A spinner of tales

Devika Nadig

The journey of a thousand miles began with the launch of Shikshangan in 2008 and continued much beyond this distance by covering the length, breadth and depth of our country. In the course of these journeys and the many interactions they brought, Vijay and I learned from individuals, communities and multiple stakeholders in the education landscape. I reckoned it would make sense to share these experiences with a wider audience, with the aim of documentation and a hope that these will both entertain and educate. Each tour was unique and I hope my storytelling skills will amuse and not lose – readers.

Some of our travels took us to ancient temple towns, creating the opportunity for encounters that made me confront my own ambiguous relationship with religion, but in the process, led me to interesting discoveries – about myself and my teaching practice.

Tenth Stop – Dehradun – Haridwar-Rishikesh – Ruskin Bond 2017-2018
I am the shark among the fishes and the Ganges among the rivers: Tat Tvam Asi – Lord Krishna (Bhagavad Gita)

Fashionable trends show a leaning towards “brands” for all goods and services and schools are not exempt from this craze. The country has chains of branded schools in all corners, a familiar one being the prestigious DPS, with most branches running as franchises. Delhi and NCR is dotted with another noteworthy brand called DPSG. What does the G stand for you might wonder? Ghaziabad in UP, whether you support the blue elephant or not. But that would be a different tale to tell.

Shikshangan was commissioned to groom a young batch of students selected from Delhi University as effective teachers – a spunky initiative launched by TeacherSity, an organization that mentored and trained DPSG schools then. Vijay and I were floored by the drive of Chairman Mr Om Pathak to prepare good teachers for their own schools, thus picking up graduates from all disciplines, giving them a handsome stipend for the one year of mentorship and an assured job at the end of it. An enterprise easily the rarest of rare.

The venue for the year-long coaching was Selaqui International School (another TeacherSity brainchild) on the outskirts of Dehradun and the residential campus offered a salubrious environment for this engagement. Shikshangan had other partners sharing this responsibility, significantly Harwant Singh, then leading a school in a quaint hamlet called Purukal, at the foothills of Mussoorie. Harwant is an interesting trainer, a handsome Sikh, and a sworn bachelor who broke many hearts of the young Delhi graduates. An unsuspecting hustler of hearts …we developed deep ties over several visits and my home is full of the exquisite patchwork quilts and other décor carefully crafted by the local women at Purukal Stree Shakti. We discovered this treasure through him and the patchwork buntings from Uttarakhand now display a fluttering dance in the winds of the Western Ghats.

We realized collectively that our task of preparing good teachers was arduous. If this nurturance of young minds with the aim of easing them as well-trained practitioners into schools was seen as a leading light, Om Pathak’s directive to prepare the young trainees for conducting action research* can be seen as astral! Months were spent preparing them on the theoretical guidelines of AR by reading John Best, Richard Sagor et al and the young brood had each selected a problem area for pedagogical research. Night owls had suspended sleep and created meticulous presentations to defend their research questions containing the problem statement, the hypothesis and the planned intervention.

There was palpable excitement as the doyen of TeacherSity Mr Om Pathak arrived on the campus of DPSG towards the end of the course. He exuded wealth, wisdom, warmth and witticism and each encounter with him over snatched conversations in the study halls or at Principal Rashid’s place for an evening of bonhomie was peppered with his expansive experience of the world and its affairs. If his adventures in politics and administration were distinctive, his narration of the extraordinary events of his life in a cultivated manner was exclusive.

Sleepless in Selaqui, we braced the morning chill to embrace the high tension current running through the Study Hall, with Mr Pathak draped around the leather chair in front. The DPSG School principals were present in top rows for giving feedback to the trainees which was a slightly edgy situation, since they would be careful of the teachers who were to be absorbed in their schools. However, a good friend, Mukta Sharma, had mentioned to me about them having spent a sleepless night as well, albeit for a different reason – chatting up with each other in a school network outing! They could perhaps be distracted with fatigue. But Om Pathak? All eyes. All ears.

As the students busied themselves connecting the laptops to the projectors, a bombshell came our way along with a thunder clap. Dismissing our plan of presentations, the Chairman said he would rather ask a few questions of the bright sparks in the classroom for a free flowing discussion. Although this was disheartening at first, the next few minutes left everyone riotous with laughter!

He threw a question at the dudes and the babes in the batch asking them, “What do you know about Doklam?” …the point of contention at the Indo-China border that year. This met with silence and we wondered if anybody was keeping abreast of political/military affairs? Soon enough one student trainee had her arm outstretched to answer and we relaxed…before she said, it is Gujarat’s tea time snack! What?

Recovering from this damage with humour and indulgence as coaches and a volley of questions later, we had a farewell evening planned perfectly by Mohammad Shahnawaz, TeacherSity’s backbone for administration. The music playlist being both futuristic and retro with dancing and delightful snacks, students and coaches alike blew off steam for having concluded one good year. Years down the line, I can say with certainty that the difference between Doklam and Dhokla did not come in the way of our trainees becoming fine teachers as is evident today!

Witnessing all seasons in the far northern state, we had free days now and then and suffused ourselves with sublime experiences around Selaqui by starting at the source of the Ganges at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills. The town is a self-styled “yoga and meditation capital of the world,” considered to be the birthplace of this practice that is said to benefit both body and mind. The Ganges emerges from the mountains at Rishikesh and then debouches onto the pilgrimage town of Haridwar, Har Ki Paudi, being the most scared of ghats here. Legend has it that this is one of four sites where drops of Amrita – the elixir of immortality – accidentally spilled over from a kumbha (pitcher), while being carried by the celestial Garuda. That explains why the Kumbha Mela is held here along with the three other sites. This is a magical place, where the air is saturated with prayers and dreams, as tiny flickering lamps are floated off the steps into the rapidly flowing river which are nothing short of a miracle to watch …because they stay lit, daring the river’s vigour!

Culinary treats begin with Chotiwala, the famous restaurant on the Ganges in Rishikesh and delving into local cuisine here is a must…along with delectable delicacies served by ubiquitous European bakeries, since this is a celebrity tourism hotspot. Once you cross the Laxman Zhoola over the river, there are yoga and wellness centers at all price points in the higher reaches on the Himalayas. The Yoga peeth had a sales counter of pretty crystal Meru-Yantras, a 3D form of mystical geometry representing pure consciousness. It has nine interlocking triangles that surround a central point, akin to the mandalas and these tiny tantric treasures were collected insatiably for all extended family.

One of my visits had a background of serious preparation, with the singular intent of meeting a favourite author, Ruskin Bond. Reading through various blogs describing hits and misses of travellers who had met him or otherwise, noting the address of his abode in Ivy Cottage, Landour – 1000ft above Mussoorie, carefully planning to be there on a Saturday at 3.30pm, which is when he came down (if you were lucky) to Cambridge Book Shop on the Mall Road and wearing wind and rain proof jackets for the mercurial weather of the higher reaches. Vijay and I headed to the book shop as a faint drizzle enveloped us, to find the shop owner Mr Arora crestfallen because the dreary atmosphere could well dissuade Bond from coming down from his abode in Doma’s Inn at Ivy Cottage.

A line of admirers that included children was starting to build outside the book shop, braving the drizzle in the cold afternoon. Arora began to stir up fallen faces by motivating everyone to buy Ruskin Bond titles, so that we had them ready for his signature if he did show up. Brisk business ensued and I grabbed several of our family favourites. Predictably, Cambridge Book Shop had the entire collection in hard bound editions, undoubtedly the best way to preserve an autographed copy.

With my pile of books stashed away in a comfortable corner in the store and not wanting to miss this once in a life time chance, my restless spirit decided to go up to Ruskin Bond’s home. Looking back, it seems like bravado stemming out of literary zeal. How do you get to Landour? If you like walking in the hills, you can take a stroll from Mussoorie Bazaar and within 40minutes you will find yourself in the Char Dukan area in Landour, which is heaven’s own address if you are looking for a bit of quiet. I walked up to Doma’s Inn and skipped up the staircase so many bloggers had described vividly. The blogs mentioned the red painted door of Ruskin Bond’s home not being opened even after persistent knocks, or a brush off by someone saying Bond wasn’t at home, and several such rejections. Before I could ring the bell, I saw him at the wide glass window overlooking the Deodars. Our gaze met. He ducked. I hovered. He couldn’t keep himself away and came to the window again and I was still looking at him.

Vijay was waving frantically from below saying Mr. Arora was here with the car and he had confirmed escorting the literary celebrity down to the Mall book shop, thus we must make a run for grabbing a good spot in the line which might have grown by now. I glanced once more at the object of my adulation, smiled at him and we ran down the many tiny white steps that connected hill stations have, as shortcuts to the lower levels.

The line in front of the Cambridge Book Shop was a mile long and I tugged at Vijay’s sleeve saying let’s meet the author after everyone else, because I wanted to have a conversation with him, not just silently hurried autographs! So we braced the weather outside for quite a while till the line thinned and finally disappeared. When we entered the cozy warmth of the shop heated by a fireplace which had the mantelpiece displaying the best of Ruskin Bond and the doyen himself comfortable in a chair right beside it, my delight knew no bounds.

We pulled chairs close and the first thing I asked him was, “Why did you duck at your window?” He smiled and said, “I am shy!” thus melting the cold instantly. We talked about his countless unforgettable stories that I had devoured as a child and young adult, enquiring into everything you might wish to ask a spinner of tales who has captured your imagination for so many decades. He leisurely autographed my selection of books personalizing each with messages in his inimitable style. The capstone of this conversation was clearly when I confessed to him that The Night Train at Deoli# was the first story that stirred romantic feelings in me as I was entering my teens and he said, “Ditto for me!”

Great stories happen to those who can tell them.

*Read the cover story From research in action to action research by DevikaNadig and Vijay Gupta in the July 2018 issue of Teacher Plus.

#The Night Train at Deoli by Ruskin Bond, is a sensitively told tale about adolescent infatuation. It reflects the narrator’s affection for a basket-seller whom he meets on his way to Dehradun at a little station called Deoli. He meets the girl just twice and never sees her again, but she stays in his mind for the rest of his life….

The author has been engaged in the domain of school education for the past three decades. She is the co-founder of Shikshangan Education Initiatives, Pune, along with Vijay Gupta. The scope of their work includes teacher development by sharpening pedagogical skills and working with school leaders on their instructional and organizational leadership skills. She can be reached at [email protected].

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