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The Green Teachers Of Gundrai

The Green Teachers Of Gundrai

On August 8, 2015, I met the Kushwaha family in Gundrai village, Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh, with whom I was to stay for six weeks as part of a rural development project.

Narendra and Aniket on top of their favourite tree. Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

Twelve volunteers were chosen for the Youth Citizen Service Leadership Programme, out of which three of us were assigned this village in the Bundelkhand region. The nearby hills overlooked endless fields interspersed with mahua, neem and peepal trees. I couldn’t wait to explore the hills and was a little surprised when Tulsidasji entrusted his 10-year-old son Narendra and his friends with the responsibility of guiding us.

And boy, did they do a good job! During our quest to explore this new land, our young guides would provide us with a variety of information, ranging from which hills had the best view of Tikamgarh to which had gold deposits. Although we later found out that the boys had cooked up the gold story, what amazed me was that the children, barely teenagers, knew so much about the land and forests around them.

My guides Aniket and Narendra try to convince me about the pile of gold we’re sitting on. Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

Family of Farmers

A man of many trades, Tulsidasji used to run a school in Gundrai, but had to shut it down due to some unfortunate circumstances. He now runs a small shop and is also a successful farmer and gardener. He spends many hours with his wife, Sheila, working in their field and garden. When I asked him what motivates him to work so hard, he said, “I have loved nature since my childhood. I have never cut any fruit-bearing trees and instead have always planted more of them. When I used to teach, I always encouraged my students to plant trees. A human can provide for their family, but a tree provides for many families. When I was young, I helped my father in farming and making barren lands fertile through proper methods of digging and sowing. Farming has always made me happy and I believe it sustains human life.”

Sheila aunty echoed her husband’s thoughts, “I love farming and gardening. Today, forests are on the verge of destruction, which affects rainfall and causes drought. I believe that we should all plant at least 10 native trees in our lives as birds, animals and humans all depend on them.”

Jyothi admires her favourite mango tree.
Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

Part of Nature

I was curious to learn how the children here connected with the natural world because back in Bengaluru, my job involves creating and providing nature education material. Tulsidasji and Sheila aunty have set a fine example for their five children. As eager as they were to absorb and learn more, they did not attend school every day as there weren’t enough teachers in the area. This gave the boys an ample amount of time to roam the countryside. The girls were not as fortunate as they were burdened with household responsibilities. But once they were done with their chores, I would spend hours in the garden with them, climbing trees, plucking berries and sharing stories.

Tulsidasji and his wife Sheila work religiously in their field. Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

A Strong Bond

It was amazing to see the bond these children had with nature. Not only were they able to identify trees, birds and insects, they even knew when a tree would shed its leaves, grow new ones and flower. They did not have guides or textbooks to explain these phenomena, but learnt it just by nurturing the trees in their garden.

Being the first son of a farmer, Bhupendra has imbued his parents’ love for trees, “I will keep planting trees for the rest of my life because they are extremely useful to our planet and every living creature. It hurts me when I see someone cut down trees because forests attribute to the Earth’s beauty and happiness,” he says.

Frustrated by the rate at which trees have been cleared from her locality, 14-year-old Gayatri would ask me, “Didi, if there were no trees, where would we get oxygen from? And where would all the birds and animals go?”

Narendra would never participate in our serious conversations as he believed that you only get one life and it’s enjoyed best by climbing trees and feasting on their fruits.

Jyothi, the eldest daughter who moved to Jhansi after marriage, felt there was a stark difference between living in the city and the village. She missed the hills, trees and clean air of Gundrai when she was in Jhansi.

Rita, who will follow in Jyothi’s footsteps once she turns 18, is the eldest daughter staying with the family. She is a quiet girl, but has a lot to say about nature-related topics, “We can clearly see how important trees are for our survival and by protecting them, we protect ourselves.”

The Kushwaha family in their garden in Gundrai. Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

Urban Disconnect

When I first arrived in Gundrai, I was very eager to teach the children about the natural world. But after interacting with them, I was pleased to find out that there was not much I could teach them that they already did not know about.

While growing up, I used to think it was just me who was ignorant, but when I discussed the issue with my peers, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t distinguish between different types of trees. Of course, we all know how trees are primary producers, but that’s as far as our knowledge goes because that’s all our textbooks taught us.

Because of the scarcity of trees and wildlife in urban areas, there is a disconnect between children and the natural world, which needs our protection now, more than ever. Only once we build this direct relationship with the natural world, can we fully understand the importance of every living organism in this delicate framework of life. Be it rural or urban population, we all depend on the natural world and hence we need to respect and preserve it.

Fourteen-year-old Gayatri’s drawing of one of the many fruit trees in their garden.
Photo: Nayanatara Lakshman.

Author: Nayantara Lakshman, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, VOL XXXV, No. 11, November 2015.


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