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  • Agastya International Foundation

The unrealized promise of a heroic community

Updated: Jul 9

Two US-based founders of Children’s Hope of India (CHI), Ms. Lavina Melwani and Ms. Dina Pahlajani, approached me a few weeks ago, asking me to explore the possibility of Agastya Foundation supporting the education of children who had fled religious persecution in Pakistan and resettled in Jodhpur, India. Messrs. Ravi Kanth of CHI and Hindu Singh of UJAS took me to a village school. The school had 300 children and two teachers, one of whom was a Sanskrit teacher and the other taught all other subjects. The children were from the tribal Bheel community, which had fought alongside Maharana Pratap centuries ago. 

Four girls eagerly stood up and sang a beautiful shloka in Sanskrit. The children complained about the poor quality of education, particularly in science and math. They had no science lab. The little knowledge they got was purely from the textbook. I gave each child a sheet of paper and guided them as they performed the “hole in the hand” experiment. They seemed puzzled and surprised. A boy’s eyes widened in disbelief when he “saw” a hole in his hand. There was laughter. “Science does not exist only in expensive labs,” I said, but can be learned as well through simple materials and experiences that produce surprising results. “Learn to question and observe nature, perhaps the best lab, for which you don’t need money.”

Impressed by the children’s keenness to learn, I offered to bring Agastya’s sole mobile science lab in Jodhpur to their school, to show them how science could be engaging and fun. The children were like sponges. Their hunger to learn was clear on their faces (how I wished we had money to run more mobile labs, and spark creative learning among all of Jodhpur’s underserved children!). Impulsively, I invited fifteen children to come and stay for a week at the Agastya campus creativity lab near Bengaluru. They were thrilled. 

I asked a girl in another class what she would like to be when she grows up. “A doctor,” she replied. A usual reply, I thought to myself. I asked her why, expecting a shy smile in response. She explained with some emotion, “I have two siblings, one is mute and the other is paralyzed from the waist down. I want to cure people.” A boy stood up and said he wanted to be a policeman. “So, you can wield the stick!?” I suggested, to general laughter. Looking thoughtful, the boy said that he wanted to be a policeman so he could punish the corrupt. The teacher whispered to me that the boy’s father had been a victim of corruption. 

In a dusty village that afternoon a girl mourned her bad luck in being called ‘a Pakistani’ in India. “I love India. I wish we were accepted as Indians like everyone else,” she said. We talked about the importance of self-belief, having an optimistic outlook on life and taking responsibility for one’s future. There’s no water, electricity or paved roads, they complained. I was at a loss to suggest a solution to age old problems. The girl, a member of the tribal Kolhi community[1] and a sports buff, lightened the mood with a marvelous demonstration of martial art. The following day a few girls arrived to take part in an Agastya science fair at a government schooI led by a dynamic principal. The girls smiled as they cut a ribbon to start the fair to applause. They showed delight and enthusiasm, as they engaged in various experiments, experiencing the magic of Aah! (curiosity) Aha! (creative learning) and Ha-Ha! (joy and confidence).

My colleagues and I look forward to hosting them at the Agastya campus.

[1] The Kolhis fought valiantly in Sindh in 1857, during India’s First War of Independence. Their heroic leader, Rooplo Kolhi, had been tortured, his hands bound in cotton, soaked in oil and burnt, and hanged.

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