Sunday, June 10, 2012

Scaling Heights

Came a request to attend a project monitoring meeting which we are mentoring for long. The project is executed in one of the farthest of the North Eastern states. This was my first such assignment, belonged to a region which is trying to catch-up with the rest of the country also in terms of scientific R & D, and the problem definition had hundred percent correlation with what we do at our own research lab. here. Therefore, even if the meeting was scheduled during very important 7-10 days period of checking end-sem. answer-scripts, I was not in a position to skip it. Got prepared for a KOL-GHY flight and then 6-7 hours of road journey. Had been there before and liked that place. Suddenly, I was told that the meeting would take place in GHY itself, the project execution team was coming down there.

Had to prepare a contingency plan. This is the time where we need to make everyday, including weekends count. And I am awfully slow in checking scripts, average about fifteen per day. What to do?  Each answer-script is like a novel. Answers to questions are like chapters. Concepts are like characters. And there are so many shades of characters! In my mail to students when I asked them to come for checking their evaluation of end-sem. answer scripts I wrote, "... an answer-script tells lots of things - the strength and weakness of a student as seen by a teacher. It won't be possible tomorrow to address each of you individually. If you are interested, you may visit day after tomorrow or later by taking an appointment (you may try without appointment too but I may be in some other meeting)." Whether students like this or are more worried about grades .... whether they want to be treated as customers where we are service provides and the customer satisfaction is directly proportional to grades awarded, is a different issue which we can take up later. It is suffice to say that I am proud of our students. I understand their sentiments regarding inflationary tendencies seen at many a places and if 'no inflation' weakens their career prospect in anyway or if it is for greater good. At personal level, I find a lot to improve from the student feedback and each year is a different learning experience.

Coming back to where I was, the contingency plan was to carry answer-scripts with me and utilize slack hours during the journey or stay, for evaluating them. I do not find difficulty with concentration level as I am practising similar things from childhood. I remember waiting in long queues (which extended to main road from the shop and often one had to wait for hours) for weekly quota of kerosene oil in 'Fair Price Shop' pouring over a study book in my hand. This of course was no 'child labour' but sharing a responsibility; my father (link) was doing more than what he could do. ToI reports felicitation function of toppers by the state Chief Minister, Smt. Mamata Banerjee (Link), "She tried to inspire students by quoting Swami Vivekananda in relation to several spheres of life. "If there is no problem in life, how can you solve them and move ahead?," she asked. Adding," never lose heart or be disappointed. Do not feel depressed amidst the challenges that life throws at you. But, work hard to overcome them. " She further said that a needy student managing own study expense by offering tuition, was common place before. Now that very thought frustrates a young meritorious student. One should be always positive about life. I hope the student remembers what the state higher education minister said, "Behind your success, there are contributions of many people in this society - from your parents, to the cobblers who mend your shoes to the tailor who has tailored your school uniform. When you grow up and establish yourself in this society, do not forget them." Incidentally, after my Higher Secondary examination result, the felicitation was done by then Chief Minister, Shri Jyoti Basu. Surely, it is a overwhelming experience and gives lots of confidence to a youngster.

Compared to study in Kerosene Oil queue and standing, the study in crowded suburban train and sitting used to be a cake-walk. Thus, checking answer-scripts during the KOL-GHY flight was not at all a problem. And I was fully engrossed in it. Quickly finished snacks offered by flight personnel. And then was waiting for them to clear the space to restart. An elderly lady with N-E complexion was seated next to me. We had a language barrier. And I was sweetly surprised when she smiled at me and indicated to me to keep my food cutlery and  waste materials in her desk so that I can resume my work. Thanked God that I am in this noble profession and remembered the Chanakya Shloka studied in Class VII, "Bidyatwancha, Nripatwancha, Naiba Tulyam Kadachana / Swadeshe Pujyate Raja, Bidyan Sarbartra Pujyate." (My weak translation : The King and the Learned can never be compared. The former is worshiped in his kingdom while the later is worshiped everywhere.) This is not to mean I am being worshiped or so. Rather I worship the virtue, the gesture I saw in that lady and feel grateful. This is to place before all the respect society showers on us due to our profession, the care we provide and the responsibility associated with it. Interacting youth in the age group 18-24 years, for months and years where we are seen as teachers is a big, big responsibility and is much beyond customer-service provider relationship. If it is so required I would say that the nation is the customer and the students are the products and it is our duty to get a well-rounded personality of them who are ready to take challenges of life, nation, the humanity as a whole. The age group we serve makes men out of boys when they face important transitions in life - hope and pray I have the capacity to contribute by which the nation gets its greatest gift, youth as characterized in our scripture - Ashistha, Drarishtha, Balishtha, Medhabi i.e. hopeful / of positive attitude, resolute / confident, strong (in body and mind), and meritorious / intelligent.

Soon the seat belt sign was on. We started approaching GHY airport. I had an opportunity to look at the gentleman at the other side of my aisle seat, across the walking bay. He smiled very friendly. I also smiled. As we two stood up one after another to deplane, he started the conversation - where I am from, where I am going etc. He is returning from KOL after US visa interview and offered me to drop at my destination in his car (he has further 6-7 hours of road journey left). When I asked his profession, he said that he is in farming. What for US visa then? He said, "I want to climb the highest peak in US. I have already done that for three continents - Asia, Africa, Australia. I would like to do that for the rest of the continents." "OMG! Do you mean that you have climbed Mt. Everest?", I asked. "Yes", came his boyish smile. He is Tapi Mra. And he was proud to show his certificates which he took to KOL for visa interview. I felt proud for him and for myself to be acquainted with him, such a simple, down-to-earth person. We exchanged contact numbers. I inquired about the funding constraints he faces and if mainstream media highlighted his achievements (which can fetch sponsorships). Told that I have very little experience of mountaineering. In fact, I was under awe to go through a twelve day long adventure course when I was half this age, under supervision of Ms. Bachendri Pal (the first Indian woman to scale Mt. Everest). It was tough - staying in tents and sleeping bag in freezing cold, preparing own lunch after trekking more than 20 KM in the morning, rafting in mountain river and bathing in freezing cold water, acclimatization at scaling of every 2000 ft. to get used to lower oxygen environment, facing hailstorm when evening descended and we were short by 2-3 KM while trekking in narrow mountain trek - what not but worth such an experience. There were five ten-member teams to go through this course and I feel proud to say that our team came first and we got certificate of recognition from Ms. Pal. I shall try to locate some of those rag and tag pictures of that time and put up here.

Later I found several pages on him (Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4), none in national media though, one of which says, "He had to struggle against poverty and lack of sponsorship to give shape to his dream of becoming a seasoned mountaineer. Those who think that climbing Mt. Everest is all about grit and stamina are mistaken. Scaling the world’s highest peak also involves a lot of money and to meet his expenses and gather funds for the expedition, Mra sold off his four mithuns (bos frontals), semi domesticated cow like animals flaunted by Arunachalees as a status symbol in the tribal society. The government of Arunachal Pradesh and some local clubs in Arunachal Pradesh also provided substantial financial assistance to Tapi Mra to meet his expenditure to scale the dizzying heights of Everest." And when the expedition was about to be abandoned due to bad weather, "He felt like he had to abandon the expedition when an avalanche killed some members of the expedition. He was so terrified that he almost decided to return home. However, he thought of the faces of several persons whose help made the expedition possible and this spurred him on. Crawling over the bodies of members of earlier expeditions imprinted on ice and which still looked fresh, he remembered he went past somebody sitting in a meditative posture near the summit with a flag in hand only to discover later that it was a body lying there for several years. After his successful descent from the peak, when asked how it felt on the top of the world, he proudly said that it was a divine feeling and felt like standing on top of the world as for the final moment of the assault he felt that he had an out of body experience and he forgot everything. A grateful Mra on his return after conquering Everest presented the Governor and Chief Minister a piece of the rock that he collected from the top of the world and the photographs of himself with the tricolour atop Everest."

The last pic is  recent photograph gifted to me by Headmaster of a local village high school when I attended a function there. The second last picture is from our recent Mirik-Darjeeling-Kurseong tour. I may describe these experiences in subsequent posts.

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