“Our 2nd graders reading is seven times better than the national average.” Said the principal.
“Seven percent, you mean?” I corrected gently.
“No seven times.” He said, reeling out some data*.
But how can a Hindi medium village school where the teachers don’t even raise their voice pull this off?
The Chirag school started as a unique experiment. Could kids from a village learn in a fear-free environment? If rote learning was replaced by experiential learning, wouldn’t the villagers resist it? Could the principles of J Krishnamurti – which work so well in schools like Rishi Valley – also work in a no-frills rural school?
Today, ten years on, the experiment has been an unbelievable success. Chirag’s kids are an incurably curious and fearless lot. Their parents love the school and it’s method of instruction. The school outdoes state and national measures on all academic metrics (*see data points below).
I was at a parents meeting at the school last month, and there was some mention of the school going beyond grade 5. A parent whose kids had moved out of Chirag to another school (after grade 5) said she would pull the kids out of the current school and put them back in a heartbeat. After the meeting, another parent confided in me about how that lady in the early days was the one who always pushed for more homework from the school. But after her kids blossomed at Chirag, she clearly values it’s non-rote teaching methods now.
Chinmaya Vempati is a 16 year old intern from Bangalore who helped set-up an offline version of Khan Academy, KA Lite, at the Chirag School. He shared his experience here.
Chirag’s ability to attract and retain great teaching talent has made it a fabulous place to learn. Sumit Arora, 30, is a great example. An SRCC graduate with a Masters from Azim Premji University, he could be anywhere.
But he chooses to lead this amazing little school. And inspires everyone around him. Beth, the former assistant principal at the American Embassy School, volunteers full-time at Chirag.
The teachers at Chirag are driven. We saw a great example this month. Since the Chirag School is only till grade 5, kids have to switch to other schools in grade 6. The most coveted is the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya – a government run chain of residential schools which are almost free. The Navodaya entrance exam – with a pass rate of 2% (Link here) – is on Feb 4, 2018. Chirag has its annual vacation through January. Two Chirag teachers volunteered to help the kids prepare for the Navodaya entrance through the vacation. Both of them came to school everyday of January – including Saturdays. They did this free – for their students and their beliefs, not for money. Since Chirag kids are not used to exams, the teacher’s support was critical. Almost the whole of grade 5 turned up on most days through the semi-polar January. No wonder Chirag kids do exceptionally well in this exam.
For a school which is able to deliver all this, the Chirag School runs on a tiny budget. The holistic, progressive education of a child in the Chirag School costs Rs. 24,000 per year. With 122 kids, that is an annual budget of 30 lakhs. Most parents can pay precious little. The Chirag organization has been supporting the school 100%. But that support is now diminishing because of internal priorities at the NGO. The school needs money. It is raising funds for the next two years, and has also set-up an endowment fund.
My kids go to Chirag. I was heading the School Management Committee (SMC) for two years. I can vouch for the school and everything is delivers. In fact, Chirag is the reason we chose to live in these parts when we decided to leave Gurgaon for the mountains.
Please support this amazing school. You can learn more about the school and find payment links at www.chiragschool.org.
* Data points : 94.1% of Chirag’s class 2 students can read at grade level as compared to the national average of 13.4%. Over 94% of children in class 5 can do simple division as compared to the national average of 25.9%. (National data from ASER 2016)
Once in a year or two, nature’s massive heart beats. In 2017, it was in September – three days of incessant rain made for an extended drum-roll of a heartbeat. The life-blood of this planet coursed through every proverbial vein and artery. Everything was washed and renewed, and much was destroyed. A few mountainsides were swept away. Some trees realized they were too old to live. Some innocent birds and their hatchlings went with them. As humans we attempt to understand and explain such events from our various perspectives of insignificance. First through religion, and now through science.
But in our life here in the mountains, the main consequence of the extended downpour was an extreme consumption of sausages. You see when the rain happens at this scale, the power lines somewhere snap, needing days to be repaired. So if you have a freezer full of cold-meats, a binge automatically starts. It helped that a friend and his daughter were visiting, although only one of them ate meat. We don’t have full power backup here – just a solar inverter. One evening we discovered that a wire from the solar panel had come loose, and that night was spent by candlelight. For the grown-ups it was vaguely nostalgic, but for the kids it was a complete picnic with Sausages and Salami completing the experience.
The impact on life was bigger than just sausages of course. A boring old mountainside was suddenly transformed into a gushing waterfall.
Before the rain
After the downpour
Our landlord, neighbour and general provider of everything, Mohan da, normally collects water in two large tanks. He then pumps the water upto the overhead tank. But with the power gone for three straight days, he was unable to pump the water up. So the overhead water tank was soon empty. That meant no water in the taps, flush tanks or geysers.
We had to fall back upon a more mechanical and primitive lifestyle for a bit. The first day we skipped bathing. The next day we filled up buckets full of water and lugged them up to the bathrooms. Our maid got a 10 litre can of drinking water from the natural spring. We lit the chulha to heat the water in a tin container. My friend and his daughter too jumped into the rustic experience with much glee, blowing into the hot coals of the wood fire with a pipe to keep it going. It was a fun spell while it lasted.
This winter nature has continued with its ways, and the same boring old hillside is now covered in snow. The humans struggle to understand and explain. And a few of us simply accept and enjoy it. I see the snow as nature’s way of asking us to chill.
Indiblogger sent me an email 3 months back telling me about the IB 2017 awards. I’m a work-in-progress and blog once or twice a month, so I didn’t think I’d have much chance. But when I looked through their site I realized they had many categories.
“If I can find a category with 2-3 entries, maybe…” I said to myself.
I discovered they actually had state-wise categories, and Uttarakhand had only 3 entries. Bingo!
I submitted my entry and crossed my fingers. Then they emailed me again, saying I could nominate my blog for four other categories (with three posts required for each category). This time I thought of three appropriate posts in each category and submitted. But I still had my hopes pinned on Uttarakhand. India is a big country, and Indiblogger has over 25,000 registered blogs. What chance did I have?
I love trekking and have bought my share of 200 dollar hiking boots. But after living in a village, it seems too high a price to pay. Especially when an oldish guy with four teeth overtook me as he chased his goat past me on my last trek. He was wearing a worn out pair of bathroom slippers and I was wearing Asolos which cost a few Gazillion. And I was the one out of breath.
So I started my exploration for the Under-2000-rupee hiking boot. I have arrived at the ultimate solution, and it is surprisingly simple. Just follow the steps below.
Step 1: Go to your local army market (in Delhi, you can go to Gopinath Bazaar or Sadar Bazaar). Ask for Hunter shoes (formerly known as jungle boots). These shoes are made of Fabric and so are light and breathable. The assumption is simple – if an army can march on these shoes they are tough and will last.
They will range from 500-1500 rupees or so. I bought the top end shoes which were 1500. They’re called “Warrior” made by Liberty. And they’re ISI marked. What more do you want?
Step 2: The shoes will take care of strength and durability, but they aren’t going to be great for comfort. While a shoe’s comfort is from every aspect of the fit, a large part of it
Step 4 (optional): If you are into it, you can also paint your shoe (do it before the waterproof spray). Mercifully, I didn’t do it myself. Someone truly talented was happy to oblige me. I supplied the text. As a writer, that’s all I was good for. Viola! My shoe was a converse. Heh. Heh.
I guess you can call it the Indian Jugaad, but I wanted to ensure it works on a real hike. So I decided to trek in these shoes upto Roopkund and back in October. They held up just fine. I did spray my shoe with a waterproof spray someone had gifted me, but the trek was pretty dry so I didn’t have a chance to test the waterproofing. I was comfortable, felt secure, and on the longest day we hiked some 17 km in a single day. No problem.
I had broken the shoe in beforehand, and didn’t have any corns or blisters. In my view these are great hiking shoes that beat most of the cheaper hiking shoes in the market in both quality and price. Even the cheapest trekking shoe from Decathlon is some 3000 rupees, and it doesn’t come close to these shoes in comfort, sole quality and sheer solidity. The soles in the cover photo look like that after over a year of heavy use.
So you see I have just saved you a lot of money. I am delighted to make you feel rich this Christmas. Ho! Ho! Ho!
asked the taxi driver at Bangalore Airport as he put my backpack into the trunk of his car. I looked at him, trying to figure out why he thought so, and shook my head. I then showed him my friend’s address and explained that I was headed for her house. As we settled for a long drive in the taxi, he turned around and asked me,
“What country are you from?”
Now, I am neither blond haired nor blue eyed, but I have noticed that whenever I travel with my backpack I am mistaken for a foreigner. This is regardless of where I am – the Delhi Metro station, Bangalore airport or on a train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling around with a backpack in Indian or un-Indian clothes has had strangers attempting to talk to me in English, asking me which country I was from. This never happens to me when I travel through the same places, or elsewhere, carrying a suitcase or a bag. So. what is it about carrying a backpack that makes me un-Indian?
I realize that with a backpack folks cannot put me in a box. I know I don’t look like a student, definitely not college-age (however much I may wish I did). I proudly walk around with my untinted grey hair, announcing my middle age to all who may care. So, I clearly look my age. Perhaps I don’t act my age? The fact that I carry my well stuffed back-pack around defies the Indian rules of age, gender and class. Women of my age and social status are expected to have coolies or other men folk carrying their luggage. But then I have also lugged my own bags and seen other women do so at railway stations without being labelled foreigner. Of course, this is as long as the luggage in question is a suitcase or a bag. So, what seems to cause all this confusion is the innocuous backpack itself.
I have to admit that my backpack is an attention grabbing red with some grey. I bought the backpack more than 10 years ago from a specialty outdoor store. It is designed keeping the female form in mind. And, I have spent many a sweaty days, hiking with it in the mountains. However, now our hikes involve mules and it seem masochistic to lug uphill weight that I do not have to. So, my backpack has become my travel luggage of choice, especially when I travel alone. I prefer to carry my own bags. It makes me feel independent and in control. Perhaps that is what a backpack signifies – independence and control. Is that what is disconcerting then? An Indian woman, middle aged, independent and in control of her life?
Or. Is it that most women who travel with backpacks are foreigners? Hence, any woman who carries a backpack is a foreigner. But then any woman who wears Indian clothes is not necessarily assumed to be an Indian, especially if she has blue eyes and blond hair. Why then, with my brown eyes and black (ok, black and grey) hair am I mistaken for a foreigner?
Do tell me what you think. I’d love to hear your backpack stories or unusual travel tales.
About Dr. Vandita Dubey : A US licensed psychologist, Dr. Dubey works with her clients over phone and skype, and also hosts therapy retreats in the Himalayas. A published author, she also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com, and about the retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.
Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.
It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.
I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.
These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them
goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.
Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.
One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.
And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.
No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.
It’s not the same thing.
*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.
Poopkund. That’s what Roopkund is called when three of your fellow trekkers are between 9 and 10 years in age. The hordes of trekkers heaving their way to vast campsites which have taken over every level spot make that name more real.
We did this trek in early October and the weather was perfect. Ashish, a close friend, does such treks professionally and arranged everything. We had our own food, provisions, and staff. We hired six mules. Five to carry our material & packs. One mule was dedicated for my daughter R who loves animals. R had come on the condition that she would ride a mule.
This was the most ambitious trek we had attempted with kids – it’s highest point was 15750 feet. We had three kids in our group – R and AS, both 9, and AM who is 10. Every day of our trek was different and interesting.
Day 1: Drive to Wan village
We drove to Wan and stayed at the Paras hotel, about the only place in town. It was basic
and clean, but the kids named it the Kabristan (Cemetery) hotel.
Day 2: Hike from Wan to Bedni Bugyal
The trek starts with a gentle ascent, and a short downhill to a lovely stream. After that it is a steep climb. The total ascent that day was some 3500 feet. After 10 km we reached Ghairoli Patal. It was a pretty place and not too busy. In hindsight, we should’ve camped there even though it had less of a view. But we were on a schedule, and so we headed on to Bedni Bugyal. Bedni Bugyal was overrun with fixed campsites operated by outfits like Trek the Himalayas & Indiahikes. We liked the Indiahikes people and they also helped us in a tight spot. But we didn’t like what these companies were doing to the place with this volume of trekkers.
At the end of the day R & AS were fine but AM complained about aching feet. At one point that night tossing and turning in his sleeping bag he asked me “Why did we come on this stupid trek?”
Day 3: Bedni Bugyal to Pather Nachani
We started walking after a leisurely breakfast. This day was a short (5 km) uphill walk and the gradient was gentle. We reached Pather Nachani by lunchtime. We had planned less walking on day 3 & 4 because we were reaching higher campsites in short distances – Pather Nachani was over 13000 ft. We didn’t want to push for longer distances to ensure everyone acclimatizes well.
The shorter walk also helped AM recover. On reaching camp, after a brief rest all three kids were busy playing their games and running around.
We met Anuja at a chai shop in Pather Nachani. She was an Indiahikes staff member
and she was very curious about how the kids were doing. When she learnt that this was their first trek at this height, she handed me a whole strip of Diamox. We were blown away by her generosity and concern.
The main campsite at Pather Nachani was small and crowded. Our guide knew of another site further up the hill and it was a better place to stay for the night. Our campsite offered an amazing view of Chaukhamba.
The next morning we woke up to frost and below freezing temperatures.
Day 4 : Pather Nachani to Bhagwabasa
The alleged 5 k hike felt like less. The GPS said 3k, but with frequent patches without satellite signal. Not too reliable. This day’s walk started with a steep ascent. Once we reached the Shiv temple and two tea shops, the trail leveled off to a pretty & easy walk. The view from the temple was amazing – provided you have clear skies. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti loomed over us, austere and aloof in their snow capped glory. It was a great reminder of my own pathetic ego and mortality.
Bhagwabasa was yet another busy campsite, and water was hard to find. We had sent an advance party to grab a good campsite, while the rest of the group followed later. The advance party – two ultra fit women and our guide – were the luckiest because they got a clear open view of the big mountains.
As camp was being set up, we came again to the pit loos. The art of digging a pit loo was something Ashish’s crew learnt on the job. The first campsite had the pit so wide it felt like the morning dump and morning yoga were combined. The crew kept getting better with each new campsite. When the pit loo was dug in Bhagwabasa, we all saw Ashish do a tryout squat at the trench even before the tent was put up. Fortunately, he kept his pants on. That’s when we realized just how anal he is about customer service.
Bhagwabasa was freezing. Kids being kids insisted on running around without gloves and a hat. Earlier in the trek, the kids (and some adults) had complained of the occasional headaches and painful limbs, but they had all recovered on their own. But that evening, R threw up three times in a row. We panicked – our biggest fear in this trip was Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). (Learn more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altitude_sickness). Headaches and vomiting are both symptoms of AMS. One of the best ways to tackle AMS is to lose height. I immediately decided to put R on a mule and head down to Pather Nachani. But the mules and Mule-walas had all gone down to the valley so that the mules could graze and be warmer. They would only return the next morning.
I then headed to the India Hikes campsite to seek out their trek leader – a young man named Dushyant. He had stopped by our campsite at Pather Nachani that morning. An exceedingly nice person, he had asked about how the kids were doing, and had offered to help in any way required. At Bhagwabasa – after I told him R’s symptoms – Dushyant immediately walked back to our camp with me.
He had an oximeter – a tiny device which clamps on a finger. He told me that the Oximeter indicates the blood saturation level and is a good indicator of AMS. When we reached the campsite he chatted with R for a bit, and then took her saturation level. It was well above the minimum of 85. Then everyone in the camp had their saturation levels checked. Safe in the knowledge that nobody had AMS, we all slept.
R had a decent dinner, kept it down, and insisted that she would walk upto Roopkund the next day (mules don’t do the last 3k).
That night – or early next morning – we heard many groups pass by chanting stuff like “Ganpati Bappa Moriya” and “Har Har Mahadev”. My spiritual Himalayas had turned religious.
Day 5 : Bhagwabasa – Roopkund & Junar Gali – Bhagwabasa – Pather Nachani
We started off for Roopkund around 7 AM. Most groups had left at 4. The alleged reason was that you got a clear view of the big mountains from up there. I think it was also because it gave the camping companies enough time to get everyone down to Pather Nachani the same day.
But even at seven the temperature was 00C. The kids were cold, and R (who almost changed her mind about walking up) kept whining about how hard it was and how cold her fingers and toes were. I put her in an extra layer, had her tuck one hand into her underarm, and held her other hand in both of mine. Even then, she was cold. After a while the sun came out and she was warmer, but the whining continued about how difficult the climb was.
Vandita (R’s mother) turned around and told her “R, the constant whining doesn’t help you climb. You have to make up your mind and then act on it. You have to decide what you want to do, and do it for yourself. Just like when you decided you wanted to learn to swim. You inhaled water, you coughed and choked, and finally you learned how to swim. You had decided. This climb is the same way. You have to decide that you want climb the mountain, and then do it. The constant whining doesn’t help – it only makes it harder for you.”
It worked. R was energized after that, and went the rest of the way without a peep. A few places she stopped and took breaks, and said she was tired. But it was factual, and not whining.
The thin air made the climb to Roopkund harder. The last half km was the most gruelling. AM also had a slow climb. All the hikers coming down from the lake would say complimentary things to the kids. At one point AM saw a large group of trekkers descending towards us and said “Ab phir thank you bolna pade ga.” (Another round of thank you’s to be said.)
The rock star was Ashish’s son, AS. He’s only 9 but walked effortlessly without any signs of fatigue. Only on the final lake ascent did he display the smallest weakness – probably because of the altitude.
Roopkund itself was anticlimactic – more a puddle than a lake. AM gave it one glance and said “This is what we walked 4 days for?”. Junar Gali is a path going further up to the ridge beyond the lake. AM & I stopped at the lake itself, but Vandita and R went up to Junar Gali. They said the view from there was magnificent.
The walk down was as treacherous as the uphill was hard because of loose rock and scree. We made it down to Pather Nachani and decided to call it a day.
Day 6: Pather Nachani to Wan & drive home
Wan was a walk of 17 k – all downhill. It played hell on the knees and toenails to do it in one shot, but we were keen to get back in a hurry.
We reached Wan by lunchtime and drove out. Although we would reach home late in the night, it was much more inviting than another night at the Kabristan hotel.
Our Roopkund experience was great and terrible. The nature was great, the crowds were terrible. In future, before planning any trek I will check the websites of Trek the Himalayas, Youth Hostels Association and India Hikes. I will skip all treks that have fixed date departures on these sites and look for something less mainstream.
*Please note that the kids who went on this trek all live at an altitude above 6000 feet where they run up and down slopes all the time. They’ve all done easier treks like Pindari before.