The words from Robert Forst’s monumental poem echoed in my mind throughout our first session of ‘Why not?’.
What could have easily been a dense discourse on philanthropy, turned out to be an inspiring narrative. The credit for it goes to our speaker for the session, Nitin.
Nitin is the regional head of Agastya Foundation, an NGO that seeks to stimulate the creative potential of children with method-based learning models. Agastya’s success over the last 18 years compelled them to expand their grand vision of creative pedagogy beyond the borders of southern states, where the had been traditionally operating. Nitin is responsible for setting up the centre in Mumbai. In an informal discussion, Nitin talked about being excited as well as unnerved with his experiences in the city. Life in the fast lane was clearly not his comfort zone. For a moment I imagined if a situational hazard forced me to switch my urban lifestyle and cut down on most of the comforts and luxuries. Horrifying! And yet this individual stood before us with a big grin, talking about embracing this challenge. His optimism was baffling! It was not even halfway until we realized why.
Nitin comes from a small town in northern Karnataka. He told us how he took the conventional path of pursuing engineering and ended up being utterly lost towards the end of his academic years. His friends had started securing jobs while Nitin’s guts screamed to do something different. He was sociable, he loved interacting with people and most importantly he wanted to find meaning in his work. So his prospects of being satisfied with a standard engineering job were slim to none. Besides, ‘…there is no U-turn!’ his father’s words resounded in his mind. Children of middle-income families don’t have the privilege to break away from the tested paths and turn back to tread into the unknown. But Nitin did…
It began when he met Anna Hazare. These were the times when Anna was only a local name but deeply respected nonetheless. Anna prompted Nitin to make use of his education by serving in rural areas, thereby finding purpose in his work. Nitin worked in the rural interiors of India for about 2 years seeing life, as he defines, ‘in its raw form’. The experience moved him, emotionally and spiritually. Meanwhile, the world had come to an appalling stop with 9/11. It perplexed Nitin how learning and intelligence could be squandered to bear something so evil. He grew inquisitive of the gap between learning and wisdom. And like one way leads to another, his wandering feet stopped at the ashram of a Guru.
As it turned out, the ashram was not Nitin’s final destination to salvation. In the pursuit of being worldly-wise, one needs to get a strong taste of the real world. His Guru posed him with the challenge of living in the mighty Himalayas for one year. Fairly doable? The binding condition of the challenge was to live in the Himalayas for an entire year without carrying a single penny! I reiterate, ‘HIMALAYAS. ONE YEAR. NO MONEY.’ We expected Nitin to explain the hardships he faced in this seemingly impossible year but on the contrary, he overwhelmed us with stories of gratitude. “I don’t remember a single night when I slept with an empty stomach” reminisced Nitin. He told us about one time when he and his partner got leeches all over their bodies during a long tiring walk in the woods. They were saved by a local stranger who not only offered them shelter but also gave them an antidote. He hosted them for three days with exceeding hospitality. “The real India is hidden in these small villages and as youngsters, you must venture out into them” was Nitin’s concluding statement on his Himalayan sojourn. He then went on to spend 6 years in the ashram after successfully completing his challenge. He extensively worked with the people in the ashram and outside, teachers, educators, and philosophers.
With Agastya, he has been working towards promoting an ideology that draws from his own beliefs – taking the unconventional path and delving into the deeper questions. Agastya’s unique programs aim to address significant gaps in the formal education system. The dearth of experiential learning is what’s restricting our children from being aware of their own potential and the possibilities of learning. Agastya’s educational interventions complement and work alongside government programs and the curriculum in government schools to offer children a more holistic perspective with regard to knowledge.
With ‘Why not?’ we seek to find inspiration in stories of normal people who do phenomenal work in not-so-normal ways. We cover the stories of people who have the courage to take the road less travelled. Because that’s what makes all the difference!