The pride of the crimson tilak on his forehead did not determine his demeanour. His posture, voice and words were all courteous to a fault. But the tilak and his name revealed his identity. We will let him remain nameless; he would want it so. He was waiting at the gate of the school to welcome us, having seen us walk down the mountain path from the road where we had parked the car. We had no plans to visit his school; we had chanced upon it.

Even the scorching summer of an Indian May fails to reach the mountains beyond a certain altitude. And the winter at those heights freezes everything, including schools. So, schools at that height, and beyond, have a short summer break but no vacation; the winter vacation is long. We had been driving around, looking for such a school. We made one wrong call, reaching a school amid a thicket of pine trees that was shut for the summer. We drove further up through the forest, hunting for one that was open.

He was the principal of that government upper primary school, which had 125 students, across classes I to VIII. For the sparse population of the mountains, that is a big school. After the brief welcome, he led me to the classes. We entered class VI and without a preamble, he asked a girl to get up and start reciting the periodic table. She went half way through it before stumbling. He asked a boy to take over, who completed the task without pause. We moved to class VII, with a repetition of the performance by a couple of students. As we walked from class VII to VIII, I noticed the periodic table painted on the wall, a marker of a curious obsession I thought.

But I noticed something else. On the right, down the steep slope, on another level, there was a half basketball court. In such terrain, I had never seen a basketball court. I asked him about it. He said: “Well, it’s a good game, and we can’t have a football field here, so I put in my money and got some from the villagers and got the court made. The kids love it." And then he shared his view on the importance of sports in schools and the ease with which activities can be organized, if teachers take initiative. By the time we finished in class VIII, a game was on at the court. With over 20 children in that half court, it was more rugby than basketball. With a steep slope on two sides of the court, it was a wonder that the ball remained in play.

We went to a room full of things that the students had made. None of it was the "projects" that every second school in the country displays—these were unusual. There was a shear to cut branches from a three-foot distance. Another contraption to pluck wild berries. A beautiful 12-inch-high tree made from wound copper wire, and more. Each of these things was the result of thoughtful attempts at solving some problem that was encountered locally, with local material. Some, like the tree, were beautiful demonstrations of a students’ artistic capacity.

He then asked me to speak to all the students of classes VI to VIII. I did not want to disturb the classes, but he argued that classes happen every day, while a visitor to this distant school is very rare.

Over 50 students were collected in one room. We needed no time to thaw, the conversation got going from the start. Soon I asked what I always do with this age group—was there inequity and discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, or class, in their villages? The first set of responses were denials, as it always is. But unusually, unprompted by me, this first set was cut off quickly. In a firm voice, a little girl narrated an episode of discriminatory treatment at the local shop based on caste. A boy talked about designated and separated places for eating at village functions. Another boy described stark discrimination in the allocation of work during community efforts. A girl had a very precise description of social expectations from girls vis-à-vis boys. Child after child had a story.

He did not say a word during this conversation. He sat at the back of the class, looking content. It was clear that he had fostered the consciousness and candour on these most sensitive of issues, which most schools would never talk about, let alone confront.

So, I asked the kids, what should be done? The kids talked about persuading their parents and relatives. They talked about changing the world. And then another little girl got up and said: “First, we have to change ourselves. All this is within us, too, right here. If we change, then we can change the world." He still sat quiet. There was no reason to speak. The fire he has lit, blazes in the children.

He insisted that he will climb up to the road to see us off. At the car, I reached out to shake his hand in farewell. He clasped my hand in both his. Eyes teared-up, he said: “Kuchh to kariye iss desh ke liye (please do something about this country)." Holding on to my hand, he said it three times.

What broke in a man who has the spirit to fire that blaze? And, why with me? Perhaps in my questions he saw a kindred spirit. On that lonely mountain top, the battle that he wages is even lonelier. He has not left me with the burden of his hopes, but with the privilege of his solidarity. Whatever happens, I will not leave the hands that have clasped mine.

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

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