Service at Tribal School

Much like the discrimination of the Red Indians in North America, Indian tribes who are the original inhabitants of the land have been subject to discrimination for decades. Their plight only worsened after independence – they were being exploited by their own country!
Historically, they have been carefree peoples whose only concern is their immediate survival. This mentality of ‘living in the present’ was working well for them until industrialization and the open market disfigured India’s social fabric permanently! In Tamil Nadu, they used to migrate constantly, finding work where they could and making ends just meet. They used to sell forest produce at the time of independence. Post-independence, they adapted themselves to the changing scenario and started dealing in petty items that one would need for everyday life such as safety pins, clips, toys and bangles. But as India, progressed and departmental shops and supermarkets opened up, they were left behind. The goods they sold could not match the mass-produced goods available at these establishments, As a result, even as they were adapting to the new society, another upheaval took place! Traditionally, tribal people have been discriminated in India, they were not allowed to visit temples and other public space. They are viewed as uncouth and uncivilized by the rest of society.
When I received a notification that SYH wanted volunteers for an expedition to a Tribal School, I was the first to enroll. I was thrilled! I had already volunteered with SYH for surveying a trust that aimed to help differently abled persons receive education and assistance at Gandharvakottai but this was the first time I was actually taking part in social visit. I was informed that we had to be ready by 6:00 AM on 19th July. I slept early at 11:30 PM the night before (Yes Mom! that IS early to me). I had set three alarms that would go off with fifteen minute intervals starting from 5:15 AM. I employed an alarm App called I Can’t Wake Up which doesn’t turn the alarm off unless I solve a puzzle, shake the phone for twenty seconds and a couple of more tests!
The alarms worked perfectly but so did my brain! I was in such deep sleep that I heard nothing of the irritatingly loud and incessant alarm! I woke up finally to see my Mom calling me at 6:45 AM! The horror! I was wild and a mixture of emotions including shame, guilt, anger and sorrow coursed thorough my mind, mimicking the soup of chemicals that were secreted by my brain! Finally, I got a hold of myself and manned up to call the group incharge, Sathya anna. I apologised and expressed my eagerness to join them. He was impressed by my dedication and chose to overlook my grave mistake. Much to my surprise and joy, the group was still eating their breakfast at the mess. I decided to skip the meal and join up with them. I truly believe that I owe this miracle to God and also a friend who prayed that I didn’t miss the group – thank you Miss Jayaraman! 😉
We were a group of thirteen people, two day scholars joined us at Thanjavur bus stand. Our troupe included PV Hostel warden, Mr Hariharan. On the bus ride, I sat with Gautham, a third year Mechanical Engineering student, who had delightful and interesting view about an array of things! A while later, another passenger sought our advice on career opportunities for his daughter after overhearing our conversation. The bus ride was nothing short of an on-road amusement ride, the velocity was thrilling and the bumpy ride was exciting! Finally, we reached Mayiladuthurai at 11 AM. We reached Vallavarayan Pettai, where the school was located by autos. We were received warmly, by smiling faces of adults who no doubt appreciated the efforts which we had taken to reach out to them.
The school itself was comprised of only two classrooms with a third one under construction. It was being run by Ramalingam Educational Trust, a non-profit organisation that aimed to provide education assistance to students from the scheduled tribes in that area. There were nearly 200 students enrolled in classes, right from first grade to twelfth grade. Three undergraduate students whose education was being sponsored by the trust were also present.
Following a small orientation by our adopted leader, Sathya anna, we divided ourselves into two groups. The first group, the larger one would conduct a class-wise survey to enumerate the needs of the children while the other group would keep them engaged by talking to them. I was part of the second team.and I immediately mingled into a group of kids who I observed were not listening to Sathya anna’s introductory address. They were a warm and jolly bunch. They initially insisted on calling us “sir” which in my opinion is an indication of their respect to us. The group consisted of kids mainly from sixth, seventh and eight grades. I seemed to identify with one particular child – Kumaran. I felt an inexplicable connect with him. He was not like the other kids. He was gentler and more sensitive. Kumaran also bonded with me well. His peers revealed that his mother had passed away when he was still of a tender age.
At 12:30 PM, the children were sent to have lunch – also provided by the school. Kumaran insisted that I have lunch with him! We had lunch after all the children had eaten. We ate the same food that they had eaten. The food was plain yet it had the touch of a home. I realised later that more than just a school, it was a home to these children, they ate, played and slept there. In my opinion, this made them feel at ease there.
After lunch, the first team left to purchase the things that the children felt were necessary. My team stayed and we showed the children a series of animated videos that explained the morals of some important Thirukurals. Some children were restless and constantly shifting but it was heartening to see Kumaran watching the movies with rapt attention.
Somehow, I felt that he of all the children there, had a significantly better shot at success. His timid nature was a stark contrast with the general nature of the other children. Perhaps his personal tragedy had evolved him into a more complete human being at a very tender age. I spent most of my time with him.
Finally, the first team arrived with the items they had bought which included bats, balls, carrom and chess sets, tumblers, sweets, chocolates, sanitary pads for the ladies and most importantly, text books and note books for all the children. The children were overjoyed!
We had to depart quickly after that, we could not afford to miss a train. Some adults from their community transported us to the railway station on their bikes. We boarded the Mysore Express with general tickets to Thanjavur. As usual the general coaches were packed. Sakthi, a final year mechanical student, Sandeep, also a mechanical student and I, made ourselves comfortable on a rack provided to place luggage. Although, I could say with certainty that Sakthi anna was praying that the rack won’t fall off! We had a fun time on the train.
At Thanjavur, when we departed, we realised that even though we had all our own bags, we had one bad extra! We rushed to give it back to its owner on the train! We returned to the hostel at 8:30 PM, weary and tired but we had been rejuvenated mentally.
I confidently say that the trip changed me as a person. In some ways it made me more of a human.

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Share Your Hands (SYH) is a student-run, Not For Profit organisation at SASTRA University that aims to help those in need, in and around the Thanjavur region. We specifically visit orphanages, old age homes and schools run for children from weak financial backgrounds.
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