Piali – the name of this remote Bengal village, which denotes a tree, undeniably has a sweet ring to it. However, the real scenario is far from sweet and pleasant in this South Bengali hamlet. The place is notorious for being a crime hub. Ranging from illegal arms trade to trafficking of young girls, Piali features in the prime time headlines quite often for all the wrong reasons. Though not very far from Kolkata, primitive, patriarchal traditions like child marriage are frequently reported from Piali.
However, for the last ten years, a couple has been determined to change the face of Bengal’s crime village and turn it into a safe haven for all young girls. Anup Gayen, a native of neighbouring village Champahati, and his wife Mojca Gayen from Slovenia have built the Piali Ashar Alo School, which currently houses over 160 girl students from nursery to 8th standard. Some of them belong to broken families with alcoholic fathers or estranged mothers.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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Ashar Alo, which translates in Bengali as ‘the light of hope’, has a curriculum which is worlds apart from any regular school. The wholesome development of a child is given utmost priority here, over and above textbook knowledge, examinations and grades.
Struggle was Anup’s companion in his growing years
“I have endured a lot of hardships as a child to get a proper education. I strongly believe that nothing other than education can liberate these lesser privileged kids from the shackles of poverty. Else the brutal world would continue to mistreat and marginalise them,” expresses founder Anup Gayen, whose own growing years were riddled with struggles.
“When I was 3rd standard, my father contracted tuberculosis. After he was admitted to the hospital for an indefinite time, my education was also on the verge of ending. I would be forever grateful to one of my teachers, who went out of her way to arrange for my admission to a missionary school, far from home. Later I completed my higher education from Chennai and Kanyakumari,” shares Anup.
There was a period of uncertainty in Anup’s life also, right after he graduated in automobile engineering. Lack of jobs landed him in working for a courier service, for a meagre Rs 700 per month. For two years, he supported his younger siblings’ education as well as sustained his own living costs with that earning. With time, Anup secured better jobs and gradually started inclining towards social work.
The seed that sprouted into Ashar Alo school
“I used to visit a church in Kolkata. As part of their social activities, they were looking for a place with the children who are in dire need of education and financial support. One of my friends suggested Piali, where even two square meals a day was a luxury at that time,” he narrates.
“I realised this is where I grew up grazing cows or carrying stacks of paddy. So, without a second thought, we started our project at Piali. Our initial survey revealed that more than 80% of the girls have never set foot inside a school,” shares Anup.
Bringing these girls to school was a daunting task. Their parents were either toiling too hard or gambling and drinking too much; the kids were accustomed to living in an unhygienic and unhealthy atmosphere. “I remember applying hair oil and shampoo on their dirty, unkempt hairs and giving them clean clothes and a hygiene kit. Classroom and books came later, we had to ensure their well-being first,” he recalls.
Anup and Mojca’s heartwarming journey together
There is a deeply heartwarming story behind Anup meeting Mojca, who later went on to become his life partner. Slovenian psychologist Mojca Pajk arrived in Bengal as a volunteer with an international non-profit organisation, where she met Anup. Despite their differences, both of them shared a deep empathy towards the underprivileged community and trusted each other by heart. Gradually, a beautiful bond blossomed between the two and they got married soon afterwards.
Their marriage indeed drew frowns from their families and society. But, nothing lasted before their iron determination to design a dream future for these helpless little souls of Piali. Today, Mojca and Anup Gayen are proud parents of a son and a daughter, along being the guardian angels for 160 girls of Piali.
Anup falls short of words to express his gratitude towards Mojca, whom he calls the biggest inspiration behind the school. “We can start a school with even five children. If it does not work out, we will close, but we have to try,” Mojca had proposed the idea to Anup ten years ago.
When Slovenia stood beside Piali
In 2008, the couple started the Ashar Alo school in Piali with twelve girls and one rented room. They always dreamt of expanding the school, one classroom every year. But, funds had always been a constraint. This is where Slovenia, a quaint European nation, came together to stand beside a nondescript village in West Bengal, India.
Mojca contacted non-profit foundations in her motherland and appealed to the citizens to pour in their gracious contribution. The story of her selfless efforts motivated the young and old of Slovenia to raise around INR 4.5 lakhs. Even youngsters and schoolgoers chipped in their hard-earned pocket money, by selling magazines, handicrafts or artworks.
Mojca and Anup brought a plot with the money and started the construction of the present school building. The couple went door to door, pleading the parents to send their girls to the school and not ruin their lives in a loveless early marriage.
Responding to Mojca’s mail, in 2011, Žiga Rošer, an architecture student from Slovenia, expressed his interest to spearhead the construction project for Ashar Alo School. “He opted for three-walled open classrooms with intermittent corridors and lawns. He reasoned that the kids here were growing up amidst nature, so open classrooms would be best for their learning experience,” shares Anup. Later, German organisation CED financed in completing the construction.
At present, the two-storeyed school building has 12 full-time teachers and 160 girls. Alongside the regular studies, music, dance, drama, art and sports features in Ashar Alo’s curriculum.
A typical day at the school starts with the morning assembly. Classes are intercepted by mid-day meals and free tuition is also provided after school hours.
Besides, Ashar Alo also offers tailoring and beautician courses for the students’ mothers and local women. Computer and spoken English classes are also organised for them from time to time.
“Recently, I have introduced football coaching for our girls where local boys also train together. These boys used to lead a shady life, dropping out of school early and consumed by drugs and gambling. Now, the girls and boys are together representing their village team in different tournaments,” Anup declares.
Teaching empathy to the girls is fundamental
The school is free for the students, barring the cost of books and notebooks. Publishers throng the school premises at the beginning of every annual session, and students are offered sizeable discounts on textbooks and stationery. Other than that, the girls’ families have to invest nothing more for their education.
Anup feels that the students should realise how empathy and compassion from people around the world are helping them to study today. To inculcate the same values in these young minds, Anup keeps a contribution box in the school, while each student, teacher and staff are asked to donate something every day, be it as small an amount as one rupee. Every three months, the older students visit the homeless, elderly and differently-abled people in nearby railway stations, donating clothes, bedsheets or food to them- all bought from the funds collected in the contribution box.
“We have tried our best to help the girls have a better future. We are still trying our best,” Anup signs off, as the light of hope continues to illuminate Piali.
Rinchen always wanted to be an entrepreneur. His rough childhood riddled with poverty and hardships did not permit him to dream. Maybe he would have faded into oblivion forever, like many children belonging to the Monpa tribe in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, had it not been for one man. Lobsang Phuntsok, a former monk who renounced his ascetic ways to design a bright future for the Monpa children, welcomed Rinchen into the beautiful children’s community ‘Jhamtse Gatsal’. Fast forward a decade, Rinchen is now a social entrepreneur who wants to introduce vermicomposting to his tribe. “We will train farmers starting with our parents and relatives to use vermicompost in their farms. Then we will try to slowly spread this to the rest of the villages,” informs Rinchen.
Rinchen’s story is one among the many heartwarming and inspiring real-life stories scripted every day within the Jhamtse Gatsal community. Translated from Tibetan as the ‘Garden of Love and Compassion’, a home and a community for Monpa children coming from diverse backgrounds of poverty and adversity, was started in 2006 by Phuntsok. 13 years hence, Jhamtse Gatsal is supported not just by one man, but by many around the world who believe in his vision. A vision that one day the world will live as one Jhamtse (loving and compassionate) community.
Kiren Rijiju ಅವರಿಂದ ಈ ದಿನದಂದು ಪೋಸ್ಟ್ ಮಾಡಲಾಗಿದೆ ಸೋಮವಾರ, ಜನವರಿ 28, 2019
The video shows an aerial view of the Jhamtse Gatsal school
Jhamtse Gatsal community
If you brush off Jhamtse Gatsal as just another community and school offering a bunch of extra-curricular activities, you are mistaken. This first-of-its-kind community has helped to alter the entire social landscape of a region, while preserving the ancient cultural heritage and introducing the necessary global concepts. Jhamtse Gatsal envisions to help each and every child grow up into a beautiful human being, not just rescue them and ensure their educational degree.
Founder Lobsang Phuntsok hails from a family where he was raised by his grandparents. He had a troublesome childhood and was admitted to a monastery in South India so that he could become a human being, as his grandfather told him when he was leaving home. While practising to be a monk, Phuntsok was exposed to the profound tenets of Buddhism, whereafter the idea of creating Jhamtse Gatsal sprouted in his mind. A home where every adult and child is amidst love, care and compassion; and learns the core values of humanity.
A home where every child grows up amidst love, care and compassion; and learn the core values of humanity. He strongly wanted every child to enjoy a happy childhood.
A ‘lazy’ student who perfected a model of JCB-Backhoe
Jhamtse Gatsal believes that real learning is a continuous loop of Experience-Reflection-Application. Their motto is clearly evident from the endless exemplary initiatives they undertake every day.
Among the Monpa tribe exists the practice of Lakpar, where all the people of the village come together for the construction of a new house or to harvest someone’s field. Lakpar fellowship is an initiative undertaken by Jhamtse Gatsal in order to create a space for students to showcase their talents and ‘experience’ education rather than merely sit in a classroom and read facts from a textbook.
This year, the fellowship discovered students coming up with incredible scientific innovations from the simplest everyday object. 9th grader Tsering Gombu was quite unpopular with everyone for being lazy, apathetic and nonchalant. But the Lakpar fellowship brought out a completely different side of Gombu, who would spend hours working on a miniature hydraulic JCB backhoe.
In the Lakpar context, another 9th grader Yeshi deserves special mention. She is formulating an all-natural toothpaste and plans to distribute it among the villagers, to introduce them to organic products and a sustainable lifestyle.
Towards a zero-waste community
Project Earth is a student-led initiative undertaken by the students of grades 6 to 12 in Jhamtse Gatsal, to achieve the target of a zero-waste community. On the last Saturday of every month, all the members of the Community gather, divide into groups and undertake a deep-cleaning of all of the surrounding areas. The waste collected is segregated and either recycled or disposed of. Using the 4R method — recover, reuse, reduce and recycle, Project Earth aims to bring a considerable reduction in the waste which used to be burnt by the villagers. The team of youngsters also conduct several community-engagement sessions to make the community members aware of materialism, consumerism and its impact on the world’s natural resources.
A school with its own newspaper
The growing community of Jhamtse Gatsal runs an intra-school newspaper ‘The Voice’, where every student gets the chance to narrate their memories, experiences and opinion about anything and everything – ranging from world politics, career guidance to personal stories. The Voice is also an excellent avenue to build crucial 21st-century skills in students in a place that is cut off from the world. Children learn to hone their writing skills, interviewing skills, communication skills, teamwork, time management, the delegation of duties, editing, design and layout skills; which helps them later in life.
An attempt to revive a dying culture
If one steps into a music or art class at Jhamtse Gatsal, they are bound to be astounded. The school focuses on preserving the dying culture of the region. Children at Jhamtse Gatsal, from a very young age, grow up to appreciate, perform and practice their traditional instruments and dances. Tashi, a Grade 2 student never liked singing or dancing. However, on the occasion of His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s birthday, Tashi performed a traditional Tibetan dance to everybody’s awe.
Gombu of Grade 9 found his calling and took a decision to exit the traditional schooling in order to pursue his interest in traditional Thangka art.
The children here are also taught Monpa and Tibetan language – Bhoti, which is now being revived at Jhamtse Gatsal.
You can’t test a fish by its ability to climb a tree
Jhamtse Gatsal believes that every child does not study in the same way and each child has a unique talent whose potential needs to be tapped into. The academic curriculum at the school differs drastically from the rote-learning education prevalent in the rest of the nation. Practices like design thinking, differentiation, multiple intelligences, presentations, student-teachers, mind mapping and reciprocal reading are encouraged.
A slot that has been introduced recently into the schedule is “Reflection time,” which is 30 minutes at the end of the day where children sit with their class teachers and either have discussions based on an issue, discuss their strengths and weaknesses, read philosophical books or reflect on their own behaviour during the day.
Fostering diverse thinking has led the first batch of Jhamtse students to graduate and take admission in colleges in diverse fields- ranging from psychology to culinary arts to journalism, aside from the usual science and humanities courses.
Aside from all these, the youngsters at Jhamtse Gatsal grow their own food in a completely organic manner.
organic manner. They perform all the daily tasks on their own, be it cleaning the premises or serving meals. Beyond the confines of their own integrated community, they also perform a lot of social work for the adjoining villages, which help to develop their inner conscience of empathy and compassion.
Jhamtse Gatsal has also begun the construction of eco-friendly houses made of mud, cob and straw. Jhamtse Gatsal currently has two cob houses, and more on the way. Rainwater harvesting systems in place ensure continuous water supply and a means of harnessing the heavy downpour during the monsoon seasons. While harnessing clean and renewable energy the community meets 80% of its lighting requirements through solar energy. Bio-septic systems were also installed to effectively manage wastewater. Jhamtse Gatsal envisions being a sustainable community, independent of the outer world.
To know more about Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community, watch the Emmy award-winning documentary – Tashi and the Monk.