A new battle in Talikota

A community is known by its school. The Talikota school was a free-for-all space with little concern for education

The ruins of Hampi are haunting. Among impossibly balanced giant boulders, with intermittent lush paddy fields, and the quietly flowing Tungabhadra, they soak you in a sense of the impossible having happened there. Hampi was the seat of the Vijayanagara Empire.

The definitive date for the end of this empire is 26 January 1565. That day, the empire’s armies were defeated by an army of the coalition of its neighbouring sultanates in the Battle of Talikota, about 180km from Hampi. Like every such battle marking a watershed in history, there are claims and counterclaims about what happened on that fateful day. What is not disputed is that the Battle of Talikota marked the end of something remarkable.

Today Talikota has no marker for this important role it played in Indian history. No memorial, no ruin, just vast rolling plains around a town that’s completely like any other small town in India. But memories can’t be erased, even after 500 years. All conversations with outsiders invoke the battle. And so it was with Ameensab Mehboobsab Nazkatti, the head teacher of the government elementary school in Talikota town. He started with the battle, but moved quickly to responding to our question. He told us his story.

In early 2015, he requested a transfer to this school. He wanted the transfer, not because it reduced his commute or some such convenience, but because he had studied in that school himself. The school was established in 1876, and had a rich history of having been a key educational institution of that area. But over the past decade, it had decayed. Teaching-learning had declined to virtually zero, and worse, it had become a den for the local heavies. Fisticuffs inside the school were a usual sight, so were bottles of liquor and heaps of stinking trash.

He could not bear to watch the school that made him what he was and many more like him, descend to this abyss. He had four years of service left before retirement, and so he asked for a transfer to try and improve the situation as his last assignment.

After moving in, he realized that the underlying dynamics were far more complex than he had anticipated. The school was a free-for-all, both as a physical and social space, with no concern for education. Its decrepit physical infrastructure, reflected its culture. It had really and metaphorically become a pigsty.

After observing the situation for a while, he gathered the local community leaders, cutting across political and caste affiliations. This is much easier said than done; it required enormous tenacity. Once he had got them, the question he asked them was whether they wanted the image of their community to be what the school portrayed. The ways of the school were well known in that area. His point was simple—a community is known by the school it runs.

No one was unmoved. The reasons varied from genuine feeling to hurt pride, but they did want to do something. After a few discussions, this group concluded that to change matters, they had to involve some of the younger leaders who moved in the same circles as those who were involved in the problems in the school. Once this was done, the action on the ground started. The School Development and Management Committee played a key role. One track was about protecting and isolating the school from outsiders, and the other was about building greater community ownership.

The early moves were enough for the teachers to go to school regularly and teach. Some got the message, and some got the courage they needed. The community helped in cleaning up the place, then they contributed money to build a six-foot-high boundary wall. Many other things were done and it culminated in a grand cultural programme that the students put up for the community. Everyone swelled with pride at the work of their children.

As we walked about the school, the lady in her mid-fifties who cooks the mid-day meal stopped us. She said that she prays morning and evening for Nazkatti, so that he stays in the school for many more years. Tears streaming down her face, she narrated how the goons would beat her up and how happy she is now.

After bringing order to the school, the head teacher is now on to next steps. He is committed to improving learning in the three years that he has left. He is working with the teachers for this, and with the community, which has contributed to better equip the school and to start an informal pre-school in one of the empty rooms.

After many years, student enrolment has gone up now from 170 to 230.

It would have been better if India did not need heroes, but it does. Fortunately we have many—one of them has a slight build, wispy grey hair and faded white apparel, all belying the battle that he is waging in Talikota today. Unlike 1565, this time, it is the beginning of something remarkable.

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

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