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Setting foot on Amphaan-ravaged Kakima’s Pathsala in Kultali

25 June, 2020 01:10:35
Setting foot on Amphaan-ravaged Kakima’s Pathsala in Kultali

It is four hours’ journey on road from Kolkata. The village lies on the banks of the river. Cyclone Amphan has caused unprecedented damage to this village. All farmlands have been inundated by brine water, making it unfit for cultivation for the rest of this year. We trudged our way to Asima Bhandari’s pathsala. She is single-handedly spreading the light of education among the next generation from her tiny hut.

As the nation-wide lockdown continues, we are exploring newer avenues to make our existence worthwhile and see everything positively. For some, this exploration is a secluded journey of the self while for many others, it is a collective journey towards enlightenment and a search to secure a better future for all. As I write this, I am reminded of an incident 11 years ago. The year was 2009 and Cyclone Aila had battered the Sundarbans. It was amid this wide-scale devastation that I had ventured to explore Dayapur village. That was con-incidentally also a Sunday. Our Bengali portal Bongodorshon had started its journey, though still in its nascent stage. But even at that early stage, our band of loyal readers and followers supported our motto – to pick up positive aspects from our surroundings that impact the society or individuals and tell these stories from the new platform. 

We have never been part of the mainstream media or web portals doing run-of-the-mill reporting. Instead, we  have focused  on individuals who have not bowed down to social or peer pressure, fought against all stigma and rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix to inspire and be the torchbearer to a new beginning. We celebrate life and that is why we have not done stories of devastation and loss caused by Amphan or Covid-19. Instead, our focus has been to depict people who have become role models by their grit and determination to fight all obstacles and survive. As Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam had once said, ‘Dream, Dream, Dream/ Dreams transform into thoughts, / And thoughts result in action.’ We hunt for such dreamers who rebuild community homes, impart education to the destitute or extend a helping hand to a stranger when sought – this is Bengal’s heritage.

Children at the 'Kakima's Pathshala'

After more than a decade, we no longer want to be restricted within a portal. Instead, we want to go out in the open and visit different nooks and corners of Bengal. We want to reach out to the masses and want to know about their needs. Super cyclone Amphan ripped through the coastal districts of West Bengal. Bhuvaneshwari village in South 24 Parganas is one of those worse affected spots. Although it is now more than a month since the powerful natural calamity struck this village in the Kultali block, signs of destruction and devastation are still dispersed everywhere. The village remains engulfed in darkness as the electricity poles lie uprooted or mangled and power is yet to be restored. Many residents still do not have roofs over their heads and there is acute scarcity of drinking water, food, medicines and clothes. But amid all this insufficiency and loss, Asima Bhandari has taken up the task of educating and enlightening the next generation to secure a better future for them.  

Study bags being given to the children

This news was brought to light by GetBengal a week back. As soon as Asima Bhandari’s story was published in both GB and Bongodorshon, there were readers who were impacted by the story and expressed their sincere desire to support Bhandari in her battle against illiteracy. We had to take the next step. With the help of our team members and a lead from the local administration we could find detailed information about Bhuvaneshwari village and Asima Bhandari and her inspiring work.

On June 21, Sunday, I, along with my colleague Arijit Sen, set out for Bhuvaneshwari village under Kultali Block in South 24 Parganas. 

The village is four hours’ drive from Kolkata. The river flows very close to the village and river embankments have been breached, leaving several houses inundated as water through the breaches slipped into the settlements. Most of the villagers are farmers and the cyclone has caused severe losses by destroying their standing crops. Several hectares of farmland have been inundated by saline water rendering them sterile for years. We reached Bhuvaneshwari and headed straight for Asima Bhandari’s ‘Kakima-r Pathsala.’ 

We have never been part of the mainstream media or web portals doing run-of-the-mill reporting. Instead, we have focused on individuals who have not bowed down to social or peer pressure, fought against all stigma and rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix to inspire and be the torchbearer to a new beginning

Asima Bhandari is an ordinary, lower middle-class rural housewife from Bhuvaneshwari. Since childhood, she had an immense thirst for knowledge and her sole ambition was to become a teacher, but abject poverty stood in her way to fulfill her dream. She had to drop out of school after completing Class IV but that did not deter her. She has passed on her dream to the next generation. In the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, she emerged as the new symbol of hope for the children of this village. 

Present state of small room where Ashima Bhandari taught the children

Our car was stopped about two-and-a-half kilometers before we reached the village because the slushy, pot-holed road was not navigable by four wheelers. We travelled the rest of the path by motorcycle. We reached Asima Bhandari’s house at 10.25 am. It was time for the solar eclipse to begin but the overcast sky looked ominous and soon it started pouring. We reached the premises of the pathsala to find its wall collapsed with no roof. She herded the kids to her one-room house but water trickled from the roof and made a temporary puddle in the room. The children were asked to move to the other side of the room. Soon enough, rainwater came down in steady stream from that end and she asked her pupils to move to a drier part of the room. This is how the temple of learning is functioning and children are learning to fight against all adversities to protect the torch of learning from extinguishing. 

I was immensely impacted by Bhandari’s sincere conviction to spread the light of education and felt an inner urge to do something to further her cause.  As evening descends, the village is enveloped in darkness. One needs oil to light lamps but when acute paucity of funds compel villagers to cut down on their food, where will this money to buy oil come from? Asima refuses to concede defeat. She will fight to the end to secure the future of the children of her village and her only weapon in this war is providing the opportunity of education to them. 

The mud house where Ashima Bhandari and her family stay

Rabindra Shishu Shiksha Kendra, the only primary school building in the village, lies in a shamble, a mute witness to the ravages of Amphan. Nobody knows when the school will become functional once again. So, classes are held twice a day regularly at Bhandari’s ‘Pathshala’– once in the morning and once in the evening. At night, when darkness engulfs the village, she teaches under the shaky light of the oil lamp. Her son, who appeared for this year’s Higher Secondary examination, has joined her cause and teaches the village kids with his mother. 

I was very curious to witness Asima Bhandari’s inspiring work firsthand. The day I reached the village, the planet was celebrating World Yoga Day, Father’s Day and World Music Day with much fanfare but in the small hut of Asima Bhandari I was overwhelmed with the feeling of celebrating the day as World Teachers’ Day. We all are familiar with the adage that a father loves completely, gives quietly, teaches greatly and inspires completely. Yoga helps us to maintain our inner and outer balance and music has therapeutic effects during trying times and keeps us alive and kicking. Bhandari stood there as the quintessential teacher, an amalgamation of all these qualities for me. I have read and interacted with men and women who have inspired others with their leadership and social work. Ashima Bhandari is one of those rare human beings whose impediments never came in the way to move forward with her dream.

Children with the study bags

I have shared my eyewitness account with you all and now let me tell you about our future plan. Our company, P&M Communications, on behalf of Bongodorshan and Get Bengal has planned to undertake a number of concrete projects for Bhuvaneshwari village. Readers have expressed their wish to be a part of this support system. We are formulating plans to channelize resources so that Bhandari can continue her school project seamlessly. We wish to organize teaching aids and assistance in the primary health sector from the city to continue the good work in the remote village. I hope our readers and well-wishers will support our endeavor.  Let us all pitch in and come up with ideas so that Asima Bhandari’s noble cause can be taken to the next level and spread further. 

Bhandari has already proved that one need not be highly educated to light the lamp of learning and inculcate the love of knowledge among children.

Story Tag:
  • Kakima’s Pathsala

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