The idea of writing a book, was fancy when I first thought of it. It is another story that I went on to write a second one too in less than six months. Now I hope to pen my first story book series for children and if my mood remains upbeat about the education scene in our country possibly my third book, in what I term a trilogy, on the challenges and frustrations, trials & tribulations along with the eureka moments of online teaching by the education frontline warriors: the Teachers in my already announced book – Virtual Wisdom.
Work on the story book series as well as my third book in the education related trilogy is on. But I write not of my books today but the circumstances which got me on to my first. An idea from many years ago, a small seed lying dormant inside my educator psyche wanting to recognise for no apparent reason, the people who I have found in my journey of three decades as an educator to be fascinating. While I met a good friend who I was featuring in my book, I was told about this young girl who had been working with children from the under-privileged sections in Hyderabad and was heading this NGO’s educational vertical. I was told about the immense clarity of thought and the conviction of purpose that she displayed as regards her work. The wonderful work she along with the other dedicated volunteers were doing to bring the right kind of education to the doorsteps of these thirsty-to-learn young learners was intriguing to say the least.
Within minutes of this conversation I was asking for an introduction and a connect. Needless to add that my meeting and subsequent association with Ms. Neha Mathur, Programme Head – Bright Spark Education of Youngistaan Foundation (https://youngistaanfoundation.org/the-bright-spark-project/) has been extremely rewarding and is based on a genuine appreciation of her selfless and committed work.
Authenticity and candidness are two qualities which when found together in a person makes for a formidable persona. Neha has both and more, which is what makes her such a captivating person. I can understand each time I speak with her, how and why her team of formidably motivated young individuals keep their boundless energy levels so high. It is because Ms. Neha Mathur has that infinite urge to be the change, that extensive focus on the issues on hand, that inexhaustible desire to learn and that indomitable spirit to see good in every situation.
She explains, “I have the privilege and pleasure of possessing an unquenchable thirst to dig deeper and ask questions. Whether that pertains to pedagogy or the novel coronavirus! Never satisfied with what I know, I am a learner. I suspect it is also a way to have some control over the unpredictability of life. So, structured learning seemed like the most natural thing to do as the world around me fell apart.” The lucidity of thought which makes her keep alive her quest to learn, to absorb from everyone around her, yet keeping her humane side intact and her uncomplicatedness in place, is what endears me to her enigmatic personality.
I keep things in my life extremely simple when it comes to relationships: if you like me for who I am with all my faults and my eccentricities and love me for my bluntness and unpretentiousness and respect me for my unselfish but genuine caring – You can remain in my life, otherwise we can hit the ‘delete’ button together! Neha is so humble and self-effacing that she is a breadth of fresh air amidst the materialistic, brazen, presumptuous, and pushy youngsters of today.
Ms. Neha Mathur loves her work to an extent unimaginable for many her age, for throughout the lockdown as the virus wreaked havoc on the already crumbling education system for the underserved sections of our country, she was desperate to devise means to connect with her learners. Our long conversations about what can be done and how, were insightful for me too, because I have seen the education system from an entirely different angle and catered always to another spectrum of society – the ‘minority’, in terms of access to a good education structure and orderly approach. The challenges which she and her team faced seemed so unsurmountable and undefeatable that after each call I whispered a small prayer for her team and rued with sadness how even after seven decades plus of being an independent country, something so basic and so important had not found its place in any political party’s manifesto.
Despite this bleakness stemming from a system which has not delivered nor stood up for all its stakeholders, Neha puts the scenario in a humorous perspective by telling me that, “Many of our students were not entirely pleased with our dogged determination to teach when their dream of a long vacation away from school had come true! Their disbelief was funny!” Innocence of childhood and the incorruptibility of a child’s soul – A reaffirmation for an educator, always!!
Last Christmas (we love you Wham! and George Michael but it isn’t about you) my son decided right after our return from his graduation, to spend some time with children who would not have access to the kind of education he was fortunate to receive. When he expressed this wish, I immediately contacted Ms. Neha Mathur asking her if we could come over with some goodies as well as have a brief interaction with the kids. I had heard so much about the little twins and the naughty last bencher and the smart young adult who wanted to be a DJ that when we met them it seemed I could immediately place each of them. That evening was most memorable and both of us keep remembering our time talking to them and realizing yet again that so much must be done still and there are miles to go before we sleep!
Neha rightly observes that the pandemic gave her the opportunity to reflect and learn and learn and reflect! She read extensively and attended numerous webinars and short training courses. “Sometimes,” she so fittingly says, “ you need to hear other people say the things you believe and trust; I mulled over my work’s purpose, my resolve, my intent, and our collective destiny as change makers!” Way to go – for I guess the world’s a better place still because we have lovely people like you!
Ms. Neha Mathur found Youngistaan’s Bright Spark or Youngistaan found their ‘bright spark’? Somehow, we always need to understand and know how it all started. So, curiosity killed the cat in me, and I popped this inevitable question – clichéd as it was but who cares. I can ask a friend anything, I thought – can’t I? Neha in her inimitable style of expression had this to say to my query. “Serendipity? A childhood dream? I had stumbled upon Youngistaan Foundation in the newspaper and when my birthday came along a few months after that, it seemed like the perfect thing to do; cook a fresh meal for the homeless alongside amazing volunteers. The NGO had launched an education program and I am so grateful the role chose me.” Greatness of a person’s intent and purpose and character is always evident when it is not being watched or being considered and in the straightforward & candid responses one gives to simple & complex questions. Her reply was straight from the heart and bullocks to the-egg-came-first-or-the-hen theory and whether Ms. Neha Mathur found Youngistaan or Youngistaan found her – either way it is society and those adorable children who are the victors. And I love stories with happy endings!
For a balanced and wonderful person that she is, Ms. Neha Mathur has inspired many a young people and innumerable others who have crossed her path. And her desire to see and do good has led people to endear to her personality with loads of love and affection. I saw that when I met the children last Christmas – the respect and pure love for her was so evident that it was thrilling to note that they had someone whom they could trust and relate to and ask and confide in for all their problems. It was not surprising thus when she told me a heartening anecdote wherein “A student cooked a huge kadhai-full of food at home and distributed fresh meals during the lockdown. The occasion was my birthday”, she discloses with a smile. “There have been so, so many wonderful people who have touched my life and made it meaningful!” I am sure Neha they have, as you have for them too! God Bless you!
As educators the most important standpoint one tries to take care off for their students is to boost their confidence and make them fearless in the face of impediments, big or small and to look for solutions in all situations rather than mope about it. The hurdles are mere challenges which are preparing them for a tougher ‘them’ in their later life, is what all of us have always tried to do and each has seen and celebrated this in our students. It never needs to be something very flashy or big – it is the small things which may even seem insignificant for many which for an educator would be an indication of a life’s lesson well taught to his/her student. “I distinctly remember, one humdrum morning, a quiet student who struggles with self-esteem and self-worth issues stood up for a fellow student who was being bullied. Neither did she shout nor was she rude. In an even tone, she asked the other children how they would feel if they were treated like this. I was speechless!”, recounts Neha. Aha, a lesson learnt well. Would have put a smile on her face, no doubt!
With the pandemic taking away normalcy as we knew it and replacing it with fear and misperception, turmoil and chaos, disorder, and disruption, many of us looked everywhere and within ourselves for peace of mind. The cataclysm of these times for the health of our thoughts and minds. With changing scenarios around our society as with the rest of the world, the support systems were dwindling and so are the patient ears to listen, empathetic souls willing to be non-judgmental, caring friends who would stand by each other along with work-home fault lines blurring has led to a far bigger pandemic amongst us than the known one. In these circumstances, happiness acquires an altogether new meaning. I looked to gardening, writing, reading, and spending time with my son as routes to maintain my mental balance. Ms. Neha Mathur, yet again in her delectably artistic style avers, “I often wonder whether happiness just happens, or must we be intentional, creating it for ourselves? Does it lose its potency if we work towards being happy?” Hmm, insightful and rather thought-provoking.
Should each of us create our own beautiful space and not try too hard to ‘procure’ happiness especially from the point of view of what others state happiness to be as also from the typical ‘what will the world say’ aspect? Does anyone or the world have that right over our happiness or peace of mind? Can anyone or any situation be more important than what we perceive to be giving us a peaceful, happy moment? It could be just sitting under the tree, having a cup of tea, doing nothing with our feet tucked under us on the sofa. A million things – like for Neha those moments of bliss come from “deep, mellow conversations with respectful listeners, quiet afternoons with a good read and nibbles, people I care about around me even if not with me, a child relishing a book, and the warm silence just before dusk – these are my happy places.”, she tells me steadfastly. Charming and completely adorable indeed!
Each of us have this weird and almost funny sense of feeling important wherever we are. It is especially seen in workplaces and I would find it extremely hilarious and often comically sad when people would start to perceive that they are the ones around whom the universe revolves – then the ‘universe’ could be a school or a group of friends or a company or a club or anything. I have heard and seen teachers (I tend to have my largest set of examples from the education field having spent dog years there!) come each April and whine about how they are being poached to establish and show that their expertise is in demand and may our terms be met or else! The threat thus would loom large each beginning/end of session and I would amusingly tell people that we are indispensable only at one place in this world: To our families. Every where else we have an expiry date. The sooner we realize this the better it would be all of us.
Ms. Neha Mathur agrees with me and states that, “the pandemic with all its misery and heartache was also a nudge reminding me how utterly insignificant one is! Weirdly, I saw the humor in this. I went back to Carl Sagan and our “pale blue dot”. How pretentious and absurd of me to think I can change the world! I am just one of the many millions who were and who are “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” True that entirely! We are insignificant in the whole world’s scheme of things but are trying hard, extremely hard to make that small but significant difference in our own spheres like Neha and her team. Every single positive step, every single constructive move and action will make someone’s life better by an iota of hope. I guess that will be sufficient for that happiness and satisfaction we seek.
Like everyone who has been grounded by this pandemic and travel suspended, missing our family and dear ones and not being able to see them as and when we want – this thought of a never ending scenario being more fatal than the situation we are in, leads us to become more melancholy. Ms. Neha Mathur too, misses her mother the most and dreams of escaping to the mountains with her family once we are ahead of this pandemic and with things settling-in she plans to accompany her dear students on an outdoor nature trip as well. Wow! A simple and delightful blueprint for the future better times.
Maybe with charming thoughts and wishes like these Ms. Neha Mathur’s journey onwards would be the serendipity of a desire becoming a reality soon, very soon!!