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Two days of hope and inspiration

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has — anthropologist Margaret Mead  (1901-78)

In two days I met a host of people. in my mind’s eye, I saw the railway guard blow his whistle and wave the green flag: and wondered how his daughter was faring in college.

The rustic young lady from rural Karnataka impressed me less with her fluent English and more with her ardent desire to return to her village after postgraduation, to contribute to its well-being, and be with her parents.

The young boy from Mizoram warmed my heart as he related his travails and spoke of his admiration for Irom Sharmila. I marveled at how much this young lad had to deal with in such a short span of time. And how free he seemed to be of any bitterness!

The sophisticated young girl from urban Maharashtra was disarmingly honest in her admission of not having seen “the real India” and wanting to do as her aunt had suggested, i.e. work in the development sector.

The middle-aged man working in the income tax department showed me the very real possibility of a person like him making a career switch by doing a postgraduate degree at this late stage taking voluntary retirement from his job, and doing something more ful-filling for the remaining years of his life.

The fresh 20-year-old girl from rural Andhra Pradesh also moved me with her belief in “the innate goodness in every human being”, while a radiant young lady from Manipur inspired me with her story of living in a hostel from class IV, “because we don’t have good schools back home”. And yet, she affirmed, people are wonderful in Manipur, “because they always help each other out”.

A young boy from Sirsi mixed Kannada and English as he spoke of meaningless development which ignores the uniqueness of each state of the Indian Union. “We should preserve our diversity, and develop keeping that intact,” he said speaking in Kannada.

Well, you may wonder, did I whiz around the country in an aircraft to visit all these people in just two days? No, I was privileged to have them all visit me. I merely talked with them. Interviewed them, to be more exact.

These idealistic people were just a small sample of the many candidates who turned up for an interview for enrolment in the two-year MA education and development programmes of the Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Moreover a 38-year-old lady from a well-known IT company surprised us with her determined conduction of annual summer camps for children to help them connect Indian mythology to their day-to-day lives. My stereotype of the crass, money-hungry IT professional came crashing down.

The railway guard’s daughter proudly said she didn’t need to apply for a scholarship as “my father says he can bear the cost of my education”. And an urban IT professional who was making a mid-career switch confessed to needing a scholarship. With my inbuilt prejudices, both came as a surprise!

Indeed this was the most dramatic of these several revealing encounters. They made me confront my prejudices and deeply entrenched beliefs which I began to question seriously.

That so many youngsters today have a burning desire to see their country grow and change for the better: was humbling and inspiring. It was inspiring also to hear their individual trajectories which brought them to APU. Each one’s life story was a novel in itself! Fact is truly stranger than fiction.

In a day and age when the media flash stories of cruelty, greed and selfishness almost all day, I cherish these two days of my life as an epiphany. I saw the raw emotion of a 24-year-old girl, as she voiced her dream of effecting a change in rural India — and with disarming candour – asked the interview panel what they thought of her intention to enroll for a second postgraduate degree programme in development. I prayed silently to the powers that be to give wings to her dreams.

Until recently, it was near impossible for a middle-aged person to sign up for a full-time college degree programme. Today, thanks to some universities like Azim Premji University, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and National Institute of Advanced Studies, it is not only a possibility, it has become many people’s reality.

What are the larger implications of this phenomenon? My submission is that it could grow the small band of committed change makers to whom Margaret Mead referred.

The railway guard has blown his whistle for those who can hear it. That train is chugging along and I salute all these inspiring people as they move towards their goals.

(An alumnus of IIT-Kanpur and Princeton University, Dr. Neeraja Raghavan is professor of academics and pedagogy at the Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

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