1

Thank You Odisha

I have been pushing this post for 5 months now. When I got home from Odisha, there was so much to do as I had come home after a year.Then, Anand and I got busy – first with the  planning and then with the actual travelling- discovering India where we traveled more than 30 different towns and cities.
Yesterday, 1st of April, I saw that it was Utkala Dibasa or Odisha day , it brought back fond memories of the most incredible year in my life. Just as I was reminiscing , I got a call from one of the students to share the news of his admission to a really good school. I just had to write this post.
What a year it was!
There are too many people who made this year the perfect one it was.
Anand was supportive of my decision to go to Odisha and lived all by himself in far off Chicagoland. Both our parents were cool with the  whole idea, and Swat who was suddenly not going to have her hangout buddies made her peace with it too.
SBI Youth for India showed me a path I wouldn’t have dared to take, had it not been for their sound platform and backing.
In Oct 2014, thirteen of us fellows landed in Gram Vikas in Odisha. These guys made me feel like I was back in Suratkal hostel again. Throughout the year, although in different villages, we somehow managed to meet often and built a strong bond.
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The 13 madcaps who went to Gram Vikas

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Nino and Mansi – Created magic in Koinpur and around

My work through the year was in the Gram Vikas school in Kankia village.

The school! What do I say?. As one of the visitors who made just a short visit to the school during my stay said ‘I was here just for 3 days, but I have received more warmth and love than ever before in my life’. The students are gifted and ever-loving. The teachers are selfless and work tirelessly.
Sharing an excerpt from the Abstract of my project report to give you an idea about these children.
‘Bhabani can fix anything you give him. Jasman can build stuff like an engineer. Tilak’s curiosity will leave you speechless. Salim is silent yet brilliant and wants to be a scientist. Sibani is a Kho-Kho champion and also tops her class. Rajesh is ever curious about astronauts and space. Akash loves to read English story books. Biswanath can solve the Rubik’s cube like a pro. Santi wants to be a mechanical engineer. Ten year old Manini plays chess and can beat adults effortlessly. Jyoti and Sana are weightlifting champs winning yeat after year.
The capability of these delightfully talented tribal children , most of them first-generation-learners shocked me beyond belief when I met them. I was lucky enough to spend a year with them. Here’s a brief report of how I spent my fellowship at the Gram Vikas Residential School trying to help these wonderful curious minds get a better platform and exposure, through new and innovative methods of teaching, which opens up an exciting world of learning for them. Today, I hope I leave behind students and teachers who are digitally equipped to embrace the new India, also having cultivated the hunger to learn more every single day. The teachers are excited to take this forward in the years to come.’
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If you’re happy happy happy ….

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Bhima Sabar, the first student studying to be a doctor from Gram Vikas school

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Sushant, class 9 giving a haircut to Srikrishna as his favourite Ananta watches on

I had a great time living with these bright minds, teaching them something and learning so much more from them.

I thoroughly enjoyed my everyday- be it fun with English with the 3rd graders, teaching computers to the teachers and students, making ppts with the headmistress , dancing in the hostel with the girls, watching all the kids perform in the cultural evenings, teaching the students or teachers to make the Va, Sha or Za sounds(Odia doesnt have these sounds-  – finally gave up deciding their accent was cute ), randomly being announced as chief guest on the mic when the actual chief guest bails and making speeches in my broken Odia, learning Odia from the kids, watching animation movies with the kids, watching kids express themselves fearlessly in Kalpanadham(Creative center established by the efforts of Shalini), watching the kids being amazed by various videos which became a part of their e-learning routine, being able to finally make tutorial videos effortlessly in Odia,  eating bhajjis made from freshly harvested veggies in Mili’s backyard, conversations with Joe Sir(founder of Gram Vikas ) which always made me think and gave me new perspective, banter with Jyoti, watching movies with Omm, night outs with the fellows, singing sessions with our rockstars Sid and Nino or chatting non-stop with my roomie Arati and Mili!

 

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Learning through action songs

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Photo : Pranab Kumar Aich/ UN in India

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Learning Math could be fun too!

 

For the first time in my life, work seemed so pleasurable – day in and day out. Not a single day did I feel ‘ Omg what have I gotten into?’. And this wouldn’t have been the same had I not stayed in the school. Having these kids around you all the time really pumps your energy up! If I had just stayed in a village where people are super busy during the day, I doubt I would have enjoyed myself as much.

The enthusiasm and energy with which every festival and every event was celebrated was mindboggling. Pretty much all of the 500 students and all teachers got involved in some way or the other- prep for dance and music programmes, making a really big clay idol if its a Hindu festival, decorating the entire school, fetching bamboo and building the stage, helping with the cooking , cleaning – well, sooo many things! And then the actual celebration- complete with song , dance, feast, bhajans – whatever the occasion demanded. The high school kids would take complete leadership and ownership and even spend some sleepless nights so that its all set to perfection, the younger ones would do smaller jobs like collect leaves and flowers for decoration.
Children building the stage

Children building the stage from scratch

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The entire set up including the big Ganesha idol was made from scratch by the students

 

My parents who were worried about me living in a far off village were more than just relieved when they visited – they loved the place and the kids!
Whenever I needed any help for my work , I did not even have to look beyond friends and family – all of you supported me. Be it with the sets of books for the libraries, English teaching material, the Math kits for all the Gram Vikas schools, the headphones for the knowledge center, printing the hand-illustrated computer books(made by the kids) and tutorial videos, the generous supplies for art in Kalpanadham, ideas for the knowledge center ( which finally went to on to be a super success) or board games for the hostels- I always had support.
Odia folk on twitter especially were also very supportive – getting a laptop from a stranger (all the way in Chennai) who was looking to help, was icing on the cake and the laptop is being used by teachers regularly now.
Thank you Akshara foundation, IDEK, Pratham books, Amar chitra katha, Genki English and so many others whose teaching material we used successfully in school.
Thank you Seshi mama, Suman, Supriya, Nagamani, Girish, Nirmal, Anisha, Stallone, Anjali, Sandesh, Nihar, BbsrBuzz, Anand, Swat, Reeja, Khyati, Ramya, Raghu, Navu, Appa, Amma, Swat, Anand for helping and supporting through the year.
Thank you Mili, Arati, Geeta di, Urmila di, Jyoti, Joe Sir, all the students and teachers and so many more people.
Thank you Srikrishna, Mansi , Nino, Varun, Shalini, PV, Sanjay, Mrigs, Sid, Souvik for all the good times.
Thank you Geeta ma’am, Shuvajit and Sadaf for running the YFI programme so diligently and passionately!
Sincere apologies, I know I am missing some names
More than anybody else I think I have to thank Mili , younger than me – but behaved like my mommy taking care of me, ensuring I had my meals and being there for me always.
Mili

Mili.

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The kids who made the computer book

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Watching videos in the knowledge center

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Cover page by Jasman, Class V made using MS Paint

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Cover page by Hrushi, Class V made using MS Paint

Like the happiness quotient wasn’t high enough , to add to it,  Odisha is such a beautiful place!

The Gram Vikas campus was so beautiful , the hills around the school made it just perfect.

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Paddy fields next to the school

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What a location for a playground eh?

The sky was so different and beautiful every single day – I could never pick a favourite!
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Lake on Gram Vikas campus

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A house in the heritage art village of Raghurajpura- a must visit in Odisha

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Simply cannot miss – the original Rasagulla at Pahala – DIVINE

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Looking back, the year spent in Odisha has definitely been more than just a life changing experience for me, and I am not saying it just like that. I am short of words to describe what it means to me. It has changed my perspectives in so many ways and taught me so much ; as clichéd as it may sound – It did really teach me to appreciate life and the small joys it has to offer.
I just want to say – THANK YOU ODISHA.
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PS: Apologies for repetition of pics in the blog as the laptop which had all my pics is currently gone for repair and I can’t access them 😦
12

Chicago Vs. Mohuda

We were asked yesterday by the Youth for India team to share what we thought was the most enjoyable aspect of the fellowship. That got me thinking. It was difficult to choose one thing.
My thoughts went to two weeks ago when I visited home for Anand’s cousin’s wedding . Like at any family gathering, I met a lot of new people – all curious to know who I was and what I did. While some appreciated that I was doing this fellowship, most showed sympathy- “Oh so sad, you are in a village while your husband is in America.” Some even went to the extent of saying “Paapa, don’t worry you will also get your visa soon and you can go.”

Man! How perceptions could be so far away from the truth.

Most people seem to think I have given up comforts and am living a tough life in the village. I was thinking about it and realized, never before have I felt so much at peace. (Or perhaps I did during my engineering days when I was again on a beautiful campus in Suratkal away from the city. We always called that a four year vacation.)

Anyway, this year here is something even more special, it’s not just peaceful, and it gives me joy I had never experienced. The simple reason – the PEOPLE. I cannot believe such simple people even exist- people who work selflessly, people who love unconditionally, people who have little wants and who haven’t forgotten how to enjoy simple pleasures of life. These are people at the NGO, people in the villages, the teachers in the school and most of all – the kids. What pleasure it is to just listen to the kids, watch them, teach them, learn from them. I don’t know if I am making any difference to them, but I surely am learning a lot from them.

These kids are truly champs, they do so many things you and I would never have thought of doing as kids. Sing, dance, play,draw,paint, win medals,set up grand puja pandals, give haircuts to each other, share, fix stuff, do carpentry work, make clay idols, ask questions, organize events, grow vegetables, take care of each other, teach each other, show unconditional love and of course learn!
I couldn’t believe it when they had to build the stage for the annual day function – they went to the woods, chopped bamboo, built the entire set up from scratch and decorated it really well too !

A friend recently asked me –
Why are you doing this now? Shouldn’t you be doing this after 40 or 50?
Shouldn’t you live the fast life of the city at this age?

I thought about what constituted my ‘fast city life’ not so long ago. Leaving for work at 6 am ,Spending 3 hours on commute everyday, excel spreadsheets, ppts, meeting requests, deadlines. Going to 1522 for a beer over the weekend was the only solace. Now, I don’t have to wait for the weekend to have a good time 🙂 and work doesn’t seem like work any more!

Of course, the decision to choose this wasn’t an easy one to make. I am lucky to have had the support of a family who allowed me to choose this.
I feel guilty though that Anand is slogging day and night for his client out there and I am living a carefree, peaceful life here.

It would be perfect though if he would just be here too 😀 What say, Anand?

Children building the stage

Children building the stage

The stage post decoration

The stage post decoration

Tipan and Diktan give each other these funky haircuts

Tipan and Diktan give each other these funky haircuts

'I love my spikes'

‘I love my spikes’

Saraswati idol - Work in Progress

Saraswati idol – Work in Progress

Saraswati Idol made from scratch

Saraswati Idol made from scratch

Just happy to be clicked

Just happy to be clicked

Namita di, the sweetest on GramVikas campus

Namita di, the sweetest on GramVikas campus

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Let’s make reading more fun

It was Library period for Class V. The kids rushed to the library to collect their books. Every library period, they get one book that they can keep for a week. The person in charge of the library usually distributes the books in the order of serial numbers. I happened to notice Santosh in the line. He kept sending other kids ahead and falling behind in the line. When he finally got to the front, he again went back two places. That’s when I noticed; he was waiting for a particular book in that stack of books, because it was the only one with colorful pictures in it.

When it was his turn, he finally got the book he waited for. Boy did he look excited!

That was when I realised that most of the books in the library were text-heavy, with few or no images; they were mostly books on history, science, etc. It is so important for books to be attractive to encourage little kids to read them. I remember my cousins and I read Panchatantra stories, fairy tales and Tinkle and Archies comics at that age!

I decided that I must get a few story books in English, with simple sentences and attractive images. This would also help them learn English better. I bought a few books- Jataka Tales, Grandma’s stories, Akbar Birbal stories – all single page stories with simple sentences.
I found Santosh and handed over a book to him.
To my surprise, he said “Bhuji naa didi.” “I can’t understand didi.” And he didn’t even take the book!

My experience with the class VI students was slightly better. They did take the books from me but returned them without reading them. I found that they were able to read comfortably, but without understanding a word.
I then gave them a dictionary and asked them to use it whenever they didn’t get the meaning of a word. I thought I made it simple for them. I was so wrong. They had no clue on how to use the dictionary! They had to leaf through the entire book for a word. Sigh.

So I spent that period teaching them how to use the dictionary. They were really excited. We even decided to have a competition – Fastest Finder First – in the next class, so they get quicker in finding a word.
Overall, across classes, I find that there is an interest to read. I am so happy that they want to read. Using a dictionary always is not the answer.

Pratham books has a good solution in the form of bilingual books in English-Odia. They are lovely books and priced low so that every child can afford and enjoy them. I am considering getting these books for the school. When I just happened mention this to the kids, they were elated!
Now, I can’t wait to see them read these story books!

If any of you are interested in contributing to buying these books, please write to me at sunayanamc[at]gmail[dot]com

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The Classroom Conundrum

Happy Class IV kids

Happy Class IV kids

It has been a while since I blogged. The reason is this. Everyday, I go to school –  I learn, understand or realize something new. I come back and pen it down. The very next day, my thoughts about the same thing change completely and I am in a totally new direction of thinking!

I write in this post one such example.

So, I am teaching spoken English in the Gram Vikas school at Kankia village. I started this after I saw that the kids here could read and write in English but couldn’t speak or understand a word when spoken to. However, I am in constant dilemma wondering why it’s important for these tribal kids to be able to speak English. A language is just a medium of communication and learning Odia or their tribal dialect should be enough. I felt that I was considering doing something totally useless and trying to drag them into ‘mainstream’ without putting any thought into it. I wrote about it.

Soon, I meet an ex student of the school – Bhima Sabar who is currently pursuing MBBS(a post about him later) – the only student from this school so far who has started studying medicine. When I called him to check if I could meet him, I was struggling with broken Odia and Hindi, and to my surprise, he said he would be more comfortable speaking English. Even Class X kids in our school who have decently tough lessons in their English text book cannot manage beyond a What is your name or How are you?  and this guy here was conversing in very good English!

I later learnt that his MBBS course is completely in English and luckily he managed to learn some English in college (XI and XII) before MBBS since he went to a college where speaking English was mandatory.

He says if he hadn’t done that, he really would have struggled with his medical course.

I came back home and deleted my previous post.

I realized that just like Skill based training like masonry or tailoring gives people opportunities that they didn’t have earlier, learning English could also open up avenues for them which they didn’t already have.

I am not saying the confusion in my mind is resolved, but am glad there is truly some unlearning, learning, relearning everyday and the cycle goes on.