Learning Space even though overtly an educational program with a mandate to serve rural education needs, began as a vision for every child to discover one's true identity – in personal and spiritual ways.
It sprung up as an outward manifestation of one simple truth of life –
‘I am a Miracle of the Universe’
And that I am going to take care of my body and my mind and to utilize my energies for the collective good and even though I am a unique creation of this Universe, all beings are reflections of my self.
It envisaged Service without expecting anything in return, other than serving the purpose of empowering the weak and downtrodden who lacked opportunities in life. And education was the prime aim – to locate the areas where the need was most severe and to provide essential resources of quality education.
I never enjoyed going to school – as a city toddler preschooler it did not draw me enough to want to spend time away from home; the feeling of being regimented into a routine did not appeal to my child senses. Then school got more and more strenuous and a meaningless journey draining out physical and mental energy. My rebellious efforts to escape school did not pay any dividend as the elders at home were not allowing any choice. So over ten precious years of my early life went into a routine activity of regimentation, dulling the mind, body and soul.
I had finished my time in the city – after years of chasing an idea that had no true value in my life and having stood for creating an illusory world, giving all one’s energies to enhance ‘WANT’ and to ensure that people consumed more than what they actually needed, I wished to be relieved, to seek my true identity and away from the madness.
I was looking for a way out – embarking on a sabbatical was on the mind– and the intent to be to myself grew stronger. I was voicing this to close friends, and then came a chance that seemed God sent -
An abandoned Ashram with a farmhouse on the outskirts of Mumbai, manned by a lone caretaker was available for me to stay for some months. Luck had much in store for me, when I arrived at this place in the first week of July 2002 and noticed the lovely Tansa River flowing by the side of this place. Very soon, I settled down in this nature’s haven, and began penning down impressions on my life’s experience with an ideal setting of a riverside. Here, the days went by in the quiet solitude state, which was very soothing for my being – the writing was trickling at a pace that was organic and not forced. A deep sense of calm from within was setting the pace of everything perceived around.
It must have been 10 days or more perhaps at this place, and for a change I continued sitting at the riverside as the time slowly inched towards evening hour (For some days while here, I would go for a long walk at this time). Many little feet were in a hurry to reach this place, and for the first time I saw some 10 or more village children 6-7 years of age and upwards, gathering here to spend their carefree time after school.
They looked my way casually and continued with their playtime activity – I watched the village children with curiosity – most of them were frail and yet full of energy, eyes sparkling with life and so connected with the natural environment all around.
The same scene repeated the next day, as I eagerly waited for the little ones to come. They came running across the entire pathway to the farmhouse and ahead to the river. But this time they seemed to notice me with more recognition – they must have quickly decided that I was not a casual day visitor. A couple of little ones ventured closer to me, shyly looking at me, and hoping for some conversation. I invited them to sit by my side and they agreed. After a quick sharing of names, they declared that they were part of the same village and that they went to the local village school during the day. I shared with them my side of the story, and they looked eagerly at the longbook on my lap and asked me what I was writing – and gleefully beamed when I said I was writing a story. So promptly came the request – Oh tell us, tell us the story.
The others by this time were curious to find out what I was telling these two and also ventured closer. I called to them and said I was narrating a story to them and they hurriedly gathered by my side. I narrated to them parts of the story I so much loved as a child – The Pied Piper, and was surprised that none of the children had heard about it. The children listened to every bit of the story with such complete absorption, their minds imagining the Pied Piper going away with the children of the village as a way of reprimanding the villagers for not paying for his service of clearing the rats in the village.
They asked for another story. It took just one more story to pull twice the number of children to the riverside. So on that beautiful evening, with the lovely river flowing by, and after a casual counting of numbers in English from 51 to 100, which the children did as an exercise before the story-telling session, a new story followed and a sublime feeling came over me that I was connecting so completely with the children sitting around me, and was so meaningfully absorbed in a moment of truth.
This feeling of pure deep joy, the sense of being alive and participating completely in the moment, travelled back with me after the sabbatical and stuck glued to my sensibility – I was truly fascinated by the sheer beauty and richness of our human lives when we are able to connect so wholly with ourselves and the world around.
The time I experienced at the sabbatical – truly in the beauty of nature and in the company of children of the village had had a strange effect on me – and an indelible one. I knew deep in my heart that I had wanted to breathe the open air in nature all of my life. I had come back to the city and having completed my writing (getting all the disconnected bits and pieces together), I decided to send some of the typed sheets to a few publishers. Divinity and my luck had something good in store for me and soon a known publisher of non-fiction books sent me an approval for the book that I had titled – How to Integrate the Self ; I got busy with that for a while, the tingling sensation of the time spent by the riverside and with the village children never leaving me for a moment.
And then dawned a day, about 6 months from the time I had returned from the village, when a packet came home that opened to a set of 11 published copies of my book. A very special experience it was – and in a very subtle way the Universe had whispered in my ear.
Some months passed in uncertain time, just as the experience in the village, by the riverside and narrating stories to the children, had been taking up a lot of the mind-heart space and drawing a lot of my attention to a crazy thought pattern – Could I live all my life and settle down in that space ?
On a rainy day in the month of September of 2004, standing under the shade of a shop the sign came that it was time to leap – a saffron clad sadhu walking in my direction drew my attention and as he walked past he gave a sharp pointed glance at me and strided ahead leaving me in a state of a dizzy – in the gut I felt that the Universe was telling me that my time to step in a selfless devoted service had arrived.
That day I packed a bag of clothes and essentials and left for the village Ganeshpuri.
In the village Ganeshpuri, a tiny room 8 ftX10ft with a washroom is where I settled down, happy to be close to where I could sense the time and experience of my 2 ½ months sabbatical. On the evening, the day I landed with my bag in the village, I was sitting at the courtyard of the little house - and again I could hear voices of children playing in the backyard. I was instantly drawn to them, and just as I walked to the back, a paper airplane flew over me strangely circling over my head. I knew that the place was welcoming me and again I couldn’t miss the children that were drawing my attention and my destiny.
The village welcomed me with open arms as though in their perception and understanding I was not only a harmless outsider but in some way a benign well-meaning person who would do good to the village. I made friends in the village – both, the natives and the settlers, among them some spiritually inclined Westerners who had left their country for good and embraced the culture and ways of this land.
In many ways I was again drawn to gathering children in a little place under a roof and start narrating to them stories and anecdotes that would interest and inspire them. I came across young persons in the village who were smart and expressive, but lacked English speaking skills that made them diffident and pensive about their prospects in the mainstream world.
A casual introduction with a lady Principal of a college in the neighboring village, led me to many more young people, to better understand education in the rural areas. Some months of exploring into schools in the villages around Ganeshpuri, chatting with young people and sitting in my little rented place in the quiet late evening hour, in silent contemplation, were all definitely taking me somewhere – closer to my finding a role and responsibility towards the rural life and how children were educated there.
Then came the windfall opportunity – a social service group led by a prominent Italian gentleman and his wife called Friends of Adivasis – who had by this time heard about my presence in the village, invited me for dinner and to contribute to their efforts of giving the young people in the area a better chance of a future. I offered to run a month-long May vacation program that would be a wholesome learning of essential life-skills and laced with some useful practical skill sets. A handsome group of over 30 young people, most of them supported by the Friends of Adivasis, joined this course not knowing clearly what it meant to their lives – the common perception being learning to speak in English.
I divided the whole group into a morning and evening sections with 15-16 in each as I knew I wouldn’t do very well at attending to them individually if there was a larger number.
The program started without much of a structure – I chatted with the groups asking them about their life and their parents, siblings, likes & dislikes, and aspirations and so forth – some of them wondering what I was really offering to their precious time, after one week had gone by. But in the process, an introspective element had found its way into the conversations – often prodding the participants to emote, and to share incidents of their lives they had never dared to before.
By the third week, I was putting forth concepts on their table, which they could connect with deeply and realize that these had a relevant place in their lives – in how each one of them could stretch the boundaries they had set for themselves and open up their minds to a larger world that existed in reality. They had all started to feel better with themselves, a streak of positive thought had taken birth in their minds, and most of the conversations done in the month had opened up ways of expressing oneself in small sentences of the English language, which surely was the very practical gain of the month.
About half the number of participants had had gone through a life – perception transformation experience in the course. They had seen immense possibilities in their selves in the way they had been led to feel and find their strengths and mental blocks that limited them from excelling.
On the concluding day, the general mood of these participants was cheerful and chirpy, and the exuberance was visible in their eyes and faces – one suggestion drew them all together in unison and in one voice – WE WANT TO BE WITH YOU AND DO SOMETHING FOR CONTRIBUTING TO VILLAGE EDUCATION.
I lived in this state of exhilaration and exuberance for a couple of months, not overwhelmed and gently tapping the idea of setting up a small supplementary skills school for village children with my newly found group of young friends as volunteers. In July 2005, I realized that the unused enclosed space of the house I was living in could be used as classroom space and the courtyard and backyard would serve as lovely open air activity spaces.
At the back of my mind there was one single thought tugging at me ever since I had been dwelling on the subject of rural education - I had been inadvertently gripped by the lack of learning opportunities in village schools, and also the lack of awareness among village teachers for the need of activity based learning as against the obsolete methods like learning by rote.
I wished to extend the sense of personal discovery for every child in the village school so that to be educated was an experience of joy and not something forced upon the child.
A vivid memory of a 5 year old girl who joined the supplementary class and since other children were older just sat around and watched them as they learnt to make words out of English alphabets. I decided to give her a pencil and a notebook and gently guided her to venture into writing the alphabet taking her own time discovering each one. The girl was very innately resourceful and active, and in a span of a month managed to identify the alphabets and to write them out, sometimes missing out an ‘L’ or a ‘P’ in the sequence. I sang with her the song that led one into the sequence of alphabets, and she soon got the 26 alphabet sequence well.
Then, all of a sudden, one morning as children at the class got ready to leave at the end of a session, this girl gushed with joy waving out her notebook at me – I can write ‘A to Z’ she screamed with joy and ran out of the place to her home, surely to show her family members her newly-found skill.
This joy of learning and the empowerment that came as a reward for one’s effort is the very core of the the name ‘Learning Space’ – a space which allows and facilitates joyful interaction between the teacher and the student, and there is a discovery for both in the process.