The travel industry labels these regions offbeat and the people exotic, downplaying their everyday reality—limited access to food, healthcare, education and employment.
When Trishna Mohanty, a Pune-based writer and photographer, was backpacking across Meghalaya and Nagaland, she stumbled upon a one-room school in a village in Cherrapunji, run by Batista and Lakynti, a Khasi couple, who could barely make ends meet for their family of 12.
“In 2016, I quit my job as a computer engineer, and I started working as a freelance travel writer and photographer, which has always been my passion. I travelled to several remote regions, especially in North-East India, where the population has limited access to food, healthcare, education, and employment. But these regions are labelled as offbeat and the people exotic. This made me question the purpose of travel and I was wondering what I could do differently,” says Trishna.
In 2017, she decided to backpack across Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Nagaland, without an itinerary. Her plan was to live in remote villages and experience life, the way locals did.
She first reached Cherrapunji and booked her stay at a local lodge. This is where she met Batista, the owner of the property.
“After I mentioned that I was a photographer, Batista saw my travel pages on Facebook and Instagram and asked me if I would do a photoshoot of his lodge. I was extremely happy with the way he had hosted me and I immediately agreed. But, on one condition—that he would let me stay with his family in their village. When I think about it now, I don’t know why I asked him that but it was an impulsive decision and the best one I ever made,” says Trishna.
The next day, Batista and his eldest son, who was 12 years old, took Trishna to their village Nongrim, which was located at the top of a mountain.
“Their house looked like a bungalow from outside, and it was also used as a homestay for tourists. Inside, everything was simple. Batista and Lakynti had 3 biological children and 7 foster children. They were also running a school, for 40 to 50 children in that village, that offered affordable education. Their only sources of income was from the lodge, the school fees, and donations made by kind tourists,” says Trishna.
Batista, who is the Chief of Nongrim, explained that he had decided to start the school in 2003 because he wanted to provide education to the children in his village. Though they were motivated to offer quality schooling, they faced many challenges such as finding qualified teachers, providing study materials to students, and providing basic infrastructure.
“The school had classes from Grades 1 to 8, but all those classes were separated into groups in the same hall. The teachers were graduates of different streams. But most of them were unfamiliar with the subjects, and they struggled to complete the syllabus. Although the school was in English medium, the teachers would teach in Khasi to help students understand better. Eventually, the students never learn to read or write in English,” says Trishna.
After spending six days at Nongrim, Trishna cut her trip short, and returned to Pune. For one year, she continued to work as a freelance writer and wrote many articles about her journey. Her stories were published in National Geographic Traveller India, Conde Nast Traveller India, and the Hindu.
Moving Back to The School in Nongrim
While going about her work, Trishna soon realised that she couldn’t get the tiny village out of her head. She also constantly thought about the couple’s spirited endeavour, wondering if she could do something for the students in the school.
So, in December 2018, she decided to move to Nongrim for 9 months. Before she moved, she created a set of goals in mind that she wanted to achieve during her time there:
1. To help teachers improve their English, and help them prepare structured lesson plans.
2. To set up a toilet for the school because the students would run to nearby homes, to relieve themselves.
3. To set up a library.
“I knew that the academic year would begin in February 2019, so I reached Nongrim two months in advance to work with the teachers, and help them create structured lesson plans. This was not well-received, and some even left their jobs. We struggled to refill their spots because finding qualified teachers in such remote areas is almost impossible. Eventually, we were forced to re-open school with just 4 teachers for nine grades” says Trishna.
From February to September 2019, Trishna lived the Khasi lifestyle and taught students at the school.
“One of my many goals was to set up a library. I did not have enough savings to do it myself, so I put up a story on my travel Instagram account. I requested people to send their old books, but a few followers suggested it would be easier if I set up an Amazon wishlist. I did the same. There were about 200-250 books which cost Rs.60,000. Within 24 hours, every single book off that wishlist was bought. There were a variety of books including fictions, novels, and encyclopedias. Some followers even ordered alphabet charts, notebooks, and even stationery,” says Trishna.
The books were delivered to a relative of Batista’s in Shillong, as that was the closest city where the option was available. One month later, Trishna and Batista drove down to collect the deliveries and in August 2019, she finished setting up the library. But, there was one more drawback. As everyone knows, Cherrapunji receives heavy rainfall, and the school’s infrastructure was not too strong. Trishna recalls one night when water seeped into their home and flooded the books.
“Thankfully, there was no damage. But we needed a solution to prevent that from happening again. That is when a friend of mine graciously donated Rs 50,000 to the school and we used the money to purchase second-hand tables, chairs, and a wooden shelf for the library. Now the books remain dry through the rains,” says Trishna.
By the end of her stay in Nongrim, she managed to source finances from the school to construct a toilet, but it was not enough for a water connection. “The students still have to fetch water from some nearby house and then use the washroom,” says Trishna.
She returned to Pune in September 2019, and has been in constant contact with her second family in Nongrim.
“I stayed in the village for almost a year teaching students and learning the weight of my privileges, along the way. Ironically, my greatest journey began when I stopped travelling,” she mentions.
Nurturing Young Minds, and Hoping for a Better Tomorrow
Although the school faces constant challenges such as finding new teachers, and retaining old teachers and students, Trishna believes the students are gradually changing their perception towards education.
“Some of the students have read books about ‘children who made it big in this world’ and they aspire to do the same. That is the kind of change one would expect to start with. While the school is closed these days due to the lockdown, I am hopeful that classes will resume eventually. Right now, I mostly worry about Batista and his family who are struggling to make ends meet as tourism—their only source of income—has come to a halt.”
If you would like to help out the family, or the school here are their details:
Account name – U.C.S Upper Primary School
Account number – 30790879416
IFSC Code – SBINOOO9116
State Bank of India, Sohra branch.
Images are courtesy of Trishna Mohanty.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra(