This past summer junior David Ninan traveled to a rural village two hours from Bangalore, India where he spent two weeks working with the Rishi Valley School on a demographics project. David was introduced to the project by his aunt and uncle who live on the campus and teach at the school.
Established 80 years ago by a Hindu philosopher named Krishnamurti, characterized as a “simple man,” the Rishi Valley School is a boarding institution that follows the “simple ideals” infused into the school by its founder. This means that the school does not serve meat, nor do they allow most technology like Internet and washing machines. Notably, The Rishi School’s “absence of technology actually helps create jobs for many struggling villagers. Students can pay on-campus dhobies, who wash all the students’ clothes by hand.”
David explained that the school is a “closely knit community” and, contrary to popular belief, the students are “much like our own.” They have iPhones, iPads, and laptops (outside of school); they speak English as their first language (as well as Hindi and Telegu) and even play the same sports. Their parents are are usually wealthy alumni now working as businessmen and women in the city of Bangalore.
David helped the school’s Rishi Health Center take a population census and map out the surrounding rural villages, which are predominately poor. The average villager makes about two dollars per day and cannot afford large or private hospitals; instead they rely on the school’s health center for a dentist, ophthalmologist and physician. David’s project was the prelude to an upcoming “full scale report” to be conducted by an Australian university.
David and his cousin Arjun met each morning with the head of the Health Center, Dr. Karthik, to plan their day, each of which consisted of traveling with their translator, Nagesh, through the surrounding rural villages and interviewing all of the residents. The detailed information from both travel and interviews allowed them to create a “full scale population census” where they gathered the spending data, income, land ownership, age, and technology owned by the residents as well as mapped landmarks like cow sheds, water taps and lakes on a Garmin GPS device.
David explained that most of the houses did not have more than three rooms. This exposure to poverty gave him “a much greater appreciation for all the things that [he has].” David also stressed that alcohol abuse is a big problem for the villagers; one man makes 6000 rupees per month ($120, which is a decent amount for villagers) but spends over 4000 rupees on drinking, “a ridiculous amount that meant he was bringing in almost no income.” Because of these habits, David said that “after a heavy night of drinking, men come home and abuse, beat, and sometimes rape their wives.” Many women are also disowned by their husbands.
In addition, the villages have a growing tension between Christians and Hindus. David recounted walking down the street before mapping one day with Nagesh and his friends, who were joking that he “had to go on the Christian side” of the village. According to villagers, the environment is basically “you farm on your side, I’ll farm on mine.”
After a day of mapping and gathering data, David would “go for games” with the other Rishi Valley School students afterwards. The school is “massive and has fields and courts (all outdoors) for cricket, soccer, basketball, badminton and tennis.” David spent most of his evenings playing a lot of basketball and soccer, making some really great friends in the process.
When asked what inspired him most, David explained that “watching the health center and how it helped so many people who wouldn’t have had medical care otherwise was just amazing. People were so happy when they were diagnosed and got cheap medicine.” The cheap medicine is a phenomenon made possible because the health center buys in bulk, reducing the cost.
Lastly, David said he was most intrigued by his surroundings: “It was just really beautiful.” The school surrounds the famed Banyan tree, the national tree of India. According to David, the thousand year old tree is unique because “it grows from tons of roots, all of which come out of the ground and connect to the branches as it gets taller. Krishnamurti was inspired by the tree and decided to build up a school around it.” Lion rock, a huge red stone that looks just like Simba’s face from “The Lion King,” was another source of inspiration for the philosopher. Beauty aside, nature can still bite: David pointed out that “you definitely need to put on your mosquito spray in the evening. That’s when they start swarming!”
By Jeff Handler, Staff Writer ’13