Like Viswanathan Deepak lead by example, writes SOMA BASU

Vishwanathan Deepak disappointed his friends when he went on stage to accept the ‘Outstanding Alumnus Award -2010’ conferred upon him by the Lakshmi Old Students Association in the city recently. He returned a simple “thank you” and did not highlight the work for which he was chosen.

But then fault lay with neither. His friends genuinely want his selfless work to be known to others. And Deepak does not like or knows how to blow his own trumpet!

Like an unsung hero perhaps, this old and “among the brighter and fiercely independent students” of TVS Lakshmi School, Madurai, has been silently working for the past decade in one of the most difficult terrains of the country – deep inside arid Thar desert.

Yet, when he speaks there is hardly any trace of regret. He is crazily driven by passion and known for doing things “spontaneously”. “I am happy living my dream,” he asserts.

Inner calling

It took him years to realize what he really wanted to do in life. “Till I found my inner calling, I kept ‘running away’ from one place to another,” he grins. Influenced by Kabir’s dohas and Premchand’s writings and CRY and SOS ads in Reader’s Digest, in 1986 autumn, he simply boarded a train to Aligarh leaving behind a shocked mother and brother.

“I wanted to experience how it was to live amidst the Muslim community and also wanted to see the real world,” he says non-chalantly.

He lost interest in studies because his search for an “ideal teacher” remained incomplete. “I was looking for a true master who could go beyond text books. But I only found teachers who were in the profession because of the salary and weren’t inspiring enough.”

Deepak did enroll himself in MA (German) in JNU in 1991 after learning the language at Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi. Here again, the plight of children of construction workers within the campus tugged his heart.

“I suffered a sense of shame and guilt. I was seeking education for a life and not a living and kept looking for means to escape this suffocation.” From ashrams to short stints with Asianet and the Indian Express in Delhi to running a restaurant and joining a garment manufacturing business, Deepak kept fleeing from one place to another.

Realisation

What ignited him finally were Swami Vivekananda’s quotes and once more he ran away. This time to deep interiors and hamlets of Rajasthan. He started visiting villages and schools and interacting with children, parents and teachers in Lunkaransar Block, Bikaner district. He walked and talked, toiled, taught and imparted primary education to more than 5,000 poor rural children since 1998. And most importantly, for once did not run away.

“I realized this is what I was searching for,” he smiles.

“Given the geo-physical location of the terrain, people live in the harshest conditions here. I conceptualise, design, develop and implement programmes that reinforce primary education. I focus on women and adolescents and particularly physically challenged and girl children who are most vulnerable. Discriminated for food, nutrition, education, they take care of most chores. I try to address some fundamental issues faced by this deprived section and implement socially just, innovative and sustainable interventions and solutions,” he talks passionately.

For instance, by educating the girl child, Deepak hopes to delay their age of marriage. Child marriages are still very prevalent and literacy rate is the lowest in the country here,” he says, ruining how official records and ground reality are far from each other.

Reaching out to this backward, poor and illiterate population is tough, no matter what the Government claims. Beating all odds and without much monetary or human support, Deepak Vishwanathan has been practically doing it alone.

With his wife, Amita Jha, he set up Institute of Fundamental Studies and Research, a not-for-profit organization, in 2006 for initiating varying activities for empowering the local population primarily including education and learning besides livelihood and ecological practices.

Deepak took his dream a step further when he started an Upper Primary School last year to educate children from poor socio-economic background and those living in distant settlements.

Dream

He is proud of his 80 students who are developing their proficiency in English, vocational skills, basic computer and other soft skills.

“I want this to develop into a model school that can be locally adapted, replicated and scaled up in other regions.

At present, he is running the school from rented premises, collecting nominal Rs.50 to 100 per month from students to cover rental and electricity costs and ensure ownership and commitment of parents.

Howsoever tough the going may be, Deepak is driven by the target he has set for himself in the next five years -- to run his school from its own premises, improve the quality of teaching, develop hostel facilities and establishing industrial training and teacher’s training centre.

As I chat him up for this column, I sense his earnestness to act best as a catalyst in reducing illiteracy in dark zones of the country. I have not seen his work but the band of friends who came along with him in support said it all. They believe in him, are convinced by his sincerity and dedication to his work and proud that this Madurai boy gave up his habit of “running away” making Bikaner his home to make a difference in the lives of others.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)