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.
“In 2013, 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 the travel industry labels these regions as offbeat and the people exotic. There is a definite whitewashing of reality, and this made me question the purpose of travel. I was wondering what I could do about it,” 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.
“When we entered the house Batista introduced me to Lakynti, and their 10 children—3 biological and 10 foster. I found out that two independent rooms in the house were used to host guests as part of a homestay. I later found out that they were also running a school, to provide affordable education for 45 children of the village. The couple’s only source of income was the lodge, most of which was used to run the school. Often, tourists would make donations once they learnt about it,” says Trishna.
Batista, who was the Chief of Nongrim at the time, 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 nursery till Class 9, and all classes were conducted in a single hall at the same time. The teachers were graduates from different streams with no formal teacher’s training. Most of them struggled to complete the syllabus. So, even though the curriculum was in English, teachers taught in Khasi to help students understand better. Unfortunately, the students struggled to read and understand their textbooks. Their own notes, written in English, made little sense during exams and they were compelled to memorize answers down to spelling of every word,” says Trishna.
After spending six days at Nongrim, Trishna continued her trip and travelled to Nagaland, where she spent two more weeks before returning to Pune. But before she left the village, she had already made up her mind to return within a year.
Moving Back to The School in Nongrim
In December 2018, Trishna 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 provide basic teacher training.
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.
But there was one problem, Cherrapunji receives heavy rainfall. Trishna recalls one night when water seeped into their home and flooded the books. They had yet to shift the books to the school since there was no place to store the books there. “Thankfully, there was no damage. And a week later, a close friend graciously donated Rs 30,000 and we used the money to purchase tables, chairs and a second-hand wooden shelf for the library,” says Trishna, adding that the library was finally set up in August 2019.
By the end of her stay in Nongrim, Batista had managed to source finances to construct a toilet!
Trishna 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(