Ready for a new challenge, I left Casa Thursday morning for Trichy, Tamil Nadu. I was invited by Dr. K . Govidaraju to spend a day interacting with the students at one of three Tamil schools he founded under the NGO, SEVAI. Arriving at the wrong station, finding almost no English speakers, and traveling over 9 hours between 2 non-ac buses with little leg room, I found my challenge.
Dr. Govindaraju was 22 when he started his post grad in Mathematics education. He knew he wanted to start his own school in a rural neighborhood of Tamil so in 1975, with a few friends, he founded his first school with 30 students. SEVAI has grown exponentially since and, among others, now includes one K-12 and two K-5 schools, several housing projects, a women’s counseling center, self help, and business education programs, 3 organic farming plantations, and an HIV/AIDS intervention program.
He has lead relief programs in Tamil villages damaged by cyclones in 1977 and 1993, restoring clean water supplies, rebuilding homes, and improving local literacy. In 2004, a tsunami destroyed 27 villages along the coast, after which Dr. Govindaraju, then a State Resource Center Chairman, assisted by United Way and the American NFL, established 1270 permanent homes and provided temporary shelter for 2000 affected families.
Anyone looking to put their talents to good use in India could easily find a volunteer position at SEVAI to make a real change. And less than 3 hours from some of the most beautiful beaches and temples in Southern India, there’s no shortage of things to do on the weekends. Dr. Govindaraju and the faculty at SEVAI welcomed me with open arms and do so for all their guests. They also made sure my return trip was faster and more comfortable, helping me book a sleeper bus for the ride back.
There I reconnected with 4 French computer science students whom I met at Casa in Bangalore. They had been there for a week, attempting to teach programming to the students 5th standard and up. I got to see their approach and hear about some of the challenges they’re facing. As well as teaching C++, BASIC, and general computer usage, they are also planning to set up 12 new computers at the school in the following month they are at SEVAI.
The students were testing all morning, but I was able to play some of my favorite ESL games with an 8th standard class of 30 girls in the afternoon. They were amazingly cooperative and fun. I got a taste for what it’s really like to teach English as a foreign language as they were low level learners and would frequently revert to their native tongue, Tamil. When they did, I deducted points from that team.
After school, I took the bus with a few students to a local village. Siva, an eighth grader, showed me his home while his grandma made us tea. Later, his dad gave me a ride back to the school on his motorbike.
I also met a dozen Australian health science students from Curtin University in Perth. They had been at SEVAI for a month and were leaving the following morning. In the evening, they performed a dance for the students and faculty who expressed their gratitude for the work they had done and energy they brought to the school. Then the students, first boys, then girls, performed an elaborate, synchronized, tastefully choreographed Bollywood dance. This seems to be a regular ritual for groups parting ways in India.
Throughout my entire time here, although far from family and friends, I have felt so blanketed in love and acceptance. I can’t help but quote Shantaram, an amazing book recommended to me by my good friend Bala.
“This is India. Everyone who comes here falls in love — most of us fall in love many times over. And the Indians, they love most of all. It happens often and easily for them. That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace. They are not perfect, of course. They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do. But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another.” – Shantaram