Sophia Berezowksy: My Quest to India — a personal journey

Quest reflections

Sophia Berezowsky

15 October 2014

My Quest gave me the opportunity to meet leaders who had incredible dedication to making society better. They used their privileged positions to help the needy. I learned a lot from them… Ironically, it took a trip to the other side of the world to find a small but valuable grain of wisdom – the power of compassion.

When I heard that our school was looking for teachers to participate in an immersion programme in India, I thought that this was my chance to embark on a completely different adventure. Ever since I read EM Forster's novel A passage to India I have wanted to visit. The mystical beauty of the Taj Mahal, the fragrant spices, the farmers tilling the Indian soils for thousands of years, the bespectacled Gandhi inspiring the world with his insights — these beguiling images have long stimulated my imagination of a country full of ancient history, tradition and wisdom. I had to go.

Our school brought together a group of fourteen teachers, and organised a short, but intense five-day Quest to India. We departed on 20 June, at five o'clock in the afternoon and arrived in Bangalore two days later, at one o'clock in the morning. Exams, marking, report card writing, an eighteen-hour airplane flight, the nine-hour time difference, the exotic Indian smells – all left me feeling vulnerable and very impressionable. My senses were on high alert. I thought that this trip would be a breeze – I was not travelling alone, I was not responsible for the itinerary. I could be a passive observer of a fascinating culture. My Quest took me to places I didn't expect.

The power of bringing together the privileged and the less privileged

The first morning was a whirlwind of impressions whizzing by. We were shepherded onto a bus sitting in front of our luxurious, high-security hotel and whisked off, through the frenzied streets of Bangalore, to our first destination. Vishal Talreja, a very unassuming gentleman, greeted us on a soccer field covered with red sandy soil, behind what seemed to be an abandoned building. He’s the director of Dream a Dream, an organisation that empowers vulnerable youth through an after-school sports and arts programme.

I immediately noticed a pack of about ten stray dogs settled at the far end of the field. Their calm yet ominous presence created a disturbing feeling. It was my first glimpse of the underbelly of Indian society and, throughout our meeting withDream a Dream, served as a reminder of the social context of the youth we were getting to know. They were seen as the street kids, the delinquents, the troublemakers that had no future. The smiling teenagers, all outfitted in their sports gear, stood in a line and greeted us. They were eager to play soccer with us. I haven't played soccer since high school and felt nervous. We started off with a silly Banana dance to loosen up and a "look everyone in the eye to get to know each other" game.

I was especially drawn to one girl, Raji. She was so excited about playing soccer and was thankful to her family for letting her play soccer with boys. In a society that often encourages traditional female roles, this family's decision was out of the norm. She was so happy to share with us her life story. English was not her first language and when we asked that she translate our names into Kanada, her mother tongue and one of the main languages of the Bangalore region, her face beamed. It was hard to believe that the greater Bangalore society would treat these teenagers the same as the homeless and outcast dogs that seemed to be looking at us from the other side of the field.

Vishal looks them in the eyes and sees ordinary children who want to play, who have hopes and ambitions. He provides them with the means, and sets them up to soar. It turned out that these girls and boys were highly trained players and were chosen to represent India at the FIFA "Festival of Hope" in Rio de Janeiro. I tried to kick the soccer ball, but missed and almost fell. My bruised ego seemed like nothing when compared to the daily obstacles of simply living for these aspiring teens. Towards the end of the game, I marveled at how patient the teens were with some of us less skilled players. I smiled and continued to play.

I went up to Vishal and shared my admiration for his work. Well-educated and talented, Vishal abandoned a lucrative career with Xerox in order to work with disadvantaged youth. We got on to the topic of private schools. He mentioned that he invites students from privileged private schools in the Bangalore area to play soccer with these "inner-city" teenagers. The teams are mixed – "street kids" with private school children. I asked Vishal how he dealt with attitudes of entitlement when they surfaced. He didn't. Soccer became an equaliser. Inevitably there was a natural transformation that happened. By the end of the programme, students were no longer judging each other by the brand of soccer shoes they were wearing, but rather by their ability to play.

The simple experience of connecting the two social groups together led to a harmonizsation that otherwise would not happen. Not only did Vishal try to empower this disenfranchised Indian youth, but he also sensitised the more privileged to the basic humanity that unites us all. Vishal's simple yet effective formula to combat poverty revealed an India more resourceful than we might imagine.

Teaching and being spiritual

India has long been known as the country for the ultimate spiritual retreat. I wondered if I was going to get a dose of this spirituality during my five-day stay. I did. I actually signed up for a visit to a lunch programme run by the Hari Krishna for school-aged children, to make sure that I did get my Indian spiritual moment. The scale of the soup kitchen called Akshaya Patra and the labour of love the kitchen reflected was impressive. It feeds 1.3 million school children every day.

But it wasn't there that I came in touch with the spiritual side of Indian culture. It was during the dinner we had that evening. The waiters with their beautiful, large smiles put me at ease. The smell of curry spices in the calm, candle-lit environment was inebriating.

The host at our table was Ramesh. Good-natured and passionate, this very successful businessman proudly talked about his social initiative. As a result of a tragic industrial accident that cost the lives of hundreds of people, he dedicated his free time to helping the underprivileged. His organisation Unnati offered a 70-day life skills programme and guaranteed a job placement upon successful completion.

I commented to Ramesh that he must be a very skilled entrepreneur to be able to have the time to dedicate to his social work. He answered, rather modestly, that he isn't sure about being a good businessman, but he certainly is a good delegator. He spends about ten hours a week on his business, and then ten hours a day helping the marginalised of his society. Wow. He leads a very comfortable life and instead of indulging himself, found happiness through his hard and relentless work with the less fortunate.

Ramesh went on to explain that he used music to open up the hearts of his students and make them good people. He is not at all interested in preparing them for success on exams administered by the Indian school system. These were all themes that I have often tackled with my own teaching. So much emphasis can be put on technology, teaching strategies and final results on exams, that it is easy to forget that good teaching, anywhere, boils down to one thing – knowing, respecting and caring for our students.

This committed entrepreneur strengthened my conviction that education is about unleashing the good in every person. I loved how Ramesh, a successful business owner, was so completely detached from the material world. He avoided those outward markers that can sometimes falsely define us and devoted his time to improving humanity by targeting what is hidden in the recess of our souls.

I want to learn and have the right to learn

My ultimate Quest moment, however, was at Shanti Bhavan (Haven of Peace), a school located in a village just outside of Bangalore. The night before we went to visit this school, I read their website. Its Founder is an American of Indian background, Dr Abraham George, who after having a very successful business career, decided to give back by dedicating his life to education in India.

The school was created for children of Dalit families. These are families that come from the lowest caste in traditional India. They are shunned, looked at disdainfully and considered to have no value in society. They are the poor who grovel through trash in order to survive. They live in poverty and are excluded from all social institutions. All this I understood, but I am not sure that I appreciated this poverty, until I came to visit Shanti Bhavan.

I was troubled by the fact that the school's programme was built on the concept of extreme intervention. Students were placed into a resident programme at the tender age of four. Being a mother of two children, I couldn't imagine the sacrifice the parents make. There is a careful vetting process. The school makes sure that the candidates they choose will be able to complete the whole programme. But still, I thought, is it really necessary to have the children leave their families at such an early age? No one can replace the love and the education that a family can offer to a child – language, values, traditions, history. Or so I thought. This school boasts of having successfully educated children from Dalit backgrounds, who now have jobs with prestigious companies like Mercedes-Benz, Deloitte and Goldman Sachs. This is an incredible success story and I was curious to see how it was created.

Our journey began early in the morning. We boarded our bus with seatbelts. In a country where chaos seemed to dominate everywhere, I was surprised on the insistence that we wear seatbelts. The ride turned out to be quite bumpy. There was lots of honking and close calls as the bus weaved through the city roads crammed with cars, motorbikes, pedestrians and even the occasional cow.

It struck me that despite the cacophony of peep-peeps on the jam-filled roads, all the drivers were incredibly calm and ready to flash a smile. This pandemonium reflected some kind of imperfect harmony. I had a blind faith that, in the end, we would be all right. That is, until we got to a point where the country road had been washed out. Our fearless driver, who was obviously accustomed to such obstacles, persisted over the remains of the now extremely narrow and steeply slanted road. The bus started tilting treacherously and I closed my eyes – too scared to watch how this was going to finish. Then the bus picked up speed and our Quest continued.

We arrived at the school. It was a beautiful estate – nicely landscaped and pristine. While waiting for Ajit George, the son of the Founder, in a spacious room with big open windows that opened up to beautiful landscapes, I felt at peace. During our tour of the school given by one of the senior students, I felt warmly welcomed to what for many has become a home. It was a mixture of academic formality and comfortable corners of a home. Everyone we passed seemed happy to see us and proud to show off their school. I felt like an important dignitary.

There seemed to be a strange synergy between American and Indian cultures. Some students were dressed in a Western style, while some of the girls donned the traditional Indian kurta. There was no uniform as is the custom in all schools in India. English was the main language of the school and is seen to have the power to open doors onto the international scene. Hindi was seen as the language that gives access to the higher echelons of Indian society, while Tamil was the language of their village, the language of their origins. A curriculum based on universal values and a programme that allowed the acquisition of different languages – all this seemed to be ideal.

I was given an opportunity to teach a class with our music teacher – Ashley Scott. We were assigned the task a couple of days before our departure. We had no idea how many students, what age group, or what their interests would be. So we put together a lesson that taught the students the song "Land of the silver birch". Ashley did the music bit, and I did the cultural/historical context.

I was improvising big time and found myself drawn into their fiery passion to learn. The hands shot up. The wide eyes all stared intensely at me as I ad-libbed my version of a history lesson about Canada. All this made me want to give everything I had. What teacher could resist? I spoke about canoes, freshwater lakes, the expansive forests, the French and the English, the plight of the Aboriginals, of maple syrup and beavers. I taught them to count to ten in French and promised them a game of Pamplemousse. Normally it takes three months of tedious repetition before I am able to get students ready enough for the game. Here it took ten minutes. The intensity of the learning made me wild with enthusiasm.

I was beside myself with delight when I remembered that the beaver, the moose and the loon were pictured on our Canadian coins. I thought why not show them these coins? I got the coins out of my wallet. The momentum picked up and I went on to explain the names "loonie" and "twoonie". Then, in a spontaneous and critical moment, I thought, why not give the two winners of the Pamplemoussegame a loonie each, as a souvenir of our visit?

And then one of the students asked, with great anticipation, if the loonie was worth 50 rupees. Silent pause. The realisation about who these kids really were, crushed me completely. In one split second, the euphoria I was experiencing was broken. I remembered that the average Indian villager makes about 300 rupees a month. Dalit families probably make even less. I just awarded two Dalit students the sum that would be the equivalent value of at least a couple of hundred dollars for our students. I can't imagine what went through the minds of these children when I awarded the coins.

It was a loud reminder of the privileged life I lead and how vulnerable the poor really are. It made me realise the worth of our money. This same loonie, that annoyingly weighs down my wallet when I have too many of them, is seen as a windfall for a Dalit family in India. Despite the incredible opportunities the school offers, how do they deal with the truth about their roots? My teacher ego was wounded when I realised my naive gaffe. The lesson I learned from these modest children was much more powerful than the one I taught them.

It became clearer to me why extreme intervention was necessary to pull these children out of the cycle of poverty. During a tour of the nearby village, Ajit explained that the chances of these children being emotionally and physically scarred at a very early age are very high. He went on to explain how many times he has heard of the young girls being raped, stolen or abandoned. Ajit and the school feel that early intervention has to happen so that the children are given an opportunity to grow within a safe environment.

I found it interesting that the school did not preach one religion but encouraged the children to explore all the different religions found within the region of Karnataka. The focus is not so much on learning the traditions, which, in the context of a Dalit living in an isolated village, can limit young people's outlook on life. The focus must be on universal values that open the doors to the global scene. These children were taught to create relationships with people from all walks of society – whether it be with their illiterate, Tamil-speaking families or international corporate managers. Shanti Bhavan was proof of the transformative power of education.

Of competitive girls and sportsmanship

One of the girls from the class I taught invited me to play sports with them as they were leaving the room. I was still wallowing in a feeling of guilt from my mistake. My only thought was to leave the school and disappear. So I answered no. To my surprise, I found out that we had two more hours here. I sat in the main foyer where a group was learning a beautiful song and contemplated the teacher's perseverance at trying to get the choir to sing in two voices. I then thought: "what the heck. I will go and join the girls in some sports."

They were playing volleyball. The girls ranged from 10-15 years old. There were about 15 of them and amazingly they had organised themselves and played without any problems and without any adult intervention. They resolved each problem with maturity that I had rarely witnessed in this age group. Then, after 10 minutes of watching, the same girl invited me to join their game. I couldn't resist her confident "Come join us". I had played volleyball a long time ago and was rusty. It wasn't a laid back game either. The cries of "got it" and "over here" built up the pressure to win. There was an incredible sense of sportsmanship. Everyone, including me, was encouraged to play. It was a liberating moment at "the haven of peace" that allowed me to regain my focus. The free spirit of these girls playing a good game of volleyball made me feel better. They say that sports reveals character, and here, I saw beautiful souls.

Smiling at the garbage dump

Our very last visit was to the garbage dump. A bit anti-climatic, to say the least. I really had to put on a brave face and trust that our leaders knew what they were doing. In my mind, I thought that I didn't come half way around the world to look at garbage. It was at this point that I really started to wonder how I am going to tell my India story to my friends. Normally you show off your beautiful pictures of bizarre tuk-tuks, stunning nature, mysterious faces. I didn't have any time for pictures. For me this was a trip about meeting people and having conversations. And besides, a picture of me smiling in front of Bangalore's garbage doesn't reflect the experience. But this garbage became a powerful experience that shed more light on the Dalits and on human dignity.

We met with the programme coordinator – a former university professor who has done extensive research in education. It was her research that led her to the question of how to educate the Dalits. This question so consumed her that she decided to leave her post at the university and dedicate her life to creating programmes that empower the Dalits within the Bangalore region. Once again, I met yet another leader who has prioritised social work over building up material wealth. There was Vishal, who left Xerox to work on youth programmes, Ramesh who dedicates ten hours a day to his charity work, the George family who invested their money in running a school, and now this professor, who left the prestige and comfort of the ivory tower to work with the poorest of the poor in Bangalore. Was it a coincidence that the organisers of our Quest found these leaders, all of whom are well-educated and passionate about helping the underprivileged, or is there something in Indian culture that fosters this incredible sense of community building?

On the bus ride to the garbage dump, the professor talked about the life of Ambika, a young Dalit girl who already by the age of 20 had three children living in the village. Ambika would travel many hours daily to Bangalore where she would pick through waste left on the edge of the sidewalks and sell it to recycling depots. The few rupees she earned supported her family. Without access to any running water or proper sanitation, I imagined that she would be dirty and unkempt while working on the streets. I felt bad for Ambika when I heard her story and was curious to hear how the professor has helped her out. I would think that by providing her with a better education, Ambika would be able to get a job that offered more dignity.

The professor found a unique solution for Ambika. She gave her the tools to make the waste picking more profitable, created safe working conditions and a position that allowed her to hire people. But Ambika still worked with garbage. This was not the solution I had expected. Why not allow her to get a proper job and allow the municipality to handle the waste picking? Surely there is technology that allows machines to do this dirty work.

The answer became clear to me when we arrived at the recycling depot being run by Ambika. She greeted us with a huge smile and was so eager to explain to us how her depot works. The depot was clean and organised. Three women were going through the recycled material and were sorting it into piles that would then be sold to another branch that actually reuses the material. The professor explained that Ambika went through a programme that taught her basic numeracy and management skills. With these skills, she was able to keep records of material coming in and material coming out. Through donations, the workers at the depot are provided with safety wear and a clean and secured space that provides them with a good working environment.

To think that a year earlier, Ambika was walking the streets of Bangalore alone and ignored, sifting through garbage, struggling to earn those rupees that kept her family alive. The transformation was impressive. Ambika's smile radiated pride and a huge sense of accomplishment. This was a success story. I didn't quite understand the economics and politics that had led to an Ambika scenario, but I felt that for her, this solution made sense.

There was an earlier moment in our Quest that I was reminded of by Ambika. We had visited the campus built by a hugely successful IT company. It was a gorgeous oasis of state-of-the-art architecture in the middle of the city. As we were touring the campus, the guide brought to our attention some ladies bent over sweeping the paths and the roads. He commented that the company could invest in automated machines that could clean the campus more quickly than the ladies, but that the company preferred to hire manual labour. It was their way of providing jobs to a part of society that would otherwise remain jobless. In a country like India, the priority is not always to find cost-efficient ways of doing things through technology. The priority is finding jobs for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed. If this means having ten sweepers instead of one machine, so be it.

In the end, this experience made me value the importance of all the jobs people do. All of the disgust that I felt about working with garbage at the beginning of this adventure faded away. Ambika's life path led her to this work. She has now become a valued member of the community by making Bangalore a cleaner city and by providing jobs for others. Her children benefit from this stable job. I am happy for her. And impressed by the compassionate leadership offered by the professor who came up with a solution tailored directly to meet Ambika's needs.

Farewell India, Hello Canada

After the garbage dump, we started preparing for the final stage of our trip. Some stayed to continue exploring India, others left to go to Europe and a small group returned directly to Toronto. It was nice to get to know other colleagues. Our discussions were fascinating. I am sure that the experience has created a special bond between all of us. The flight home was tough. Trying to re-adjust to the new time zones, sleeping on the plane, getting through all of the security gates was physically exhausting.

But I had one final little special India moment. On our flight back to Frankfurt, I ended up sitting beside a middle-aged Indian couple. The gentleman was dressed in a Western suit, while the lady was in a traditional kurta. They seemed like a very modest couple. But my conversations with them proved my first impressions to be wrong. The gentleman was a professor of mathematics at a university. It turned out that they were also travelling to Toronto, to visit their son who works as an engineer in Deep River in the Ottawa region. They were eager to see Canada. According to his son, driving on Canadian roads is a more civilised experience than in India and the father was keen to see these roads. I never thought about our roads in this manner. But after experiencing the bus rides in Bangalore, I could imagine the allure.

I was not surprised that after only three years in Canada, this gentleman's son had already found a good job. India trains very highly qualified engineers and our students need to be aware of their competition. I met up with graduates of the prestigious Indian faculties and was amazed at their achievements. India’s elite is a formidable force to be reckoned with on the international scene. The competition is fierce and in order to get into the top Indian engineering programmes students need a balanced profile — absurdly high averages and proven excellent soft skills. These graduates understand the value of teamwork, creative problem solving, and great communication skills – alongside academic excellence. They know what it means to work hard in order to achieve. They are the driving force behind the cutting edge IT sector in Bangalore.

This father was beaming with pride about his son, who has a good job in Canada, who wants to provide a future for his small family – full of the little luxuries that we Canadians take for granted. After spending five days in the madness of Bangalore, it was a comforting feeling to know that I was returning to a very happy and stable home. I really felt good about being a Canadian while talking with this humble Indian couple.

My Quest

Coming from a country that prides itself on its high standard of living and strong democracy, it’s easy to judge a country like India, beset with poverty and political corruption, as inferior to us. But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about international mindedness, it is that we don't have all the solutions to all the problems. It’s easy for us to throw money at a problem. But it’s building relationships, building teams, building communities that makes our planet a better one for everyone. My Quest gave me the opportunity to meet leaders who had incredible dedication to making society better. They used their privileged positions to help the needy. I learned a lot from them.

My Quest didn’t lead to any earth shattering revelations. I did not see the Taj Mahal, I didn't visit the fragrant markets, I didn't see the vibrant colours of India. But I do believe that I felt the spirit of Gandhi working its way through the leadership of the outstanding Indian citizens I met. The trip inspired me to teach my students to be mindful of their own realities, before looking outward; to find the good person within them, before putting all of their energies into building careers; to be global citizens who promote compassion, peace and equality. Whether rich or poor, Hindu or Christian, Tamil-speaking or Hindi-speaking, there is more that unites all human beings than separates us. Ironically, it took a trip to the other side of the world to find a small but valuable grain of wisdom – the power of compassion.