G.S Swami is 80 years old, standing tall as the mountains and as invigorating as the winds around Dehradun, the city he and his wife call home. Their two sons and daughter have settled abroad very successfully.
An economist by profession, Swami moved from the south of India to Mumbai at the tender age of 21. “I stumbled into consultancy,” says Swami who went on to make a success in his chosen field.
Despite a long and fulfilling career, Swami had had enough of corporate life and wanted a break. “It began way back when I was 60 years old,” he says. “Both my sons were placed in banks. My daughter had married and I felt a yearning to take a sabbatical. When you are a consultant, people think they own you; especially as an international consultant. Time zones differ and you can expect calls at any hour. This took quite a toll on my health. Enough is enough I thought to myself.”
“Money fortunately was not an issue. I sold my property in Bombay which fetched us enough to move around and settle anywhere,” explains Swami.
He and his wife started traveling around India with the intention of finding a suitable place to settle down in and retire. Having checked out a number of cities and towns including Haridwar and Almora to name a few, they decided on Rishikesh. En route however, while changing buses, the couple decided to rent a place to stay in Purkal village in Dehradun and made that home.
“This was in the year 1994. We thought we would put our feet up and relax. But that feeling didn’t last long! I wanted to make use of my time in a productive way. I visited local schools asking if I could help the kids in any way. Perhaps contribute to their education. The Principal of the local village school fortunately consented. I started teaching the children arts and crafts. With no prior teaching experience, I had to learn on my feet. Soon having gained in confidence, I ventured into teaching other subjects. These were interesting times,” reminisces Swami.
This school had classes from grade 1 to 5. After the 5th grade, some of the kids moved on to a government school while the others dropped out. ‘Scholars Home’, an English medium school in Dehradun agreed to admit five children every year provided they could pass the entrance exam. The Principal approached Swami and asked him to prepare the kids for the exam.
Having agreed, Swami invited students of grade 5 of the local school to his house after school hours, everyday and tutored them in English, Mathematics and Science. “I wasn’t too familiar with these subjects. My wife and I would prepare ourselves all morning and by the time the kids came in we were well prepared to teach them. My wife taught Maths as she is good at the subject. Children are always hungry after a long day at school. Hence, we started giving them snacks. My wife would make jam and we would buy bread, peanuts and snacks from the market.”
This became an annual practice. Being a rented house, it was difficult for Swami to host these students. So he bought some land with his own money and constructed a small building in six months, during which time Swami suspended the tutoring.
“After the opening ceremony, I invited the kids back again. Even the older kids started to come to us for help. We converted our little house into classrooms hosting kids in the rooms, balcony and even the garden. It was all happening in the blink of an eye. In the mornings, we were busy shopping for food for the kids or preparing for class and in the evenings we were taking classes. One day, a friend visited us and witnessed the work that was going on. Impressed, she suggested I start a society to get patrons. She had good contacts and also donated some money with which I bought school supplies.”
Swami then decided it was time to set up a school of his own. After several meetings with relevant government departments, finally in 2000, Swami registered the Purkal Educational Society, with the mission to bring in kids early in life and give them hands-on practical training. Swami was convinced that students learnt best, by practicing a trade.
“Thankfully, news of our work spread and donations from friends and well wishers trickled in. We recruited teachers and started the school with classes from grade 5 to 10. We knew, however, that we should be targeting and recruiting kids even earlier. We purchased a bus from the donations and the ‘Bus Them to Purkal’ project was coined. I travelled to the most remote villages around Dehradun and met the poorest of poor kids who were eager to learn but had no means to get to school. I worked very hard to persuade their parents who were labourers, domestic workers and petty shop keepers and to encourage them we provided transport for them.”
In the same year, Swami got a piece of land close to his residence and constructed a school to which the children moved into. He applied for CBSE affiliation and after the due diligence and meeting the requirements, he got the school registered.
Rachana, who is presently the teacher co-coordinator of the school, saw an ad in the local newspaper and applied for the position. “It was a tough task and we had initial hic-cups”, she reminisces. “People were not ready to send their children and we had to answer all sorts of questions like whether they would be safe, whether we would try and convert them etc. We worked hard to win their trust and eventually after much effort and visits to their homes, they allowed their kids to go to our school. The kids had low self esteem and confidence and I being completely new to the field, had no idea how to deal with them. Swami Sir explained that I should try and be a mother rather than a teacher. This approach helped tremendously and things fell into place.”
“I grew with the institution,” she continues. “It had just two rooms when I joined, but now it is a two-storeyed learning paradise for the kids.”
Manish another member of the faculty added, “I too have learnt a lot. Swami Sir also encouraged us to upgrade our own skills. I was as much a student as a I was a teacher, since I completed my masters degree while working at the school.”