As an academic investigator I had visited Shikshantar, an NGO in Udaipur, to see their work on alternative education. Shikshantar believes in zero-schooling, which means not admitting a child into a school at all, but letting him/her learn on his/her own if and when the child is interested.
Shikshantar is also associated with ‘Swaraj University’, a new concept in today’s world, though an old concept if you look into ancient history. Swaraj University does not give any degrees, believing that a degree is not necessary for one to become successful in life. One can successfully practice a trade/ profession/ occupation to meet one’s livelihood needs without a degree. Students who join Swaraj University come from backgrounds and may even be school dropouts. Called ‘Khojis’, or seekers, these students interact with various experts from varied fields, seek to find out what they are most suited for themselves, and then train as apprentices under an expert in the field to learn the skills of the trade, so that they can earn their livelihood.
During the visit the investigator was part of a group that flagged off a group of about 15 khojis from Swaraj University on a novel cycle yatra. The concept of this novel cycle yatra finds birth in an endeavor undertaken by a few friends in 1995. The co-founder of Shikshantar, Manish Jain, was part of this original expedition. The participants of the novel cycle yatra where they were going to spend five days cycling through the rural areas, without money, wallets, mobiles, technology, medicines. They were to stop at a random area and offer to work in lieu of food. They would only accept food/rations once they’d worked for it. They would also seek a place to rest for the night, before moving off again the next day to a new area, miles from the previous resting post.
The aim was to see whether they could do without what they thought was something they could not live without, reducing needs, and realizing just how much is needed, while one usually tends to extend needs, including comforts in the category of needs. Also, turning to a more labor intensive and environment friendly mode of living.
Enthused by the immense energy and enthusiasm of the participants, the investigator discussed it with her mentors, who encouraged her to initiate a similar 2-day & one-night expedition in Indore and its surrounding areas, instead of waiting for someone else to do so. As a result, this expedition was undertaken.
The investigator decided to take a chance and see the sort of response that something like this could generate. So, a tentative date for the expedition was decided on, by the investigator, her mentors and one of the other team members who had been part of the Udaipur expedition. Since this was the first time something like this was being tried out by the investigator and others around, it was decided that the expedition would only be for two days and one night. An event was created on Facebook inviting those interested to join in. The investigator also made announcements, in this regard, in the classes where she taught. The kind of response it generated was exceptional and something the investigator had not expected – on the final count about 60+ said that they would ‘participate’, while a similar number said they ‘may attend’ on Facebook.
The investigator then responded directly to the first few who wrote back online or got in touch through sms, since the numbers were to be kept at a manageable level – after all the villagers would have to cater to all those who went. A few meetings were held in an attempt to ascertain who all were interested and to strategize. Though the meetings were also meant to introduce group members to each other, very few attended, and those who attended one meeting seemed to drop out by the time the next meeting was held a week later. Most group members met each other for the first time on the eve of the expedition. Finally, at the time of departure there were 19 participants, including two Thai girls who joined the group to film the expedition as a learning community. The oldest was Mam Passi, who was a true source of inspiration throughout, especially considering that she learnt cycling just a week before the expedition at the age of 60+, just to join in the experience.
The group left at 6.30 am on Saturday morning, without wallets and mobiles, a few slogans on pasted on the cycles, and cycled off in the direction of a certain village till where they’d thought of going. However, on the way they got lost and ended up reaching elsewhere. Also, none of the group had ever cycled so much and those with some cycling experience had not done so for years. The investigator herself was cycling after 22 years.
The strategy was to be of cycling at the pace of the slowest so that no one is left behind. The slowest was to be ahead, with others following. Also, each was to, roughly speaking, consider another as a buddy, so that the two kept an eye out for the other and ensured that the individual was not left behind. The group cycled for a few hours. Around 11 am they were all starving. The group had no food, nor any money to buy some. Added to this was the resolve to only eat after they had worked and deserved a meal.
While passing through the countryside the group generated quite a lot of interest in those who saw them, specially with the slogans on the bicycles, propagating health and environmental messages. People stopped the group to talk to them. Some farmers who saw the group told them to eat a few of the ‘chor’ or green gram that were growing on their farms. The boys attacked the fields. However, that was merely an infinitesimally small snack as they still had to a long way to go. Some of them moved on while the others were to follow.
Those who moved ahead reached a village where the villagers wanted to know what they were up to. They offered the group tea while listening to them. The group accepted it while waiting for the rest of the group to rejoin them. It had been quite a while and since they didn’t seem to be coming, the group decided to move on, leaving a message with the villagers for the rest about the direction in which they were proceeding.
Meanwhile, those who were behind resumed their journey. On the way they were stopped by some farmers on the field. The farmers wanted to know where they were going. They told them about the mission. The farmers asked them to join them in working on the fields where new potatoes were being harvested, sorted and packed off to the wholesale market. They agreed and got on to the fields, joining the workers there in their job.
After a while they were offered some tea and told to rest. The villagers offered them a meal. They said they could not accept a meal since their friends had moved on and the entire group would eat together. One of the villagers offered to go to the rest of the group and bring them back. Along with a group member he rode ahead on a motorcycle and got in touch with the rest of the group about 4-5 kms ahead. The rest were also told that those behind were too tired to cycle any further. So, they got back to where all were resting on the field of an elderly gentleman, who was very happy to have everyone visiting him and immediately took money out of his pocket so that materials could be brought to cook a meal for the unexpected ‘guests’.
The elderly gentleman stated that his own family did not sit with him and interact with him the way this group of strangers from the town was. The group began asking itself whether it spends such time with the elderly in its own homes. The realization also dawned that while at home each individual is so busy in him/herself and the gadgets of comfort/convenience all around that more time is spent involved with the gadgets – mobiles, internet, TV – than in meaningful personal interaction with the people present in our surroundings, be they family members or neighbors.
The villagers cooked a hearty traditional meal of dal, baati, bharta, with the cyclists helping with the preparations. They also invited all the men of the village to welcome and celebrate the arrival of the group. A candle light dinner was served around 8.30 p.m., since there was no electricity in the area after 7.30 pm. Electricity supply was to be resumed at around 6.00 a.m. the next day.
That night most of the participants slept in a room that was constructed in the field, which was usually used for storage of harvests, tools needed on the farm, and to sleep during the rainy and winter season while guarding and keeping watch over the farm at night. The others, along with the hosts, slept out in the open in the early February cold. Some had been carrying sleeping bags. The others used sheets to cover and slept on gunny bags that lined the floor, given by the hosts.
Next morning, some of the participants had to return to town for various reasons, while the others proceeded towards another farm to do some weeding. The idea was to again put in substantial work before securing a meal and then returning home. However, those left behind were not in too much of a mood to work. The youngsters seemed quite tired due to the unaccustomed cycling that had been done the previous day on an empty stomach. So, after a little weeding the group began on their return journey, having only accepted a cup of tea the whole morning, since they had not done much to deserve a full meal.
They reached Indore by 4.00 pm and crashed out.
About a week later, the group was to meet up to discuss the expedition and the learning from it. One of the hosts called to say he would be in town and would join the group. The group was very happy to be meeting each other. At the venue of the meeting they got very engrossed in reliving the days on the yatra. When their former host arrived they greeted him. They spoke with him for a few minutes and then went back to discussing/recounting/reliving among themselves. They then dispersed. Most had already left. Only the investigator was still around with another member of the group who was talking to the host. The investigator realized that though their host was there specifically to meet them, they had not even shared a cup of tea with them, despite the fact that he was not an unknown entity and had been their host and had cooked and taken care of them while they were on the trip.
The investigator posted this observation on the Facebook group that they had created once they got back, to keep in touch with each other. When this was pointed out, others too realized what they’d done – the ‘educated’ elite, the ‘learned people from the cities’.
A month or so after the yatra the hosts invited the group to share a meal again on the farm, in memory of the earlier trip. Respecting the some of the group visited the hosts yet again, this time during the day and traveling by car. This time the group had their wallets and mobiles.
The hosts were just as warm and welcoming as the first time. However, there was a difference in the interaction this time. While some of the group, just like the previous occasion, helped in the cooking preparations to begin with, while the rest were all the time busy climbing trees, talking on their mobiles, sitting at a fair distance from the ‘kitchen’ under trees, with almost no interaction with the hosts.
Once the group returned there was talk of going back and doing something in the kind-hearted village for the welfare of the area, however, the group has not been able to get together to plan something out in detail. The group is still in telephonic contact with the hosts off and on, specially exchanging greetings during festivals. They are likely to visit again some time.
The very first learning outcome, since the conception of the event was that one can create one’s own opportunities and destiny, instead of waiting for someone else to take the lead and do so for you.
Age is not a barrier to learning if the zest to learn and live exists.
Understanding each other and appreciating each for the person s/he is, being able to utilize the specific ability of each to the best of the group’s ability.
Interesting to watch the developing group dynamics among a group of total strangers. At the beginning of the journey, though the strategy was to cycle at the pace of the slowest, the youngsters were rushing ahead, not wanting to be cycling slowly. As time passed and people became closer to each other, while also being more tired from the exertion of the cycling and the lack of food, everyone became more considerate and began thinking about the others, hanging back to ensure no one was left behind.
We are blessed to have what we have and do not really know what real hunger is about, even though we frequently use the word so casually every now and then.
Respect for those who have nothing and are forced to starve on a daily basis, due to lack of availability of resources.
Respect for those who are able to partake a single meal only at the end of a day’s hard labour.
True large heartedness and hospitality constitutes taking in total strangers and treating them as family, not treating your own host as a stranger. It is the implementation/action and not just the theorization that this most important.
We are so addicted to the tools that have been created for our convenience that we do not realize just how much they enslave us. The tools are meant to be our slaves, not we theirs.
Our interactions with the elderly in our families needs to be worked on quite a lot, considering that we do not seem to be spending much time with our family members, let alone the elderly. They are a treasure trove of experiences, anecdotes, wisdom, which we need to exploit, instead of letting it all go to waste.
Man is a social animal and will always search for a place to socialize in – result is that the social networking sites are thriving. We have cut ourselves off from the social milieu we live in physically. We are, therefore, seeking it in cyber space so we can express ourselves, talk, exchange ideas and feelings. We, therefore, have hundreds of strangers on our friend lists, some who we will never see in reality and will only exist as cyber ghosts. We sign into cyber ‘communities’ while ignoring the physical community that we are exist in. Fact remains that we can never change our real nature – that of social beings – even though we may pretend not to need anyone at all.
We need to be more conscious in our words and actions on a daily basis. This is going to help us identify where we are going wrong and give us an opportunity to correct our mistakes. For this we first need to be good observers – careful observers of thought and action. Then we need to emulate/correct what we learn about those around and ourselves.
Education is not about the degrees that one flaunts but about what is reflected in one’s words and actions. A truly educated person may be illiterate, but the sensitive, considerate actions may reflect the level of education. The word ‘education’ should not be considered as synonymous with ‘literacy’.