The school year starts in Tamil Nadu on the 1st of June (In many private schools, anyway). This is after the school summer holiday during the two hottest months, April and May. This season is called Agni, “Fire.” So all over Tamil Nadu are scenes like these shown below; kids and parents going to school for the first time this year.
Our friend, Rajan, stands watching his two kids, Raam and Jannani, start out on their new bikes. They had wanted new bikes this year; Raam is entering the Sixth Standard (6th grade in the US), the equivalent in India of Middle School in America. In the previous generation many children did not continue in school past the 5th Standard, but this is changing in India today, so this is considered a big step in their education. Raam had wanted a new bike for this occasion, so his father had gotten them for both the children.
I first learned about the significance of the Sixth Standard a few years ago. The last company I worked for before we moved to India was a Silicon Valley software firm that was founded and owned by a naturalized US citizen from India, from a small village near Calcutta, who had an advanced college degree from a US school, and went on to found this company. He said that the amazing thing of his life was not going to the USA, nor the advanced college success, nor founding the company, but rather was that he was the first person ever from his village to advance past the Fifth Standard. He had to move from home and live with distant relatives to attend the school. Today Raam Kumar starts the Sixth Standard.
Indian school children generally wear uniforms, and the uniform they wear identifies the school they attend. The kids also have new uniforms this year, too. Raam’s is all white. Can you imagine anyone who would select this color for a boy’s school clothes? Had I worn a uniform at this age the best color would have been dirt-colored.
Here is Jannani in her new uniform with her new bike. Her mother, Janaki, stands in her blue saree, watching.
They ride their bikes to school. Today, on this first day, their father rides behind them. It is only about 1.5 km from their house to school. They ride through an open field behind the Tiruvannamalai Arts College.
Then a bit on back streets of Tiruvannamalai.
They pass by the big building of the Yogi Ramsurat Kumar Ashram. During his life this grand ashram building was constructed for him. Since his death it is hardly used.
They arrive at the school. The gate is closed and there is a watchman carefully paying attention to who enters through the gate.
The walls of the school are built in typical Indian fashion, with shards of broken glass atop the wall, to discourage people from climbing them.
Raam and Jannani get off their bikes. In his new white uniform Raam is probably as clean as we will ever see him.
We say goodbye and they walk to their classes for this new school year.
This is a private school and the parents pay tuition fees for each child to attend. Though India has many public schools, they are considered less desirable if you want your child to get a good education. Throughout India there are many, many private schools at all levels. I think, as a rule, that most Indian families see the changes in their society as it enters the world community. And they want to do the best they can preparing their children for this new future. The classes that these two children are in, for example, are all taught in English. This means that to survive in school the children must learn English. I think it also means that they do not follow the instruction as well as needed. This is why Raam and Jannani go to two hours of group tutoring each evening.
Rajan, their father, is a rickshaw driver. This is a low class occupation, and most drivers are pretty poor. Rajan had to go to work when he was eight years old and his father died, so he never finished the education that he started. Rajan taught himself enough English to speak it pretty well and to be able to read things like English newspapers. This is the reason he can work with the Westerners near Ramanasramam. In some ways, I think these are the “cream” of the rickshaw drivers; they get to drive for (comparatively) rich foreigners. He is determined that his kids both get an education and learn English.
India is populated by more than 1.2 billion people, more than 1/6 of the world’s population. More than 50% of this population is under 25 years old. To prepare for the coming generation’s education, India has the biggest boom in the building of colleges in the history of the world. In India today, more than 60% of the people live in more than 600,000 villages, while the other 40% live in about 5,100 towns and over 380 big cities and urban areas. Tiruvannamalai is among the 5,100 towns, and as such, provides its children with much more opportunity than the other 750 million people living in villages. The Western influences brought by devotees of Ramana Maharshi (like my wife and me) also introduce advanced ways into this small town, adding to the creative mix that is present here.
In microcosm, this is what we are seeing when these twos kid start school today. They are in the middle of one of the greatest societal changes the world has ever seen. Their parents see the tidal wave of changes coming, and are trying their best to get their kids ready. They both got new bikes from their Dad. Another small step.
The school is nice, well kept, with a big playground. This whole area is safe, surrounded by the glass-topped wall that we saw at the entrance.
Another gaggle of kids arrive to start the new school year, and to see their friends again after the summer break.
As we leave, I notice Arunachala overlooking the day’s activities, quiet and unmoving.
These kinds of experiences, the first day of the new school year, trying our best to prepare our children for the future, going with them on their first day of classes, these seem pretty universal to mankind. These are things that most of us have experienced in our own ways, and that our children have (or will). When I see events like this what I am left with is how much we are similar. We are all from families, we love our children and each other, we want and work for the best for ourselves and each other. The outer trapping of society, culture, language, customs, food, clothes, may be different, but we are much more the same than different. We see this today.