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Youth Forum - Ekal Vidyalaya

Ashwini Javlekar

Ekal Vidyalaya

One day, a wealthy man decided to show his son a less fortunate world, which he had never been exposed to. He arranged for the two of them to stay in a small rural town, a few hours from their home, for a week’s time.

After a week had passed, the man and boy embarked on their journey home. Hoping that his son had taken away a positive experience, realizing how fortunate and blessed their family was, the man asked his son, “Have you realized what I was trying to show you?”

After pausing for a moment the son responded, saying, “Yes father, I have. I have seen that they have four dogs, when we only have one. I have seen that they have a creek that flows past the horizon, while we only have a swimming pool. Their land lasts are far as they can see, when ours only reaches our backyard. They spend their days working with their parents and friends, while we are separated, going to our offices and schools. They live simple, yet happy, lives, while ours are hectic and stressful. Father, after seeing all these things, I have seen what you’ve tried to show me.”

The boy’s father looked at him with surprise, before patting him on the back, smiling. Every coin has two sides, and his son had shown him the opposite side, a completely different point of view.

This story came to my mind, after visiting an Ekal Vidyalaya school. On December 27th, 2004, my mother, father, younger sister, and I went to visit a school in a village near the city of Indore, MP, which was sponsored by Ekal Vidyalaya. I was amazed.

For the past few years, I had been hearing about this program, which helped underprivileged children in rural areas receive an education. I had watched slideshows at Indian functions and I had flipped through brochures. Nothing has as a big impact on you until you experience it first hand, though.

After a long two-and-a-half-hour ride from Indore to Gadbadi, filled with conversations with two other girls from Indore, I jumped out of the back of a van, and kicked my jeans out straight. I stood with my sister, the other two girls (both around our ages), waiting for the second van, in which our parents were, to drive up. We stared at a vastly different setting from what we were accustomed to. From the clothing shops and restaurants of Mumbai, the forts and museums of Rajasthan, and the temples and vadas  of Pune, I had arrived in a dusty village, which had to be entered by driving off of the highway onto an unpaved road. There was an enormous rocky hill in one direction, farmlands that stretched up to the horizon in the other, and a one-room schoolhouse beside us. Being born and raised in America, I had never seen a setting like this in person. However, the awkwardness and unfamiliar-ness was short lived.

All of a sudden, children’s voices had broken into song, inside the small building. They were singing ‘Chandan hai is desh ki mati’. My reaction to this was surprise, a pleasant surprise. I had been taught this song in Balvihar when I was six years old! Filled with excitement and enthusiasm, my sister and I joined them in their singing.
Once my parents arrived, we finally entered the school. Taking our shoes off, we arrived in a completely new atmosphere. About forty-five kids were crammed into building. Though the class was split fifty-fifty boys and girls, the ages of the students ranged from 4 years to 12 years. They sat on tattered carpets, which covered the cool cement floor, excited, yet shy, to see us.

The teacher of the school was a man of about 20 years, who we were told, had grown up in that village. Anilji (the Uncle who had planned this trip for us) explained that the children learned seven subjects in this school: Hindi, math, science, shloka, physical training (PT), culture, and project work. Normally, the timings were from 4 o’clock to 7 o’clock in the evening (after the field work was done for the day), but today they had made an exception. I was surprised when I realized that all these children would still want to attend their classes after toiling in the fields all day. They were very enthusiastic and eager to learn; a quality I haven’t seen in many other places. The teacher demonstrated certain techniques that were used by Ekal Vidhyalaya to teach the children more efficiently to us. He had a few girls and boys stand up and recite the times tables, Gayatri mantra, and the Bhojan mantra. Afterwards, my sister, Priyanka, and I were requested to recite the Prarthana and Ekta Mantra. Next, we distributed sweets (Gajak), ballpoint pens, Milky Way chocolate-bars, and letters to the children. I had cut out square pieces of construction paper with special, decorative-cut scissors, on which I had written six or seven sentences in Hindi and sprayed with perfume.

Subsequently, school let out, and two girls by the names of Pinkey and Kavita took the four of us girls to the top of the big hill we had seen earlier. The rest of the children followed us. Climbing the hill was fun, though the route was rather difficult. It was ironic that the last time I had gone on a hike like this, my family had paid $10 to enter the hiking-area. The majority of the school children climbing the hill with us didn’t have sandals, and I only saw one boy who had a backpack.

We reached the top of the hill, overseeing a vast spread of farmland and clay homes; the view was breath taking. After taking a break for a couple of minutes, we decided to go down the opposite side of the hill, to the neighboring village, which also had an Ekal Vidyalaya in it.

On the way to the next school, Anilji pointed out a few girls who were in the field, watching over their family’s goats graze. Children like these, he explained, were registered in governmental schools, but couldn’t go, because their families needed them to help tend to the animals and fields.

Finally, we reached the next school. Here, due to lack of time, we only entered and introduced ourselves. My parents had already been there, and had distributed the sweets, letters, and pens. This school was about the same size as the earlier one, but there were about thirty more children in this school, and only about a-third of them were girls. Many of these children were enrolled in governmental schools (like the girls in field), but could not attend because the locations and timings of the school were too inconvenient. This might work out for the better though, since Ekal Vidyalaya was doing quite a good job educating the children. For instance, a child in a governmental school might not know how to read fluently in fourth grade, while a child going to Ekal Vidyalaya would know how to read fluently by the first grade. The children were very sweet, and gave us genuine smiles and laughs.

After visiting this school, we took the jeep to the house of the schoolmaster of one of the schools. There, we saw the large field from which they got all their food, fresh-picked. We saw fresh ginger, beans, radishes, onions, coriander, and eggplant. We sat on carpets on the clay ground. Though a bit spicy for my tastes, it was one of the best meals I had in India. During dinner, much of the conversation was on stories about what had happened at the Ekal Vidyalaya schools. One story that struck me as particularly memorable was about a big industrialist and a young boy.
A few months previously, a group of businessmen had visited the same Ekal Vidyalaya. The businessmen were seated on khats (raised beds), while the village people took sat down on the mats, on the floor. One of the businessmen asked a young boy of five or six years to sit down next to him. The boy stood next to the man, but didn’t sit. Again, the man asked the boy to sit, and again the boy remained still. Finally, the boy looked at the businessman and said, “I cannot sit with you.” The man, puzzled, asked by. Timidly, the young boy answered, “How can I sit next to you, when my father is sitting on the floor?”

After hearing this story I was astonished.  Never had I seen of or heard of anyone who had paid so much respect to his or her elders. I know that I certainly have not done this. It was odd, because although this village in which Ekal Vidyalaya was being run had no modern schools, no directly accessible electricity, little access to the post office (forget computers and the internet), and no stores or movie theaters, the families of these villages had preserved their traditions, values, and morals much better than the families that lived in big cities, such as Mumbai and Delhi. Though they lived simple lives, they were content. I think that the saying, “Think big thoughts, but relish small treasures”, sums up their life philosophy.

My overall experience in visiting Ekal Vidyalaya was very positive. Visiting the village and school allowed me to see the opposite side of the coin, just as the young boy in the story had. Within the next few years, I would like to go to India for a month or so in the summer to teach at an Ekal school. As much as I could teach the children at a school there, I think they could teach me more.

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