“When I get older,
I will be stronger,
they’ll call me freedom
just like a waving flag…”
Close your eyes and let the winds whisper, the songs of yore in your ears. Take a deep breath, go down the memory lane and remind yourself of those answers you rattled in front of the mirror with two beaming eyes when the world asked what you wanted to be once you grow up? Scientist, cyclist, journalist, scuba driver, and what not? The bag of wishes was always over-flowing. Fast forward to present day reality. Longings taken over by banausic wants, life circling around the clock and laughter, slowly losing its bliss amidst steam pressed ties and growing potbellies. And every day you ask ourselves, “Is this the life I asked for?”
And though this question crosses our mind every now and then, yet we are unable to face the dilemma, “Am I ready to take the plunge?”
Who or rather what is to be blamed here? The evidential answer that echoes back says we are caught in the shackles of society. Our foundations are too subjugated, our concept of life so disarrayed, that even in this point of time, we strangle our aspirations and follow the beaten paths that have been walked over since ages. And the greatest paradox of our time is that though a myriad of people would preach you to go after your dreams, yet no formal education system would provide you with a platform to be somebody different than a stooge.
During Finsocial’s recent trip to Astro-port, we stumbled upon one notable personality who not only did take a plunge to follow his heart’s desire but has also been taking initiatives to steer the youth to find their inner calling. Meet Gautam Khandelwal, a Chartered Accountant who runs a democratic learning center called Masti Ki Paathshala at a small village near Jaipur. Masti ki Paathshala, aims at providing a corroborative environment to children by offering them varied experiences and allowing them to choose what they want to do, so that they can discover their latent talents. This democratic learning center is a place where, in Gautam’s own words, “Nothing is compulsory – you come in and you leave when you feel like it. You do what, when and how you feel like.” Explaining how children love the place, he adds, “In conventional schools, one can see a burst of energy when the bell rings. At our place, we virtually have to kick the children out, since they refuse to go.”
Until a few years ago, Gautam too was caught in the labyrinth of monotony and lull. Being a Chartered Accountant and an MBA by profession, he started his career as a consultant with Arthur Andersen. When asked what triggered him to switch, he accredits the 1999 Orissa Cyclone and says, “I was not happy that while I was punching keys on my computer sitting in my cozy air-conditioned office, there were people who were dying,”
As a staunch proponent of quality education, he has always believed that education forms the substratum of any individual. Soon after surrendering his job at the multinational, Gautam started working as a teacher in a mainstream school in Jaipur. After bargaining with the traditional approach of the Indian education system for seven years wherein he saw various schools providing plain vanilla rote learning, he decided to call it quits. A critic of conventional education systems, when asked about schools, he described them as “crime against humanity”. His list of charges against schools include use of fear, lack of democracy, bullying by both the teachers and older children and education having no relevance with the real world. He believes that schools only promote standardization i.e. everyone is being taught the same thing, when we all are different. Demarcating children based on age and preaching the same lesson to the entire cluster and subsequently assessing all of them on the same parameters leads to children losing their creative insights. Since time memorial, we have been taught to study, secure good grades and a get a good job. Ironically, where the formal education aims at preparing us for the real world, the truth is that the learnings that we imbibe from our system is no-where close to getting us ready for the reality.
Saying good bye to the conventional education system, soon after, Gautam founded Masti ki Paathshala. He chose this small village named Agar in Alwar district of Rajasthan, situated at 70 km from Jaipur with a population of less than 5,000 and literacy rate below 50%. The underlying philosophy of this initiative is that children are capable of learning on their own. Unlike the conventional systems where children work just with their heads, at Masti ki Paathshala, the endeavor is to collaborate the 3 H’s- ‘Head’, ‘Hands’ and ‘Heart’. This rural venture ditches the traditional teaching environment and replaces it with an open belvedere wherein all the tools of learning are provided, and the kids are left on their own to learn, explore and devise their own way. Workshops are held which cover a variety of genres ranging from photography to stitching. Volunteers from across the globe visit and participate in the activities conducted here. With a session on agriculture and a farm visit in pipeline, Masti Ki Paathshala aims at exploring uncustomary territories, the ones where the light of our formal education system has still not reached. You can read more about the objectives and philosophy behind Masti ki Paathshala on it’s recently launched website, www.mastikipaathshala.org .
Challenges are part and parcel of every new initiative. And Gautam’s journey has not been devoid of them. Until a year ago, the place was disturbed by man eating Leopards. While this problem stands resolved today, there are others which seek Gautam’s entire attention. The biggest hunch is parents’ reluctance to send their child to Masti ki Paathshala for it runs on a non-conventional model. Also, since Masti ki Paathshala runs in rural areas, it was initially difficult to garner donations from individuals and institutions. Though today, the venture is receiving contributions from all over the India and abroad. As one of the volunteer from Switzerland, Carmen Kummer testifies, “What Gautam has built here with the people around and volunteers from all over the world is absolutely brilliant. Their work is so impactful-on the community and on anyone who gets engaged in it.” Gautam is seeking further help from individuals who are able and willing to work as volunteer or make monetary contribution so that his venture can gain more momentum in rural areas.
Giving up his lucrative job, Gautam has undoubtedly put his heart and soul into this venture. However, his zeal for reforming education system has somehow moved him away from his family. While most of his time is spent at Agar Village, his wife and two sons live in Jaipur. One of the greatest irony is that while he is taking up measures for the children of the nation, he fails to spend adequate time with his own children. He did face restrain from his relatives as well, for they believed that he has put the future of his kids on stake. This may still worry him, but he is clear of the fact that, “My kids might not wear branded clothes, but they will have clothes on their bodies anyways.”
Despite facing criticism and challenges, Gautam refuses to succumb. On being asked what keeps him going, he sighs and says, “Not that I think too much about the ‘macchhi market’. Thankfully, I have very supportive parents and family who have always told me to go chase the DREAM. It is the DREAM that keeps me going.” Gautam dreams of a happy community of educated, wise and literate people full of fervor and enthusiasm. He dreams of the villages functioning as one big family where people do not have to migrate to the cities hunting for livelihoods. He dreams of people wanting to stay back in villages to savor its invigorating environment.
Looking forward, Gautam envisages a time when the urban India would join hands with its rural counterpart and their collaboration would create magic because both the dimensions have mutually exclusive skills. His most profound longing is to set up a campus in the village so that he can bring his family there. Moreover, this will open another promenade through which the metropolitans can stay with their rural counterparts.
This story revolving around Gautam and his brainchild i.e. Masti Ki Paathshala is an inspiration for all those who want to follow their passion but for one reason or the other, are not able to take the leap of faith. Speaking about fear, Gautam cites that for many years, fear did clog his heart and mind- fear of not earning enough to see his children through in life. But once he took the plunge, he was altogether a different man. Gautam adds, “Fear is what holds you back from achieving yourself, from achieving your dreams, from living a full life. Fear is what debilitates decisions making. There are so many people who I have come across who wish to live life differently but are so fearful of stepping out of the known. Show courage in that one instance and take that leap of faith. Things will all be fine. If the Almighty has brought you here, he will also carry you through.”
His advice to the youth is to start venturing into unexplored terrains and be eccentric in their approach. He believes that no matter what you get yourself in, society will always bombard criticism on you. At the end of the day, victory triumphs louder when it is earned hard.
Gautam’s story compels us into sneaking a peek in our own realms and identifying that one passion that has the potential to drive us crazy, and to follow that passion relentlessly. His story coerces us to dive into the world of endless possibilities and drop all inhibitions.
And the question which still lays open in front of us is, “Are we ready to turn a deaf ear to the world and follow the path, the one our heart is showing us. Are we ready to not follow anybody’s trail and create our own roadway? Are we ready to let go of the fear of the unknown, the fear of the failure, the fear of not making big in life and do just one thing that makes our heart happy?”
And in case you are did summon your nerve and took the leap of faith, some years down the line, just like Gautam Khandelwal, you too would be able to relate with the below mentioned lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Editor’s note – Gautam’s Masti ki Paathshala is situated at 4-5 hours drive from Delhi, near Sariska in Alwar district. We recommend you take a weekend out and spend some time with the kids at Masti ki Pathshala. A meeting with Gautam Khandelwal may just change your perspective about Chartered Accountants and our whole education system. You can also volunteer in this initiative. Gautam is available at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, please visit www.mastikipaathshala.org and www.facebook.com/mastikipaathshalalearningspaces.
At FinSocial, we would also like to thank Guatam for spending time with us and sharing his experiences with us during FinSocial’s Astrotrip. We wish him all the best for his venture and hope that he achieves his target of 1000 learning centres and 1000 natural cure hospitals soon.
Video and Photos Courtesy: Gautam Khandelwal
About FinLife: FinLife is our initiative to feature people from finance background living an extraordinary life. Through FinLife, we want to thank such people for breaking the stereotype attached with finance people as well as inspire others to follow their passion and broaden their horizon. Gautam Khandelwal is our first entry in this series. If you know such personalities, whom you believe can be featured in FinLife, please drop us a mail at email@example.com/ firstname.lastname@example.org.