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It was a still, cool evening. The clear sky was awash with the orange of dusk deepening into hues of red. From the top of the ghat, the Narmada held perfectly still. A lone boatman stood erect on an unmoving canoe much like a statue in the middle of the river. The azaan wafting from a distance melded into the quiet. A minute after the azaan stopped, a gentle kirtan started in the temple a short distance away. In the school on top of the ghat, a large classroom was dimly lit by a single lamp. A group of teachers sat discussing the hippocampus and its role in learning.

Narmada, the giver of pleasure, the eternal river of sustenance, holds multitudes. There was nothing incongruous about the still evening beauty, the religious range, and the quest for knowledge flowing into one another on the ghat in Mandleshwar. But in the multitude that the river holds, not all is quiet and serene. It also holds the turmoil of the dammed development, the epicentre of which has been Barwani, not far from here. It holds more. One could hardly do better than to read Hartosh Singh Bal’s remarkable book, Waters Close Over U: A Journey Along The Narmada, to understand how this river permeates everything in that land.

Next morning the teachers at the government elementary school in Bediyaw, wrapped up the morning assembly quickly. It was already hot out in the sun at 10.30am. The assembly finished with all the students chanting in unison, “Narmada hare hare." Everyone there owes everything to the river so it is fitting to end the assembly by thanking the river every day, the teachers explained to us.

This school and the village are an amusing study in how to find practical workarounds our outdated and often impractical governance systems. While Bediyaw is one village, the historical local revenue records show three villages. This implies that over time, three schools were sanctioned and built. But the residents built each “new school" around the same playground. So, in effect they built and expanded one school. On record there are three villages, but in reality there is one. On record there are three schools when actually there is one.

This works because the teachers who are posted to the three different schools laugh away the formal separation and run the school as one. The primary classes (I-V), where we spent time, had an unusually confident group of students. They did not hesitate in the slightest in engaging in a sweeping conversation with us and their teacher. They played a game trying to guess my name and where I came from. Then we talked about eating habits in Kerala, which is where Anish (my colleague) is from. They were fascinated by the importance of fish in Kerala cuisine. It soon became a discussion about who among them ate fish and if not, why not. That led to a discussion about gender equity. A few stating clearly why they thought girls and boys were not equal, and then listening intently to a description of how women were flying fighter jets.

Having heard about it before, I asked whose parents had studied in the same school. One of them cleverly riffed on my question. The Hindi word for “studied" is “padhe", which can be made to sound like “pade", meaning lying around. He said, “None of our parents are lying around, they are all working hard," and that got many of the children rolling and laughing uncontrollably. It’s a happy school.

The partnership between the two primary-class teachers, the 26-year-old Piyush Trivedi and Santosh Patidar, who has been teaching at the school for 26 years, appeared to be the source of this energy in the school. Like many good teachers that I meet, they exercise the creative freedom that is inherent in a teacher’s role, while remaining committed to some core educational principles.

They have designed the school time-table such that every day ends with a common activity for all students, not feeling constrained by any externally determined schedule. They gave a fascinating description of how they conduct activity-based-learning (a pedagogical approach), using the local language. Patidar narrated an incident of how one official was taken aback by this approach of theirs, and then kept quoting them as an example of how to be responsive to local reality, and not become rigid.

Twenty-six years is a long time to be teaching in the same school. Yet rather than burden or fatigue, Patidar’s demeanour reflects satisfaction and commitment. The satisfaction is about how the village has changed for the better in many ways, including a dramatic reduction in alcoholism, and the fact that most of the schools’ alumni have stable, adequate livelihoods.

That evening, teachers gathered to discuss some exceptionally good books on education. I had to leave early, the discussion went on well past 8pm. These groups of teachers meet regularly to learn, so that they can teach better. No one has asked them to do this. They do it of their own will. It takes time and dedication to make a difference. But life on the banks of the Narmada has a sense of perspective.

Twenty-six years is a long time to be doing anything. But when lived with purpose, the years are enough to change the world, at least a small bit. Teachers changing the world bit by bit need all the help and support they can get. Many go on, on their own, fired from within. Much like a quiet, eternal river that flows on, holding multitudes.

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 othersphere@livemint.com. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere

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