Thursday, December 21, 2006

Report from Shanti Bhavan by Rahul Madhavan

DEVEERAPALLI, India- This small village, set in the vastness of rural South India, is home to a world-class institution that provides the poorest of India’s children with practical skills necessary to excel in a highly competitive yet often inaccessible global information age. Shanti Bhavan, as the school is called, literally translates into “Haven of Peace”, which is a fitting title as it stands one and a half hours away from the booming and bustling Bangalore- the epicenter of India’s Information Technology revolution.

The school was started by Indian-born Dr. Abraham George, who had made his millions in the software business in New York and had come back to India wanting to make the rags-to-riches dream possible for many of the impoverished children, knowing fully well that in the context of a globalizing India (particularly in the modernized Bangalore region), such a dream was possible. Shanti Bhavan is itself a unique epicenter, the ripples of effects ideological, cultural, ethical, and societal, will extend far beyond any distance imaginable. The school, along with other nearby projects of The George Foundation serves as a constructive force aimed at balancing the disparity that exists between the poor, rural sector and the nearby booming metropolis by providing education, healthcare, job opportunities on farms, and the promotion of women’s empowerment.

The children that attend Shanti Bhavan come from homes that are essentially rocks with scrap pieces of tarpaulin and coconut leaves used as roofing. Nearly all of the 200 children that currently attend the school had no idea what a drink of clean water, a bed, or proper and warm food was, until the age of four when they crossed the gates into Shanti Bhavan. Their parents are bonded labourers, quarry workers, ragpickers, or coolies and aside from working menial jobs, are caught in a vicious social cycle that typifies much of the lower caste living in India. Education, a valuable component to securing a prosperous future, is often left out of the equation of daily life, and to no fault of their own as government schools are often in horrid conditions unfit for learning, have teachers that only make sporadic appearances, and have no mid-day meal because the raw material is sold for profit.

Shanti Bhavan provides a valuable escape from this ghastly norm, providing children a world-class education in a clean, safe, and beautiful environment abundant in greenery, proper labs for the sciences, books of all sorts, nutritious and delicious meals five times a day, clean and spacious dormitories, a caring and loving staff, committed and highly intelligent teachers, programs ranging from art to computer science, and more, all free of cost.

I served as a volunteer at Shanti Bhavan this past summer, and taught English language, literature, creative writing, and grammar, as well as Geography, Biology, and an Indian percussion instrument known as the tablas. Each morning, I coached tennis, soccer, basketball, and baseball. The variety of subjects and activities offered speaks to and is responsible for the diversity in knowledge that the children express, and is at the core of the school’s objective to create an empowered individual capable of succeeding in any field he or she desires.

The heart of the school, however, lies with the children. The children, be they in pre-school or in the ninth grade (currently the highest grade since the school only opened in 1997) are stunning in their knowledge and radiant personalities. One child asked me if I preferred “George Walker Bush or John Kerry” during the 2004 elections, while we played a game of basketball- the child was only in the fourth grade! During a seventh grade English literature class, I presented William Wordsworth’s Daffodils. The students chimed in, talking of how poetry is the ultimate “human platform for expressing emotion, be it admiration, love, lust, distaste, or sorrow”, said one child. They then proceeded to offer insightful commentary stanza by stanza. What this said to me, and what I am trying to convey, is the fact that Shanti Bhavan has offered a continually solid, world-class education to these children that were fortunate to have come across such means and access to a bright, gifted and talented present and a surely successful future.

On a daily basis the children are given the world news, and, most of the time participate in delivering current events after having read the paper or being given news summaries by their teachers. Therefore, though far away from civilization, and without internet, the children are exposed to a world of knowledge and fact, be it through experiences with volunteers from abroad, educational videos, visits from NASA scientists and astronauts, from the president of India himself, or the simple world news given at each morning assembly. The profound impact this has is far-reaching. Initially, students that want to be just like their parents develop into individuals that want to become “software engineers, astronauts, the Prime Minister, neurosurgeons, or racecar drivers.”

The students do not lose sight of their origins, and are constantly appreciative of the opportunities provided to them. They long to see their families twice a year, when they go home for a period of two to three weeks, but some find that despite efforts to impress and pass on knowledge learned in school, their parents drag them back into the lifestyle that they try so hard to escape. In some cases, the children are forced to work long hours in the quarries or as ragpickers, or, as has also been the case, the girls are almost forced into a marriage with a much older male. Over half of the students have been subjected to sexual or other physical abuse in a home environment. Realities such as these serve as a sad reminder of the fact that there is still a long way to go for the modernization that can be seen in Bangalore to ripple across and affect its rural periphery.

I was drawn to volunteer at Shanti Bhavan after reading about it in Thomas Friedman’s latest work The World Is Flat. Being an International Political Economy major, this book was of particular interest to me because of its emphasis on the city of Bangalore and its growth over the last decade. I moved to Bangalore along with my family in 1994, just after India opened its markets and ditched its socialist economy model. I remember Bangalore for the six years I lived there as being a very peaceful town abundant in greenery (it was, after all referred to as the “Garden City”).

This is hardly the case anymore, as I found out upon my return to my family’s house there this past summer. Before retreating to the rural landscape to volunteer, I couldn’t help but notice the congested roads (traffic has nearly tripled in the past seven years), numerous Western products and their respective advertisements, the shift in lifestyle with far more stylish youth parading the streets and newly established clubs than before, the immense rise in mobile phone use (even rickshaw-drivers own them!), and the other signs of newfound wealth that have come with the current wave of globalization.

It became all the more apparent how much Bangalore as a city had changed as I traveled down the initially smooth and well-paved Hosur Road that took us past the vast, modern campuses belonging to Siemens, Motorola, Wipro, and Infosys (India’s version of Microsoft) and towards Shanti Bhavan. The large, glass-faced buildings and well kept lawns that established Bangalore’s periphery were telling of a bright and rich future. Though the roads deteriorated and gave way to pothole-ridden mud paths, and eventually the widespread poverty that characterized the rural India that had been relatively untouched by globalization’s ripples, there remained a sparkle of hope within Shanti Bhavan’s campus, within which children that would have otherwise been deprived a successful future, are educated to be in control of their own.

I come away from Shanti Bhavan impressed and touched by the confidence and security exhibited by the students, a progression made possible by the staff and faculty that are so dedicated to enriching these students’ lives on a continuous basis. This may surely be a haven of peace, as the school’s name translates to, but hardly peaceful are the minds of the intelligent, curious, and witty children that seize any opportunity to further their skills in language, math, science, computers, art, and music, as they all the while enrich the lives of everybody around them.

Editor's note: Rahul Madhavan is a junior IPE major.

1 comment:

Vivek said...

My name Vivek, I am Abraham George's son. I really enjoyed your account of SB; you have definitely captured the spirit and energy of both the school and the students.

Dr. George also has a blog and clearly both of your blogs cover similar topics. I was thinking you might be interested in placing a link to his blog. I can do the same if you are interested.

Below you will find a link to his blog:

Kind Regards