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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 😦
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The truly unsung heroes

I am back in Odisha after a short vacation in Bangalore, the school was closed for summer holidays. Before I left for home, during the holidays, we had organized a week’s training for the teachers of all the Gram Vikas schools. It was designed to train them on using computers and use e-learning material in their everyday lessons as a first step towards keeping up with the rest out of the world where toddlers hold tablets and computer classes start at kindergarten.

What I realized was that I always spoke about the students in the blog and seldom about the teachers.

Teachers from Gram Vikas schools mostly come from small towns or villages and modest backgrounds. All our schools being residential schools, teachers are more than just teachers. They play the role of a parent, teacher, guide, mentor, warden, administrator, accountant, just about everything. A look at the schedule of the school will give you an idea of a day in the life of these teachers.

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The rigorous daily schedule at the school

Wake up in the morning before the students, make sure they are up, campus cleaning, drill, morning classes, breakfast, classes, lunch, post lunch classes, farming, yoga, prayers, evening classes, dinner, health checks, sleep. And when I say lunch, dinner, its not just eating lunch or taking a break- they have to manage the whole process and its no joke when there are 500 students in the school! The teachers also have to prepare for their classes, take care of accounts, prepare teaching material, organize events, procure material for the school – be it for the mess, stationery, to fix a tap or clean the water tank.

I am amazed at their energy and how they have been at it for such a long time now- some teachers have been around for 25 years now and counting! When I stay in the school, I am exhausted by the end of the day as I find it impossible to keep up with the pace at which these people work.  Now that I am planning to shift to the school to stay, I hope to learn a thing or two from these teachers.

So, when we were requested to help with training these teachers, we wanted to make sure they took a break and had a good time while they also learnt something. We’re no experts at teaching, our training programme included mostly what we could help them with- basic computers, internet, using e-learning, teaching English, the newly procured Math kit and the best of all – team building fun activities.

It was awesome to see these teachers participate with great enthusiasm in everything we did- be it dance or sing or do a computer quiz.  We even had a small trip to the nearby beach and spent an hour there and that was enough for them to have a ball – that is the only excursion they had for the entire year!

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Teachers learning to use the newly introduced Math Teaching Learning Material (TLM)

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Learning to use a computer in the new computer lab

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Our super enthu teachers with Nino

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Trip to Gopalpur beach

Having visited the villages where our students come from, I know the difference these teachers have made to these students; pretty much completely transformed their lives from what it would have been otherwise. If not the teachers, who could one give credit to, for all students of a rural tribal school passing class ten with flying colors?

A few years ago, once the govt started opening schools in all villages, Gram Vikas closed its non-residential day schools that were opened in all the project villages. However, students would not let them close one such school at Gatida as the teacher there was so good- loving, fun and simply exemplary at teaching.  The students come from villages as far as 6-8 kms  just for this teacher, through hills and streams on foot.

I was lucky enough to meet this teacher, Bhagya didi and fell in love with her!

The adorable Bhagya didi

The adorable Bhagya didi

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Mili, the sweetest teacher in my school

Oh I am just blissful that I have been able to work with these wonderful, loving and simple people.

They are truly champions!

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When appa, amma and doddi decided to visit me

It has been a long time since I wrote a post, really long. I had started writing this one about a month ago. I left it mid-way as my access of internet has been very intermittent. But that’s no excuse really!

I realized I was not doing justice to my poor blog where I was to capture all my experiences. So, I sat and completed the post I had started. Here goes..

Swat wrote a post about her experience home alone for 15 days while my parents traveled in the East of India . What she did not mention is that they also visited me! Yayyy 🙂

Appa, Amma and Doddi visited me in Odisha and we had so much fun, I wish they never left 😐

The first two days , we visited Bhubaneswar,  visited the sweet Kittu tatha and his wife (Amma and doddi were meeting them after 40 years or more! ), enjoyed the best rasagullas in the most unexpected places, shopped till appa’s wallet was empty at the colorful Peepli, loved the beautiful Konark temple ruins and managed a hello to Puri Jagannath too.

The colorful Peepli- Image courtesy : Indianholiday.com

The colorful Peepli- Image courtesy : Indianholiday.com

When I got free pearls in exchange for speaking in Odia :D

When I got free pearls in exchange for speaking in Odia 😀

(Did you know? Rasagullas are originally from Odisha and not from West Bengal B-) ! I had my doubts about it, but having consumed the best rasagullas ever in a non descript restaurant in Bhubaneswar, I have no doubt about it now 🙂 )

After two days of visiting touristy places, we finally headed to Barhampur, the closest town to my village, Mohuda. Appa,amma and doddi got a taste of how most of India travels, with at least 25 people squeezed in, in a compartment meant for 8! Luckily though it was a short ride and being the nice people they are, they didn’t complain at all 🙂

After the 3 hour train ride and a an hour’s ride in our good old Marshal, finally we were home. I was so happy I could finally show off my cosy little home to them. They were more excited than I was!

Appa being appa got to fixing things as soon as he arrived! Within the first hour, my ventilator through which Musa (Odia for mouse) was visiting us was fixed. Within a day, my shower which never worked was fixed, my cycle which was as noisy as a motorbike was fixed, and my garden got a makeover!

Appa rescuing the jasmine

 

Some rest after all the cooking, cleaning, gardening and fixing

Some rest after all the cooking, cleaning, gardening and fixing

Amma and doddi were so excited to see the neem and mango trees that mavinkai gojju and mavinkai uppinkai were ready in no time! Neem leaves and flowers were procured and packed for Ugadi which happened to fall on the day they would be back in Bangalore.

They loved the campus and our little home , but what they loved the most was my warm and welcoming kids at school!

Appa was all prepared for engaging the children at school. He had brought with him a Buddhist prayer wheel that rotated- powered by solar energy and a simple parachute that could be launched from the ground. Appa was elated when the class VI kids (my favourite class 😛 ) explained the working of the prayer wheel upon seeing and examining it B-) .

They loved listening to the kids sing, dance and ask them numerous questions.

Class IV 'Happy' kids

Class IV HAPPY kids

 

At home with Shalini, Zo, Souvik, Siddharth, Srikrishna

My favourite class VI

My favourite class VI

My daddy strongest

My daddy strongest

 

Gram Vikas Mohuda office

Gram Vikas Mohuda office

 

Of course, we didn’t miss an opportunity to shop again at Barhampur where cotton sarees where purchased by the dozens!

What fun it was ! Their visit made me re-realize how kickass, chilled out and fun our family is. Such happy and warm people!

It was also a relief that they were more than happy with where I live, the people I work with and loved the school .

Thank you Appa, Amma and Doddi, you guys can brighten up any place!

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Kemiti Achanti?

One of the fears I had before coming to Odisha was about dealing with the language barrier. “How would I be able to work with people if I cannot speak their language?” I thought. The YFI team consoled us that the NGO folks would help us interact with the communities. I still wasn’t convinced. Tanay , a friend who is from Odisha had even offered to teach me Odia in exchange for authentic south Indian lunch, But I found no time to do it before leaving Bangalore. 😦

Once I got here, I realized that most people in the rural regions here do not understand or speak Hindi. In a typical hamlet, there could be 2-3 people, who might understand and speak Hindi because they migrate to other states periodically for work and pick up some Hindi. However, most people speak only Odia.

One option for working with the community was to work with interpreters – those villagers who could speak Hindi. Of course, there was a fear of not even knowing how much would be lost in translation. And what about that personal connection we wanted to establish with people?

In the school, the story was the same; a few kids in class, who probably watched more TV, knew a bit of Hindi and helped translate. English, of course, was almost out of question as I have mentioned in my earlier posts.
Soon, I started picking up some Odia by listening to people around me. Also, while teaching at the school, I would speak in English/Hindi and the kids in turn would tell me the Odia translation. The learning process was still slow.

Then I saw that Mansi, Ninoshka and Varun – three awesome fellow-fellows, who work in another school of Gram Vikas, had started learning to read and write Odia. Whoa!

I could barely manage to speak and understand tikke tikke Odia (little little Odia), while these kids (ok all 20 somethings are kids are according to me 🙂 ) were easily managing reading, writing and speaking Odia! I was astounded and really proud of them. They even coolly gave speeches at the school and the village communities in Odia!

Mansi writing Odia

Mansi writing Odia


My writing

My writing

Mansi's writing

Mansi’s writing

And what do you know, I was all inspired to learn to read and write Odia myself.
I borrowed a book from a Class III student at school and started learning to write. I can now manage to read and write a bit. I hope to be able to speak fluently in the near future.

There is always joy in learning a new language. Sometimes it’s an unconscious process, like how you just pick up the language your neighbours speak – Swat speaks fluent Marathi and Konkani and I can manage to speak a bit and understand most of it. Some other times though, when time is less and it’s a necessity, you have to make an effort to learn it. I guess an HR job wasn’t attractive enough for me to learn Dutch while in Amsterdam; but being able to interact comfortably with the kids here definitely is a huge incentive to learn Odia.

And Odia is such a beautiful language!
I love how proper Sanskrit words are part of the colloquial vocabulary. Imagine using kintu for but, asuvidha for problem, vartaman for now. I only remember listening to such words in the Ramayan or Mahabharat TV serials. I feel scholarly when I use such words.

A lot of the vocabulary is also similar to Hindi, the Aa sound becomes o or aw. Like Ghar is pronounced Ghawro, Rama as Rawmo. I was quite amused when I realised Ponda Babu is actually Panda and not Ponda! So if you know any Odia person with Panda as surname call him Ponda next time you meet him 🙂

I’m loving every bit of it.

Until next time. Asuchi.

Kemiti Achanti (pronounced Achonti) is How are you ?
Asuchi is used while saying bye- similar to Bartheeni in Kannada or Poyittu Varein in Tamil