Pursuing dreams against all odds
One may go to the extreme end of the universe and learn, but must first start from the earth: the base and origin of all life.
Gautam is a living testimony to a unique experiment in education that a teacher couple initiated in the deep forests of Southern Kerala, a quarter of a century ago. The Sarang Rural University was founded in 1982 by Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi, both former government school teachers, for local tribal children and the so-called academically backward. The Sarang experiment lasted for over a decade years. It had to be closed. Due to unfortunate circumstances, the founders were unable to finance it any longer.
Gautam, Gopapalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi's son, grew up with Sarang. He was an intimate part of the experiment, not just as a student, but he also taught at Sarang for a while. He is a young man now, aged 23 years and is all set to revive this real life university, fully convinced that it is his turn to offer to others the unique learning experience he received at Sarang.
Gautam recalls his experiences at Sarang:
Attapadi is in Palakkad district in Kerala, South India. Both my parents are teachers. At first, they were teachers in the govt. school. But they were harassed when they tried to bring to the notice of the authorities what they felt was wrong with the system and how education could be made relevant to the local situation. Teaching was their life, yet they felt stifled and despaired of this hopeless situation. The only way out was to start a school of their own and teach in their own way. Actually, my parents say that they had started to think about such a school for Attapadi when I was still in my mother's womb. Anyway, thoroughly disillusioned, they eventually resigned from their govt. jobs and started Sarang.
Sarang was initially called an experimental centre for alternative education. A rural "university" was their dream and an ideal campus was what they set out to create. In 1983, with the help of friends, they bought some degraded forest land very cheaply. Local tribal children were enrolled and the Sarang journey began.
The curriculum was to be based on our real life situation. The land was a barren hill top, with no water, the people struggled for simple amenities, so improving this situation became the curriculum. Sarang embarked on an ambitious programme to rejuvenate the watershed by afforesting the area. My earliest memories are of fetching water from the bottom of the hill, all the way up. Naturally, very early in life, I learnt my lessons in minimum resource use. It became a habit with me to treat resources with respect and to use as much as required and not as much as was available.
We also undertook a massive afforestation programme, planting each year a number of local species on the barren land and nurturing the plants till they could fend for themselves. We learnt natural farming, gully plugging, fire protection measures, how to build simple mud house with locally available material, how to ward off wild animals etc. Alongside, topics such as politics, health, environment and sex education, to name a few, were introduced into the curriculum. In fact, all our daily experiences were integrated into the learning process. We learnt our geometry in the process of building the school-house, geography and natural sciences through the afforestation and watershed development programme and so on.
In about 8 years time our forest had grown, the watershed restored as the aquifers were rejuvenated and amazingly there was water on the hill throughout the year.
I had about 10 brothers and sisters, living with me and sharing in my life. We would all be learning the same thing at the same time but, at various levels of understanding. At Sarang there was no "bringing up" children, there was only growing up. People visiting us every year would remark on how well the children and the forests were both growing.
We were all treated with the respect we deserved as intelligent learners and were never written off as mere kids. All our individual interests were taken seriously and given maximum scope for in-depth study. I once expressed an interest in the radio and was introduced to the world of electronics. I even spent some time in a local radio repair shop assisting the shopkeeper who unfortunately was hesitant to let me progress beyond dusting the radios.
In 1989, as a 9 year old, I went with Mohan Kumar for a month to participate in the "Save the Western Ghats March". We walked from Kanyakumari to Goa, with a whole lot of activists. At times Kumar mama carried me on his shoulders.
When I was 10, I wanted to learn Kalari. To do so I needed to live in the near by town. In preparation for this programme, my mother taught me how to cook, wash clothes and take care of myself and my basic needs. When my parents thought that I could fend for myself, they hired a room for me and an older cousin, who was 13 at the time, in Ediki (Kattapana) and arranged for our tuition. We spent six weeks learning Kalari. In addition, as a way of spending our stay usefully, we also took classes in typewriting and drawing. This was an early lesson in self reliance, self restraint and self confidence. I enjoyed it so much that I repeated it once more, this time learning Kalari, Bharat Natyam, Yoga, English Grammar and typewriting.
Some times if we wanted to learn a particular art form, skill or subject in which my parents were not competent, we would have teachers come and live with us for a short duration. This too added to the variety of our learning experiences.
If anyone fell ill, the occasion was used to study health and medicine. We learnt the basics of treating common ailments, home remedies, allopathy, naturopathy and how to deal with problems like worms, lice etc.
This outdoor life and learning made us confident, healthy, strong and fearless. When I was 15, I remember I had a fall and had to have my knee stitched up. I went to the hospital but took no medication and no anesthesia. The wound healed in 9 days, I just walked to the hospital and had the stitches removed.
My interests in Electronics, stayed with me. I was fascinated with timers and this somehow got me interested in parallel communication systems. I took a course in amateur radio communication. I am a HAM member. The course took about a year, but it took me three years to get the licence. I had to go to Delhi for the licence. It added to my education as I learned how the bureaucracy operates.
Looking back I feel that I have been blessed with very special parents and that my education is complete in every way. I even have two sisters of my own. Kannaki and Unniyaarchcha aged seven and five. They too school at Sarang - my home, the rural university!
When we ran into financial troubles, the other kids had to be sent home and Sarang was officially closed. My father, who has first hand experience and many skills is often invited to N.S.S. camps as a resource person to teach conservation, watershed and afforestation techniques. My mother does not keep well and so is mostly at home. For a time in order to help meet our expenses I used to collect milk from the village and sell. Now I drive a taxi.
But my dream is to revive Sarang. I spend a lot of time trying to work out how this can be done. Sarang has taught me so much that I feel it my obligation to revive it so that what I got from it I can share with other young children.
Former schoolteachers Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalakshmi, who resigned their jobs in search of better teaching alternatives, have done it again. They have, by their water conservation efforts, given birth to a stream in their 20-acre land ‘Sarang’ at Attappadi.
Attappadi with its barren hills posed stiff challenge to them when they migrated there initially. They had to bring water from the valleys to irrigate the crops and meet household needs. So for conservation of water they created water pits throughout their land. From the initial 15 acres of land in their possession, they let Nature grow its own vegetation and trees in 14 acres. Only the balance 1 acre they used for cultivation.
With the water pits and the dry leaves from the vegetation acting as a sponge, the water recharge of the soil improved. Even in their cultivated land, the soil was not tilled or disturbed. Mulching with green leaves alone was done.
With all these efforts at water conservation, a small brook, which had disappeared years ago, reappeared in their land.
That was a day of rejoicing for the couple.
They then constructed 4 check dams in this stream. Without using cement, borrowing from the technique employed by adivasis for constructing walls, they did these structures.
Woven bamboo mats kept in two layers 60 cm apart across the stream form the basic structure of the ‘Goda’ check dam. The inner space between the bamboo walls is filled with earth and the outer faces are plastered with mud. On top of it they plant saplings of Illi, Eetta and Ama.
Within one year this living check dam becomes strong enough to withstand any flood.
The 'Goda' Checkdam with overflow section. Sample Bamboo mat lying by the side.
Courtesy: M.George, Karshakasree, February 2002