As we drove through lush paddy fields in Palakkad (Kerala), my mind was lulled into a state of calm that was soon to get a serious interrogation. We were on a field visit to understand the development work done by an industrialist and philanthropist in his native Panchayat. As education was his key priority, we visited the post school initiatives taken up by the family trust in their village. It was a room full of bright and curious young boys and girls. The class had a buzz even at 5 in the evening and the students were in no tearing hurry to get back home.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is how we kicked off our session with students. There were no timid ambitions in the room.
- The girls came up with their impressive wishlist – Pediatricians, gynecologists, IAS and IFS officers, nurses, teachers, software engineers (ofcourse)
- The group of boys had many aspiring scientists with specific specializations (genetics, space); a mathematician, a fighter pilot, an automobile designer and software engineers (ofcourse!)
I doubt I had this clarity, eloquence or sense of purpose when I was a 15 year old. Having got them all charged, I casually asked if they had any questions to ask. After a little hesitation, the first hand went up and then questions came in rapid fire style. Here they are word-for-word (with no edits or creative liberties)
- What is your work? What do you do?
- WHY do you do it?
- How is your work important/helpful for others?
- Who is your inspiration?
- Does your work make you happy?
- What is your message for us?
I was being pummeled gently by 15 year olds with questions I hadn’t asked myself in a long time. The experience beat every interview that I’ve ever taken in my life and yes, for a change I was stumped for words! (Mercifully, they also handed out some easy ones including ‘what are your hobbies’ and ‘what’s the most beautiful place you have been to’). After losing precious composure initially, with some able prompting from Aparna, their piercing questions were answered and the buzz in the room was back with a bang.
Intense and unexpected as the experience was – it was also an encounter that held out immense hope. Young students in a village in India can be who they want to be, have dreams that can come true and have an infectious optimism that can numb the cynics who believe that very little can change in our lifetime.