Over the years generous friends and family have often given me gifts. Those who know me well are aware that the giving and receiving of a book is always something that I treasure. The roots of this pleasure clearly go back to my childhood when caring teachers gave me the gift of reading. Like so much in childhood I suspect that at the time I was unaware of what a precious skill I was being given.
Whenever I visit India I carry books to give to my good friend Jayashree and her charming daughter Varsha. An exchange of books has become a token of our friendship. Over many years this has become a tradition. Our shared love of literature has encouraged us to explore ideas and discover new images through the written word. Through this friendly exchange I have been encouraged to read texts I would probably never have discovered and to gain insights that would otherwise have passed me by.
In May 2011 Jayashree gave me the gift of a book which provided great pleasure at the first time of reading, but to which I have returned regularly when looking for inspiration. Unsung, beautifully written by the journalist Anita Pratap and accompanied by a series of sensitive and thought provoking black and white photographs taken by Mahesh Bhat pays tribute to a number of extraordinary individuals who have made significant contributions to their communities in India. I use the word extraordinary deliberately here. The front cover of the book states that it is a tribute to “ordinary Indian citizens who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of people around them”. I cannot believe that anyone reading the accounts of the remarkable people within this book could ever find the soubriquet “ordinary” appropriate when applied to these amazing individuals.
The book details the actions taken by this collection of committed activists to improve the lives of people in their localities. Some of the stories told, such of that of K.M.Chinnappa who has dedicated his life to the protection of wildlife in the area of the Nagarhole wildlife park and has faced dangers from poachers, including threats to his life, present pictures of heroism such as might have been found between the pages of a “Boy’s Own” magazine. Others such as the account of the lawyer George Pulikuthiyil who has given his services and utilised his professional skills to represent the rights of oppressed people in legal disputes, demonstrate the selfless commitment of an individual who could have been using his training to gain personal wealth but has accepted a responsibility to support those who have no riches.
As a teacher I could not fail to be inspired by the section of the book that details the achievements of Tulasi Munda. This chapter, appropriately titled, From Darkness to Light, provides an account of a remarkable woman described by Anita Pratap as a “victim of illiteracy” who has dedicated her life to the provision of education for children in one of the poorest regions of Orissa, one of the most deprived states of India. Tulasi Munda lives in an area where boys were expected to work by day and little value was placed upon the education of girls. She started a school on an open verandah for children who came to her for instruction in the evenings, often after a hard day’s work, to gain the rudimentary principles of reading. Eventually Tulasi acquired a shed on a piece of land at the edge of her village and moved her teaching activities to her school beneath the trees in this vicinity. By demonstrating the impact of her work with children to the elders of her community she gradually increased the support given in the district and has since taken the lead in establishing 17 schools in the area. Since beginning her campaign to provide schooling in her district of Orissa in 1964 more than 20,000 children have been enabled to gain an education. Mahesh Bhat’s portrait of Tulasi Munda (shown below) shows a lady with a gentle but determined face staring boldly into the photographer’s lens. His photographs of children seated cross legged on the floor of a classroom, with attentive expressions indicating their eagerness to learn and of a little girl arriving to begin the day’s lessons, are full of joy and hope for the future of these young learners.
The book provides nine inspirational accounts of extraordinary individuals. In introducing the book Anita Pratap says of these remarkable people:-
“Their inner resources – vision, will, commitment, energy – compensate their lack of financial resources. They operate in the shadows, away from the glare and glitz of fame and fortune, to quietly fulfil their mission. Not for self-glorification, not for public adulation. Their stories are inspirational. They teach us how we can beat the odds if we harness and channel our inner resources. We can do good if we really care to. And each one of us should at least try, instead of blaming the system for all that is wrong.”
Unsung is a beautiful book about caring individuals. I am often moved by the devotion I see given by teachers to their students. When the going gets tough, as it often does when working with and for children, we all need sources of inspiration. This slim volume provides this for me, every time I open the pages.
So, thank you Jayashree for the gift of this book. Thank you Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat for your writing and photographs. Thank you Tulasi Munda for your inspiration and thank you to the patient teachers who gave me the transformative gift of reading.
Unsung by Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat is published by Mahesh Bhat Publishing 111/1 and 111/2 Dickenson Road, Bangalore 560042 India. ISBN: 978-81-904535-0-9