Gandhi Ashram: Bearing fruit

By Paul D’Souza SJ

Prajwal Pradhan is a grade seven student at Gandhi Ashram School. He is highly gifted, smart and serious about his life. Ask Prajwal what his life ambition is and the reply is prompt: “I want to be a pilot.” There are 288 such stories at Gandhi Ashram School, which serves the children of subsistence farmers and daily wage labourers in the Tashiding region of Kalimpong, West Bengal, who are unable to attend other schools due to poverty or other reasons.

As the children enroll in the school, they discover their potential. But their career choices are conditioned and determined by global factors as much as by personal preference. How did Prajwal come to have such an ambition? Like his classmates, he is looking to the future through globalized eyes. Thanks to a constant information flow, suddenly everyone seems to know about everything, what is happening, what opportunities are out there. Nothing seems impossible.

Just as globalization has given the children dreams, it now appears to threaten them as well. Good free education is the only solution for these children to progress to a more meaningful life. Gandhi Ashram depends entirely on donations, and in this time of global financial crisis, when most people are feeling uncertain, asking for support can be awkward. We constantly need funding to sustain our services, to help our students as they move onto other schools after grade eight, until they can come into their own.

The pupils of Gandhi Ashram learn to play string instruments at a young age (photo: P. Balleis).

The pupils of Gandhi Ashram learn to play string instruments at a young age. (Photo: P. Balleis).

Despite the anxiety over funding, the tree of Fr McGuire is bearing fruit. I wish he were here to see it now. I hear he had to go from door to door asking parents to send their children to his school. It is the reverse now, with a big rush for admission every year. The biggest attraction seems to be the music at the heart of the learning process, which is what makes Gandhi Ashram unique. Apart from the usual subjects, children are taught to play string instruments from grade one. To do all this, they have a longer school day than usual, and two daily meals. More than a school, Gandhi Ashram is a home the children love.

Our visitors – Gandhi Ashram gets quite a bit of publicity – and all who watch the children perform are moved beyond mere curiosity to admiration for their talent and dedication. The school has a string orchestra, which specializes in orchestral and chamber music from western classical tradition as well as Indian and local folk music. Volunteers, many from overseas, have done great work, helping us improve our standards.

The first batches of students have already moved out into the world. Four have joined the Indian Army Symphony Orchestra, another four are studying nursing and others are at university. One of our most promising students, Kushmita Biswakarma, has won a scholarship to study at the Music University of Nuremberg in Germany.

The list will grow longer as the years pass. Behind the smiling faces of the children, and their talent, is the hard work and resources required to make it all happen. After almost 17 years, we remain rooted in our commitment to serve the poorest and most neglected people, to give them hope through education.

This article by Paul D’Souza SJ originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “India: Bearing fruit despite the drought.” Fr D’Souza is the director of Gandhi Ashram school.