Wayfinding into the homeland and heartland

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.

Twelfth Stop – Indore – Omkareshwar – Maheshwar – 2022
Rivers are places that renew our spirit, connect us with our past, and link us directly with the flow and rhythm of the natural world.”Ted Turner

Illustrations: DIN TOONS

A home-grounded spell for two years, forced by COVID 19, made my wandering soul restless and listless, although there was ample work discovered through a new found penchant for social media, both personally and professionally. It seemed as if the spirit had lost its verve and the one cure for bouncing it back to taut energy was unmistakably tied to travel. I missed the airport and station waiting hours for boarding trains and flights, the languidly sipped lemon tea and cursorily read newspaper flicked from a vacated passenger seat. Akin to riding on a wishing star, Prestige Public School in Indore, nestling in the heartland of India beckoned us to conduct a whole school evaluation for three days, and brimming with Covishield confidence we boarded the assiduously sanitized flight.

Madhya Pradesh has a very special place in my heart having grown up on its river banks, wandered in its forests and trekked up its mountains. The way we perceive and make mental models of the world, use metaphors that we live by, and imbibe values that drive us to hold ourselves upright are often influenced by the places we grow up in. As creatures made of time, we live in the present and the past and the future all at once, because we have a vast reference of our own memories of the past and are also able to dream of a future. All of this takes place in our hippocampus, which O’Connor succinctly calls “A Hard-Won Prize of Evolution”.

Landing way past midnight due to infrequent flights, I took in the sweet fragrance of my home state without any whiff of fatigue. Rising early with childlike eagerness to experience face-to-face work after two years, Vijay and I joked about whether we would inadvertently say, “Am I visible? Am I audible?” – to the people we meet even in person!

I had almost forgotten the welcome of tilak, marigold and coconut which greets you in an institution of learning in our country. With vermillion on our foreheads and a spring in our steps, we walked up the stairs into the reception area of the school and were delighted to meet the school principal, a man-about-the-place Prakash Chaudhary, who bore a stark resemblance to Jean Passe made famous in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days! The name translates literally to “goes everywhere”, and is an idiom for “master key for any lock” in French.

Prakash too is a one stop solution for everything you need, being completely at ease in all the running around he does for conducting his business. His confidante and aide Pinky Nair took care of all logistical support during our visit including great food in the breaks, and we settled into a familiar comfort of camaraderie and friendship.

What would be worth discussing with teachers and students who had returned to the portals of the school after what seemed like eternity, and faced a rising struggle with altered attitudes? Teachers spoke to us with despair about the reluctance of students to get into a learning mode, starting with writing. Lamenting loss of interest, engagement, persistence and pursuit of learning, the discussions predictably placed the blame heap on students. Perhaps the next heap on the pandemic but there was predictably no practice of reflection on their own capabilities as educators. Considering the lackluster environment that was painted for us by the staff, along with the school saddled with the burden of non-compliance of parents to pay up the fees citing pandemic setbacks, we bunched into the office to plan for the next day’s training session, arriving at a consensus to remain clearly focused on attempting attitudinal change.

Shikshangan values Arthur Costa’s work on Habits of the Mind, otherwise known as Intellectual Behaviours, as a respectable framework to build character strengths. When we first came across this insightful work, CCE was a fashion in education and the framework suggested a pathway for generating anecdotal evidences of student growth in all dimensions, as was mandated by the education boards. Once we began to explore it further, we found it useful for setting learning objectives/outcomes, as a radar for character development. The devastating second wave of the pandemic had us developing a detailed module on how an individual can build character strengths in all 16 dimensions that Costa talks about, and this met with resounding success in schools.

Vijay suggested we take the teachers through the 16 habits with a view to imbue their own thoughts with these positive cognitive skills and I laced the sessions with abundant examples from the syllabus to create a cascading effect onto the students. Ideas for impending parent workshops poured out of our sessions with the teachers at Prestige and we wrapped up our tryst with the school by submitting a report on our findings through the evaluation study, which is accompanied with sufficient suggestions for working towards becoming a high-performance school. High performance being measured through the three-fold lens of teacher capability, student performance and parent satisfaction.

Travelling after a two-year wanderlust drought, we had set aside time for explorations in both, the gastronomic and the historic diversity. When in Indore, it would be a sin not to toddle down to Sarafa, and take in all its delightful aroma through all your senses while your nose experiences confusion and mouth salivates paying no heed to your restraint command. Don’t even think of driving there unless you want to experience unlimited stress as vehicles of every stature brush past yours, and all drivers yell at each other. Walk. This is the safest bet, which still does not promise a no-brush-with-the-other adventure. I guarantee you an unforgettable culinary sensation as you gorge on Joshi’s Dahi-wada and Vijay Chat Bhandar’s Coconut Patties and Madhuram’s Shahi Rasmalai to mention just a few. Nobody comes away from the food city without filling bag loads of savories from Om namkeen at Chappan Bhog, and I was oblivious to where my Vijay was holed up during this crazy night, as I merrily tasted everything that came my way thanks to the characteristic Central Indian generosity and grace, before picking the right novelties for home and hearth. I can see him delving into the kitchen drawers now though, and enjoying the ‘meetha -namkeen’ treasures in the peace and quiet of our home….

When you grow up with total exposure to the natural environment around you guided by your parents and other adults, you pulsate with wanderlust and remain animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of your formative years. While revisiting those mountain trails and rivers of my childhood, my cognitive, affective and visual-spatial memory presented my childhood as much a time, as a place. Have you ever experienced such a feeling? In my readings I have encountered the word Topophilia – which aptly describes this emotion.

This is the way by which individuals develop a sense of attachment for places. Navigating across familiar places becomes a way of knowing your past and if it has been pleasant, a fondness engulfs you. You are astonished at how effortlessly you can steer routes you have not walked in decades! This is why we fall in love with a river, a mountain, a forest or even a certain kind of tree. I find myself influenced profoundly by the river Narmada. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps filled with walking trails and pauses of exquisite and timeless memories.

Narmada being my guiding source, we had to choose between a visit to Maheshwar or Omkareshwar given the paucity of time viz a viz the distance to be covered. With all arousal of exploration intact, we dismissed choice, and stretched ourselves to cover both. Briskly out of bed and bath we were driven first to the Jyotirlinga at Omkareshwar. Having recited the twelve Jyotirlinga verses since childhood, I knew where they all existed, but did not in my wildest fancy think that I would pay homage to most of them through my travels in the field of education. If you have read all my earlier Edulogues you have visited seven with me before this one. Four more to go, and there is enough motivation now to complete the journey.

The Omkareshwar temple is rather imposing with five floors, each having a different central deity. We were overawed by a magnificent view of the Narmada from the first floor, which also gives you the photo op against a very large Trident of Shiva, looking rather imposing on the face of the calm expanse of a peacefully flowing river. There are three regular ‘Pujas’ in the temple. The temple trust takes care of the morning, in the afternoon a priest of the Scindia state of Gwalior comes around, and the evening is held spellbound by the priest of the Holkar state. Maharashtrian culture is quite evident in this region of Madhya Pradesh, attributed to the movement of the Peshwas in the 18th Century. The temple campus was crowded with pilgrims, most of them in fairly wet attire after having taken a dip in the Holy Narmada, which has a legend around it stating that merely a glance at this river will purify your soul, unlike the Ganges which commands a holy dip! But the Indian psyche forces dips. Regardless of the river.

The crowds set alarm bells ringing in my mind, as we were certainly not out of the pandemic yet, so without much ado but with much haste we made a dash to Maheshwar. Best known for the Maheshwari saris, introduced by its most famous ruler, Ahilya Bai Holkar some 250 years ago, Maheshwar is a small town situated on the banks of river Narmada. The banks touch the historic Ahilya Fort built in the 18th Century which itself is on a ghat. The span of the river is the largest here, and the ghats are reminiscent of Varanasi and the Ganges. I have been to the ancient city in UP and savoured the Ganges on several occasions …however, this river of my childhood, which I crossed often in shallow waters holding on to my mother’s hand, stirred me like no other.

An interesting discovery driven by our spirit of inquiry was the chancing upon Gudi Mudi (meaning crushed cotton in local language), an initiative by Sally Holkar who is the current royal descendant. Gathering master craftsmen into a workshop mode, Gudi Mudi protects the fine art of spinning the finest Khadi you can set your eyes on and I grabbed yards of it with no immediate plan for its usage. Speaking with the weavers, seeing the passion in their eyes and going through nourishing tactile experiences when feeling the spun yarns, I instinctively knew this was a treasure. Maheshwar has been the centre of handloom textile since the 5th century and is home to one of the best handloom fabric traditions. This being my home state, I had a reasonable knowledge of her crafts and arts, but this version of the fabric that Gandhi fervently promoted wholly blew me away. I might not convert this into any greedy garment, but save it in its pristine state as a mark of full respect for the yarn.

PS: Best outlet for genuine Maheshwari sarees and dupattas are 1. Rehwa and 2. Tana-Bana.

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 devika@shikshangan.org.

This is Devika Nadig signing off for now. I am immensely thankful to Teacher Plus, for having carried these 12 Edulogues consistently. I found exceptional talent in Dinesh Francis who illustrated all my stories giving colour and form to my narration.

As I continue to write about our seemingly endless travel tales, one day my fond hope is to put it together in a book. Till then, adieu.

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