M Hemachandran: Forging Minds In A Forsaken Land
Bonacaud Government UP School is one place where no teacher would ever want to get transferred to. This school fits in perfectly to the dictionary definition of ‘desolate’. Situated on the slope of a hill, this school is devoid of any human habitation within a two kilometer radius. There is no electricity, water or any kind of accommodation to house the teachers posted here. Bonacaud has only two regular bus services connecting it with the city. Naturally, when M Hemachandran got transferred to this school, he tried his best to avoid being placed, or rather being misplaced, at this school.
“I fought with everything I could muster. But it wasn't any normal transfer; it was a promotion transfer. I was transferred here as the headmaster. So in spite of my inhibitions, in the end, I had to relent,” says Hemachandran.
When Hemachandran arrived here six years ago, the condition of the school could be best described as pathetic.
“There were twenty three children studying here at that time and there was one teacher. Because of the acute lack of basic facilities, that teacher used to show up for work only once a week. And because of the remoteness no concerned authority ever bothered to take note of this fact.”
At that time, the job of teaching was handled by the sweeper, the cook, the head master and the teacher, four days a week. But seeing this travesty in the name of education, instead of feeling demoralized, Hemachandran decided to give it a positive spin.
“I had been leading on ordinary life till then. Coming here gave me a sense of purpose. It was an opportunity for me to do something good and worthwhile with the final years of my career.”
He took to staying in the school building itself. There wasn't a toilet when he arrived, so Hemachandran built one by himself and fought hard to gain funds to build a toilet block. The fund was eventually granted. Currently, this single classroom school has two toilets attached to it, which also happen to be the only two in the entire township of Bonacaud.
“The dwindling number of students in this school is its greatest curse as well as its greatest boon,” Hemachandran points out.
At present, the school has just thirteen students in it. Because of such a miniscule number and because they come from below-poverty-line families, there is virtually no PTA fund for the school to take care of itself. The lack of students at this remote school also makes the concerned authorities, who reside far away in the city, to turn a blind eye towards its mode of functioning. The school hasn't got any electricity, yet has a computer system meant for the students to learn IT.
“First I tried to run it by using a generator. But the noise it caused made it impractical. Now I use my personal laptop to teach the students. Still the problem of getting it charged remains. A fully charged laptop lasts only three hours. To charge the batteries I have to travel 22 kilometers down to Vithura.”
The school lies completely isolated from the rest of the world.
“There is no phone connection here. The mobile phones can't be used frequently because there is no provision to get it recharged. I keep them switched off and turn it on only when I have to make a call. Even then there is the problem of getting coverage. As a result, we have got no way to know if hartal has been declared on a particular day.”
The apparently harmless situation of having this school functioning on a hartal day has got Hemachandran into some very serious troubles.
“One night, a man walked in here and grabbed me by my throat. He wanted to know why I let the school function on a hartal day. I was then beat down mercilessly. There was no one nearby to hear my shouts. The nearest human settlement is over two kilometers away.”
Ever since that night, Hemachandran spends his night with families in a colony located two kilometers away form the school.
Yet, the school has got its positives as well, as Hemachandran does not fail to point out.
“The subsidies allowed by the government are met one step up than the rest at this school. Rules state that each child should receive one egg per week. I manage to give them one egg every day. There are only thirteen students, so giving them one egg every day isn't much of an additional burden. It took sometime to get them used to drinking milk because they had never tasted it ever before in their lives. They come from poor families and whatever milk their parents procure from the cows that roam around the township is sold for money. It was here, at this school, that those kids had their first taste of milk.”
The children belonging to the 300 odd families residing in Bonacaud are usually sent away to orphanages for their education. Hemachandran explains the dark politics behind it.
“The private schools at the nearest towns would sometimes run short of the required number of children for keeping intact their number of class ‘divisions’. So they 'buy' children from the families over here in return for cash and a promise that they would be well looked after. These children are then sent to orphanages of Tamil Nadu and kept there till their ’education’ is done.”
Despite the bitter experiences, Hemachandran is happy with the way his career is winding up. He retires on March 31, 2012.
“When I arrived here, people ridiculed me for allowing myself to be transferred to this school, saying that this school is dead. After six years of hard work, the same people now treat me with respect. Besides, this isn't such a bad place to work if you look at it that way. Bonacaud is an abode of natural beauty, the people here are innocent, and I get to have good sleep every night in the cool mountain air and in perfect silence. This is where a school should be located… only if it were better looked after.”
Hemachandran's home is at Chirayinkeezhu and here he has a family waiting for him. But to this school, its head master means everything to it. To get the rice and peas needed to serve lunch for the students,Hemachandran has to travel 22 kilometers to Vithura; the same goes for getting his laptop and mobile phone recharged, as well as to buy necessities like clothes, soap and other basic items.
“God knows what would happen if I were to fall seriously ill at this place,” he sighs.
Despite the odds, Hemachandran has succeeded in bringing learning back to this school. The process of teaching does takes place at this school now and the families willingly send their children here as it has become apparent to them that their child is indeed going to benefit from it. Deeds are made extraordinary when carried out in adverse conditions. Hemachandran had to fight politics, ignorance, poverty and his own reluctance to last six years at this school. All he did was a teacher's primary duty, but what makes him a hero is that he overcame all odds to do his duty.