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There is much darkness in our world and in the human heart. Schools can help let the light in and help build a world of compassion and empathy. (Photo: Mint)
There is much darkness in our world and in the human heart. Schools can help let the light in and help build a world of compassion and empathy. (Photo: Mint)

Opinion | A tale of two horses and what it tells us about our life and times

Do we want a world in which we abandon the weakest or one where true compassion prevails?

The two horses were standing still on the road in the dark winter morning. I returned after an hour-long run, and they had drifted about 50m. They were still standing still. That was two weeks ago. I went on a week-long trip and returned. They were still there. This was the third time in three years that two horses have appeared on that road near my house.

That afternoon, I went to a house where I had never been before. To meet people I had not met ever. Before I reached the house, my thoughtful host sent me a cautionary text, “We have three dogs." When I reached, two of them threw themselves at me. Hugging and nuzzling me, prancing about at the excitement of seeing me. Their names were Bella and Marx. They seemed to have missed me, as I have missed them. But this was the first time I was meeting these dogs.

Instantaneous communion is the capacity of dogs, not mine. But I have opened myself to this experience in the past three years. Beginning with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy, the four little kittens that adopted our garden. Followed by a bolt of a conversation questioning my implicit assumption about categorical differences between humans and animals. And then the first two horses appeared on the road, in this chain of events. Earlier, animals and I would occupy the same physical space, but their world was closed to me. Because I had kept the doors bolted.

It took a week or so before I registered those first two horses. They would drift slowly within a kilometre on the road, but they remained there. They looked old, which they were. Then I went on a trip to Barmer; it was September.

Most rural government schools in that area are beautiful. In the vastness of the desert, land is not in short supply. Almost all schools have neatly walled campuses, with the buildings clustered on one side, and the rest of it a sandy expanse of playgrounds. They have carefully tended green patches, usually of neem trees, around the buildings. Scores of schools harvest every drop of rain that falls and use it through the year and re-use every drop they can.

The blaze of September in the desert becomes real only when you experience it. I was drenched in sweat sitting inside a classroom. Through the open door and windows, we could see the school gate right across the sandy playground, about 100m away, and beyond up to the high sand dunes. I was sitting at the door to catch the breeze, there was a 14-year-old girl sitting near me. It was class VIII, and they were learning math. It was tough going. He was a language teacher compelled to teach math, since he was the only teacher in the middle school.

The grill gate of the school swung open, pushed by a goat. It was followed by five more goats. The six walked slowly across the playground to the corner with the hand-pump atop the tank with the harvested rainwater. The girl too noticed the goats. In a flash, she was off. With no footwear, she ran across the sand to the hand-pump. She started pumping the water out and drenched her head in the water. Then she continued and the water drained to a small shallow pool. The goats were waiting, they slurped the water. She had to pump more; the goats were not done. The whole thing took about five minutes, and that is when I realized that she had drenched herself to face the afternoon blaze as she tended to the goats. Through these proceedings, the teacher merely glanced out.

After the class, I asked the girl whether the goats were known to her. No, she said. The water is so precious here, you gave so much of it to them. They were thirsty, she replied. But the school will need all the water, wouldn’t it? Whatever we have, we can share; if we don’t take care of them, who will?

I returned home and the horses were still there on the road. Now, I saw them through the eyes of the girl who ran to water the thirsty goats. We tried to find a home for them. With increasing desperation. There would surely be someone or some organization that could take them in? But there was no shelter for two old horses in a city of 10 million people. Then one day, the two vanished. This is what we do to our old horses that have served with devotion and affection, leave them to wander off and die.

What kind of a world do we want? Do we abandon the weakest and those who serve, or, do we share what we have and slake their thirst? Do we return the unconditional love and devotion we receive, or do we turn our backs to both love and suffering?

That day near Barmer, after the girl went away, the teacher said, “Sir, maths nahin padhaa sakte, toh kam se kam pyaar-mohaabat se jeena toh sikhaa sakte hain" (Even if I am not able to teach math, at least I can try to teach them to live with love and compassion).

There is much darkness in our world and in the human heart. Schools can help let the light in and help build a world of compassion and empathy. In this world, we care for all thirsty goats, and the love of Bella and Marx is reciprocated in full, across distance and time. And that of humans too. But if schools talk of bullets and revenge, or, we interrogate our school children on charges of sedition and worse, we are well on the road to perdition.

Those two horses are there on that road, still.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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