Cooking and having lunch at VTCL with the first batch of 28 children in the ‘cow shed’ was great fun. A few of us would decide on the menu (which unfailingly was the ‘ragi balls’ and the ‘sambar’ day after day!), a few more would collect the firewood required to light up our hearth of 3 stones. We would cut the few vegetables that we could lay our hands on. A few children would then make the cooked ragi flour into small balls. Some others would take on the responsibility of serving their friends and a couple of them had to clean up after the whole thing was done. All this took more time than the academic work, but that was what the fun was all about.
One day, it was the turn of 7-year old Manju to make the ragi balls. That day he had brought along his kid sister Sunanda to school. The first thought that crossed my mind on seeing her was ‘Oh my God, another mouth to feed today’. I expected him to roll the extra 29th ball for her and was quite surprised when I saw him make only 28. This aroused my curiosity and I started watching him keenly. All the 28 plates were laid out and I saw him seat his sister next to him. Surely but slowly, he broke his ragi ball into two and shared it with his sister. I could not contain my curiosity and took Manju aside after the meal asked him the question that I was bursting with – why did he not make the 29th ball for his sister? His reply still resonates in my ears. With all his innocence, this kid gave me an insight into the value system that these simple, yet refined tribals possessed. He told me that his parents had gone to the local flea market to sell their bamboo ware. While he wanted to make sure his sister was taken care of, he also did not want to miss ‘school’. Though it was his responsibility to feed her, he did not want his classmates to share his burden. What great wisdom coming from this young child!
I suddenly realized that this school was indeed educating me. It was getting me to unlearn all the selfishness that I had grown up with; getting me to understand that I needed to take responsibility for my actions and not transfer the burden onto society, my family and friends. It was helping me to understand that there was a teacher in each person i meet and in every event that happens around me. I could not stop my tears, while the young Manju was trying to figure out what he had said that upset me so much! For him, it was just another day and that was the way he lived!
Kids at VTCL, today
Many times over the last twenty years, people have asked me why was I so ‘partial’ to Manju. How could I keep forgiving him for his ‘transgressions’? How could I not get to ‘discipline’ him? But, how were they to understand what Manju meant to me and how much I had come to learn from this boy? Looking back, i find that he has turned out all right. He just did not let our school interfere with his education and his right to determine the way he lives and thinks today.