It was mid-Seventies. Anil sat lonely in front of a kerosene lamp. The dim light of the lamp tried to fight out the darkness of the cottage, like Anil who was trying to combat the illiteracy of Sarjula Patti (a group of villages) in this remote village of Garhwal in Uttarakhand.
Five years ago, there was only one Government-run primary school in this Patti catering to the need of 7-8 villages scattered around 6-7 Kilometres. Villagers of this area were generally not interested in education.
“What will we get after educating our children? We are in no need of providing any service. We have a lot of agricultural land to plough and cattle to graze,” they would say.
Only very few people aware of the benefits of education sent their sons to the school. And the only benefit of education, they knew, was it made their sons capable of reading and writing letters. For the villagers their thumb impression was sufficient to solve all purposes.
There was no question of sending girls to school. “What is the use of it?” they would question. Negating any reply they would contend, “Girls must be expert in cooking food, mulching cattle, cutting grass and they should be able to do other agriculture-related work.”
This was why the attendance at the school was very thin. It was advantageous for the primary teacher. For months he was not to be seen. He used to be away at his home drawing his salary regularly and enjoying the fruits of Government education system! What could the poor teacher do if the villagers were not interested in their children’s education!
Anil was a poor child. But he had a keen interest in education. After passing his primary education from this very primary school, he went to Chamba—a nearby town. To further his studies he had to travel 12 kilometres per day from his village to Chamba and vice versa. Industrious and intelligent as he was, he acquired an M.A. degree with a gold medal. This he could do thanks to the dedication of his widowed mother who sold firewood and grass to educate him—whose only aim in life was to educate her son at any cost.
Those were not the days of acute shortage of employment, like today. Anil could easily get a job in a town or city. But he did not run after it. He instead preferred to serve this area. He wanted to illumine this dark area with the light of education were the sun was to be seen during the day like a Government servant in office. He established a high school in this village Pata and named it—Vidya Jyoti. The sole purpose of Vidya Jyoti was not monetary gain like today’s private schools growing like mushrooms but to impart education to children of this Patti. So he charged very nominal fee from the students. Incapable poor children were exempt from any fee. Instead he helped bright students by giving them books and stationery.
After a lot of persuasions Anil was able to make the villagers send their children to school. Almost all village boys with a good number of girls had started going to school.
Anil firmly believed in high ethical values. He not only believed in it but also practised it. In his opinion teachers were the torch-bearers of society showing path to the ignorant. He laid great emphasis on character-building. Teachers of his school like him too adhered to moral values. Vidya Jyoti and its teachers made their mark in the Patti.
Anil was both manager and principal of Vidya Jyoti. He would occasionally teach the students. His teaching method was so nice and appealing that every class preferred to be taught by the principal himself. Anil would teach the students as far as he could but to ensure proper teaching he would round each class.
One day Anil received a complaint from Ramesh, a student of tenth class that someone had stolen his twenty Rupee note. Anil called all students of tenth class to his office. He looked at each student’s face and told them, except Gopal, to go back to their class.
“Gopal, return Ramesh’s money,” said Anil calmly.
“Sir, I didn’t take his money,” retorted Gopal.
“If you have spent the money, I can give you. But don’t tell a lie. Accept your guilt,” Anil insisted.
Gopal kept quiet.
“Gopal…..?,” Anil shouted.
“Sir, I’m innocent. I didn’t take his money,” said Gopal abruptly.
This was enough to exasperate Anil. He beat Gopal with a raw, flexible stick. The stick accidentally rebounded to hit Gopal’s face which left a mark and caused some swelling there. Gopal did not resist.
After school, Gopal came home. His parents asked him about the swelling. He pretended that while coming home from school some wasps bit him. But other students told them that the Principal Sahib had beaten Gopal without any cause.
The news of Gopal’s beating spread to the whole village. Some villagers came to see Gopal.
“How cruelly he has beaten the boy,” said one.
“He has no right to beat our children like this,” added another.
“Had any teacher beaten any student in Delhi, he would have been murdered,” bragged a young man who had come on leave from Delhi where he served as a domestic help.
“Report the matter to Police,” coaxed other who was very fond of litigation.
“No, no, you are wrong. The principal cannot be wrong. The boy must have committed some mistake,” said one in defense of the principal. No one agreed with him.
There was a hot discussion over it. At last it was decided that the matter be referred to the village Panchayat. One educated man wrote a complaint against Anil and Gopal’s father was made to put his thumb impression on it. Next day it was lodged with the village Panchayat.
Anil was summoned by the Panchayat to appear before it at 11 AM on the third day. When he appeared before the Panchayat the Sarpanch asked him, “Why did you beat Golpal?”
“Sir, I’m sorry for that. But, sorry, I will not tell you the reason. Better ask the boy,” said Anil politely.
“Why, why can’t you tell?”
“It’s a question of my student’s future. But believe me, Sir; I did not beat him out of malice.”
“No, you are hiding something. You took revenge on him for something.”
“Sir, why should a teacher take revenge on his student? What should be its cause?” Anil tried to pacify the Sarpanch.
Silence prevailed for some time. Then the Panchayat asked Gopal why he was beaten. He stood with low head and strict silence. His father was also questioned but he expressed his ignorance about the matter.
The Sarpanch consulted other members of the Panchayat. Within half an hour the Sarpanch pronounced the judgment, “You will pay a fine of one hundred and one Rupees to the Panchayat for beating Gopal.”
This was surprising for Anil but he paid the fine and instead of going to Vidya Jyoti, came back to his cottage.
The judgment perturbed Anil. He did not expect this. ‘Oh, these rustic people! They’ll never understand. What have I not done for them! Is it the reward of my services? What have I earned from this? Nothing except infamy. I will leave this place. Let they manage Vidya Jyoti, themselves. I don’t mind even if Vidya Jyoti is closed,’ thought he for one moment.
‘Anil what are you thinking. Did you open Vidya Jyoti for this day? Will you be able to do so? Will you leave those innocent students to their fate in the mid academic session? What is your duty?’ Anil heard someone from within him was cautioning him.
“Duty? What duty? Is it my duty towards others? People have not any duty to me, to the students, to Vidya Jyoti?,” he questioned the voice.
‘You are different from them. They are in the dark. You are here to show them light. They do not know what they are doing. Forget about the fine and forgive them,’ the voice continued.
“No, I have no contract to run the school,” Anil said angrily.
‘Cool down. Think again and again. Don’t take decision in a hurry,’ the voice said calmly.
Anil first drank a glass of water and then another. The chilled water gave him some relief. To divert his mind, he turned over pages of Bhagwadgita. But he could not concentrate on any shloka. He kept the holy book at its place. He spent that afternoon restless.
Teachers of Vidya Jyoti came to Anil’s cottage in the evening. “I am leaving Vidya Jyoti. I will hand over it to you, tomorrow,” said Anil to them.
“Sir, don’t leave us in a lurch,” Requested Rana, the senior-most teacher.
“Sir, we’ll not let you go,” said other teachers unanimously.
“I have decided it,” Anil said in a firm voice.
Next day Anil went to Vidya Jyoti and formally handed over its charge to Rana. Then he came to his cottage and packed his clothes in a patrol box.
In the evening he strolled about the courtyard until it was quite dark. He hated darkness in his life but he liked it now. Why, he did not know. He unwillingly went into the cottage and lit his kerosene lamp.
As he came out to shut the door, he heard sound of footsteps nearing the cottage. A figure emerged from the darkness and fell on his feet. Anil raised him up. Oh, he was Gopal, with tears rolling down his cheeks! Anil wiped Gopal’s tears and patted on his back.
“Sir, I am guilty. But even then you saved me. Sir, had you told the Panchayat the truth, I would have not been able to show my face to anyone. There would have been no alternative for me except to jump into Ganga Maiyaa. Sir, you are great. You may punish me in any way you like. You can rusticate me from the school, Sir, but please don’t leave Vidya Jyoti,” entreated Gopal.
“Will you accept the punishment?” asked Anil.
“Yes, Sir, with great pleasure.”
“Then leave the nasty habit of theft for good.”
“Only on one condition, Sir.”
“What is that?”
“You will not leave Vidya Jyoti.”
Anil paused for a minute and then said, “Alright.”
“Sir, It means you have forgiven me.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Sir, pardon me. How did you know that I had stolen Ramesh’s twenty Rupee note?”
“On the day of theft when I was on the round of your class, I by chance saw you taking a red paper from Ramesh’s pocket. Then I did not pay attention to it. But on the next day when Ramesh complained about the theft, I suspected it. I recognized you. Your eyes were also telling that you were the culprit. Remember always, you can tell a lie but your eyes cannot.”
Gopal fell on Anil’s feet again. He left the cottage only after Anil promised him that he would not leave Vidya Jyoti.
Anil felt as if a huge stone from his chest had been removed. He turned the knob of the kerosene lamp to increase its light.