The lockdown initiative of a single teacher inspired scores of others to take education to kids’ homes
Three pups were prancing in the fine dust of the ruins of the highway. I saw them from the car, as we sped away. I did nothing for them but worry, and that spot was etched in my mind. Perhaps because that was the first time I remember being really concerned for dogs. That was a while ago. Last week at the same spot, there was another pup, holding in its jaw a struggling snake near its head.
A few kilometres south, off the highway, the rural roads are much better. The lane narrowed as we reached the village, and we had to stop the car and walk. The weathered bricks had blackened, all walls looked the same. The house we entered was not one, but a cluster of homes for a large joint family, arranged around a large courtyard. At the centre was a manual hay thresher. Two women entered the courtyard ahead of us. They walked to the veranda-like front of one of the homes, where 21 children sat in a circle around their teacher. The dress and demeanour of the two said that they were not from the house; three women from the house stood near that veranda, and three more watched from a distance.
The two spoke aggressively with the kids. The teacher didn’t pay attention. Soon their irate voices were directed at her. It took me a few moments to grasp that the two women were from some other school and were claiming a few of the kids as their students. The teacher continued to teach; the six women of the house kept looking on. The two turned around and left. The teaching went on, and the women of the house dispersed.
Ten minutes later, the two women came back, accompanied by a man. The women of the house also returned to their posts. The man led a verbal assault on the teacher. She sat unruffled. After a couple of minutes, all she said was, “Aap ko problem hai toh unke parents se baat kariye," if you have a problem, talk to their parents. The harangue continued, while she carried on with her work.
“Woh April se aake padhhati hain, roz, jabse school bund huain hain. Tum log kahaan thhe?" She has been teaching every day since April, when the schools closed; where have you been? It was one of the women of the house watching the drama. No rancour in her voice, only feisty amusement. “Tumhare pradesh mein toh kuchh hota nahin, hamaare yahaan hota hai toh jalte ho," nothing works in your state, and you are jealous that things work in ours. The man and women left without another word.
The village straddles two states. Each state has its own government primary school in its part of the village. The unruffled teacher from the school of one of the states started visiting the village in April, a few days after the lockdown started. Providing rations to families in need, and teaching groups of children in homes. She knew that her students needed all the support she could offer. Over time, this became more organized; she would teach all the students, every day, in open spaces like that veranda. No one had asked her to do this.
An equally committed officer, heard of her, went and saw what was going on, and then worked with other teachers in that area to do the same. That small territory has over 150 teachers who have been similarly engaged with their students, and another 200 with somewhat less intensity. One result of the effort of that teacher has been that parents have started moving their children from the other state’s school to hers. In much of that area, the state border criss-crosses towns and villages. In everyday life, it is invisible, but differences in public services and other things make it obvious anywhere you cross it. While undesirable, this peculiar microcosm holds many extremes of our country. This district lives the diversity of India, beyond mere border-determined differences.
The next day during my run, I saw an elderly Sikh man trying to balance his cycle carrying two large haystacks. The cycle’s chain was broken. We chatted as I helped him push the cycle to the nearest repair shop. He is a farmer with 4 acres of land and is over 70 years old. His family were refugees of Partition. He is grateful to that land for accepting them, even now. One way he has reciprocated is by helping Bengali families settle in that area when many fled their homes after the 1971 war. The demography tells the story: this district has an 8% Bengali and a 10% Sikh population, while 22% are Muslim. It has large industries run some of India’s biggest companies, and thousands of small-scale ones. Vast farmlands with small land holdings separate its industrial belts. The alluvial plains are fed by rapid flowing rivers, and which rise up to become gorgeous mountains.
All in that one district, from east to west, a thin ribbon of land, the palimpsest that India is, in miniature. It is proof positive of the possibility of India. It is possible to live together with solidarity. Not perfectly, but possible. The worst in us can be held in check by the good within us. Public education too can work, even in the most trying of circumstances. And much else.
We stopped our car. In moments, it was clear that the pup was in no danger, having squeezed the life out of the poor serpent. I see that spot every year. The dust is as fine and the highway as broken, after all these years. I love going there, to witness the layer upon layer of life and reverie inscribed on the land, and to find myself truly with her.