One evening a few weeks back, I found myself sitting upon a rustic, old swing made of cracked wood and tattered rope on the side of a mountain while overlooking a series of rolling azure-colored hills dyed from the darkness of night that began to cover the landscape. Layers of blue ridges with varying shades were stacked up against each other as they dissipated into the blurred, foggy horizon and small lights from distant villages began to flicker across the hills like fire flies holding still over a field. I inhaled a long, deep breath of clear, dry air that cleansed my nostrils and lungs before exhaling—a sound so thunderous against the sheer silence surrounding me. Colors in the sky began shifting from warm pastel oranges to deep, cool lavender blues and I sat with my hands in my sweater pockets trying to hold in heat against the cold. I sit in deep thought and stare at the stretches of empty space beyond myself as I remembered the music of the children in school earlier. Moments later, sounds of sitar and flute rhythms hum quietly through the commune. “Ryan sir! A ja!” The youngest girl in the commune, Babita, calls to me. Within minutes I sit around a big table in the kitchen with warm, smiling faces as we all talk and enjoy chai. These eight people are the entire staff of the school, and they are all friends and live this life together—meditating, teaching, cooking, maintaining the commune and exploring nature around them. An hour passes and we find ourselves sitting quietly in a pitch dark room—blankets over ourselves, eyes closed, in lotus position—with only the sounds of our breath as we meditate. After only the first day, I feel already so content to have chosen to come to Ashram Paryavaran Vidyalaya (APV) School in Anjanisain, Uttarakhand for my AIF exposure visit. I continue with my eyes closed and visualizations of just twelve hours before stir in my mind that could not be more opposite from the present moments.
Flashback. The autorickshaw driver races around an elderly chaiwallah carrying his kettle as he crosses the street and then abruptly slams on his brakes and honks loudly at a car pulling out in front of him. The autowallah shouts, “arre kya kar raha hai! Piche jao!” Ganesha overlooks from above the drivers head. I look outwards and see the scatter of unfinished buildings stacked around shanty scrap metal huts and all the buildings in between that all cram together to make the never-ending neighborhoods of Mumbai. Racing forward, we are suddenly halted for ten minutes at an intersection as dozens of other vehicles are crammed in all corners of the four-way cross trying to move past each other in completely different directions. A fancy dressed woman in high heels and salwar kameez that shows her wealth steps out in front of a car going across our direction while talking on her cell phone and misses the front bumper by a hair. A poorer woman in broken chappals a dull red colored sari follows; carrying two children, she darts across with her family of three girls and husband following. We sit still and visible exhaust fumes from other cars begin to spread all around me like a cloud of cigarette smoke from a crowded bar. Horns blare and engines rev; the autodriver’s anger builds and he begins releasing Hindi shouts at me in retaliation. As we finally break free, we race past burning trash piles, jewelry stores, open sewers and finally arrive at the crowded train station where a mother holding a baby with blood saturated bandages over their forehead persistently tugs my shirt and asks me for change. Pushing, shoving, and covered in sweat, I climb the train past the crowds and squash myself up against the wall with dozens of other men cramped around me. The train ride cuts right through the city—exposing the views of slums, resettlements, polluted rivers, tall buildings and crowded streets. I follow the flow of the train, swaying from right to left—holding onto medal handles hanging from the ceiling and leaning against other bodies around me to support myself while bending my knees to release the tension of standing. Smoke fills the air of Mumbai today, along with a wet heat that sticks to your body, leaving an unrecognizable grey color in the sky. I follow the crowd as we fumble out of the moving train and get pushed by an elder auntie as I traverse my way to work. Today was a field day, so I was wearing my stained Magic Bus shirt and ready to traverse the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) slum community to deliver a session to peer leaders on Health. While thinking about how to explain TB prevention, a man spits bright red colored paan across my walking path, missing me by just centimeters.
These were the constant juxtapositions playing in my mind as I stayed in APV for one week and lived a different, isolated life within India that goes unseen under the radar as cities continue growing and where social and economic development is more concentrated. So many moments like the one above could not have been more opposite to my regular life back in Mumbai. They were not always better, but they very unfamiliar to me after months in the megacity. The calmness, the silence, the food, the air, the mountains, the organization of APV, the different trees and the space—I could not believe that I was in the same country at times. APV is one of those special places that you visit and immediately witness why people rave over it. From the moment I arrived, I was warmly welcomed as a part of the community and began five days of opening my mind and heart to a place that does so much more than just alternative education. Upon walking up the steep hill of steps that passes through the ashram and the school, I arrived at the commune where the teachers and the school’s mastermind, Anandji Dwivedi, live together. Within moments, I was sitting with everyone for dinner and almost immediately I began to see the school as more of a social movement than an institution. I would eventually learn of the absolute collectivity of everything, of dinner as a venue to meet and access each other for discussion and planning, of true education to not be merely just an end—but a means towards liberation. There are no titles, no visible hierarchy and complete access to everyone at almost all times.
The objective of the visit to APV was to observe the unique pedagogies practiced in the school’s secondary education, as well as to see how Magic Bus’ notion of right to play relates to APV’s practical education since both promote the idea of children “learning through doing”. Both APV and Magic Bus are very different organizations, as Magic Bus is a NGO working for Sports for Development (S4D) across India and APV is a grassroots school based in one small community and run by people from nearby communities. I decided to stay a full week to understand the complete picture of how the school operates. I spent five days attending classes, meditating with teachers (4x a day—with two 1 hour sessions) and students, teaching art, playing music with the kids, cooking, hiking and trying to understand how a school with no grades, tests or syllabi actually functions. Speaking with Anandji, I was informed about the vision of the school and how they wished to steer away from the norm of Indian education that focuses mostly on dictation, memorization and competition. Instead, the children were taught to learn from the world around them, their own knowledge within and from each other. Of course teachers are also valuable resources for the kids, but they are not expected to be the principle means for education. The kids learn collectively and the teachers use
practical methods to convey important messages to kids about subjects ranging from math to geography—with dance, music, drama and objects from nature as some of the methods explored. The trip was also a great time to do some internal reflection through meditation. At first it was scary to think of meditating for so long, so often. But, it turned out to be an intense experience that cleared so many thoughts and mind-clatter from the past seven months (or 25 years…). The trip was a great reason to explore the mountains, get to know Vova (the AIF Fellow at APV), spend time with some very special people and witness a revolution in education. I learned so much from each teacher and particularly spent a lot of time with Anandji talking about development, meditation and the mind. I admired the teaching styles and believe that other populations could benefit from such teaching structures since it emphasizes the betterment of the self as a repairing mechanism for society rather than the counter.
Throughout the visit, juxtapositions continued playing in my mind as I reflected on too many conversations with children from Magic Bus on their struggles that were so distinct from those children of APV. Their problems that they face from an educational system that was too strict and competitive have actually kept a few of them out of school. The theme of the rural-urban continuum occupied my thoughts. I wondered about the madness of a system that pulls people out of their villages and into cities where opportunities and wealth are concentrated, all in the name of modernity. Or where, in the name of development, people are displaced from their lands and forced to migrate to urban centers. At Magic Bus, we
work with underprivileged children from slum communities and the majority of them have migrated from rural areas. Many of them have left villages through will or force, where they grow food and live off their land, for slums of Mumbai in search of a better life. It is a demented irony that life becomes more unpleasant in these cities where they can live in the middle of the economic action and still become socially subordinated and as immobile, if not more, than before. Imagining the kids of APV moving to cities for these reason seemed so wrong, and yet possibly inevitable given the examples of so many other rural areas of India. They already had a place to grow and live a good life. APV empowers the children further by teaching them how to use their minds to support their communities and themselves. In this sense, it breaks the trend and moving to a city become unnecessary for the community members when they can make important contributions to sustain their own community. When I showed the kids pictures of Mumbai and they saw slums in the photos, many of them started to become curious, asking things as, “are those slums?” I expected this from American kids who have never seen Indian cities and this kind of poverty, but being in India for so long now, I was surprised to see them so alarmed and intrigued by a daily sight in most urban Indian settings like Mumbai. Some of them were confused when I explained what a slum was and they asked questions like, “well, why would they move to such a sad place?” “where do they see nature?” “why don’t they stay in their villages?” I did not really have enough answers to such complicated questions, but it highlighted a paradox of the world that I still can not grapple with – a perpetual system that pushes people into cities with promises of opportunity to inevitably trap them in poor, unnatural and more dangerous living conditions that humans have ever lived.
Everything is complex though. As an outsider, the landscape and lifestyle of APV seemed so idyllic. Yet, the dark side of health and social problems that impact the lives of the kids were visible and challenged my hasty perceptions of this place being at all perfect. APV does great work, but like all development efforts, there is more to be done and hopefully they will continue growing to do so. What they do is very crucial though, and, just like Magic Bus, it important to remember that given the context these programs are the best thing available for these children. Despite differences, the efforts to empower children and teach them what society does not is a end result that both Magic Bus and APV seem to achieve strongly in different manners. It would be great if Magic Bus can work more in educational settings and APV can expand to use more sports in their curriculum. Meditation is one element that Magic Bus should definitely adopt – especially in Mumbai! Thinking of the environment though, it is no doubt that the hyper stresses of the city life are not as readily available in the mountains. After a week of bonding with incredible people, getting to know new communities with distinct issues, learning how to cook so much good vegetarian Indian food, hiking through the nearby hills and even being able to teach the children—I felt calm, rejuvenated and almost did not want to go back to life in Mumbai. I have struggled with my projects in Mumbai as I have worried that what I do may not be enough. At APV, it was instant gratification as all of my ideas and efforts were immediately valued, supported and appreciated. Returning to Mumbai though, it did not take long to remember the double-edged razor: there truly are great things about Mumbai that I could not get up in the mountains. I brought the gratification of my week in APV back to Mumbai and Magic Bus and hope to keep the morale high on things I do here with our kids since the reality is that they still need so much.
Some clips of songs and view at APV:
Look out for more personal posts on APV and my time in India at my personal blog.