Tag Archives: Apne Library

Wakro – Back to School

“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’.
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Wakro: nature fully loaded

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.
Orange Country

Orange County

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.
Anugraha

Anugraha

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.
Photo courtesy: Google images

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.
Pick your school

Pick your school

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.
KGBV, Wakro

KGBV, Wakro

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.
A class at APNA Vidya Bhavan

A class at APNA Vidya Bhavan

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.
Showcasing the Library movement

Showcasing the Library movement

 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.
APNE Library, Wakro

At the steps of wisdom. APNE Library, Wakro

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.
Our own library: APNE Library

Our own library: APNE Library

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.

Innovative recycling

Innovative recycling

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.
Uncle Moosa's 'Reading Brigade'

Uncle Moosa’s ‘Reading Brigade’

 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.

George Carver skit team APNE Library Wakro

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.
Photo courtesy Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor

James and the Giant Peach team, APNE Library Wakro

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.
Photo courtesy Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor

Enacting John Carver skit

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.
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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.
Photo courtesy Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor
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.

A skit on Sri Aurobindo being performed

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.
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With Uncle Moosa and friends in Tezu

            

It all began with our Uncle. Uncle Moosa we call him. Not just us. Most of East Arunachal calls him that – and for good measure.

Uncle Moosa a.k.a Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor

It is Uncle, as part of a select band of social missionaries, who took a good part of two generations of the region on that delightful journey from A to B (and beyond!) And we are not even talking distances here. Which is what, usually, you would worry about when you think of a trip to Arunachal Pradesh.

Uncle quit a plush job in one of the most coveted of organizations – the Income Tax. While many were eager to land a job as an I.T.O., he quit it. That was not where his place was, he felt. Even as he did an M.A. in linguistics and bided his time there, bigger plans and a dream was preparing  him for what he knew was his true calling.

One day he got the call. There was no caller ID those days. But he made out that it was from his inner self. He picked that, and a couple of bags, up and set out for that frontier where he saw the sun of his dreams rise. The destination was Arunachal Pradesh and the work cut out. Those were the early days of Vivekananda Kendra’s forays into lettering the North East and Uncle wanted to be a part of that movement. He, with a committed brethren of teachers and social activists, spent over 3 decades in the region – setting up schools, teaching and sculpting a future for generations.

32 years and thousands of students later, Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor a.k.a Unni a.k.a Uncle Moosa a.k.a Uncle Sir is pretty much an establishment himself. Only, now he has shed the Kendra’s banner and has donned another which hangs cheerfully outside his modest but neat library-cum-residence in Wakro, in Lohit district in eastern Arunachal– one of the thirteen small but purposeful reading rooms that he set up, almost single-handedly, in the remotest villages of the Lohit and Anjaw districts.

Uncle Moosa’s Calling Cards

Uncle has a simple yet meaningful enough explanation of his move from the Kendra to starting the library movement in the state. This was, he said, a change from a big umbrella to a smaller umbrella. He felt his role in his earlier avatar had ended and that he just had to begin something new. To do that, he felt it was time for the smaller umbrella to unfold.

Lest he should tick us off for attributing the success of the library movement only to him, a quick clarification. It would also not have been possible but for the contributions – much needed funds, encouragement and physical volunteering – by his countless well-wishers all over Arunachal and the rest of India, and well the world. If one’s deeds were to be the measure of one’s stature, Uncle Moosa towers above most everyone we have met!

And it was Wakro, his present base, that we were eventually headed towards. There were still a few more places to be covered before that – Tezu, the many small villages along the Lohit; Walong and further up all the way to the Chinese border. These were more than lovely, lesser known places (which is what travellers like us seek them out for). For someone like Uncle, these were the outposts that needed all the support required to spread the light of learning and knowledge – places that his library movement had been blessed by. Each of these libraries had been set up by him (and, directly or indirectly, by his small but committed band of well-wishers, patrons and volunteers) in all those long, relentless trips made to these remote parts, carrying books and other material mostly by himself.

For anyone who thinks a trip to East Arunachal is easy, it is not. Unlike Tawang or Itanagar, this part of the state actually is not on travel agent itineraries. There aren’t even many options to stay…and certainly no hotels or resorts – something that, thankfully, we were not affected by. For, we had already got to sample some of the amazing social fare that Uncle has been instrumental in whipping up in East Arunachal. Our innerline permits, the logistics of our transportation, the social support we had en route to Pangsau…these otherwise formidable hurdles were, as if, never there. We are not sure how much Uncle realizes it, but for even someone as unstoppable and irrepressible as him, his reputation continues to precede him. And we were certainly not complaining! The warmth and affection with which we were received everywhere were ample proof of that – and we were more than happy to be the unwitting beneficiaries of that largesse.

We were back on the road again. Our “stroll down the Stilwell memory lane” and “the walk in the woods” in remote Namdapha brought us out via Bordumsa to the Mahadevpura border of Arunachal Pradesh, thanks to Jayanto da and his trusted Scorpio. A brief stop for lunch at a cross between a restaurant and a dhaba in Bordumsa was fulfilling.

Lunch at Bordumsa

Crossing the new bridge on the Lohit and passing the newer still the Golden Pagoda at Tengapani, we reached Chongkham. From the bridge, the monastery complex glistened in the evening sun.

Chongkham Buddha Vihara

At the crossroads, one road led to Wakro and Parasuramkund, the other towards the Pagla Ghat. As we were headed to meet Uncle in Tezu, we took the latter, enthused by the idea of the ferry crossing, with us and our vehicle in tow.

Ghat crossing across the Pagla Nadi

As with all ghat crossings, patience and luck are just as important as the ferry and the boatman! We were a little short of the former but were still blessed with some good fortune. A cool wind blew over the feisty Pagla Nadi (the mad river – named aptly so) and there weren’t too many people waiting to get across.

While waiting to get across

But it was a rare sight of the sun and the moon in the sky above that we were treated with. If the sunset on our left was blazing, the moon up above was a cool white.

Sun goes down…

The short cruise over the Pagla river was the stuff that indelible travel memories are made of. The sun was down but only just to cast a dull golden filigree over the wavy waters. Very few of us talked. Fewer still clicked pictures. That was not entirely surprising, given that this part of the state were, mercifully, not run over by tourists – yet.

…and the moon goes up

Over at the other bank, we drove through pitch darkness across the sandy terrain for a few kilometers till we joined the road that came from Sunpura and headed for Tezu. An hour into the ride, the first signs of the headquarters of the Lohit district could be seen in the failing light.

Tezu town, headquarters of Lohit district

It’s not hard to like Tezu. It looked like one of those quiet cantonment towns, leafy and wooded. With the sun all but down, the shutters also fell in the shops on the main street. We were to meet Uncle at the library and spend the evening amidst books and children. But the ride from Miao and the ghat crossing had taken longer than we had thought. So we decided to meet him at the Circuit House and catch up on the library visit early next morning.

Circuit House, Tezu

The Circuit House itself was an expansive affair, located as it was on a large plot by the roadside. Almost colonial in its build, the rooms are spacious if basic. Anyway, there aren’t very many accommodation options in Tezu, otherwise. That kind of puts things in perspective and makes you want to be contented with what there is. By the way, it’s not easy to get a room in these, otherwise, government accommodations. And we had Uncle to thank for this.

He met us shortly after. It had taken us a long time to answer his invite. Every letter, mail, phone call, face to face chat would inevitably end with his asking us to come over and visit his beloved Arunachal. Over the years, the priority of this journey had got beaten up, and down, by many other commitments that come in the guise of practicality and everyday compulsion. But as so often happens in fiction – but rarely in real life – the good finally prevailed and our Arunachal trip materialized.

In and around the Circuit House

In the warm confines of our room, we sat talking, catching up on his work and filling him in with our eventful first three days of our trip. We were soon joined by his dear friends and well-wishers – Moyum an erstwhile student of Uncle and now working in the Land Management Department of the DC’s office in Tezu; Bapen another ex-student and herself well settled as an Urban Planning Officer (UPO) of Anjaw district; and, last but not the least, the smiling and unassuming Etalo, volunteer library activist and in charge of Bamboosa Library from its inception. We basked in the collateral regard and affection that these special friends of Uncle’s extended us and we opened up to them with the ease that you could only do, instantly, to Arunachalis.

We were in for yet another pleasant surprise. Just when we were feeling the effects of our lunch at Bordumsa waning, Uncle told us of what lay ahead for the evening. Hearing of our visit from Moyum, her friend and colleague, Basila didi had graciously offered to host us all for an authentic Mishmi dinner.  It seemed that no time was being wasted in our being able to sample the flavour of our new destination – and we were grateful to Moyum and our host for the evening.

Basila didi lives in her Mishmi home in Tezu with her two children. Along with Moyum, she too works at the Land Management Department of the DC’s office in Tezu and is a well-wisher and a voluntary activist of the Bamboosa library. We walked into a house that was beautiful not just on account of the festivities of the Pooja season but also by virtue of Didi and her two adorable children.

from L to R clockwise – Dhekiya fern; Pooja offerings; Pooja decorations; Bhoot Jhalokia

For us, to say the very least, it was all utterly overwhelming. The day had begun with a farewell to Namdapha, a goodbye to the lovely Phupla Singpho family, a hearty ethnic lunch in Bordumsa, a memorable ghat crossing, a touching reunion with Uncle in his own special backyard…and now this. Being invited home by someone who we had never spoken to till then and being served authentic, delicious local cuisine in a chang-ghar…life doesn’t bless you with many of such days.

At Basila didi’s home; huddling around the Chang-ghar

A word on the setting of the dinner and the food itself. The chang-ghar is, in these parts, an elaborate wooden structure built on stilts. Inside, the kitchen occupied one part of the room while in the middle was a hearth with a warm fire. We huddled around that and had what was, probably, one of the most memorable meals of our lives. A lal chai (black tea) and some small talk later, Basila didi’s main course arrived. Delectable dhekiya (fern) sabzi with a dal were suitable accompaniments for white sticky rice. But it was a tentative bite of the infamously hot Bhut Jhalokia pickle that set our mouths on fire, almost blowing the roofs of our palates sky high. We could barely murmur our profound appreciation and thanks for the meal and the exquisite gale (the local colourful skirt) that Didi presented. It was too much of an occasion not to be consigned to posterity.

The next day was when we would set off early morning for a long and exciting drive all the way to Walong. When that kind of a day is preceded by one as eventful as this, it’s a long night that separates the two. But we were tired…and tired we didn’t want to be tomorrow. Back at the Circuit House, it didn’t take long for the lights to be put out for the day.

A word also on our miss of the day. Dawns break early in that part of the country. We were earlier still. We wanted to drive in to Walong and see it while it was still light.

Bamboosa Youth Library, Tezu

But before our long journey east, there was one important thing left to be done.

The Bamboosa Library. We were eager to put a form to what we had heard Uncle tell us about it all these years!  Established on May 19, 2007, this was the first endeavour as part of the AWIC – VT Youth Library Network. Run by the Vivekananda Trust, headquartered in Mysore, there are now 13 of these mini libraries spread across the Lohit and Anjaw districts…most of them in the far flung villages higher up in the hills. 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 programmes, environmental awareness and much more.

Bamboosa Library, Tezu; Clippings, letters and mementos

The library itself is housed alongside a computer training school. Decked up with drawings and sketches and poems and photos and newspaper clippings, it is the true altar of the written word. Etalo, the resident head priest of this temple of books, joined us there soon after. There was already one keen young book lover and keeper of the keys, Purbi, already there. We spent a good part of an hour there lost among books, chatting up with the intent library volunteers and Uncle himself.

We wanted to stay back a little more but were happy that we could, at last, get here and see for ourselves the ground Uncle and his movement had covered. For someone who deeply believes in children and wants to get them to fall in love with books, the ultimate payoff would be for the young minds to recognise books as their soul-mates. That, for Uncle Moosa, is job done!

With the library activists at Bamboosa Library, Tezu; Moyum, Uncle Moosa, Etalo and Purbi

It was a long day ahead and, shortly, we were on the road again. As we passed the road that wound up to the serene Tafragam village, we remembered Uncle telling us of the even more serene VKV girls school up above. That would have to wait for a later visit to Tezu.

For now, we were headed for Walong. Names that we had till then only seen on the map or heard from Uncle were now on the road ahead. Hayuliang, Hawai, Walong, Kibithu, Kaho…the places would change, but there was one constant that would be a part of our 200 km drive up. And that was the Lohit – the river both beautiful and tempestuous, gushing down all the way from China and flowing into the Brahmaputra.

And then, in less than a week, we would be in Wakro! We would be with Uncle again and this time sharing his space with him – spending time with him at the Apne library, with his books, with his little patrons from Apna Vidya Bhavan and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, with the wonderful staff of these fine schools and, never the least, the two remarkable people who started and run these excellent institutions. But that will be quite another story and we will tell it once we reach Wakro.

For now, we were glad we were, finally, in Arunachal and with our dear Uncle Moosa!


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