In this interview series where we ask questions to people who are making a difference, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution to our society. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Bharati Thakur isan avid traveller, environment lover and an acclaimed Marathi writer. She was a Central government employee in Maharashtra. She left home in her mid 30s to work in the neglected areas of the North Eastern parts of India. She was instrumental in setting up a school in Golaghat in Assam and in bringing the tribal children of those areas back to the school. She has done Narmada Parikrama, a 3200 km arduous journey along the bank of the Narmada River and currently runs an organization called Narmadalaya for the education and well fare of kids from the underprivileged sections in the Mandleshwar Region. Her diary written in Marathi language during the Parikrama has been published in a book form (Narmada Parikrama – Ek Antaryatra) and also recently translated to Hindi.
Following are her views on some of our questions and also included some photos from Narmadalaya.
- Tell us something about yourself?
I am from Nasik and was raised in a joint family. I graduated with a degree in commerce and joined Defence department Artillery Center in Nasik. I always liked mountaineering, trekking and camping in forests. So I decided to do a parikrama of Narmada with my friends, during my parikrama I saw the poor state of education in this area and decided to retire from my govt job to serve the community.
I am also initiated by Swami Ranganathanand ji who was 13th president of Ramkrishna mission.
- What motivated you to take up the cause of education for these kids?
I saw the illiteracy and poverty in this region while circumambulating Narmada, the parents of these kids were poor and the villages didn’t had proper infrastructure and facilities. At the time of my initiation in RK order my guru told me “Motherland is God, serve it”. I was inspired by writings of Swami Vivekananda. His solution for all of India’s problems was education, not only to empower but also to build character and make responsible citizens. So I decided to give up my government job and took up the new way of my life.
- What are some of the challenges that you face in you mission?
Initially people weren’t convinced that a single woman can leave her job in city to work and live in this rural area, I had to convince them that change was possible and that change we are seeing today. Day to day problems are of logistics and resources. We have students living in hostel, we have to pay salaries to our staff and teachers and also pay bills on time.
I remember there was an instance where when we were expecting two kids from a village 400 km away which takes 5-6 hrs of boat ride in the river but instead of two, nine kids show up. So things do become challenging but help always comes through some divine intervention.
- How does people and society support you in this effort? Is there a reason you don’t want to take help from the government?
We get a lot of support from people, farmers of this areas help us with by donation of wheat and other necessary food items. We get donations from people and sponsoring a child per year comes around INR 3000/- So sponsorship covers around 60-70% of kids and we also have and shelter for 15 cows, we also grow some vegetables in our farm and on a piece of land which we got as donation.
The reason we choose not to take government support is that, according to govt. there are no dropouts in this area whereas most of children are dropouts. Another fact is that I don’t want to give bribery to get any favour. It’s important to instill morality in these kids. However, district higher officials like collector, judges, tehsildar etc often visit us and encourage us..
- What are your plans for higher education and employment opportunities for these kids when they grow up?
I don’t want these students to migrate to cities to become collies or clerks, we want them to stay here and build a sustainable, thriving environment for business. In this regard we are training them in skills like welding, carpentry, electrical and tractor repair, tailoring, dairy and animal husbandry, bio agriculture etc. We have also sent some students to pursue higher education in cities through our sponsorship program. One of our students scored 85% marks in 10th board exams.
- Do you think that we are losing our core values in modern education, where focus is on competition and earning more money rather than benefit of the society?
Yes, I believe so, even though these kids live in poverty but they don’t lack in confidence. Our CCTV system in premises was singlehandedly installed by a student who is just 15 years old, another student of around 12 years in age is an expert in animal and veterinarian care. We should not lose our core values; students should not focus on salary package while studying . They should not have competition with other fellow students. It’s a sheer rat race. I often tell my students that even though you’d win a rat race, you’d still be a rat – so focus of higher values in life. Money is not everything in life.
- Can you elaborate some of the positive changes that you have seen in these villages as a result of this effort?
When Centre – Narmadalaya started, students voluntarily started attending our classes instead of simply playing in streets and doing nothing. Earlier only 2 out of 50 students would pass in state board exams but now success rate is 100%. Initially everyone was skeptical but their attitude changed as things progressed. Women of the villages we are working in are also taking the initiative in learning and teaching. A student Dipali who comes from a family of 19, secured 82% in SSC board exam, she is currently pursuing a degree in bio technology. Examples like these encourage other women to pursue education.
We also teach Hindi literature and regularly organize poetry competition. We also teach classical music to students.
- From a standpoint of organizing and coordinating social work, what would you suggest those people who lack the resources but want to do something for their communities?
I’d like to quote Richard Bach “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.” So – be hopeful, work hard and be persistent.
- In times of stress or disappointments, where do you look for inspiration?
I turn to literature of Swami Vivekananda who established Ramkrishna Mission and my guru Swami Ranganathanand ji for inspiration. Dedication to your work and mission is important. I was 50 years old when I retired and moved to work at an unknown place not knowing what will be the outcome. Yet by some divine grace we are going strong, I’d add that I couldn’t do it alone. My team, staff, students and villagers contributed immensely in this effort.
When we work in team for a greater cause it automatically fills you with inspiration.
- Can you share your most memorable experience in this work?
There is a 12 year old girl, her name is Pooja, she was blind by birth and had never been to a school in her life. I asked her if she want to study and sit in the classroom, so she agreed. Fortunately, we had a visiting ophthalmologist in our ashram and we asked him to evaluate Pooja’s condition. He laughed during the check-up and said, Pooja had a cataract since birth which has hardened with time. She has a blurred vision instead of complete blackness. He suggested to get her operated because So she was operated and got her vision back, Now, she can play, ride bicycle and goes to school like any other kid. This is one of the most memorable experience of my life.
- Your message for our readers?
Serve the people, serve humanity, no one should be illiterate, no one should sleep hungry. Ram Krishna mission and several organizations like ours are working across the country for benefit of others. We also request people to help us in this effort. Thank you.