Odhisha '11


2016-09-11 4 min read

Travelling by the Indian Railways has always been an experience in itself. Despite the undoubted developments of the past decade or so, vestiges still remain of the clunky carriages from the days of the Raj, trundling along at yet-mellow paces that their newer, sleeker kin would but scoff at. One doesn’t complain, though, when passing through the plains of Uttar Pradesh, the green of the fields offset every now and then by a small town or to. Bustling, always bustling – there are very few that don’t lead an active, productive life in such places.

For the first time we laid eyes upon what lay beyond the reaches of the Northern Railway, the lusher foliage and staple crop fields giving way to more hardy vegetation, tougher crop, and a quite palpable transition into the Deccan plateau. What was most surprising was the stark resemblance of the forests of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the German Black Forest, or even the intermittent Alpine jungles the EuRail glides past (as remembered fleetingly from a childhood sojourn through the Schengen).

What it is to be a child in every sense of the word; what I would not give to revisit either, and perhaps devote a little less time to the frantic card games and seemingly endless entertainment simple chatter would provide, napping with earphones still whispering whichever lyrical testament to teenage hormonal angst we deemed the most moving at the time. With the entire coach to ourselves, there was little or no fear of strangers, or worse, adults, quelling our conversation with the stares they have honed over the years…

We dropped anchor (figuratively, of course) somewhere in Chhattisgarh, a nondescript little station with the smell of freshly caught fish turning quickly into something rather less appealing as the heat and humidity took toll. Searching in vain for someplace to provide some little sustenance for the last leg of the journey, we ended up at the most ramshackle of dhaba’s in some corner of that sleepy town, and a rushed meal of hurriedly-prepared gruel later, back we were trying to settle down in a classic sleeper coach that would deliver us to Koraput the following morning.

It was much crisper than I was expecting, I remember noting with some happiness, as we savoured the sight of Koraput junction – early though it still was, dawn had a bite to it that those used to the muggy mornings of May in New Delhi hardly related to. Further travel arrangements were hardly as clear: a line of reluctant rickshaws ended up ferrying the luggage and laughter of 22 students on a mission, right across town and to the outskirts, where a small hill gave the faintest clue as to our final destination.

Perhaps a soundtrack would’ve been apt. The moment called for it: right as one descends the hill, one can see the reservoir somehow left unnoticed from the road, spanning happily as far as the eye could see, the surface of the water broken only by further hills – the Lochs I hope to see someday will compare to this sight, and not the obverse. And as if to complete the resplendent picture, a line of boats sat invitingly ashore. Skimming across the startlingly blue lake a shore soon came to view, with little dark dots seemingly moving around of their own accord at the (for lack of a better word) beach itself.

The dots resolved into the reason we were there: children from the nearby adivasi villages had gathered to see the ragtag bunch of almost-adults that’d take on the responsibility of teaching them the bare basics of Maths, English and Science for a couple of weeks (and perhaps fill in a few lessons on music and art in the middle, thought the ones that had hopefully brought along guitars and water colours).

Our school had put a twist on the CBSE-mandated 24 hours’ worth of community service as part of our boards in class XII; having planned a trip to Kechla, as it is called, wherein a branch of the Ashram so closely associated with our school ensured the children of that part of Odhisha would not fall blind prey to Maoist extremism and brainwashing, as generations before them had.

Having deposited our luggage we were confronted with bittersweet sights all around: the dog that had taken up residence at the Ashram, full of vigour but with some slight malaise on her tail, the rolling expanse of hills punctuated here and there by patches of barren land where ancient landslides or illegal mining had denuded the topsoil or rendered the ground toxic, and the lake itself, sparkling blue in places and brown where the rock and dirt had chosen to settle. The children were not exempt from this rule: over the course of time we learnt of their extraordinary mental acuity, willingness to learn and physical capabilities that only the hyperactivity of one’s formative years can bring, coupled with the stories the regular inhabitants of the Ashram told us, stories of how their parents would beat them for daring to receive education and their inability to sometimes provide them with three full meals a day.

That said, though, it was quite something to see the frankly refreshing method of imparting education the Ashram had chosen to adopt: classes were topic-specific rather than time-bound, meals were punctual to a fault and wholesome, and much to the relief of the more creative sort, interludes to include brief introductions to nursery rhymes and innovative but simple art techniques were made mandatory for the time we were there. The emphasis was never placed on rote learning of a particular topic, which was allowed to fade the moment one successfully cleared whatever examination existed for the same. Rather, the children were constantly encouraged to implement what they had learnt, be it replacing the synonym of an old, ‘easy’ word with a new word they’d learnt, using Maths to solve the smaller monetary issues at home, discussing amongst each other what they actually preferred to study so that some sort of distinction may be made in terms of who had more of an inclination towards which particular subjects.

It’s a comment on our, and on a larger scale, the global education system, that poets and thinkers, philosophers and mathematicians, are lumped together and made to learn what is deemed necessary by people some 30 years past their own formative years and no bias is given to what the child actually appears to have an interest in or excel at; this fundamental (and rather gaping) flaw is something that can be solved by looking at such instances of (for lack of a better world) schools, which happily seems to be gaining some amount of traction around the world. May the philanthropists, the visionaries, the ones with the clout to be able to make a difference sit up and take notice.


The exploration of the surrounding landscape we managed to do would take quite another article in itself: two weeks is more than enough to bestow names on the more distinctive of the hills and figure out the best spots in the lake for swimming and diving unfettered, as we did, forever accompanied by some of the friendliest dogs we’ve met. Two weeks were also enough to discover that any place such as this in the wilderness has dangers of its own, with not a few pairs of shoes turning into night shelters for a host of frogs, toads and (in one instance) a very shell-shocked grass-snake. More, perhaps, on those, in subsequent editions.