Children of a Lesser God

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Courtesy Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences

Will the next Rushdie raise a hand? Samanta and pupils

In September, I went to India worried about how I could possibly speak to a daunting audience of 15,000 aboriginals. I left India wondering just who speaks for them.

Indigenous peoples — dwelling in Thailand, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and even Japan — remain Asia's most marginalized group. India has the largest number of what it calls adivasi, already topping 84 million in the 2001 census (which was the last one — figures from the present 2011 census are not yet available). Inhabiting a place beneath even India's low-caste hordes, exposed to disease, mostly illiterate and barely subsisting, adivasi make headlines when they join the Naxalites, a shadowy Maoist army that has recruited up to a quarter of the forest populace to their slow-motion warfare. Do-gooding NGOs have hardly changed conditions.

My involvement began at an Indian literary festival, when a man with an impish smile and wobbly spectacles shambled up to me to inquire, "Sir, would you accompany me tomorrow to give a keynote address on Indian National Day at the world's largest school for tribal children?" That I had nothing to say on such an occasion, and had rarely drawn more than five people at my own readings, did not seem to faze Mahendra Prasad, president of the Kalinga International Institute of Technology (KIIT).

The persistent Prasad kept phoning me long-distance for nearly a year before I gave in — moved to accept by a mix of curiosity and compassion, foolhardiness and unabashed flattery. By then, I knew that various Presidents, Prime Ministers and Nobel laureates had already made their pilgrimage to the charitable enterprise that went by the appropriately seductive name of KISS (Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences). There the poorest, plucked from 64 indigenous peoples that make up nearly a quarter of the population of the eastern state of Orissa — its original name is Kalinga — are trained from kindergarten to grad school, free of charge.

Shown around by earnest teachers, I found the students well mannered and drilled, ready to do anything to make sure they didn't blow the chance given to them. On bunks stacked three high, I spied laptops and serious chemistry texts. And it seemed more a comment on the state of the world than the school budget that luminaries would line up to praise a place with conditions at best Dickensian: squalid dorms where 30-40 share a room, meals of monotonous rice and dal taken on floors, playing fields of Eton ground into mud.

The man responsible for all this is no stern Victorian educator. In the manner of all gurus, Achyuta Samanta is calm and beatific, dressed in blue jeans and sandals, seeming to accomplish everything by doing nothing. Born into a deprived, widowed family of eight, he won a scholarship to study chemistry, then began KIIT with $100 in his pocket and KISS with 125 children in 1992. His new aim is to educate 200,000 adivasi by the end of this decade. And, despite the expanding land he has acquired for his campus, he is at great pains to show his humble lifestyle in a small rented house. A chair on a campus lawn serves as his "office." Call him Gandhi meets Mr. Chips.

"Seeing is believing," say my KISS-and-tell escorts. But on this quick peek at a problem with roots in prehistory, I don't have time to travel monsoon-lashed roads to see the "before" to compare with the school's "after." (From prior visits to upland hamlets around Asia, I can already picture the kids with swollen bellies, teens caught between T-shirts and loincloths, mothers scraping up dinner from leaves and leavings.) Neither can I compare official efforts with those of Samanta, only take his word about poor service delivery and meager funding.

When my time came at the podium, I expressed noble sentiments about a profession these practical kids might not have considered: writing. Among the endless outdoor rows in flowing pink and cerulean uniforms, odds were there might be the next Narayan or Rushdie, ready to immortalize old legends or bring forth new tales of displacement. Or not. Given such poverty, perhaps odds weren't great that these students would put literature above IT or engineering. The old Brechtian axiom was operative: "First feed the face, then talk right and wrong."

If Samanta is half as good at teaching as he is at warm welcomes and p.r., then his ever expanding legions will turn out fine. As I walked off stage to the cheers of the throng, he whispered what he must tell all his guest speakers, "Now these 15,000 souls will always be with you."

He's right. They are still with me, in all their innocence, potentiality and resolve. And if they could ever speak for themselves, I might know what they would want from all of us, beyond encouraging words from esteemed VIPs.