Day Two: Joining the Conversations

The Gramothan Research Center is a sprawling complex of schools, gardens, learning centers, and hostels, stitched together like a huge quilt. But if you ask me, it feels less like a series of farms and buildings, and more like a living organism. It's constantly evolving, and emotion and experiences are sewn right into the quilt, stitch by stitch. The finished quilt is like a living thing, reflecting the spirits of its creators.

8:00 a.m. Plant Life in the GRC

When we left the guesthouse today morning, bees blew like cake-crumbs and cows rolled around sluggishly in the warm air. It had recently rained, so there was this diamond dust in the air. It made the plants greener, the paint brighter.

The GRC contains several organic farms, growing a variety of sustainable crops. During our walk through the farms, I saw fresh okra plants, mangoes, beans, and more. The plants are harvested and eaten right here at the GRC, sometimes served during meals at the local school.

While organic farming has recently become a trend in the West, the farmers of Jharkhand have long understood the benefits of sustainable farming. The local farmers mentioned the importance of promoting bug life and avoiding the use of chemicals in order to preserve nature and produce better crops. As a result, their chillies, eggplants, and guavas are fresher and more delicious than anything I've ever tasted from a grocery store.

But here in Karanjo, it's the turmeric that steals the show. Turmeric is celebrated as a cash crop that's easy to grow--it thrives with cow dung fertilization, and can grow under shade. But more on that later.

9:30 a.m. Visiting the Local School

Saraswati, the goddess of learning, guards the entrance to the school.

The local school, Sindhu Kanhu Shiksha Niketan, feels like a bustling microcosm of Karanjo's humanity. It serves 450 students from the first to tenth grade, including both resident students and day scholars. We met all 450 of them during the morning prayers, where they sat in neat rows. I found their diligence, from the perfectly crisp uniforms to the impeccable yoga posture, extremely inspiring. It's among the values that Ekal Vidyalaya cultivates in its students.

Neatly aligned rows of flip-flops proclaim the presence of the Ekal Vidyalaya students.

Yesterday, I learned that the school was named after a local freedom fighter, Sindhu Kanhu. That seems fitting to me, because there's this sense of unshakeable strength and resilience among the student body. The smallest ones are no older than five, but all of them have either left their families or taken difficult daily journeys in search of their education. To me, it's proof that Ekal Vidyalaya transforms lives.

These girls led their class in chanting numbers. They're only five years old, but they bellowed out numbers with the ferocity of drill sergeants.

I joined the first-grade class in the digital classroom, which contains an interactive Smartboard loaded with math challenges, Hindi lessons, and nursery rhymes. Most of the kids were shy, since they were the youngest class in the school. But once we found a handful of chalk stubs, all shyness was forgotten. The entire class converged on the blackboard, decorating it with a jungle of flowers and fruit.

When I asked the kids what they wanted me to draw, the first request was "flower." The second? "Banana." Soon enough, everyone lined up to take their turn with the chalk.

11:00 a.m. A Secret Project

The natural beauty of the GRC is matched by the stunning local art, proclaiming the culture and passion of Jharkhand at every corner. Since I'm an artist myself, I was incredibly excited, and I started getting ideas. A lot of ideas.

I was thrilled to finally meet the man behind the masterpieces: Mr. Amar Hriday, a gentle and philosophical local artist who invited me into his studio. Not only did Mr. Hriday share his artistic journey with me, but he gave me advice for a project of my own. No spoilers (yet), but I'm hoping to create something beautiful.

Mr. Hriday is renowned for his glass paintings, which often depict local scenes.

12:00 p.m. The Tailoring Center

Ekal Vidyalaya focuses greatly on empowering women, and the GRC tailoring center is one of its most powerful tools. By teaching women the marketable skills of stitching, sewing, and tailoring, women are enabled to become economically independent. Beyond that, the tailoring center, which is taught and attended by local women, provides an uplifting support network for everyone involved.

Female empowerment has always been a passion of mine, so I was extremely excited to explore this from another point of view. The perspective I gained at the GRC fascinated me. Compared to Western feminism, the female empowerment I've witnessed in Jharkhand is rooted in community engagement, collective action, and harmony. By giving local women the tools to succeed, Ekal Vidyalaya cultivates values of independence, equality, and respect for women. This is a powerful investment in the community, since empowered women empower other women.

To better understand the process of female empowerment, I interviewed two women: Shilpa Mishra, the tailoring teacher, and Namnami, a 22-year-old student. I'll be blogging more about these women later, but I'm sharing some of their stories now.

Shilpa-ji (top center) leads a group of women in a tailoring lesson.

Shilpa is an experienced, eloquent, and no-nonsense woman who has personally taught over 800 women. She takes pride in the fact that 250 of them have gone on to start their own tailoring businesses. Namnami, her star pupil, is shy but smiles easily. She left school in after tenth grade and was married at the age of 18. For Namnami, the GRC offered a powerful opportunity to take her life into her own hands, and she hopes to continue tailoring and earning money.

The Indian writer Amartya Sen once wrote that "empowering women is key to building a future we want." It's often said that when you empower women, you empower an entire community. After seeing the work of the GRC tailoring center, I believe that with all my heart.

2:00 p.m. Word Study, Part 1

During my time in Karanjo, I'll be working on a research "word study" project with local eighth-grade students. I'll discuss the study in further blog posts, but it's been an incredible experience so far.

For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about using my words to uplift others. Whether I'm writing op-eds, teaching others, or speaking up in my community, words are my superpower. That's why my project focuses on empowering students with vocabulary so that they can become better writers, speakers, and leaders.

As part of today's lesson, we explored the concept of "friendship" in writing.

8:00 p.m. Turmeric Unveiled

As it so happened, my day started and ended with turmeric.

Turmeric, or haldi, as it's called in Hindi, is one of the most important crops in Karanjo. Cherished for its medicinal "superfood" properties, haldi is grown sustainably by the farmers of the GRC and sold across the world.

Tonight, the GRC made a key investment in the future of its haldi by unveiling a new processing machine. By streamlining the process that transforms the haldi root into a commercial powder, farmers can earn more income from their crops. This development has the potential to transform the economy of the GRC.

I was honored with the duty of cutting the ribbon on the new machine. After we performed a brief pooja ritual to inaugurate the equipment, the machine successfully produced a handful of fragrant powder. We celebrated the occasion with a box of laddoos.

Today was my first day meeting the people of the GRC, but I already feel like I've known them forever. I had the opportunity to join so many important conversations--about sustainability with the elders, about female empowerment with local women, and about academic words with the students. I'm incredibly excited to see where the conversation goes next.