and decision was from having lived that life herself.

Through the climb up, she kept chatting with whoever we came across, the owner of a small shop, the ex-pradhan of the village, an old lady drying wheat; she seemed to know most of them. Her responsibility includes 192 schools across 140 villages. Each village is a steep climb up and down, spread across mountains apread over 1,200 sq. km. How does she know most people in any village?

The school in Baun is a good one, and needs its own telling. The kids at the school also knew her. We were there for two hours, the last 45 minutes with all the teachers together. She let them do the talking, but for briefly praising the principal and the teachers. A couple of times she intervened with precision on an academic matter that came up. She was recording what support the school needed in a well-used diary. She had last visited them on 3 May and had a summary of what had happened on their issues since then.

For many of the matters that came up, she suggested a solution immediately. For example, how to get school uniforms for some children who joined late. We left, as energized as the teachers.

When we were coming out of the village, she walked in to a tea shop at the other edge of the village. Five men were sitting there; they cribbed that the teachers have not got any award from the district administration despite their school being the best in the whole area. Her response closed the conversation, “What can be a bigger award for a school, than five men sitting in a tea shop, demanding an award for the school?"

As the day passed we were in another school in a valley. It became clear quickly that the school was wanting in many ways.

We couldn’t have figured out the cause of the problems in the brief visit. She had a clear understanding. There was chronic squabbling amongst the five teachers. She just tore into them in an even voice. It was awkward, sitting there as she took them methodically through their problems. The intensity of the admonishment was carefully calibrated having set it up in the previous visits. We left the group shaken.

She sat in our car and cleaned the film of dust on the audio system with her dupatta. At 3.30 pm, we got only a stew of instant noodles with onions and tomato for lunch in a small shack at the bend in the river. She had taken charge of the recipe, talking affectionately with the cook. That is what she is like, aware and active, every moment.

After finishing school, she had to move out of the village to Uttarkashi. Then she became a teacher. Her elder sister and a friend, who was an accomplished mountaineer, encouraged her to join a course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. It led to her trying to make the Everest team. She climbed a 23,000 ft peak, then 24,000 ft and then 25,000 ft was enough to get her in the governmen-sponsored team in 1993. She had to abandon her Everest climb at 27,000 ft because of bad weather. When she is tired covering her 192 schools or disheartened by something, she invokes the 27,000 ft and she says, “If you want to work, nothing can stop you, and anyone can do a lot."

Why do you climb a mountain? Because it’s there. Why are you a superwoman? Because that’s the job. Does education really require this kind of effort? It does. So long as we don’t understand that, we won’t climb Everest.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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