Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

Dad, what’s a report card? (And other questions from the fear-free school)

“Dad, why is being sent to the Principal’s office a bad thing?” Asks R Mahajan, my daughter, a fifth grader at the Chirag School.

“Where did you hear that, R Mahajan?”

“I read it in Calvin & Hobbes.”

“And I’ve heard it in Shin Chan and the other TV serials” chimes in A Mahajan, who also went to Chirag “Getting sent to the Principal’s office seems to be, like, the biggest punishment.”

“Well, there are certain schools where getting sent to the Principal’s office is a bad thing.” I answer.

“How can getting sent to the principals office be a bad thing? Sumit Da is so much fun. How is that punishment”

“Well, the Principal may scold you.”

R thought for a while “But Principals don’t scold. Sunil Bhaiya or Rinku di never scolded us. And Sumit Da…” she smiled “…I don’t think he can scold. I would love to be sent to Sumit Da’s office. It would be so much fun! So why is being sent to the principal’s office a bad thing?”

“If you did something really bad, the principal may ask for your parents to visit the school.”

“But why is parents visiting the school such a bad thing?”

_____________

(A few days earlier)

“Papa, Hema didi today said that if we are not good and don’t do our work then we will be made to repeat class five.” Says R Mahajan.

“Oh really?” I ask.

“Yes, since then Mansi and Aru and I – actually the whole class has been plotting how to not be good. That way we can all be in Chirag for one more year.”

“But that’s not fair.” wails A Mahajan, who left the school last year. The Chirag school is only till grade 5 after which the kids have to move to other schools. A Mahajan is now being homeschooled. “They never had that at our time. If they had that option when I was in grade 5, I would have repeated 5 and would not have left Chirag.”

_____________

The above are real conversations we have had with our kids. Their school, the rural, hindi-medium Chirag School, truly shows what a “fear free” school should be. And the school delivers fabulous learning, which I wrote about here. The school succeeds because there is no fear. Not despite it’s absence.

To learn more about the Chirag School, and to support it, please visit https://thechiragschool.wordpress.com/ .

______________

“Dad, what’s a report card?” asked R.

I shuddered at the horror the words “report card” still evoked in me. Then I laughed out loud for having spared my children it’s tyranny.

 

Village mein Start-up?

Village mein Start-up?

Pankaj addressed the 100 students in the hall at the ITI, a vocational training institute in Tandi village.

“How many people want to start their own business?”

Only 3 hands went up. The ITI teacher told them “Listen to me, you schmucks. After trying for a job for many years you will then look to start your own business. You should do it right now with their help.” (suitably translated from Hindi)

The teacher was referring to Udhyam’s offer to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financing and mentorship. Udhyam means enterprise in Hindi.  And this Udhyam is an organization that works in the villages to promote entrepreneurship.

The biggest challenge in villages here is poverty. People grow up with financial uncertainty and are vulnerable to things like weather and disease. Their dream is the highly coveted government job with its predictable, high income. Practically all boys want to be soldiers and all girls teachers. To even try for these jobs one needs to have completed school education, and often a lot more.

25% of boys and 20% of girls still do not complete school in Uttarakhand (source website here  ) and college Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at a mere 32%. That means a large proportion of the youth are ineligible for the jobs. Even for those eligible, the competition is extremely tough. Most of the youth land up picking small jobs around here, and many of the young men head to the city.

Seeing all this, Udhyam is working to encourage the youth to get into entrepreneurship.

Udhyam poster 2
Posters like this one, and another featuring Jeevan (cover picture) dotted our landscape. Lalita & Jeevan are both successful entrepreneurs from last year. 

They started with a small pilot last year with just eight businesses financed and mentored. This year the target is to help 40 businesses with cheap loans and also offer mentoring to the ones that need it.

The idea is simple and the impact will be significant, but pulling it off is no easy task. The awesome Udhyam team visited 255 villages, put up 2000 posters, held 70 village meetings, and after all that received 499 calls. All that has been sifted down to 59 shortlisted candidades after the first round of the screening. The first round of screening interviews was on October 28-29 and I was lucky to be invited to be part of the interview panel screening the applicants.

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Udhyam selection Panel meeting

I requested permission for my 11 year old son,  A. Mahajan, to also participate. We are home-schooling him and I could not imagine a better forum to channel his inner entrepreneur. Many interesting dilemmas came up. Should we fund the guy wanting to start a DJ business (given that he will probably blow the neighbourhoods peace to bits?). What about the restauranteur who allows surreptitious drinking? And the goat farmer who will allow free grazing in the forest (which is terrible for the ecology) and may ask his school age kids to graze goats instead of having them attend school? And should women be encouraged even if their business plans seemed iffy?

Some of these were too heavy for Anhad, but I have given below his take on the experience (his English assignment).

But before we go there, I wanted to talk a little about the force behind this movement. Pankaj Wadhwa is an amazing guy. To call him dynamic and high-energy is like calling a cat nimble. He’s a classic example of people who Uncity and bring much benefit and good to the area. His first enterprise was started in 2008 to help rural producers sell their products, and currently supports some 18 NGOs. You may have seen shops named Himjoli if you’ve travelled around Uttarakhand. That’s his baby. And Udhyam is his most recent initiative. Pankaj is more action less talk, so predictably Udhyam doesn’t have a website yet.  And while Himjoli has a website (https://himjoli.org/ ), I was unable to find his name on the site.

Shark Tank* of the village

By A. Mahajan, 11 years

I had lots of fun yesterday and day before yesterday (the 29th and the 28th of October 2018). I liked it because we/I got to interview some interesting people like the photographer and the person who wanted to open/upgrade his Dhaba (which he called his “restaurant”).We also got to see how much money they wanted and how they would spend it and how they would pay it back plus how much risk there is in their businesses and how much can you trust them. I really liked it. It was lots of fun, at least the first day. The first day was in a KMVN in Bhimtal. The KMVN was definitely not the best – not great rooms, food was OK, but the view was great. At least the bathrooms were clean. The first day we had 9 interviews out of that 2 people dropped out, but 7 people did show up. And here were their ideas- mushroom farming, photographer, beauty parlor, clothing shop, herbal tea shop, knitting group and a music & arts school. After all the interviews all of us as in the selection panel met and discussed a little then everybody went home except for us and a few others. Anurag uncle was one of them, and we stayed back at the KMVN and partied – here is what we did. We got chicken pastas and Oreo shakes and ate our dinner while watching Netflix and then we slept. Next morning, we got up early washed up, packed and left, we had breakfast on the way then we went to Almora and did the rest of the interviews. This time we met 6 people and here were their ideas – 2 shop keepers, a restaurant, a tailor, a furniture shop and a cattle farm. And then again after the interviews we (the panel) met and discussed about the interviews chatted about people who we weren’t sure about and after all that we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Here are some of the reasons for rejection: if the applicant doesn’t need the money, capability of returning the money, bad business ideas, serving alcohol without a permit, etc.

And here are some reasons for acceptance: creating employment, benefiting the society, low risk profile, people whose business idea needed the money etc.

_____

*Shark Tank is an American TV series where entrepreneurs make their presentations to a panel of investors. Details here .

The Hindi-medium village school better than Pathways

The Hindi-medium village school better than Pathways

The village school is a stereotype. We expect people from lower income families to send their kids there. The average class size is 40 or 50 kids. The teaching methodology is traditional rote learning so the academic performance is expected to be average at best. A teacher slapping a student raises no eyebrows. We don’t expect any changemakers coming from these schools. We expect future leaders to come out of the big city schools where the rich kids go.

The trouble with stereotypes, of course, is that they are often true.

Here, in our neighbourhood, we have a Hindi-medium village school. The monthly fees of just Rs. 150. As expected, people from lower income strata send their kids there. That is where the stereotype ends. The class size of 18 is smaller than Pathways. The personal attention and involvement with each child is intense. The school follows a fear-free, experiential education methodology which many city schools tout but few deliver. The kids in this school are not scolded. They ask any question they want – their teachers patiently lead the child to the answer or encourage them to find it.  Consequently, the kids are fearless and learn because they still feel a sense of wonder about the world. Their schooling hasn’t taken a toll on their curiosity.

This is the Chirag school – a great example of what schooling can and should be. Many highly-reputed schools in the city started off like this – as alternative schools with a beautiful vision. What kills them is growth – they scale at the expense of that vision. By the time they add that sixth section to grade 2, they have become one-size-fits-all factories.

But Chirag chooses to stay small, with only one section to each class. It is no surprise that the Chirag school has an academic record which stands the stereotype of the village school on its head. Measuring learning is controversial in the least, and a big exam is amongst the worst ways to do it. Unfortunately, it is the method the whole country follows. The kids from Chirag also have to adapt to the “outside world” after grade 5, so they take exams like the Navodaya exam.

While the privileged city kids have never heard of Navodaya, it is a big deal in the village. The Navodaya schools are government-run boarding schools from grades 6-12. They are completely free, including the tuition, boarding and lodging. Admission is based on an entrance test. Rural parents aspire to these schools, but since many kids are first generation learners the parents have no way to prepare the child for such an exam.

That is where the Chirag teachers come in. As I mentioned in my previous blog about the school, the true stars here are not the students, but the teachers. Molded in the Krishnamurti tradition over the past 10 years,

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The rock-star teachers Haren da & Thakur da.

the teachers have commitment levels comparable to, say, a McKinsey consultant. They are as good at their work, but their motivators are different. These teachers are driven by their concern for their students. There is no personal glory or money or growth for doing extra work. But they take amazing pride in their students’ success. Two teachers volunteered to teach the grade 5 students through the one month winter break to ensure they do their best in the Navodaya entrance exam. Here at 6000 feet, winters are bone chilling. But the teachers and students turned up every day through the winter for the extra classes.

The Navodaya entrance exam is tough. For every 100 kids who take the exam, two kids are accepted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawahar_Navodaya_Vidyalaya#Admission). 4 of the 17 fifth-graders who appeared from Chirag were accepted. That is an acceptance rate of 24% against the national average of 2%. The Chirag kids are similar to other kids that take the exam. Only their education differs. Chirag school pulls this off with modest infrastructure but the right philosophy and approach. This result is testament to all that is right with this school.

Another great story is that of Jiya.

Every Independence Day the kids at Chirag put up a play for the community. This year was special because of Jiya (name changed). Jiya is a child who has different needs. She

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Independence day celebration

enrolled in school at age six and hadn’t spoken a word until then. Chirag happily accepted her – “inclusive” is a philosophy here. With persistent support from her teachers and a lot of love and care from her classmates, Jiya slowly started adjusting to school. She spoke her first words after a couple of years of joining school. So imagine the joy Jiya brought when she performed on stage for the first time despite her social anxiety. She nailed all her lines. Most heartwarming was the applause she received backstage from her teachers and friends.

But the Chirag school needs support to survive and grow. If the above stories inspire you, please help. There are two ways in which you can.

  1. The school is partly funded by the Chirag NGO, but depends in large part on the support of well-wishers like you. If you could like to make a contribution to the school, please donate at www.chiragschool.org .
  2. The Principal of the school – Sumit Arora – will be leaving in March of 2019. He is brilliant, down-to-earth, methodical and a leader. He has transformed many aspects of the school. He has brought the morale of his team to a new high. To fill in his shoes, we are looking for candidates who might be interested in leading this outstanding primary school in the beautiful Kumaon Himalayas. This school requires intense work and this should not be seen as a retirement posting. If you know someone who you think may fit the bill, please connect with me at chetan@himalayanwritingretreat.com.

 

(The author, Chetan Mahajan, is the parent of two Chirag students. He was the former chairman of the School Management Committee of Chirag, and continues to be deeply involved with the school. Before moving to the village, he was in leadership roles in various education companies including a Gems group subsidiary. He last role was the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has visited some 1000 schools over the last decade.

One reason he left the city was his disillusionment with corporate India, which includes the business of education. He touched upon this in his recent TEDx talk ).

Moonrise Barbeque

Moonrise Barbeque

“There is no love greater than the love of food”

(Quote from Britannia Cafe, Ballard estate, Mumbai)

We had just come off a hectic six week spell of guests and visitors. Then suddenly, there was calm. The last guests checked out*. R’s school went on break.

“A” decided on celebrating the quiet with a “Family day” so we cuddled, played board games and badminton, and generally spent the whole day together. “A” improvised a pretty fancy lunch from leftovers, and gave each of us a “review sheet”. Vandita and R gave him 5 stars + so he complained about unfair parenting when I gave his lunch “only” 4.5 stars.

I also had my own surprise planned for that evening. I intended to grill some chicken for the kids. Fresh chicken isn’t readily available around here, so I called the meat shop in Bhowali (30 km away)  and asked him to hand over 1 kg of chicken to the bus that comes up everyday. 3 hours later we met the bus at it’s usual time, but the driver said no one had given him any chicken. A call to Bhowali confirmed that our supplier had forgotten.

The backup was to check at our big neighbourhood grocer Kapil store – locally referred to as the WalMart. His deep-freezer can be unreliable, so I was delighted that he actually had some frozen chicken available. We proceeded to thaw and marinate the chicken. The grill I have is an ancient Weber from my days in the US, carried back from Chicago only because I was entitled to half a container as part of my transfer to India.

So we lit some coal in the grill and sat out in the balcony. It was windy and getting the fire going was a struggle. Both the kids were willing volunteers helping me with everything. We were out of matches so R repeatedly lit the candle from the gas. A went and found some dry kindling, and so on. (The purist in me refuses to use kerosene or other flammables.) The fire finally caught. We played Uno sitting on a durree on the balcony as we waited for the coals to turn red. The air was nippy and soon blankets were brought out and we sat together snuggled in blankets playing uno under the dim balcony light.

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Moonrise Barbeque

My amateur attempts at grilling meant a delayed dinner. But soon an almost full moon rose over the ridge of the local reserve forest, and things went from beautiful to surreal. A simple dinner of grilled chicken and bread was eaten with much relish as we watched the moon wink it’s way in and out of the clouds. It was another lovely evening.

 

It made me remember the time I served in the city, and all the opportunities we had lost. I don’t remember ever having seen a moonrise, or ever having spent an entire day as a family on an activity list made by the kids.

I was glad to be here, even if a few years late. It made me think about the price we pay for our dreams. Made me wonder about the tradeoff between money & happiness, and the habits we find so hard to break. It also reminded me of a beautiful Lao Tzu quote.

“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I’m glad I did.

_________

* The place referred to here is quietplace.in , a specialty home stay run by the author in the Indian Himalayas.

Quiet Place? Really?

Quiet Place? Really?

Everything happened in Nanoseconds. The dog took off after the rooster. The rooster ran flapping its wings, squawking a frantic SOS. Human voices cried out “Po! Leave it!”. For a dog named after a Panda, she moved fast. Things ended without any loss of life, although the rooster has developed a nervous tic and needs counseling. But my psychologist wife insists that Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t work on poultry.

The above is one of many true incidents at our new place. The place which will be the new home for the erstwhile homeless Himalayan Writing Retreat. The same place we were trying to name, and for which many of you had voted. Thank you for taking the time. The votes helped.

In the vote count, “Centreself” topped the list with “Thought Orchard” & “Quiet Place”a very close second. They are lovely names. We realized that they are also very serious, and we’re not. Neither is the place we’re creating. We are serious about giving people a great experience, but we don’t do heavy. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why the sole award this blog has won was for humour.

Our place, like us, is full of quirks. Our location is a windy, picturesque ridge where our chickens walk on two feet but our wifi limps. Our loving dogs frequently try to reduce our workload by eating our hens. My US licensed, doctoral degree holding psychologist wife sometimes gets paid in vegetables and fruits by the locals for her services.

We all have our quirks. They make us unusual and different. Quirky is best defined as “Weird in a good way.” The quirk can be anything. A need to wear a fedora hat & leather boots – and nothing else – on a beach. The need to know the names of all the birds you see. The urge to wrap the selfie stick around the neck of the person using it. The desire to stop in the middle of things and write down an idea or thought because you might use it later.

It’s all weird in a good way. So we nearly settled on Quirky Ridge for the name.

But then we realized that while “Quirky Ridge” may make people curious, it may not  inspire them to stay with us. We needed a more appealing name – something that goes with the sagacity associated with the mountains. A name that would reflect the physical beauty and calm that mostly prevails at our place. A name that tells guests how perfect our place is for the writer or artist seeking inspiration. A name that appeals to the frantic city dweller looking for stillness.

I wanted a name that slips from the mind and easily sticks to the tongue. Strike that out. I mean I wanted a name that sticks in the mind and easily slips off the tongue.

So after much gut-wrenching debate, we’ve settled for quietplace. You can check out our website at www.quietplace.in .

We plan to train our dog. And if the rooster keeps up it’s racket, we may have to eat it. Very quietly.

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

For anyone thinking of moving to Kumaon, here’s a checklist.

  1. Grow your bladder.
  2. Replace your laptop with a paper notebook
  3. Be your own garbagemanperson
  4. Start thinking about Caste
  5. Be Zen.

If you think this list is strange, read on.

1. Grow your bladder.

No, not your gall bladder. The other one. You see Kumaon is water deficient. And flush tanks are the biggest enemies of water. The summer months are a severe struggle unless you are one of the lucky few with a natural spring on your land. And even those can dry up in the summer. During those days (such as right now) we often pee collectively as a family. That way we flush just once and conserve water. All our pretty flowering plants are a write off – watering plants is a luxury. Lets not even discuss bathing. If you want to be in the mountains, and not have water problems, choose Kangra Valley in Himachal. It offers everything Kumaon does + water.

2. Don’t be laptop dependent.

The power here can fail often. Mostly for a few hours but it can also stretch to days. The last time we had a long outage, my inverter also packed up. I called the inverter company, and they said they cannot send someone such a long way. So I lugged my inverter to Haldwani (a mere 3 hour drive) to have it fixed. When it was done I brought it back & plugged it in again. One month later – exactly when the repair warranty ended, we had a power surge. It blew the inverter again, along with the power adapter for both our laptops, and myriad other electrical gadgets. The first draft of this post was written on paper.

3. Be your own Garbageperson.

You maybe a dirtbag, but at least you will be politically correct.  Nobody will come to collect your Garbage here. The Economic Times  said they would. That was two years and one day ago. That is गंदा  propaगंदा. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/nainital-to-launch-solid-waste-management-system-for-rural-areas/articleshow/47397029.cms

Getting rid of your garbage is your problem. The more aware residents separate their trash. The organic waste is composted or fed to cows / hens. The non-perishable and recyclable stuff has to be taken down to the recycling centre in Haldwani (which nobody is sure actually works). Many people just burn everything. Those of us with an ecological bone try and dispose of their trash responsibly. The last time I drove to Delhi my car was loaded with full trashbags. I heard another fun story about when the local city migrants had tried to hire someone with a pickup truck to collect all the trash and deliver it to Haldwani. After some weeks they realized that he would take the trash and simply chuck it all down the hillside a few miles away. Right now the very gallant Vikram Maira of Sitla Estate is offering free trash delivery to the recycling plant in Haldwani for all residents who dump it in a pre-appointed spot. We all love that he is doing it, but the fact remains that we are responsible for our own garbage – as we should be. Don’t expect to outsource that.

4. Start thinking about Caste.

Caste is something I have never thought about. When I talk to a person I am never curious about what caste they are, and I dont care. Same for religion. To me they are humans, and that’s that. But here, in the village, our medieval caste system is alive and well. I don’t practice it, but I cannot be unaware of it. Over three years I have developed a certain sensitivity to it.

For example, when we moved into our house, we held a puja for the benefit of the villagers. We were told that some of our staff should not be in the kitchen, as otherwise many of the guests will not eat the prasad. Since the puje was for the benefit of the villagers, we complied.

But now we continue to have some people work on our land, and they still refuse to drink tea made by one of our staff members. Consequently, they often go without tea.  The same crap about women having their periods not entering the kitchen etc. continues to be widely practiced. You get the idea.

5. Be Zen.

The city is all about instant gratification. Dominos will deliver in 30 minutes or its free. Why wait in line? Book your tickets online. And Swiggy and Amazon are all about delivering faster and faster. The village is the exact opposite. Hardly anything is available instantly. The only things readily available are what is available at Kapil’s store, our neighborhood Walmart. God bless Kapil.

You don’t get it. Let me give you an example.

Lets say it is peak summer and you want to eat good Mangoes. Here is how the process goes. Q1 : Is it available at Kapil store? No. Then Q2: Is it available in Nathuakhan (6 km) or Bhatelia (15 km)? Possibly, but cant say for sure. Quality and freshness will be big questions. Call someone in Bhatelia. They say that Mangoes are available but they look dehydrated and  undernourished. They may get better after dipping in ORS overnight. Not good. Then Q3: Will good mangoes be available in Bhowali / Haldwani? Yes. So then you ask around to find out if anyone is going there, and ask them to get a few kilos. If not, then you plan a day trip to the Mandi (3 hours one way) and buy Mangoes for the next 2 weeks. This process applies to everything you may want. Except for many things that are not available in Haldwani, you may have to go further – to Delhi.

So be ready to build some character. Delay gratification.

 

 

Turning a golf course into a forest. Good idea?

Turning a golf course into a forest. Good idea?

They are going to plant trees and shrubs on a golf course on a mountain, and turn it into a forest. For an opinion I was chatting with my friend Satish, an avid golfer.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said Satish.

“But why?” I asked “It’s not like a lot of people were playing there. It wasn’t a great course, and hardly anyone ever went there. This was in some remote district of Uttarakhand. And their study found that the slope was too steep.”

“We are a country where we are already short on sports infrastructure. And we are taking a golf course, and making it into a forest? We shouldn’t be talking about medals tally in sports then. Did you know that in Scotland there is one golf hole for every 500 people, while in India it is one for every 2.75 lakh people?” He showed me this website to prove his point.

“But what would you rather have them do?”

“Well, if the slope was too steep, why build in the first place? But now that they have built it, they should encourage the people around to start playing the sport. They should try and improve usage of the course instead of destroying it. This is a real golf course and not some sales gimmick by a builder to sell apartments around.”

Hmm. Valid argument.

After doing an evaluation, the authorities decided to convert the golf course into a

golf course
The golf course now

forest.  The folks at Alaap, a social enterprise, are working to make this area wild again. The goal of Alaap is to bring back the native forests of the Himalayas. They will plant a wide variety of trees and grow a natural, mixed forest on the former golf course. They will plant two acres at a time until the entire nine acres is forest. (more on alaap here).

golf course into forest
A typical native forest like the one Alaap will plant. This is what that golf course might be in a few years.

This will change many things on the mountain. The higher supply of moisture will mean more water in the aquifers deep underground. Like more blood in the veins of the mountain. This will mean more water in the natural springs in the area. Bees may build hives. The plants will attract leaf-eating wild animals to the area. Those in turn will attract predators. All this could lead to unforeseen outcomes like when they released the 14 wolves in Yellowstone. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSzQ9w5TCqc )

This will benefit the ecology, and that makes animals happy. The humans will be largely indifferent except for a few nearby villagers. Heck, the President of the USA doesn’t believe climate change is real.

So clearly, I am sitting on a fence here. The big question strikes me. Is it man’s job to serve nature (as Salman Khan believes)? Or is it nature’s job to serve man (as Salman Khan believes)?

Since it is a tough call, I think we should ask the mountain. After all the golf course sits on its chest.

“Sure. And the next time you meet your padlock, please say hello for me.” You say.

I know that the rational left-brainer in you thinks it’s ridiculous to talk to a mountain. But humour me for a bit. Switch on your sensitive, emotional right brain. Imagine for a moment that a mountain has feelings. That it reacts to what happens on it. That it hurts when it is mined. It wilts in dry heat and thrives in the rain.

I am sure the mountain knows the answer. If you ask the mountain, what do you think it will say?

Feel free to comment.