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I have felt the need for inclusion very acutely at both personal and professional levels. As a young mother my heart would bleed when my beloved son was not included in the play of other children. Though the cuteness of toddlerhood and the early childhood years masked many of the oddities even children recognised that there was ‘something different’. As he grew older and entered primary school the differences began to show up prominently. The early remedial intervention could take him only so far and no further. His experiences at our lab preschool at Nirmala Niketan (where I taught in those days) had provided a cushion and ‘Raji teacher’ and ‘Neelam teacher’ had done their bit in enabling him to believe in himself.

But main stream schools were another story. And we retreated, not into a shell, but most certainly away from many social interactions. Given my non-assertive nature I found it hard to ‘fight the world’. So, though I didn’t miss the opportunity to engage in conversation about his disabilities if there was a direct interaction, I began to keep us away from social engagements, extended family celebrations, community festivities et cetera. I limited us to being only with close family and friends. With all the other battles in my life, I didn’t have the energy to fight the battle for inclusion on a daily basis. But I made it a point to take him with me everywhere I was invited as a professional. Funny (not!) how people took me seriously when I spoke at a professional gathering with Anand in tow but not when I tried to make impassioned pleas as a parent.

Yet my belief in the concept continued to grow and it came through in my discussions with many students at Nirmala Niketan, SNDT, and even University of Pune in the decades from the 1980’s to 2010. I accepted assignments with several organizations (e.g. SRTT and Inclusion International) with alacrity because they provided me the opportunity to work with people and organisations and find a way to take the idea of inclusion forward. As a group of parents of children with varied special needs we pursued the idea of a facilitated family living centre but there were no takers. One of the key beliefs of this was to create an inclusive housing community that would also address the need for purposeful, productive activity.

The situation grew bleaker at a personal level , and finally when my son was in his mid twenties I had to acknowledge the need for ongoing professional care. As a single parent, I needed to work to provide for his life long care. (And I enjoyed my work especially with young children!) So there wasn’t as much time or energy to take care of him myself. Work and travel conspired such that, that apart from bringing him home on weekends or special days, I participated only minimally in the activities at his centre. Yet I had always emphasized that parent, family, community involvement is so essential to the real success of such initiatives and centres.

Retirement has finally brought along this benefit as well. I am now able to spend more time at, and for, his centre. As I said earlier, over the decades, and despite my belief in the concept of inclusion, I had retreated (and taken Anand with me) from social interactions. It felt too much of a battle to face the loudly whispered remarks, the unenlightened advice, and even the lack of acknowledgement of his presence in most social situations.

Along with the few friends who also have children with special needs, we had developed a fairly comprehensive facilitated family living concept. The essence of it was inclusion. And we started at home. Hard as it was to have our children accepted and included in mainstream society it was also just as hard to bring together ‘differently abled people with different needs’. And our proposal continued to languish in a folder on our computers.

Years and circumstances intervened as did our own aging process and I took the hard decision to have Anand in special professional care. But now, having retired, I am able to participate as a parent volunteer at many more activities at his centre.

Despite the fact that I typically do not engage in any rituals (religious or otherwise), the enthusiastic involvement in festivals of everyone at his centre (staff AND residents) makes so much sense. Living in a stressful, restricted environment 24 x 7, month after month, year after year takes its toll. Often, it is these celebrations associated with festivals that provide the much needed safety valve and a chance to feel special. Often neglected by society and sometimes even by families, the residents need a way to make their lives seem ‘normal’. And for the staff that lives with them, taking care of them even when not ‘on duty’; it is a chance to express themselves and their many other talents. Specially when there is a festival.

arti time

What makes all of this even more meaningful to me is the inclusion. The inclusion of young and old, of a large range of special needs,  from many different mental illnesses to intellectual disabilities, to degenerative physical conditions, and even a combination of all of these. It is a daunting task.

all together

Yet, is exactly this that was in evidence a couple of months ago when the Ganeshotsav celebrations were in full spate at CMHCC. The pictures say it all.

staff dance           staff dance 2


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No extreme highs; no extreme lows… just an all pervading sense of contentment, and the accompanying tranquility. This by no means is to say that all my challenges have disappeared or that I don’t experience the occasional frustrations.

Yet, as I move into a phase of life when my overall feeling is one of serenity, I return from time to time to a question that I have asked myself many times through my life… Does contentment keep me from striving, from achieving?

It’s a pattern that has existed all my life. I recognize what I need and should be getting, yet have typically never demanded it. I have not hankered for status or position, but it did not keep me from commitment and diligently working hard to ensure a job well done.

I remember my mother telling me often as she recalled her experiences as a young mother that she would have to come and see if I had woken up and needed to be fed, because I would not cry but would suck patiently on my thumb awaiting someone to come attend to me. But then is that not dangerous? To not have an instinct for survival? To not be able to ask for basic needs to be met assuring one’s essential well-being?

Didn’t this tendency mean I made mistakes in my life? Of course…Plenty of them! Do I regret those mistakes? In the larger scheme of life as I see it… NO!

Behind every ‘mistake’, choice and action was whole-hearted commitment. I held nothing back. And so I learned from every single ‘mistake’.

But then I think about the many children I have met and continue to meet. What happens if they are unendingly acquisitive and ride rough shod over any one in their path? On the other hand, if they are ‘content’, will they give up ‘the search’? Will they miss out on success because they lack the urge to ‘achieve’? Will being satisfied with what they have, keep them from asserting what is their right?

So what’s the line between insatiability and complacency? And how can we ‘teach’ children to differentiate between the two?

And how can we enable them to be truly content?

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The relationship between the children and the grannies at KNB PSSP has always been special. They became a member of The Granny Cloud family ahead of their becoming a part of the School in the Cloud labs and it was always amusing and heart-warming to hear the children share about their interactions with the grannies. Because of limited facilities just Grades 6 and 7 used to have Granny sessions.


A Granny session – Before the SOLE Lab [Photo: Suneeta Kulkarni]

But with the building of the SOLE lab, [A4 Phaltan turns 2 today on the 3rd of Dec 2016] the children from Grade 1 upwards got a chance to get into this very special room… very much their own. The older children had participated in visualizing and designing it and all of them continue to take responsibility for decorating and keeping it clean.

visualizing-the-lab         cleaning-the-sole

Visualizing the SOLE    & Cleaning the SOLE  [Photos: Suneeta Kulkarni]

Here’s an  an email I received this morning:


Through these 2 years, the children have fallen in love with the idea of the SOLE and wait [rather impatiently I must admit!] for a full-fledged SOLE session. They have explored topics at their own initiative [e.g. the concept of independence] and explored topics brought up by the grannies [e.g. children’s rights]. When Big Questions [and not so big questions J] were posed they have jumped in with enthusiasm and made it their own wandering to into territories  [mangoes and butterflies & polar bears among them! ] that hadn’t been anticipated. The older children are used to being in the sessions on their own and delight in what they refer to as ‘mini SOLE sessions’. Because it all has to be wrapped in under 40 minutes! And the teachers at KNB have watched, seen the children’s engagement with learning and begun to consider using this with their own classes. The concept of the SOLE spreads….

involved             concentration

In SOLE sessions [Photos: Suneeta Kulkarni]

It was also the one lab where, ‘Granny’ emerged as a profession! When children were asked what they’d like to be when they grew up, there were several who enthusiastically responded ‘A Granny’!

So, the Phaltan SOLE lab is a busy place, a very busy place! Now back to being a self-funded SOLE lab at the completion of the TED Prize School in the Cloud Project, it isn’t wasting one bit of this resource. In the past few months, the Granny sessions have extended to include the preschool children and even teachers participate enthusiastically!

Watching from the side lines when her elder sister was among the first children to experience the wonders of the granny cloud, was Shruti. And she has begun to take on her future ‘career’ as a part time granny [she plans on joining the IPS – Indian Police Service] very seriously as she steps in to facilitate sessions for the preschool children.


Our youngest Granny session facilitator! [Photo: Madhura Rajvanshi]

So as A4 Phaltan marks 2 years of their SOLE lab, we wish them all the very best!

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Angan SOLE

The full import of the relevance of Taratai’s [Taratai Modak] ‘Aanganwadi’ and ‘Kuranshala’ [Meadow School] came to me only when I became professionally involved in the field of Early Childhood Education in the late 1970’s. Till then, especially as a child, it was something that I only heard my mother talk about, sometimes with Taratai herself. And visiting an aanganwadi was a holiday treat at Kosabad…

But the full potential of what could be done if the Aanganwadi concept was combined with SOLEs and the Granny Cloud was an idea that steadily grew as I had my first experiences with the Hole-in-the-Wall Kiosks in Sindhudurg [specially at Shirgaon 1999], and subsequently the first Indian SOLE labs in Hyderabad [2008-2009]. It was then that The Granny Cloud was born from Sugata’s [Sugata Mitra] idea of bringing in native English speakers to engage the children in conversation; simultaneously encouraging  the learning of a language and developing their abilities to question and explore and search. The SOLEs and the Granny Cloud continued to evolve emerging into the concept of the School in the Cloud with Sugata’s being awarded the TED Prize in 2013.

It was the ethos on which the original SOLE labs and the Granny Cloud were built that brought these two ideas together in my mind. It was the desire to reach children in disadvantaged settings/locations, with minimal, sometimes no resources [material as well as in terms of ‘trained’ persons].

The concepts of the SOLEs [www.theschoolinthecloud.org ] and the Granny Cloud [www.thegrannycloud.org ] are delightfully simple and doable and extremely effective even in well-resourced settings with every facility under the sun available to them. Because the context of working in collaboration, drawing upon the vast, unending resource of the internet is not only natural and relevant to the way we live, it is necessary for us to function effectively in the future ahead.

Taratai embodies for me a school of thought that chose deliberately to work in some of the hardest contexts of remoteness and disadvantage; a school of thought that took in the best of many other thinkers and philosophers [Montessori, Froebel, Dewey and Tagore included]. It embodies an independence in thinking that brought together many ideas in a way that was feasible and relevant for the disadvantaged contexts for which they were conceived.

In Taratai’s days, the internet was still way ahead in the future… today it is ever present. But the past and the future are connected; and we build on what came before. Hence the idea of the Aangan SOLE. The Granny Cloud will soon [in December 2016] be launching the first Aangan SOLE ever! SAMIDHA has been running, a small stand-alone SOLE for several years in an urban slum in Pune, and it has been harder and harder to run given financial constraints and community scepticism. Hence, Aangan SOLE! Grannies will skype in with the help of volunteers; and children will gather around a donated laptop around which ever ‘katta’ or open space available; even under a tree…

The trial [end November 2016] went well… 2 great ideas come together. Let’s see what lies ahead…


Note: The word ” Aangan’ literally means courtyard in Marathi. India’s ICDS programme uses Taratai’s aanganwadi concept as a way to reach preschool age children and mothers across the country. Taratai and her team would set up ‘school’ in courtyards in far flung village hamlets and called it an aanganwadi, or when set up in a meadow for older children so as to reach the children of shepherds a ‘kuranshala’. A long overdue tribute to her subtle impact on my life…

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I woke in the morning to calls and messages greeting me on the occasion of ‘Guru Pournima’. And I found myself recalling the many different people I have learned many different things from through the years.

There has been a sense of wonder and joy in much that was learnt, but there have also been bitter lessons. I skimmed through some pictures to find some that I could use for an album to remind me of some of the key lessons I learned from them. There were many pictures that evoked memories of times when I began to learn. Learning to be my own person, learning to be content within myself, learning to be patient [even more than I have a reputation for !], learning to be less gullible, learning to believe in myself, learning to be prepared for the unexpected, learning to have fun, to take care of myself, to find new strategies to cope with challenges and sorrow, to get up and start over when I have fallen, to reach out for a dream… and so much more. I haven’t always been successful but I have learned along the way, that I could continue trying…

It may sound trite, but for me it isn’t.. I have drawn from elders and peers and children in this process of learning. But it is life – all of it – that has been the biggest Guru of them all.

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So many times through my career I have been struck [pardon the pun!] by how loyal children can be towards their teachers even when the relationship is often dominated by fear of being hit with a ruler, rapped on the knuckles, slapped, have their ears twisted and so on. And it has always hurt that there has been little I could do to change their reality. Even as they share what happened at school, I find myself squirming and imagining not just the physical pain, but also the humiliation, and the fear of adult disapproval that many children experience.

And the fear extends to other adult-child interactions. Recently, I asked to speak to one of the children at one our labs and in the midst of a warm conversation, he opened up and said that he had  been momentarily worried about why I had asked to speak to him… that he must have done something wrong and I was going to scold him.

And this same child along with several of his mates had, a few months earlier, shared the kind of ‘corporal punishment’ that is still part of their daily experience in school. I’d asked the reasons for which they got hit and was told it could vary – from being late, to not knowing the answer to a question that was asked, for talking in class…. My face is, even when I try to hide emotions, rather transparent. My dismay at this sharing was only too apparent. And the children’s response…. “They are only doing it for our own good” They are teaching us good habits…” “They are helping us learn…”. I couldn’t resist asking whether they would learn without being smacked… and they  admitted they would.

So why are we are we so harsh with them? And do we really deserve their gentleness and loyalty toward us?

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A young friend sang this the other day, in a voice ever so sweet… it took me back many, many  decades. I used to love this song as a kid. Along with several friends, I’d sing and dance along the arches of the garden surrounded by the Hauz Khas market. The implication of incidents that were beginning to happen had still not touched me in a debilitating manner. They were carefree, uninhibited days….and I sang out loud. The song spoke to me of a world out there, a world of adventure… of a world unknown yet ever so enchanting.

And then reality began to creep in..No longer did I sing out loud. I watched over my shoulder warily. And I began to write, fast and furious… just for myself. It was my way of coping… The song dried up inside me.

And then… I heard it sung the other day, and it tug at the heartstrings. I’ve been humming it inside my head ever since…. But there’s one big difference… it’s just reality… I cannot pretend to control the future… and much of it seems bleak. But there are moments of peace, of contentment…of acceptance.

So, in the ‘not knowing’, is there hope?

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