Nothing seems to have changed in the past quarter decade. Past Jhargram, the town in the woods, the metal road connecting Lodhasuli to National Highway No. 6 wraps itself in a shady serenity. At occasional intervals, the artificiality of a clamour, emitted by a motor engine, creates an unquiet irritation, murdering the resonance of the forest and interrupting its slumber. The bus-stops at Kalabani and Boria are as lonely as they used to be; Gar-Salboni, a roadside village, is stuck in its eternal search for a path to survival. The mud road that breaks from the main road to meet the villages Sirsi, Joalbhanga and Lab-Kush, is as tranquil as it had been 25 years ago. Past the lush green rice fields by the road begins the forest that hems the horizon. The leaves that have just had a splash of shower glistens with the brilliance of the sun.
— Last year it was different, whispered the road.
— Yes, I have heard of it – there had been a drought. And it was the same in the year before the last. It used to follow a cycle like this 25 years ago. Rain ensures the crop. Hunger rides free when there is a drought.
— Even rain can’t stop hunger; It can only give a small guarantee, the road reminded me.
— The villages inside appears unchanged. The same vegetable creepers entangled the fences. They flower in the evening. The midday sun has put them in the sleep of the dead. On the other side of the fence roars the bright young corns of maize; blooming brinjals cover the field with a vibrant mix of green and violet; cucumbers cling to the overhead shed. On one side of the village street series of poles for tying the cattle have been fixed to the ground. On one corner of the courtyard lies an urn; a spade nearby. An old woman sitting under a thatched shed weaves a mat while a middle-aged woman just back from her work in the fields eats her meal – one of the humblest dishes: pantabhaat (cooked rice soaked in water), shojne leaves, and a terrifyingly hot green chilly. What on earth has changed in the last 25 years?
— You are seeing the villages after 25 long years, but don’t you read newspapers? Have you gone deaf? Don’t you hear that people here are living lives of death and dying brutally? Frequent gunfire has seized tranquillity from the woods. Mornings are drenched in blood and the evenings are cloaked in horror. And yet more fearsome is the abrupt influx of the police: arrest him, beat her up, smash him open like a boiled potato. Even the children and expecting mothers are not spared. The expanse of terror is in considerable excess of the amount required to unsettle the villages. The horror of the police, the Maoists, the Harmad (allegedly formed by the CPM) is now added by the Bhairab Bahini (allegedly formed by the Trinamool Congress). The clash for hegemonic control, of one terror against another, seems to have left even the leaves and creepers, the mushrooms and anthills frozen in fear. Even hunger seems to have stopped grumbling. There is just one dictum to keep people from painful, brutal violence: Keep Quiet!
‘Good morning Sir!’ My conversation with the road comes to a halt. We are now in front of a group of primary school children. On one side of the schools a near-dilapidated building struggles to hold itself erect. On the other side a half-constructed new building waits uncertainly to be completed. Both buildings are used by the teachers of Lab Kush Part Basic School. That there are two teachers to teach four classes is nothing abnormal – single teacher or two teacher schools have become a norm in the hinterlands of West Bengal. The Mid-day Meal is being cooked under a thatched shed. The bamboo-plank fence voluntarily erected by the villagers is about to vanish. ‘A permanent boundary wall would be of great help’, sighed the head-teacher, Ramoni Mohan Mondol. ‘Some trees could grow. Cattle and goats are parts of village life [they do not allow the saplings to grow], and the villagers are poor; it is beyond their ability to fence the school every year.’
When Ramoni joined this school 14 years ago, it had an enrolment of 109, but only six of them attended school. Now it has an enrolment of 33, but the attendance is 42. The enrolment has gone down because some Sishu Siksha Kendras (SSK) have been set up in the areas. (SSKs are low-cost schools run by the panchayat and the Department of Rural Development, in addition to the primary schools run by the Department of School Education). Also, the fertility rate has gone down – few families these days have more than two children. However, some underage children also attend school – though they are not officially enrolled. No, unlike what some urban middle class believe, they don’t come just for the meal served – they sing and dance, learn some rhymes, and are prepared to enrol in future.
‘I ensured the attendance through song and dance’, smiled Ramoni. ‘In those days children were scared of the teacher – teacher would beat us up, they thought. I began with those six children. I won’t teach – I said. Let’s play and dance. Within a couple of days the school was filled with children’. Neither Ramoni nor his assistant teacher Subhasis Mondol have heard of Tsoso Kobawasi, the ‘alternative’ headmaster in Tsuko Kuruanegi’s famous book about childhood, schooling and growing up, Totto Chan. But the similarity in their thought processes is not a mere coincidence. Difference from the mainstream finds a connection beyond the boundaries of time and space. Perhaps it was such a connection that had Subhasis transferred here from another school.
I had had an earlier opportunity of meeting Subhasis. It was in 2005, when he happened to be the only teacher of Kajla Primary School under Beliabera Circle (Gopiballavpur II block) of the same Jhargram sub-division. His empathy for the children helped him invent methods and techniques of multi-grade teaching. He shared some of the responsibilities among the senior groups of standard 3 and 4, who took care of the younger groups of standard 1 and 2. This not only helped in keeping the activities going on but also gave the senior children an opportunity to develop some managerial and leadership skills. Children of that school, I observed, not only learnt the basics – reading, writing, counting – but also developed the practice of washing hands with soaps before and after eating, using the toilets and keeping them clean and so on. Mothers of the enrolled children had also learnt these practices.
While he was running from pillar to post to replace the dilapidated school building with a new one, the Siksha Karmadhaykasha (person in charge of education programmes) of the Panchayat Samity retorted, ‘So what if the building crashes? The ceiling won’t fall on your head’. Subhasis said that it was not a question of ceilings falling on heads. It was a question of providing children with a space in which they could learn. It was a question of their future. The exchange might sound harmless and commonplace, but those even slightly aware of West Bengal politics would realise the courage it took to answer a political leader thus. The same courage has come to his aid while working at the present school. He has also been using the experience gathered in the previous school, especially about serving the mid-day meal (MDM). All the children queued up. And, the most delightful part of it was that the older children were helping the younger ones to wash their hands before and after meal. That school education is not confined only to alphabets and numbers and learning the texts, rather it extends the boundary much beyond to learn to know the larger world, could be seen at the Lab Kush Part Basic School. One can see how the children are keeping the toilets and the school premise clean and practising basic health measures. Complaints are heard in many places that the villagers make the toilets and school-complex filthy. But the teachers’ efforts in improving relationship between the school and the villagers have made matters here completely different.
The success story, however, is not only linked to the teachers’ empathy and sense of responsibility; it also has seen – and still suffering from – the apathy of the government. The teachers are tired of finding resources for the school building; the self-help-group members are finding it almost impossible to run the mid-day-meal programme because of the long gaps in releasing funds for buying raw materials and paying the honorarium — which is a pittance — to the cooks. For the last four months prior to our visit, no fund was released. The authority is either too insensitive, or completely indifferent to the difficulties of these women: they cannot sustain the activity long on credit. The grocer may decline to make the supply any moment. Moreover, credit purchase makes the cost higher and subsequent fall in the quality of the meal. Again, there is no ICDS centre in two and half kilometre vicinity. This results in some children below primary school age attending primary school. The government and civil society had a sudden realisation in 2008 – following the emergence of a peoples’ unrest in Lalgarh that influenced the whole of Jhargram sub-division – that it was the lagging in development works, which led to the movement that took violent turn. Subsequently a bundle of promises were made, but Lab kush has not yet been considered to be provided with an ICDS centre – one of the basic, if not the basic, necessities of a village.
While the difficulties owing to government apathy and inactions are more or less common across the state and country this area has been passing through incessant terror and violence: there is no certainty of life; anybody can be killed any moment; any body can be arrested and face terrible torture that might cause to pre-mature delivery of a children resulting in the death of both the mother and the baby. Teachers are also not free from this horror; rather their level of insecurity seems to be higher for they have to commute to the school through a long stretch of forest. That the schools are not secured at all is a known fact: the picture of Dibakar Mahato holding a pen before being murdered in front of his students of Gar Salboni primary school will not fade soon. The only resource that survives the teachers amidst the shivering terror is their empathy for the children. We who do not even break our fast before lamenting for the loss of human values can safely cling to our domesticities absolutely methodically. But, as we could know from the teachers of neighboring Joalbhanga Primary School, Subhasis Mohapatro and Sandip Karan, Ramani and Subhasis of Lab Kush have not only kept these values alive but also succeeded in broadening them to the children, parents and other schools.
‘Ramanibabu and Subhoda are our inspiration’, Sandip solemnly acknowledges, ‘we learn by seeing their works.’ One of the major aspects of their learning is to build close tie with the children – as though they belong to a family. With this empathy Sandip is seen to get down to the muddy field to play with the children. All these children are so called ‘first generation learners’. But, for these teachers there is no such generational division: all are first learners. Here, in Joalbhanga primary school, too there are two teachers who are engaged in an almost impossible task of carrying out four classes in two half-built rooms. And, this tenacity bears the fruit: all children can read, write and perform the basic sums. And, most importantly they could take their teachers as some of their own.
It’s an area that has perennially been deprived of the basic opportunities; hunger, undernutrition, illiteracy and ill-health and the insult and humiliation of the upper crust are the congenital features of these people. And this characteristic has given birth to a politics, which is knotted inseparably with violence. Before I could measure fully my worthlessness vis a vis the teachers who have been raising their height day by day amidst insecurity of life, the road reminded me, ‘Could you have come here, after 25 long years, on your own?’
I was taken along the road by Tota and Amrita Pairra. Tota is a health worker serving the area. In our younger days, Amrit was a brilliant student. These days, he is dedicated to organising the workers. In a culture where the right to salary sans work is accepted as perfectly ethical, Tota travels through the villages each day, day after day, on her bi-cycle. Given the area she works in, such dedication and commitment is frequently synonymous with risking her life. Baghmuri is a villager within her area. The road took us past Gar-Salboni, Bikashbharati, then Jitushol. The road here coils spat iron factories, spitting its venom into the land, water and air. In the face of extreme discomfort of the local people, the police and political parties have taken it upon themselves to provide the Patwaris — the owners of the factories — with superlative security. Public protests are answered by imprisonments. A little ahead of this area is Gadro, and to the right from Gadro is Baghmuri.
ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) Jhumu Mahato was in the middle of a Mothers Meeting. The weighty mouthful of Jhumu’s designation is inversely proportionate to her ‘honorarium’, which never exceeds Rs. 800 – and that, only if she fulfilled a quota of meetings set out for her (she is contracted on the basis of labour provided, not on a monthly basis). Jhumu is unhappy about the exchange value of her labour, but what makes her exceptional is her ability to keep her discontent completely separate from her work. She has been able to do this because of her sense of responsibility, and the unbreakable bond she has forged with the villagers. Our rulers, policy makers and leaders of society, who claim that the generous, unstinted voluntary labour of these village-women will enable our country to zoom past other nations in terms of development, would never let their own salaries and benefits suffer even in the slightest. In a contest of responsibility, one wonders how many of these people would be able to hold their own against Jhumu.
The mothers’ meeting informed us of the many changes in the village – breaking traditional norms and beginning to breastfeed babies within half an hour of delivery, following scientific parameters in childcare, informed attention to nutrition, and so on. All these changes have occurred silently – behind the presence of bullets, guns, and the terrifying snarls from military marches. These changes are not the kinds that catch the eye immediately, but they change an entire society – it is the fruit that blossoms late, but spreads its influence far and wide.
It is difficult to fathom what inspires the people immersed in this process of change. What strange desire chases them around, making them refuse opportunities to evade responsibility, and like fools, risk their own lives to help people?
Towards the end of the meeting Jhumu read excerpts from a book to the mothers. The book was titled ‘Breastfeeding and Supplementary Nutrition’. ‘Revising once at every meeting’, Jhumu smiles the smile of reassurance – from illness, from untimely death. At one point during the reading, the words started changing. They were no longer a recitation of practical facts of natural science, aimed at better health and life. They had been transformed into the chant of hope, the mantra of eternal humanity:
Sarve bhavantu sukhina: Sarve santu niramayah
Sarve bhadrani pasyantu ma kaschit dukkhabhag bhavet
#Appeared first in the Anandabazar Patrika (“Kajer prati sraddha, nijer pratio” 20 September, 2011). This English translation, with some modification, has been prepared by Priyanka Nandy and the author.