Day 2: Dhobi ka kutta — Na ghar ka hai, na ghat ka hai.

India’s ghats, or river banks, are famous for many things, one of which is for their use as a place for washing — oneself and one’s clothes. It’s common to see a dhobi, or washerman, soaking, scrubbing, and beating the clothes against the stairs of the ghat, each hit liberating the clothes from impurity.

The dhobi generally has to wash a lot of clothes to make ends meet, which historically required a donkey in order to bring the clothes to and from the ghat. So the saying “dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka hai, na ghat ka hai” represents the dhobi’s dog, who is neither required in the house to protect the dhobi’s modest wealth, nor is strong enough to carry the full load of clothes. The dog is physically and figuratively neither here, nor there.

Pondering where I belong at one of the ghats in Varanasi

I've mainly worked on education in rural Bihar for the last 4 years, and I’m increasingly convinced that schools are creating an epidemic of “na ghar ka hai, na ghat ka hai” in the minds and hearts of youth. For those looking to do well in the system, the idea is to accumulate the information needed to eventually pass the exams to get a vaunted government job. Students learn early that questions are often rewarded with a whack from a bamboo branch, or at least with the verbal equivalent of a sock in the mouth, ensuring that no one else will ask questions in the future. So, instead, students cram into crowded tuition (tutoring) centers, where they furiously copy down whatever the teacher writes on the board. Children have next to no say in what they learn and how they learn.

In order to succeed, youth must abandon their autonomy and own ideas about the world, and instead, master the art of robotic rote memorization. Even for those who don’t succeed — the vast majority of youth, since there are significantly more hopefuls than available spots — the result is even worse. They have had the ability to think and learn independently sucked out of them, and they have been branded as failures.

But the story doesn’t end there. Education is often seen as an investment by families, where only one child — the smart child — is educated with the hope that he (normally he), will be able to succeed and earn for the family. Having put all the marbles behind this one child, the sense of shame is much greater when he is unsuccessful. In this situation, doing the family’s traditional work is unthinkable, as people’s comments are too much to bear: “you could’ve done this all along without wasting all the time and money on education.” And then, in spite of all this pressure, we’re surprised when so many people cheat on exams.

And besides, the education itself, if it can be called an education, has filled his head with ideas that make it harder to fit in with his family and village. Heroes live outside the village, never in it. Local traditions are not to be celebrated, because they don’t come in the text books. And local languages are not languages, because they have no separate written script, and is always less respectable than Hindi and English (which is always at the top). He begins to disparage other local traditions as well, like the local youth, who told me I looked like “an animal” eating a samosa with my hand, imploring me to use a spoon.

So he failed to even achieve what he set out to, and in the process, he completely lost track of who he was. Where does he fit in? He wasn’t able to discover for himself what he believes in or to build a community around that. He also no longer even fits in well in his own community, as he feels ashamed to belong to the family that he belongs to.

There are a lot of English words that have entered Hindi and more localized languages, but they tend to be more functional words — like “mobile” or the numbers. But somehow the word “depression” has also entered both Hindi and more localized languages; I’ve heard the word in different languages to describe people who were stuck in the situation I described above after failing exams.

Ultimately, an important part of any education and socialization should be to build a sense of belonging. But it’s highly unlikely, in this current system of education that any belonging will emerge. Why? Because schooling here socializes children to remain silent and not ask questions; that questions always have only one right answer that only an anointed teacher or officer can give; and that intelligence is monodimensional.

In contrast, we are trying to create a space, where we can all belong — starting with our own bodies and minds so that we can then bring our whole self to the communities we join, create, and participate in. How does that happen? By having freedom to pursue the questions that we find important; by imagining new ways of living, learning, and relating together; and by learning how to be in touch with all five of our senses once again. This means seeing the world as our classroom, with all of its people and nature as our potential gurus — those who are right around us and those who are far away as well.

Doing this in Bihar is unquestionably difficult; the social and economic pressures that youth face here are acute, and in just the first week, we have already been discussing these challenges. However, it’s an important step; we may not have mass scale (with only 13 swayam seekhis, or self learners, in our first 3 month pilot), but if we are able to form the kind of community that we’re imagining, then we hope to inspire others across the state (and world) to create their own spaces, where they can live, learn, and simply belong.