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 😦
3

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!

5

Bridging the gap

A couple of days ago, we visited four villages around our school, riding through lovely mountains and valleys. What an amazing experience it was!

When Debendra Sir said, Kya ghati pe gaadi chalaa loge? We gave him a resounding, “yeah of course”. Little did we know that he meant kaccha stone-laden paths carved through mountains with several streams in between! Our poor new Activa-i made for city roads didn’t let us down though. Shalini rode it like a dirtbiker. And Bhagwanji’s splendor galloped only a couple of times 😛

We remembered to click a selfie only at the last kutti stream

We remembered to click a selfie only at the last kutti stream

So let me tell you why we went to these villages. Every year, the Gram Vikas School identifies students for admission to class III for the new academic year. (School starts from class III since it’s a residential school and younger kids may not be independent enough to live by themselves.) We first have a bridge course for three months for the children to bring them up to speed to class III. Those who are not yet ready for class III or are not able to take care of themselves, go back home after the bridge course and may come back the following year. For the final admission to school, the school gives preference to orphans, girl child, poorest of poor and first schooler from the family, in that order.

Lingaraj Sir with the kids at Bethajhari village

Lingaraj Sir with the kids at Bethajhari village

In their villages, these children are usually enrolled in the Government schools. The condition of government schools in these remote villages is appalling, and I don’t mean the building – most villages, even hamlets have at least a school building thanks to the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan.

So most schools have one or more of the below challenges
• The teacher is like visiting faculty we had in colleges, comes once in two months since the village is usually remote and difficult to access like I had mentioned in my post here
• Teacher is regular, but parents don’t care about education and don’t let the children go to school
• Children stay back at home to help their parents on the field or shop or at home
• Students come to school just for the free mid day meal and run home post that
• Students do come to school, but the learning levels are very very low
• School building used for storage and other purposes, neither teacher nor the village cares about the children learning

So even when they have the opportunity to send their children to a full-time residential school like Gram Vikas’, not every parent is keen, as they do not value education.

Like Debendra Sir pointed out, “a lot of these people in the villages are more economically sound than me, but they do not know the importance of education.” Rather unfortunate state of things, don’t you think?

When I saw children in these villages, I could not believe that the students currently in class III at the Gram Vikas school were actually like these kids hiding behind their parents just a year before. I could see a world of difference between the two! The kind of change that the school is able to bring about is heartwarming and it was quite overwhelming to be able to actually see it.

Something else that amazed me is how Gram Vikas has reached these remote tribal villages and ensured they have water and sanitation and dignified houses.Mind you, the mud paths we used didn’t exist before and the field staff walked 30-50 km to reach villages.These were just four of villages that we visited; other teachers will be visiting other villages to identify and coax parents to send the children to our school.

I am so glad I got to visit these villages , helps understand the roots of the children better.
I really look forward to seeing these new little boys and girls come to the school next month.Exciting months ahead! Tra la la la la 🙂

The very picturesque Sarakata village surrounded by mountains on all sides

The very picturesque Sarakata village

 

Pretty house in Baniamari village

Pretty house in Baniamari village

 

Every evening looks something like this

Every evening looks something like this

All pictures courtesy Shalini and her phone .. Thankoo!

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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.

8

The idea of development

So I am just going back in time a bit and jotting down some thoughts that came to me before and after I joined this fellowship .

Back in June this year, there I was, working as an HR Business Partner – fancy term I know, but not very fancy work! I wasn’t getting what I wanted at the end of the day – any kind of self-gratification or satisfaction. I know most jobs are that way and our generation is really spoiled for choice, but that’s probably a topic for another post.

I resigned without further ado and thought of possible options.

Waste management? Waste management is really the need of the hour in Bangalore and I was super enthusiastic about it after doing a few spotfixes with The Ugly Indian.

Study further? Hmmm… Going back to college did seem inviting, but what did I want to study?

Join some NGO, different role in HR, write UPSC exams (I even signed up for this), teach at a school, join politics(!)… the list was endless and the thoughts, utterly confusing!

All of a sudden, one day, Anand told me about this SBI Youth for India – rural development fellowship and I thought THIS IS IT!
It gives me a platform to work with an NGO – with the freedom of creating my own project but leveraging the expertise of the NGO. Wow! It seemed too good to be true. After a bit of coaxing my anxious parents (“You’re going to have to stay away from your husband! Oh no!”) and Anand’s cool parents, I applied, got through and was on my way to Ahmedabad for the orientation. I’ve written about it here already.

So when I got the fellowship, my thoughts were varying from:

Wow, I’m finally going to be able to actually LIKE what I do!

I will make a difference to people’s lives now.

I am going to transform villages and feel good about myself!

Let’s go bring some villages on the path of development!

Now, as I am visiting villages, the biggest question I have is :

What really is development?

These people in the remote tribal villages of Odisha seem to be far more developed than any city! Let me try to convince you through some observations I made.

Clean, really clean villages. Every single village we visited was spotlessly clean.

Village in Kalahandi district???????????????????????????????

Welcoming strangers with warm smiles. When did you last smile at a stranger on your street?

These people in the picture were so happy we visited their far-flung village; they thanked us wholeheartedly and said nice things to us, which we really didn’t deserve! Varun even wrote a beautiful poem about it here.

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Sharing food with strangers; when was the last time you welcomed strangers with food?

These kind people shared the roasted corn cobs from their farm with us. Yum! Never before had I eaten three whole corn cobs by myself!

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Time on your hands for yourself, family, friends, laughs. Let’s not even talk about the luxury of time in cities!

Time for some farm fresh Ganna

Time for some farm fresh Ganna

Clean drinking water , straight from the tap, in your toilet, bathroom and kitchen! Can you say the same?

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Lovely beautiful sights everywhere! Sigh…

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Happiness, peace, love, respect. LIFE! What more does one want?

I am not saying let’s all live in villages nor am I saying there are no problems in villages. There’s so much to learn from the simple life in villages, something our forefathers had the fortune of experiencing even in the cities we are presently in. Ok, I am not going to get preachy and talk about being content with what one has, etc.

I just thought I would leave you with this question: Does development mean creating more cities and towns?