Sunday, 20 August 2017

This family did not send their children to school, but taught them by creating a forest

Sarang Hills is a repository of knowledge gathered over 30 years of saying no to formal education, living close to nature and learning from everyday life.

Thirty-six years ago, Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi decided that their yet-to-be-born son will not go to school. As government school teachers, they were themselves disillusioned with the limitations of formal education and how it left children unprepared to deal with life.

They dreamt of a school environment that is close to reality- open, democratic and with fluid boundaries.


This dream school, which they fondly named Sarang, was to be nothing like what traditional schools were – no certificates, no rote learning, no ‘one-size-fits-all’ curriculum.

In 1994, the couple quit their jobs and started working on Sarang. Their first student, naturally, was their son, Gautham. Slowly, a few other children also joined – from close families, neighbourhood children from poor families and dropouts from regular schools. These kids were introduced to each other not as classmates, but as brothers and sisters.

Instead of staring at black boards, the children set off their learning on a massive canvas – a barren land that Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi bought in Attappady, near Palakkad, Kerala.

Their land, starting with one acre and later adding some 12 acres, stands on the slope of a hill, degenerated and eroded of topsoil. There were very few trees, and the only water source had dried out completely. But this would be a perfect place for the children to learn about life and survival.

The children of Sarang, friends and well-wishers joined Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi in their dream to revive the land. The task was by no means ordinary or easy. While their neighbours gave up their battle with the harsh terrain and left the hills, the Sarang family stayed on the hilltop, determined to bring greenery back to the hills.

They earmarked a major portion of the land to create a forest, and in the rest, they would build their house and grow their food. They built their house with their own hands, using mud, thatching grass, and bamboo.

They built check-dams in the watershed, dug out percolation-pits and mulched heavily to protect the land from soil erosion and to conserve water.


One of the most important tasks at Sarang was to protect the land from forest fires. The children’s army surveyed the land, ensuring that the agave fences and fire boundaries were intact, and all possible triggers of forest fires were put off. All vegetables, fruits, and grains that were needed for Sarang was grown right there on the land using natural farming methods. A lot of thought went behind what would be grown so that the soil could be naturally enriched.

The hands and brains of the children of Sarang came together in all these activities.

They learned their physics, biology, geography, mathematics, chemistry and environmental science by seeing, feeling and doing. They also learned language, art and culture and expressed themselves through a medium that they chose and loved the most.

The work on the once-barren hill started showing tremendous results. Within 15 years Sarang Hills turned into a lush green forest – abundant in water, birds and animals.


Barking deer, mouse deer, rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, civets, snails and some rare species of frogs also became dwellers of Sarang Hills.

But the children who started this work could only be part of it for two years. By the end of 1995, the 50 odd children who learned at Sarang had to discontinue their wonderful journey. The Sarang dream was rocked as it became financially demanding for the couple to run the school. Internal issues with the staff also crept in. Within just two years of functioning, the family found themselves deep in debt, and they were forced to shut down the school.

Shutting the school down was deeply hurtful, not just for Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi, but also for the children. But Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi truly believed in the Sarang dream which they kept alive through Gautham and later his little sisters, Kannaki and Unniarcha. They continued to live in the hills, experimenting and nurturing the Sarang way of living and learning.

Gautham, who is 36-years-old today, did not go through formal schooling throughout his life. Gautham says, “I saw other children going through the pressures of school while I found myself curious to learn. When I was just 10-years-old, I stayed away from home with my cousin to learn the martial art of Kalaripayattu. We were on our own, cooking our food, washing our clothes and being responsible for each other. Out of curiosity about how a radio works, I became an apprentice at a local radio shop. I cleared the amateur wireless operator’s exam at the age of 14 and became a Ham Radio hobbyist”.

At home, there were always visitors keen on debate and conversation, which further strengthened Gautham’s outlook. “My parents did not keep me away from these discussions though I was only a child. I got to hear various perspectives. Also, life was busy with engrossing activities and learning at the farm that there was simply no time to miss school.”

For many years, the debt incurred by the school continued to trouble the family. To repay the debt, Gautham took up a full-time job with Organic Farming Association of India in Goa where he could use his experience from Sarang. He also underwent courses in web development which came in handy in turning into a freelancer. Meanwhile, Kannaki and Unniyarcha wanted to learn classical dance, and the parents decided to move with them to a town where they could find professional teachers. Sarang Hills became silent, but thankfully only to return with more vigour.

Though Gautham’s job kept him busy, his heart felt the pull of the unfulfilled dream of Sarang School. During this time, Gautham got married to Anuradha, an engineer who was also enchanted by Gautham’s wish to reclaim Sarang School.

In 2013, after repaying their debts, Gautham and Anuradha, moved back to Sarang Hills. They are rebuilding Sarang now, with the aim of developing it into a rural university that disseminates the knowledge that the family has gathered over the last thirty years.


Sarang today is facilitating alternative education for children across the country and the world. The students are not necessarily physically present in Sarang. No regular classes happen here like in conventional schools. “Parents who seek alternatives to conventional schooling methodologies bring their children here regularly. Through regular camps and workshops, we equip parents to become facilitators of open learning for their children and nudge children to learn out of their own curiosity. We encourage parents and teachers to start their own schools since we have no wish to make Sarang into another centralised solution. We believe in decentralisation. We support parent groups in forming curriculum, activities, etc.”, says Anuradha.

Apart from the educational focus, Sarang is also an eco-zone.


Sarang runs completely on solar power. Food is cooked on a specially-made fire stove, and all waste is composted. They have dug out soil pits for toilets, where faeces get covered with soil and ash, which later becomes natural fertilizer for the soil. The buildings that one sees in Sarang are built by students, their parents, volunteers and by Gautham’s family.

The structures are made out of mud, bamboo and wood – all available in and around the campus.


As they are actively learning and experimenting on natural architecture, they are limiting the use of concrete and modern building materials to a bare minimum. Natural farming, forest conservation and water conservation also continue, like in those times when the family first settled here.

Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi are now witnessing many children learning the Sarang way, including their own grandchildren – Gautham’s three kids.


Their idea has survived the test of time, and the school of their dreams is finally coming alive, slowly but steadily.

You can write to Gautham at saranghills@gmail.com. Visit www.saranghills.in

(Source: The Better India)

Deception, lies and trafficking: How a 77-yr-old Omani Sheikh married a teenager in Hyderabad

The teenager was sold for Rs 5 lakh, the case has exposed the elaborate trafficking network.

Houses converted to illegal lodges. A web of brokers to procure certificates, clothes, passports and air tickets. And a qazi to perform the wedding. That's the laundry list of players who get together and run the elaborate trafficking racket in Hyderabad.

It has been three months since Fathima*, a resident of Nawab Saheb Kunta in Hyderabad, has seen her 16-year-old daughter.

"I don't want to talk to anyone. I just want my daughter back," she says in between sobs.

The Hyderabad police on Friday arrested two men who performed the marriage of Fathima's minor daughter, with a 77-year-old Omani national.

According to the police, the Omani national, identified as Ahmed, married the 16-year-old in May at a guest house in Jalpally.

He returned home after the marriage and sent a visa for the girl, who later joined him in Muscat.

The case
The case had come to light earlier this week, after Fathima approached the Falaknuma police station, alleging that her husband's sister, Ghousia Begum, and brother-in-law, Sikander, 'sold' the girl to the Omani man for Rs 5 lakh.

"My husband works as a daily wage labourer in a marriage hall. When Ghousia and Sikander approached me with a marriage proposal for my minor daughter, I rejected it then and there," the complaint states.

"Without my knowledge, the duo approached my daughter and lured her by showing her photos and videos of the lavish Gulf lifestyle. In spite of my objection, my daughter was married off to the sheikh," she wrote.

Though the complaint stated that the man was 65 years old, police have found that he is in fact 77 years old.

The police also said that the girl informed her parents over the phone that the Sheikh was mentally and physically torturing her.

"She wants to return to Hyderabad. When I insisted that they return my daughter to me, Sikander offered a phone and cooler to my husband and asked him not to pursue the case. I spoke directly to the Omani national, who said that he had 'purchased' my daughter for Rs 5 lakh," the mother says.

The parents say Ahmed agreed to send their daughter back, only if he was repaid.

The police have registered a case of cheating and criminal intimidation against the Omani, the girl's father, his sister, her husband, the qazi and others.

"The qazi who performed the marriage is also under surveillance," said Deputy Commissioner of Police V. Satyanarayana. The qazi could not be formally arrested as he is recuperating from a bypass surgery.

A police officer said the girl's father may also be taken into custody for being lured by the money, and submitting a false affidavit showing her age as 21.

The larger problem
"The girl's parents are extremely poor, this makes them easy targets," says Amjed Ullah Khan, a local politician belonging to the Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT).

Amjed Ullah Khan with the girl's parents
Amjed says that there are several such 'agents', who facilitate the nikaah (marriage) of minor girls with old sheikhs and other foreign nationals.

"There are several houses in areas like Barkas and Chandrayangutta, where homes are illegally converted into 'lodges', to provide accommodation for these sheikhs, and even provide them with a change of clothes," Khan alleges.

Two photos of the sheikh that have emerged also strengthen Khan's claims, as one of them shows the Omani national in traditional attire, while the other photo shows him in a pant, shirt and a jacket.


"That's not all. They need a qazi to cooperate as well as a travel agent to book tickets to the foreign country. There are also other agents who duplicate Aadhaar cards, Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC), Passports etc. There is a large nexus involved," Amjed says.

"The nexus also involves politicians and local leaders who immediately rush to the police station when such agents are caught, and try to throw their weight around, and get the accused released," he adds.

"This is nothing short of human trafficking," says Achyuta Rao, a Hyderabad-based child rights activist with the Balala Hakkula Sangham, and former member of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR).

"The government must take steps to curb this, by ensuring stringent action against those found indulging in such activities," he adds.

Achyuta suggests that security personnel at airports must be better trained to identify such cases.

"We pay so much attention to baggage at airports. If anything suspicious is found, we detain the passenger for hours, and do a thorough check. Why can't the same attention be paid to minors?" Achyuta asks.

"Authorities should be vigilant, and keep a lookout for any suspicious activity. They should ask anyone accompanying the child, to declare what their relationship is. If the documents claim that they are married, and the age difference is evident, then officials should detain them," he adds.

Additionally, Achyuta argues that airport authorities should accept government based certificates, over certificates issued by any religious body, irrespective of religion.

"The religious certificates are easier to fake, while the government certificates are more valid. We must take such factors into consideration," he says.

"Also, at the local level, qazis indulging in this should also be booked," Achyuta adds.

Amjed Ullah Khan also says that the police can put an end to this, only if there is political will.

"It is a very dangerous system that targets extremely poor families. There is an urgent need to break it, and agents should be punished severely," he adds.

Meanwhile, the police also said that they were making all efforts to bring the girl back to Hyderabad safely.

Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi had on Thursday described the incident as "deeply disturbing", and urged External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to intervene.

Authorities said they were keeping a close watch on 60 brokers who were identified during the investigation of such cases in recent years.

However, brokers based in Mumbai and even abroad are carrying on their activities by duping poor and illiterate families.

(Source: TNM)

I'm stuck in a miserable marriage for my son

I've been married for 5 years now. My husband and I never had a good relationship apart from the first few months of our marriage. Ours was an arranged marriage, we met on a matrimonial site and as he was of the same community, our families approved and we got married within 6 months. But whatever little love and respect we had for each other, it all faded away too soon.

Now, he is forcing me to leave him. I loved him so much and we have an adorable three-year-old son. Now he is asking me to leave him. But I can't leave my son.

Since the beginning, we never had any sort of chemistry between us. Our ways of looking at life is very different. We both are equally responsible for spoiling our married life.

Because of difference in thoughts and ideas, our discussions turned into arguments. And slowly these arguments turned into fights. We started drifting apart. We completely stopped sharing things, reduced our talks and even the physical intimacy was almost absent. He was never there for me when I needed him the most and he never cared about my existence. He didn't need me in his life anymore.

The worst part is - he never accepted that there was something wrong between us. He always said that all couples are like this. He is a manipulative person. He is a typical IT guy, who loved his laptop and gadgets over everything. Never a day has passed where he didn’t disrespect me and abandon me to live a miserable life. Staying in the same house, where we both share expenses, responsibilities towards our kid and acting like roommates is the only relationship we have now.

I am a working mother, and despite no family support (from my husband's side), I have been handling the office, home and the upbringing of my son, including his needs, wants, and education.

I remember how I fell into this situation. A few months after marriage, we started having a lot of compatibility issues, fights etc but my mother in-law forced us to plan a family to fix our problems. I wasn't aware of this at that time, and seeing his changed attitude and behaviour, assumed that things are getting better between us and I gave in.

As he heard the news of my pregnancy, initially he was happy. Eventually, he started disrespecting me again. Throughout the trimesters he had no time to accompany me during any of my routine check-ups. I faced a lot of health issues, but he was too busy with his office work. And, he never let me rest like any other pregnant women. I wasn't even allowed to rest like other pregnant women.


Finally, after doctor pressurized me to take some rest, I felt a little better. And then I was blessed with a new member in the house, our baby boy. As we got our son home, my husband's attitude changed so much, as if he had given me a toy to play with and his work was over. Handling a baby all by me was so difficult but I learned eventually. We started sleeping in different rooms. My son was growing and seeing him always brought a smile on my face and made me forget my loneliness.

But, now we just were parents, our marital relationship has ended. I tried to make the things work between us but he ends up insulting and avoiding me. Finally, I got the courage to speak to my parents and my in-laws about our mutual decision to get divorced. Despite of being an independent woman, he has made sure that I am left with no savings at all. I am broken, shattered, depressed and at times I feel like running away from all my responsibilities. My son is my only inspiration.

Recently, I caught my husband watching porn and flirting with young teenage girls. This made me feel so uncomfortable and out of great courage, I confronted him. He denied everything and asked me to mind my own business, as this is his life and he would do whatever he wanted to and that I’m no one to control him. My son is very attached to his father and that is the only reason I have to bear him every day. I do all the cooking, cleaning and laundry, take care and play with my son and keep our relationships moving. But I have no one to talk to. I have got no hopes to make our dead relationship work.

I was in a relationship for four years with a Maharastrian guy. I am Sikh. I had to end our relationship because he was too protective. At times I fought with him as I needed some personal space. He needed sometime to get settled in his life.

I happened to meet him in a mall while I was shopping with my son. I was delighted to see him after years. He was very caring, loving and responsible. I found a ray of hope after meeting him.

I got to know that he too was married but got divorced after two months of the marriage as it was a forced marriage. He got to know about me and cried seeking forgiveness for letting me go back then. He proposed to me again.

I am in a state of mind wherein my husband doesn't care if I exist or if I am dead. I am just a full-time maid to my husband. In fact, I'm that maid who earns and brings money. On the other hand, my ex-lover loves me and is ready to accept me with my son. But I am too scared to be committed to any new relationship again. I am definitely scared of living alone. I am scared of spoiling my son's childhood for my own selfish reasons. I am scared to give myself a second chance. I am scared of being happy again.

(Source: AkkarBakkar)

New free app helps residents learn to speak Arabic like a Qatari

If you’ve ever wanted to learn to speak like a local, a new app designed in Qatar could help.

The Qatari Phrasebook aims to teach non-Arabic speakers more than 1,500 common Arabic words and phrases, all in the Qatari dialect.

The brainchild of Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) Arabic instructor Hany Fazza, the app provides pronunciation of handy phrases. It also has the actual Arabic text and their phonetic spellings.

The app is divided into sections such as Travel, Shopping, Food & Drink, Emergency and Weather.

It also works offline so you don’t need to have a data connection, is searchable and allows users to star their favorite phrases for easy retrieval.


Authentic Qatari dialect
Five Qatari GU-Q students volunteered to read the phrases for the app. This was to ensure that the pronunciations are as authentic as possible.

Fazza, who is a mobile learning specialist, came up with the idea after speaking to expats who were frustrated that they couldn’t communicate in the local language, but had no time to attend classes.

He said he decided to focus on the Qatari dialect after realizing that it hadn’t been taught in app-form before.

“The common mobile applications we have are for Modern Standard Arabic – you will find very few applications that have something to do with the dialects,” he added.

The app, which is free to download from the Apple App Store and on Google Play, was funded by a GU-Q faculty research grant.

(Source: Doha News)

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