Sunday, August 9, 2015

Story of an i-Saksham entrepreneur

    Near the blurred boundary of urban Jamui, on the highway joining Munger, there lies a village Khairma. At the door of one green painted house of the village, children had lined up to enter. Tanuj stopped our motorbike there. This house was one of the first places where tablet PCs, loaded with digital material for primary schoolchildren, were given to community tutors (called Saksham mitras) by i-Saksham team. Except on Sundays, children came here daily with their books and notebooks clutched in their armpits. In the room next to the front room of the house, they sat on the mat on the floor. The one and half hour classes used tablets for forty five minutes to one hour. The usually class went from 6:30 to 8:00 in the morning.
     Tanuj entered into the room and introduced me to Mamata. I followed.
    22 years old Mamata, the Saksham mitra, has been an inspirational figure among children. Since her earliest memory, her feet were thin, weak and unable to support her body weight. She doesn't have any memory of walking. She studied upto class eight in the local middle school, but it took her a lot to convince her family members to continue it upto tenth. She matriculated in 2007 and after exerting continuous pressure on her family, she could enroll herself in intermediate in 2009. She took Political science, history and sociology as subjects and finished it in 2012. Since then, she has been tutoring children. Most of the children she teaches now study in class 1-5, but she feels the digital content promising to enable her to tutor higher classes soon. 

    In the morning class, there were around twenty-five students, mostly girls enrolled in local government school. The chatter of the students continued until Mamata entered into the room. Mamata crawled up to the cot and hopped on in.
“Everyone, Show me your homework!”, she announced.

The giggles vanished and children came to her with their notebooks, one by one. After receiving few ticks and crosses on their copies they returned back to their seats. Some smiled; some were sad. After checking the notebooks, Mamata turned on an electronic device, a tablet PC, that has been an object of excitement among students. 

    'Today, we will study the chapter 'Vikram-the wise king' ' Mamata said. 'Vikram-the wise king', the chapter from an English book of class IV. Though the constant avoidance of English by teachers (school and tuition teachers alike) has turned English into a nightmare for the students, Mamata has taken on the challenge with the help of technology.

    She picks up and turns the tablet on. Several videos of class chapters have been recorded and put in the tablet along with few educational games by i-Saksham team. Browsing through folders, she clicks on an icon, 'Vikram-the wise king'. The video starts playing. This whole chapter has been narrated and explained in the local language in the video by Shravan Jha, i-Saksham core team-member. With few moments of turning on the device, every kind of sound vanishes from the class. The small device takes hold of the reins of attention of all children. 
Pic 1: Mamata- one of the early
Saksham mitras
The video runs for ten minutes.
'Now tell, What this story is about?', Mamata asks.
A rush of excitement covers the children. Many children speak, in high voices, to be heard, with different answers.
'One by one.', she said.
There were some confused faces too. Looking at them, The video was again played and stopped at few points for detailed elaboration. Mamata read out the chapter slowly as per their comfort.
    Now, the whole class was able to answer the questions. After teaching them the chapter, she asked the students to note down a paragraph from the book.
She looked at me.
'The test-scores of the children have improved after I started teaching them using the tablets', she said with a smile.
'How else do you use it?', I asked pondering if she was creatively using the device.
'In many ways. Sometimes, I let weaker children play games of mathematics and English words. Daily, for fifteen minutes, at the end of the class, I form a group of seven and let them play Word Swipe' She replies.
'What is word swipe?'
'It is a word game where children search the names of fruits, animals, places, etc., from an array of words.
'Good. Are the kids learning?'
'Yes. The weaker ones have become fast in calculation and fast ones faster.'
'Good, you should screen children movies on it sometimes.'
'We do. On Saturdays. Last week, we showed them 'How to train your dragon' (the Hindi dubbed version).', Mamata says with a smile.
I smiled, too.
Mamata drags herself inside. I discovered after getting tea that she would have gone inside to ask her sister to prepare it for us.
    From the classroom, I called few students. They are: Arti, Neha, Anjana and Seema. I asked them mathematics tables and few questions from another story 'Three wishes of Meena', (a Hindi story on sanitation awareness from class IV). To my surprise, they were able to answer every question. Some more children gathered around and giggle. 
Pic 2: With kids (Arti, Neha, Anjana, Seema and others)
Mamata entered.
'Go back to your seats', I said.   
All children returned to their places.
'So, the tablet has benefitted you?' I asked.
'Now, I teach English, Mathematics easily.
The kids are learning faster.Also, their number has increased. So, increase in income.'
I smiled and rephrased my question, 'No, I meant, do you learn anything from tablet?'
'As I am unable to go outside, I spend my time on this. Sometimes, I use internet on it, but it is not working on this new tablet.'
Tanuj, the i-Saksham volunteer accompanying me, took the tablet from her and checked.
'We'll replace it with a different tablet by tomorrow.', he said in an assuring voice.
'If something more could be uploaded on this, it would be easy for me to learn something.'
'We will see what can be done.' I said with a promising emphasis.
A little girl, perhaps one of her students, came with a tray in her hand.
'Sir, please take tea.', Mamata said.
'It was not needed.', We took along with saying this.
I looked at the watch. Quite a time had passed.
'Mamata, it must have taken a great deal of determination and courage for you to continue your studies in this environment.' I asked after knowing that the locality didn't encourage girls' education a few years back.
'Yes, sir. Then, it was difficult. Now, it has been easy.'
'Were you inspired by someone?'
'Not as such.'
'No, I meant, any friend, any teacher, any relative or anyone.'
'A teacher from the neighbourhood used to motivate me. His belief in me made me trust myself.', a confidence shining in her voice.
'What does he do now?'
'He still teaches.'
I looked at the watch again.
'Okay Mamata. I will tell them about the need of the content.', I said, referring to my friends.
    We rose from the four-legged bed, waved good bye to the children and walked out of the room. While departing, I saw a smile on her face. She began to teach mathematics. In the moments when Tanuj started off the bike, few thoughts ran in my mind: the quick answers of the children, the wonder of technology that made the good education reach Mamata, the barriers being overcome, the technology making the learning too interesting for children. A sense of wonder filled me. Technology bringing good education at the doors of community, in a way that interested children, was no less than a revolution in embryo.

    The bike started and soon the peace of village was pushed aside by the blazing horns of the trucks on the highway. In those moments, I thought of opening an i-Saksham center in Rohtas, the district I am posted in. Probably, Mamata had inspired me too.


 i-Saksham is an initiative to bring best of learning opportunities to the most difficult and remote areas of India, through technology and motivated youth. 
More details at http://www.i-saksham.org/


singing songs of life


Monday, May 11, 2015

"A House for Mr Biswas" connection

When I look back, I realize my invisible irregular longing for literature since school days, when I used to read stories by Tagore and R. K Narayan and keep thinking about them for a day or two. With time, the demands of my false ambitions and the need to conform to the world threw me light-years away from the realization that I could read for pleasure. Past that point, whatever I read was for gulping any new information down the throat, most of which would be of any use after my hairs would turn grey. I resumed reading, a major part to fill in my loneliness and a minor for pleasure. In the latest innings of reading, most of the stories and books I read ended with melancholy, sadness and despair. I don't remember, I ever read to be happy. I read to relish the combination of words that would weave a world closer to reality. I would pick up a few, as companions, to walk with me for a day or two. Then, like a heart-throb, I would drop them somewhere and they would be lost. 
            Somewhere two years back, I found a copy of "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V.S Naipaul at my uncle's place. Just few days back of that find, I was browsing internet when I got to read that this was Naipaul's masterpiece written in his early years. So, I clung to it. It started off as a slow black and white movie with the very first line describing the death of the lead character Mohun Biswas. But after few pages, I experienced the book as a window where reading a paragraph was like walking with Mr. Biswas. After reading it, I felt changed in a manner. Naipaul wrote everything that I hated about my background. Closely placed rooms, fights inside family, shame of poverty and most importantly the desire of possessing a house which one could lay my full claim upon. It felt as if the writer wrote on behalf of all those dissatisfied souls whose present affluence made them hate their past background and though I finished that thick book in three days, I remember falling asleep many times while holding it in hand as often it connected the book and my past world. 
          I keep reading parts of it again and again to laugh and touch the slender thread of desolation Naipaul places between series of laughter. It is a masterpiece. A rare masterpiece.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

वक़्त और जीवन के बीच संवाद

मैं ठहरता हूँ जब तुम हौंसलों से गले मिलते हो। तब धीमे चल स्मृतियों के पटल पर ला बिखेरता हूँ वो दृश्य जिनमें कोपलें बरगद हुईं और धूल बने पर्वत धरती चाँद बनी और तारे हुए सूरज। तुम्हारी खुशियों में मल्हार सा झूमता संग तुम्हारे नभ को भी चूमता अनुभव को त्याग कर फिर बहता यूँ कि जैसे कभी थमा ही नहीं। तुम्हारे दुःख में साँस मेरी भी छूटती लहूलुहान रेंगती, चिल्लाती, टूटती। फिर चुपके एक क्षण में, उम्मीद का अंकुर बोता यूँ जीता कि जैसे कभी मरा ही नहीं। जिंदा एहसास कर, बाँहों में कस मुझे तुम चलते जीवन से शून्य की ओर टहलते मेरे असंख्य जीवों से प्रेम पर तुम बिलखते यूँ कि सब जान तुम कुछ मानते ही नहीं। यूँ कि सब जान तुम कुछ मानते ही नहीं, कि फिर तुम धरती चीर आओगे कि जीवन-मृत्यु की चिंता त्याग प्रेम करोगे, यूँ कि जैसे फिर कभी बिछड़ोगे ही नहीं।