“I think I’m suffering from a “Writers Block”, I told my better-half one day. “Isn’t that something that affects writers. Why should you suffer?” came his reply. I blast at him and prove (once again) that I was, after all, the worse-half.
I knew in my heart that I had been putting away this post for too long. As far as I was concerned, I had very good reasons. How was I supposed to write about home without mentioning my family. It’s difficult, but I had a promise to keep. I’m not going to name them or post a picture of them. But I’m going to write about them, their schools, their work, their passion and everything else. This post is dedicated to a special ‘Arunachali couple’.
In the distance, the looming hills of Kamlang sanctuary seemed to soften with the waning golden evening light. The ghostly swirls of mist added beauty as they curled around the barks of the abundant Hollong trees that stood in creepy silence. Birds kept flapping above our heads, trying to get back to their nests before dark. The road ahead of us was deserted; our Scorpio was the only vehicle competing with itself and trying to get on with the winding path ahead.
When Jayanto da took a sudden left turn and drove onto a mud path, we did not know what to expect. But we knew we were ‘finally’ home. We were in Wakro.
Wakro – the land of oranges – something to compete with Nagpur – is a beautiful town in the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. Did we chose the wrong season to visit Wakro? We didn’t know that the small trees that lined the roads from Parasuramkund to Wakro were none other than orange trees, until Jayantoda pointed them out. So much for a masters degree in Botany!!
The orange orchards that spread across the Mishmi hills and valleys are nourished by the gushing waters of Lohit River. Wakro is also home to the Kamlang Reserve, a dense forest, with rich flora and fauna. Tezu, the district headquarters, is located about 60 km from Wakro.
In front of us stood a single storey building. This tin roofed modest structure may look ordinary to the common man. But appearances can be deceptive, as some extraordinary things happen here in this long house that doubles as an office and residence. This building, aptly named ‘Anugraha’, belongs to an ‘Arunachali couple’ who run two excellent and innovative educational institutions and a library under the Anu Shiksha Seva Trust (ASSET) with the graceful blessings of His Holiness Swami Sri Sri Anubhavananda Saraswatijii.
Happiness is a state that is envied by those who are not happy and enjoyed by those who are happy. But is happiness really as easy as it looks though? Yes, says Swami Anubhavananda, a philosopher and well followed spiritual saint. The ever smiling Swamiji’s motto is “Be Happy” or “मौज में रहो “. Both the schools and the library have been inspired by this philosophy.
We seemed to be engulfed by this happiness the moment we stepped into the campus. Apna Vidya Bhavan (AVB), an English medium semi-residential school and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGVB), a special school for rural tribal girls funded by the Government of India are located at a stones throw away. Apne Library, the children’s library coordinated by the Vivekananda Trust and AWIC (Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children), managed by ASSET, is located across the road.
ASSET has been contributing to the society by promoting girl’s education in a big way. The school drop-out rates are considerably high, especially among girls, in these parts, and ASSET has tried to change this tradition by convincing the village elders about the importance of education of the girl child to attain her rightful place in society.
The schools have come a long way from the days they started as a single classroom for nursery classes to a double storied school building with hostel facilities. At the schools, along with teaching the normal curriculum, the teachers try to inculcate the passion for all subjects. Children are also encouraged to read books and now Suppandi and the Wimpy kid are very much a part of their lives. The schools have also played an important role in keeping alive the traditions by including Mishmi weaving and knitting classes under the pre-vocational training programs, along with capacity building programs, fitness programs, and awareness programs on health and sanitation. The teachers and support staff are also subjected to regular training and orientation programs.
The APNE Library, the ‘Ranganatha Retreat’, is a tribute to two eminent personalities of the library movement in India, Swami Ranganathananda ji and Prof. S.R. Ranganathan.
Swami Ranganathananda ji self educated himself from a hostel-cook to an international scholar through spirited reading and set up many libraries for poor youth in all of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrams he lived. Prof. S.R. Ranganathan is the father of Library Science in India.
The girls of KGBV are active library volunteers, who during vacations, run holiday-libraries in their villages.The children regularly take part in library activities and have even formed a reading brigade that goes to other schools and encourages reading habits in other children. The library has also evoked enthusiastic response from the village elders.
The schools were closed for the Pooja holidays and the children were enjoying their vacations at home. For the next five days we stayed with Uncle at the APNE Library. The main hall of his modest two room home had been converted into a treasure trove of books. We literally felt like kids in a candy store. Aren’t we all familiar with that musty smell of books? The trips to the library as a child or that cozy ambiance of a book store….. happy memories.
The library neatly stacked with a collection of more 1000 books ranging from Amar Chitra Kathas to Roald Dahl, and Ruskin Bond to Dr. Seuss. Decked up with drawings and sketches and poems and photos and newspaper clippings, it was the true altar of the written word. Uncle doesn’t throw away a piece of paper. Every paper is recycled, be it an envelope, a pamphlet, or a calender. Colourful full length advertisements are cut out and customised into posters with peppy and innovative slogans.
There is more beyond the books stacked neatly in the shelves. There are frequent book exhibitions, reading sessions, workshops on improving reading skills, cultural and sports programs, environmental awareness and much more. The books in these libraries are donated by well wishers and publishing companies. Though it is Uncle who co-ordinates the many little details that go into getting these books, the library is run by the “library activists” or “Reading Brigade” as uncle calls them. Come evenings, the library turns into a hub of activities that include story telling, quizzes, booking readings, and enactments.
The APNE Library at Wakro has also been staging small skits on little-known but inspiring personalities like Baby Halder, Dr. Usha Mehta, Dr. Kamla Sohoni, Rukminidevi Arunadale, Sri Aurobindo, Anutai Wagh, Dr. Varghese Kurien and more recently Dr. George Washington Carver, the legendary black American agricultural scientist of late 19th century.
Each skit has a message. The reader-activists, all girls, perform the skits not only in English and Hindi but also in their mother-tongue, Mishmi, so that the message reaches the common villagers too. The girls take all the responsibilities from translating, preparing the script and rehearsing. More lately, while performing skits in open noisy areas, they have used an audio-computer program where the entire dialogues are pre-recorded, and then later played at the venue.
The children are encouraged to write stories too. A lot of their stories, drawings and articles have been published in well known magazines like Children’s World and Dimdima Monthly, regularly. APNE Library has also the honour of receiving several guests including writers, research scholars, army and government officials, who keep inspiring the library reader-activists in many ways.
The continuous support of the Lohit Brigade and the 2nd Mountain Division of the Indian Army have gone a long way and
they have not only been sponsoring girls students and providing free education and hostel facilities till secondary level, but have also played an important role in the development and adding new classrooms to the school.
We were also lucky to attend two functions arranged by the schools and ASSET. The first function was to felicitate Brig Vikal Sahni, Cdr 82 Mtn Bde and Dr. Latika Sahni. Apna Vidya Bhavan received a gift of Montessori Teaching Learning Aids from His Holiness Sri Sri Swami Anubhavananda Saraswatiji which was presented by Dr. Latika Sahni, Dean, Asian Business School.
Dr. Latika, herself an educator for more than two decades, appreciated the APNEs and the educational environment maintained by ASSET in this remote rural region. It was so heartening to see Brig Vikal Sahni and Dr. Latika Sahni interacting with the children. The function was not only attended by teachers and students, but also by the parents and villagers. The guests were entertained by songs, skits and traditional Mishmi dances.
The second function was a prize distribution ceremony in which we were made to distribute prizes to the kids who won the Solung/Rangoli competition. APNE Library had organized an Onam-Solung Rangoli contest with a view to promote eco-awareness and cleanliness consciousness among the Wakro villagers. The contest with the theme, “Clean Arunachal for a Happy Arunachal” – “Saaf Arunachal, Sukhi Arunachal” drew nearly 100 students from three nearby schools.
We were happy to do our little bit of encouragement by giving away the prizes and the kids performed a few skits, songs and kept us entertained.
There are two kinds of people: those who do all the work and those who take all the credit. In Arunachal we met a third kind – those who do all the work and who refuse to take the credit. Our dear Arunachali couple, who refuse to be named, give all credit to the blessings of Swami Anubhavanandaji for the immense energy, generosity, and discipline under which both the schools and library are functioning. The time we had with the ASSET family, the children, and the schools was well spent. The work that has been done to shape and strengthen not just their education but also the inspirational activities where they get to express their creativity and talent for a good cause is commendable.
I have always tried to write these posts in such a way that even after many years when I look back, I should be reminded of how I felt back then. Writing about the Arunachali couple, made me happy. I’m sure I’m going to feel that way always.