My Vanyatra
(To Indori, Khaded, Ambewade & Manjar Gaon – Maharashtra State)

A sense of orderly bustle reigns in the hamlets when we arrive over there. In one of the villages, the children (all boys, average age between 8-11 years) display their talent of treating us to a splendid parade, complimented by drummers in tow. In perfect beat of rhythm, the marching batch of EKAL pupils leads us through a steep, rickety ascend – right up to the doorway of a dark classroom, and then disperse to join the eager mates who are already sitting in neat rows. It is quite a scene where your heart swells to observe the overall enthusiasm of the residents.

Viewing India, the Indian villager has always been more welcome conscious… feeling privileged to receive a guest. The perks that come for the guest are special and therefore through the traditional style, we were welcomed at all the EKAL schools with the tilak ceremony, and at one place the shawl ceremony also took place. The people are extremely generous even though their ramshackle homes look at us from the shadows of impoverishment.

Travelling into the interior of Ghoti from Mumbai was a morning dawned with grey skies and cool temperatures. There was a monsoon-like mist sometimes on the way – though the rainy season was fading. All that morning we rode through good roads from south of Mumbai to cover the round-trip-distance of 350 kilometers by car. Rajesh Wagh was our driver – a well-educated B.Com man pursuing his own family business of providing car service. By his conversation, I learned even more about the perils of the road!

The other companion was Ajit Shah, who works with F.T.S. (Friends of Tribal Society)-Mumbai. As F.T.S. is prominently associated with the EKAL Vidyalaya Foundation, F.T.S. has been providing me support to connect with EKAL – during all my trips to Mumbai from Dubai. Ajit Shah arranged my entire trip for the four schools located in Indori, Khaded, Ambewade and Manjar Goan of Maharashtra State. He is knowledgeable, and this was a good chance to learn from him about the EKAL schools running in various parts of India. Maharashtra, in particular is important to me due to its relevance of proximity – I am a long time resident of Mumbai. So, there we were… all set for the Ekal Vanyatra! Starting point was from Nariman Point (Mumbai) at 9.30 a.m.

We drove via Thane to Kalyan, and then to Bhiwandi. In Padagha village, just before Shahpur, we halted at a roadside café, by the name of Shree Datta Snacks. The breakfast was a typical Maharashtrian meal of missal and pao… missal is a type of white beans cooked in a curry… pao is the bread… kneaded and prepared real soft. The white baked sweetmeat, kharvas made out of a pregnant cow’s milk rounded off the breakfast course. The man at the cash counter gave me the recipe of karvas… sugar and nutmeg are the basic ingredients of the dish – karvas is revered as a popular delicacy.

As we drove on after breakfast, it seemed we were leaving the world behind. Kilometers after kilometers were clad in green! Grasses appeared like tassels fanning the landscape. Soon after, began the climb of Kasara Ghats (elevation 585m) winding through the range of Western Ghats. The more we advanced, the more picturesque it got… green was the colour! Paddy was seen prominently. Unlike in some parts of Maharashtra, trees of teak don’t seem to grow here.

Before reaching Ghoti, we decided to take a break for lunch. So it was time to open the tiffin boxes of homemade lunch I had brought; this time, we stopped by a road in Igatpuri and did not mind an odd car or a bus passing by. We knew that once we reached Ghoti, there would be no time-slot for lunch. And that was true!

In Ghoti, we were received by Shri. Mohan Trimbak Bhagat (Local Ghoti Committee Member of EKAL) and Shri. Dilipsingh Sardarsingh Chauhan (Ghoti Anchal Pramukh), along with a practicing advocate Shri. Rohit, who, is also steadfast for the EKAL cause. All three are friends and they gave us time and useful information on Ghoti as well as on the tribals. I learnt that Dilip and Mohan were born and brought up in Ghoti, itself. When you have prominent locals accompanying you, this can be extremely purposeful to get knowledge regarding the region. I discussed the importance of their role as locals.

Our first school for inspection was in Indori, followed by Khaded, Ambewade and Manjar Gaon. The various acharyas – teachers I met were Chandrakala Chakrashar, Vanita Valu Bhankoli, Tulsi Soma Bhankoli, Indira Gabhale and Anita Keru Thavale. We also had some men folk like Govind Jadav, Raghunath, Amruta Devram with us to answer my questions regarding the EKAL schools. The Gram Pramukh – the Village Chief, Kashinath Ghabale actively participated. The whole clan was happy to be photographed!

Once we reached a school of EKAL – every movement of mine was woven together into a brisk interaction with the teachers, the children and some residents. The EKAL Acharyas (teachers) translated my conversing thoughts and questions quite briskly from Hindi to the Marathi language. The children, in return, understood and answered most suitably – and that was translated back to me in Hindi. So, the language-differences had been sorted out in no time! This was huge!

Interestingly, the government schools in this region are not having the problem of errant teachers – who can really show a poor attendance. On my asking the crowd, they said the teachers in their government schools are regular and good. On my asking the crowd, if EKAL classes were conducted regularly – the answer to that was a loud: Yes! The kids and parents confirmed that the EKAL classes are beneficial. I had questions and answers sessions in counting numbers and framing sentences by requesting the kids to come up to the blackboard. Most of the kids seemed confident and chanted the prayers with a lot of gusto. There were a couple of small issues which were discussed – some were clarified on the spot by Ajit Shah.

When we left Ambewade, we discussed the challenges and achievements of EKAL amongst us as we drove to Manjar Gaon. All over India, the backward people (not only the tribals) have been warring against poverty and illiteracy. However, contemporary and well-informed minds confirm that the backward class is beginning to see that they cannot live a reclusive life; somehow, they must educate their children. They realize their ultimate refuge lies in becoming literate. Perhaps, among other reasons – this is one reason why EKAL schools have gained the momentum. The forestland is a remarkable replica they can hold on to… but the facts are known to the Adivasis – this land though inherited cannot be sold commercially to raise cash. Under government law, no one is permitted to sell or buy their land.

I can tell that though the Advasis own the land, it is not a comfortable situation for them. I thought to myself: Even if the Advasis are having the land, they are chained by ignorance. I caught them in chains particularly when I saw how much fallen out they are from all basic human standards.

Manjar Gaon culminated our trip, and the voices of the children sitting cross-legged on the bare floors, began to fade away – but not their faces. ‘It is time for us to depart,’ Dilip and Mohan signaled.

Though the sky was filled with grey looming clouds, the dusk came on with the sun briefly glowering as it turned westwards. The forest-path that lay in front was bringing back the herd of cattle. It was like a motion-picture-scene running with my rapid thoughts. Down the swift day, from halt to halt, I was drawing even closer to the realities that engulf the lives of the tribals. ‘How far is the closest hospital or a dispensary from here?’ I asked. ‘Thirty five kilometers’, Dilipsingh said. And I was thinking: these Adivasis are out of everything… food… transport… basic requirements of nourishment, shelter, health… emergency. The caverns of their misery are deep…deep.

So, what are we supposed to do? Push ourselves over into a trance of saying that this is all-too-whelming for anyone of us? It is just at this moment that we will have discovered how utterly we are escaping from a challenge which will come to get us, too! I think, ‘individually’, we must learn to do our bit. Past the marshes and weeds… ‘individually’… we must take small, baby steps to eradicate the curses befallen on these tribes. By lifting them, we are lifting the morale of the whole country… our India. By lifting them, we are raising our own self-esteem within our families and globally. What a reward!

The hamlets I saw are a common representation of almost each state of India. To catch the glimpse of the tribals, and then recount India’s speedy advancement in sectors like: Information Technology, Medicine, Engineering, Bollywood – my heart is going helter-skelter with awe and confusion. You know why? Because, India does have the potential to remove ignorance and backwardness! Again, I feel I must re-emphasize that if all of us were to take a few baby steps… past the marshes and weeds… we can get to the green pastures… to lift so many lives! More than the money, we need the will! There is one more aspect that was the concluding thought of my Vanyatra. It is this: If donation in the form of financial support is the “heart” of running EKAL schools, then, the field-work is the “lungs” to keep EKAL living and thriving. There is a large human angle involved to keep the field-work tight and progressive. There is a large human angle in motivating, guiding the volunteers, workers and teachers because new situations arise. Fresh challenges might arise in the hamlets among the dwellers. Hence, field-workers need advice and coaching from superiors. Efficient field-work provides sanctuary to EKAL’s ideals and hence monitoring the system of field-work is critical.

In all seriousness, I also believe that in order to understand about EKAL – Vanyatras should be taken up by donors. F.T.S. and EKAL are wishing that more and more donors come to see the functioning of the schools. They are waiting with open arms to encourage Vanyatras! This is definitely so in Maharashtra… as I experienced it. For me, it has been an indescribable understanding to learn about the functioning of the EKAL schools. The more we visit the schools, more overall inspiration will spread within the hamlets and villages. Coming to the point of Vanyatras – our Chairman – Shri Harshad R. Mehta is initiating people in the UAE to go on Vanyatras… the airfare contribution readily comes from him. What an offer! (For more details, Shri Shankar Chellaram – Manager (CSR) can be contacted on mobile No. +971 50 8484498).

As our journey rode to night, sitting in silence, I couldn’t put my mind at ease. How could I? Again and again and again the same reflections were chewing my conscience! I knew, darkness and disease are waiting at every bend… which is the reality of any Adivasi’s cruel circumstances. Poverty and ignorance are the monsters waiting at every bend for these poor people! Solution? Education. Solution? E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N!

I recall how Sri Sri Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) tried opening the eyes of society. ‘If the child cannot go to school, the school must go to the child’, the Indian philosopher preached, and EKAL has succeeded to follow the practical concept – that’s the impression I definitely get. That’s indeed some solace….

After this Vanyatra, I think, I have been caught faster in the cause of EKAL – than I expected to! I’m blessed if I take on more and more Vanyatras….

Geeta Chhabra

President – EKAL UAE Chapter

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