For all the years that I lived in Calcutta, Assam seemed right next-door, but one never got down to going there. Assam has always been special to me. The culture, the people, and most importantly, the silent contribution that Assam has made have largely gone unsung. The fact that the present prime minister uses Assam to propel himself politically has also not helped the cause of the state.
So when the doyen of the tea industry in India, B.M. Khaitan, asked me to be the chief guest at the Founder’s Day of Assam Valley School, I could not refuse, simply because this was one way that I would get to Assam. I am thrilled that I went to Assam and spent possibly the most terrific day I ever have in a long, long time.
As part of preserving the heritage of Assam and its famed tea gardens, Ranjit Barthakur, an Assamese by birth but a nationalist by choice, has brought back to life several of the erstwhile teamanagers’ bungalows and it was in one of these that I spent the night in Balipara, about 30 minutes away from Assam Valley School. The complex is named Wild Masheer, and it would put many of our so-called heritage properties to shame: the entire complex is completely green and there is an adjoining organic farm that provides the freshest produce, as also free-range chickens so that the eggs you have for breakfast are the ones that won’t destroy your health. I sat back reflecting on the life gone by and wondered whether India was in self-destruct mode? Here is a state, which has the second highest green cover in the country, the finest tea gardens as well as some of the finest people in terms of graciousness and warmth and yet is neglected by the Centre.
The evening before the event, a dinner was hosted by the headmaster, Derek Mountford, where it was a delight to meet some of the icons of Indian education: even at 82, Gulab Ramchandani is as passionate about education as he always has been. At the dinner, no one asked me about the next elections, and not one person exuded any malice. There was an innocence that stemmed from good breeding and humanism, more of which was on display at the Founder’s Day the next morning.
The next morning, I drove into what I would easily dub India’s finest temple of knowledge. To call AVS a school would do it great injustice as I saw for myself the quiet transformation that was taking place there. This was a world where people were being taught to imbibe great values before getting great scores. I went around the 260-acre campus that has seven football fields, an equestrian park, fine works in the area of robotics and an entire section devoted to local crafts.
I have known B.M. Khaitan for years: when we were growing up in Calcutta, the Khaitans were, and still are, the tea-lords as it were. But even I never imagined that one day, BMK would give back to India, and more critically to the state where he does business, in such full measure. The school, even after 13 years, just about breaks even and is funded by the trust that BMK established.
The plane ride, from Guwahati to Harchurah (the gardens that are right next to the school) takes about 45 minutes. It takes about four hours by car from Guwahati to reach AVS, and about 30 minutes from Tezpur. But it is precisely in a world as far as Balipara that a remarkable transformation is taking place. Indians are being prepared for the challenges of tomorrow in a way so that elegance and decency will be back as key virtues, values shall dominate and materialism will be given the short shrift. The ultimate contribution of B.M. Khaitan is this — he has not just established a knowledge centre in the wilderness but is also giving back to society what it needs most: men and women of integrity and compassion.