Bhopal is full of sugarcane today. Roadsides are heaped with green piles of it. Bicyclists and scooterists balance a few long canes precariously on their shoulders. Schoolboys chew chunks of ganna determinedly. Tractors transport loads of it slowly down the highway. Small children swing a cane or two between them as they wander home from the market.
Depending on who I asked, I was told that it was Gyaras, or Choti Deepawali, or Tulsi Vivah. Celebrated eleven days after Diwali, Tulsi Vivah marks the beginning of the marriage season, and is celebrated in Hindu households by performing a marriage ceremony between a tulsi plant, dressed up in full bridal finery for the occasion, with Lord Vishnu. Sugarcane and branches of amla are used to decorate the area; special foods are cooked. In the evening, prayers and rituals, fireworks and diyas.
Rani, fifteen years old, has been kept home from school today to clean and decorate the house in anticipation of the evening’s festivities. She studies in Std. 8 in the nearby government school and would like to complete Std. 10. Does she enjoy decorating the house, I ask her, or would she rather be in school? Rani looks at me doubtfully, unsure how to answer a question about her preferences. Yeh sab to karna hi hota hai, she finally responds.
We are in a village less than 20 km outside Bhopal. Located on both sides of the four lane highway from Bhopal to Indore, the village houses around a thousand families. With its row of shops fronting the highway, large government high school, three private
schools, and five anganwadis, it looks and feels like an urban colony. In the section of the village we are in, all the youngsters go to private schools and they all take paid private tuition. Their houses are large and freshly painted, the alleys between them clean, and every home sports a mobile phone and a television, although the electricity supply is erratic.
Schooling is a highly valued commodity in this village. Most of the mothers of the children we come across have themselves had a few years of schooling and can read a simple text without difficulty. One tells us that her son, a private school student, is not doing well in Hindi but that his English is very good.
Large, spacious, and well maintained, the government school a short distance away normally has large numbers of students. But today many have stayed away because of the festival, which means that it is possible to imagine that the Activity Based Learning
(ABL) classroom set up for Std 1 and 2 children might occasionally live up to its name. With only 20 or so children present today, this cheerful and well-equipped space is infinitely more attractive and child-friendly than any normal classroom. But with the full complement of 90 students present in this one medium sized room? The teacher tells me that they do all fit inside. I can’t begin to imagine how.
A pucca road is being built at breakneck speed behind the school, because the Chief Minister is coming soon to inaugurate a new government programme. Beyond the almost-finished road looms the skeleton of a huge mansion; we are told that it is being constructed by the ex Sarpanch of the village. Less than a five minute walk away there’s an old stepwell. We hear that not so long ago people used to use its water. Clearly not any more. The more recently constructed community toilets seem to have never been used at all: every nearby household has its own private toilet.
Attend to appearances, forget about utility, seems to be the chief lesson for children in here – in school and out. The designers of the National Curriculum Framework would surely be dismayed.