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Like an arrow, the highway from Raipur runs straight south. Malls and shops, gated communities, fancy buildings and marriage gardens are soon left behind. All around us are fields of golden green ripening rice waiting to be harvested. Darker green trees, big and small, border the fields. Hills and rocky outcrops look down from their height. Boulders balancing precariously one on top of the other as if someone has dropped them carefully from above. The sky is light and blue with a gentle breeze, so typical of the weather between Dussehra and Diwali. It is a perfect day.

We leave the highway. The rough road winds through shrubs and farmlands to arrive in a small village. In the centre of the village is the school compound. The walls are low.  For an adult it is easy to look in. It is a typical government primary school building – two or three rooms and a veranda in front. The signboard says the school was established in 1964. The compound is very large. There are neatly planted flowerbeds around the actual building.  Three large trees have spread their branches like arms to cover almost the entire playground with a lacy shade and filigree shadows.  Even in the hottest summers, children can play outside happily.       

Schools opened in Chhattisgarh a few months ago. We are in Kanker district and in our school today, the younger ones – Class 1 and 2 are together. A math lesson is going on. Girls and boys are sitting on long, folded dhurrie strips. In front of each child there is a small pile of stones and a grid drawn with chalk on the floor. The teacher gives them a problem – 5+3 or 6+2 and so on. Children count the stones – you can hear the murmuring as they count. Then the child writes the answer in the grid. As the teacher walks around the room she can easily see what the children are doing and who needs a bit of support.  Sometimes friends lean over and help each other too.  The air in the classroom is calm and confident.

We decide to go out. Quickly, children stream into the courtyard. Voices outside are much louder, calling to each other with joy and in fun. On the wide cemented chabutara or platform around the base of the biggest tree there is a lot of space to sit as a group and even to put a blackboard on it.  We play some number games. Then comes a demand for a story.  I start with one of my favourites – “Maaloo, Kaaloo and Aaloo”. “Maaloo is a little boy. His Nani wants him to go outside and bring some aaloo (potato). So, he takes his friend Kaaloo along.  Kaaloo has four legs, two ears and a tail. Who do you think he is?” I ask. Instantly, the children say “bhaaloo” (bear). (I am surprised with their answer but later on that day we hear in a village near by that bears are very common in the area. So, it turns out that the childrens’ answer was not surprising at all.)  The story moves along. Maaloo and Kaaloo hunt till the potatoes are found.

“What about pictures?” I want to know.  Children race back into the classroom. Within minutes, they come racing out with and shapes, Maaloo is in the pictures too. In one of the drawings there is a black dog with sharp ears and a pointy tail.

It is time for the midday meal. Big steel thalis (plates) come out. Children run to the tap near the boundary wall to wash them. “Remember to scrub your hands well” they shout to each other.  The school teachers ask us to stay and have lunch with the children. But we have to leave. The happy sounds of children in school stay with us long into the day.

Much later in the afternoon, well after school is done, we make our way to an interior village. More than half an hour off the main road, driving through sun soaked fields and sleepy forests we reach our destination. The village is quite spread out, several mohallas and hamlets. Although it is not yet dusk, cattle are returning home at a leisurely pace.  Preparations for Diwali are well underway. Houses have been freshly painted often in bright colours. Drawings on the outer walls seem recent. 

In an open space next to a one room building, there is a group of children sitting on the floor around a young woman. Bags are open, books and notebooks spill out and are open, pencils, pens, rulers everywhere. Clearly, they have been working together for a while. Two grandmothers are sitting on the edge of the circle – one in an orange sari and another in green. They are very well known as story tellers. One tells traditional stories and the other modern ones. The two have been friends for ages. The discussion naturally moves to the topic of school closures and the pandemic. “It is only these mohalla groups that has kept children connected to their studies” says one grandmother.  In every neighbourhood, there are groups like the one in front of us. College or high school students help their younger siblings and neighbours. Sometimes they too have been members of a children’s group in the past.

For the youngest children, this year the situation is tough. Those who are in Class 1 or 2 today have never been to school before or in fact to pre-school either. Everything has been closed for over a year and a half. To support the youngest children, mothers’ groups have been formed in the village.  An activity is sent everyday via a phone message (WhatsApp or SMS) to mothers directly. Once a week under the guidance of a group leader – “SmartMata” (smart mother – someone who has a smart phone), the groups gets together to discuss what they have been doing as well as the activities for the next week.  Mothers’ groups were not hard to organize in this village.  There seems to be an active women’s self-help group movement here too.  Most women have children at home and so helping them seemed a natural extension of the group’s agenda.

Now it is dark. We have visited almost every mohalla group. In some places, they meet on the veranda and in other places in someone’s house. Everywhere, even in the dim light, you can see shining eyes, enthusiastic groups of children, their proud volunteers and mothers.  Our orange sari grandmother invites us to her house. She has a Diwali gift for us – a “jhoomar” – a hanging mini chandelier made of rice husk. “Take it home”, she says. “Hang it where the birds can come and eat the grain”.

We make our way back through the dark forest. Above, the sky is glittering with stars like jewels overflowing from an upturned jewellery box.  It truly has been a perfect day.

Rukmini Banerji. Thursday 28th September 2021. Kanker district. Chhattisgarh.

Both of these villages have been part of Pratham’s Hamara Gaon program in the last three years. 

The original version of this piece was published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on Nov 6, 2021.