Morning sees me waking up wanting to do some serious nature calling knowing there is no closed toilet structures around and muscle pain all over my limbs. My host asks me over and over again if I am sure I want to er…relieve myself by the stream. But, I do not have any other alternative, do I? I tell myself that “doing it” by the stream is a much better option than climbing back up the trail feeling like “doing it” but not having any place at all. After a breakfast of cucumbers and jackfruit seeds, we set off to meet 12 children who have to struggle against all sorts of odds to learn the basics: alphabets and numbers. First, the durbar (a collective in the Khasi society that takes every decision) took two years to be convinced about the children being taught. Then came the task of identifying someone who could take up the task of teaching the children which in itself was another challenge since not many had gone to school.
23 year old Marybon Kshair teaches the 12 children. Her own journey reflects the state of education that exists in her village. She studied till her IVth standard in the private run Roman Catholic Lower Primary school but had to walk to another village (Jongksha) to study till her Xth class. “After passing class IVth standard, I used to sit at home and cry everyday saying that I wanted to go to school.” She also adds that she is lucky her family has their own fields to cultivate which provided enough for bringing up a family made of her parents and a total of 8 siblings. There is an Upper Primary school under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan scheme in the village, which has just 8 students and 4 teachers and a Lower Primary School that has classes from K.G. till standard IV. Marybon eventually completed her higher secondary education by staying in hostel at Shillong. As we approach a bamboo shack, we hear children singing a song, some off key but with full spirit:
Simpyllieng Khwai doh kha Ai u khwai ngaan, Khwai manga
It is a repetitive refrain, one that means “The rains will stop, the rainbow will come on and we can go sailing”. It is a song that brings on many giggles that end in laughter when they are asked if indeed they will go sailing down the steep hills surrounding their village. English is a distant language though the alphabets are a bit familiar to them since the Khasis use English alphabets. Thus, a nursery rhyme like “Baa baa black sheep” means a confusion of words though the lilt of the rhyme is correct. The children are clubbed together despite their differences in their ages. Thus, a 4 year old is imparted the same lessons as a 14 year old. Class timings are from 6 am to 9 am since the parents want the children to stay at home in their absence while they go for work in their fields. Since parents are too poor to afford books and pencils, tsicks and stones are used in to impart learnings to the children: an innovative method that uses freely available material from the immediate surroundings of the children.
With little support from the parents compounded by the lack of educational facilities, the children have little ambitions. 14 year old Michael, a student since a year looks out of place among younger children who have more attention span than him. Asked about why he comes to the school, Michael simply says, “ I want to learn English. Then I can talk with the people who come to buy things from my parents after the harvest.” During the stick and stones lessons, Michael is often the one who does not want to use them to spell his name or write his age. He is bored by the fact that he is learning the same things as the smaller children.
The children come from very difficult circumstances. 14 year old Arimon takes me to her house where I meet her 32 year old mother, already mother to five children. The mother says it was the class timings that convinced her to send her daughter. “The early classes mean that she can look after her one and a half year old younger sister when I go to work in the fields,” she says. Khasi houses are spic and span in their neatness but the acute poverty also means that people do not possess many sets of clothes. The most telling aspect can be seen among the children, who wear worn out clothes, which often smell of urine. It is because there are no spare or additional sets of clothes.
Arimon’s story is not unique. It is the names that change: the situation and the reactions remain the same. 10 year old Phirititsha works in the field with her parents during the day time and is the eldest of five children. “Only two of us go for classes she says. Asked about her aim in life, she says, “I want to be a farmer” and says that learning to count will help her assist her parents while calculating money that get exchanged during the sale of their agricultural produce. But she isn’t sure how long her parents will allow her to go to the school. Her parents are non committal and says that as long as the classes happen, she can go for her morning classes. The education of children seems to be a distant thought since existence is centered around agricultural produce.
Farming happens is the sole means of earning. It isn’t cash crops but the cultivation of cucumber, jackfruits, pine –apples and broomstick plants. The villagers do not have access to markets directly: rather, their produce are bought by middlemen at rates that they fix for the farmers, who in turn cannot sell their produce to the markets directly. Supplies for the village are either carried by villagers themselves on the narrow and steep track or are put on an overhead cable carrier that is able to carry about 5 kg of load till the half way mark of the trail. It is common for parents to have more than 5 children so the elder ones help in the field while the smaller ones look after the infants in the house. Parents are illiterate and are not resolute on having their children educated at all. Rather, education is looked upon as something that will keep their children away from contributing as an extra pair of hands in the field.
After a very light lunch of cucumber broth and fresh fish carp, it was time for me to get back to Mawlyngnot and then to Shillong. The villagers come with big cucumbers they want me to carry back, some give me whole jack fruits but I decline firmly since I know I cannot carry heavy loads while walking up the steep incline. Some of the children insist they will hike up the trail to see me off and we set off: them leading the way and getting ahead obviously. I cannot catch up with them and they get back to check on me: they recite their rhymes to cheer me up but my limbs can only cry with every step upwards. It takes us two and a half hour to reach the level road and we have a meal together at small road-side hotel while we wait for a pick up vehicle. As I look back at the children and my host waving at me, their song of sailing away brings in the irony: they have not even seen Shillong, much less a boat. I see other depressing sights: young children tending cattle along the pastures surrounding the highways. I am told that the shoulder cloth bags that they carry often contain tobacco, which is consumed by them during the course of the day. I also know that in places I haven’t heard of or been to, such deprivations exist while much gets touted over the right to education.