Based on a narration by Lanji Majhi
We all have had some old person trying to put us in perspective by sharing stories of how they once used to walk to school, everyday with heavy books in their bags. Well, the story that has been narrated to me by Lanji, a 21-year-old field animator working with Swasthya Swaraj is extreme even with those standards, and really asks one to put their ego in a sack and throw it far away to a place where our privileges can no longer support the apparent weight of the modern lifestyle.
Lanji was born in a village named Dhanpadar, which falls under the Kerpai cluster in Thuamul Rampur block, Kalahandi, Odisha, and from a young age was attracted towards the idea of going to school. Teachers coming from outside the area, speaking Odia and bringing new toys and books was intriguing, and at the age of 6, he managed to get himself admitted in hostel at a primary school 13 kms away in a village named Nakurundi. He loved it there, and was the class topper. All the teachers admired him, and he studied until 5th standard, sleeping on used sheets on a floor of a building that was barely maintained.
He wanted to study in a bigger school from 6th onwards, and somebody suggested him to study in a high school in Kesinga block, almost 150 kms away from his village. He went with his parents, who were themselves going that far away from home, and just by looking at the place, Lanji knew that he wanted to study there. Although the school had a hostel, Lanji used to come back home on every holiday and vacation.
At the age of 11, he used to first walk 25 kms from his home to a town called Saisurni, from where he would get a bus that would take him to Bhawanipatna (District Headquarters). He would then change bus and would be dropped around 5 kms from the school, which he would walk again. Just one-way to the school was sometimes an endeavour of 5 days, subject to bus/truck availability.
He was studying in an alien place, where he saw no one from his community or background, and was forced with the job of daily cleaning and waste disposal. It was 8th standard soon, and there was a special examination which would grant him education till 12th standard. However, just one day before the exam he contracted a serious case of chicken pox and was sent home.
For studying in a junior college, Lanji really wanted to join a school in Bhawanipatna, but he knew that it could be a problem as he was from a different block. He went to the DWO office in Bhawanipatna to give an application, but was sent back and asked to come on a different day. As he went back for the second time as instructed by the office, he was again denied, and this was followed by a third time, with the same result.
He would reach Bhawanipatna with great difficulty and time, with 100 rupees in his pocket that would only cover his bus fare, and with nothing to eat for the whole day only to be dismissed, after waiting for hours to see the officer. He wanted to cry, but no tears would come out, and he never shared it even with his parents.
He finally decided to apply in his own block, a school in Gopalpur, around 80 kms away from his house. When he did, they told him that they only take students in 1st standard and 6th standard. Then he went to Lanjigarh block, where they had no seats left. With no money left in his pocket, that day he took a train to Singhpur, from where he had to walk 15 kms back home alone in the rain.
Lanji was heartbroken, and again decided to go to Gopalpur, where he shared his story with a teacher who was from a tribal background. The teacher then asked why he didn’t apply to any school in his panchayat, and little did he know that none were functional.
Lanji lost his cool. “Why is it so hard to get educated? When I went to Bhawanipatna, they asked me to apply in my block. Now that I am doing that, I am being asked to apply in my Panchayat.” With tears in his eyes, he started walking away. The teacher stopped him and asked him to come on 31st December.
Lanji’s parents were concerned at this point. He had become extremely thin, with all the walking and barely eating. He even fell sick after one of his trips for which he had to get admitted to a hospital! But Lanji had decided not to give up, and went on the 31st with hope to join. There was nobody around. It was a holiday, and the school staff again asked him to come after 5 days, when all the teachers would be back. He came back after five days, and approached some teachers that were sitting together, and explained his story.
One of the teachers then got a register, and showed him that there were no seats left in the school. Lanji tried convincing them with everything he had, but nothing worked. Just as he was about to leave, the Adivasi teacher that he had met earlier came to the meeting. As soon as he saw Lanji, he exclaimed “Where have you been? I have been waiting for you, come let’s get you admitted.” All the teachers were silent, and finally Lanji had a school which he could call his own.
Lanji is now determined to become a doctor, a dream that he has had since the very first time he went to school, and does not miss any opportunity to engage children from the tribal community.