Anna’s night school

The gentlest person I have ever known is probably my greatgrandfather, Padi Venkatrama Iyer, who was universally called ‘Anna.’

Born in Kanchipuram, Anna was left in his teens with the responsibility of fending for a large family of many children. His maternal uncle called him to Burma, where he found a job as a clerk. Anna, in turn, sent for his brother.

The brothers would take a long walk by Rangoon harbour every evening. One of the regular scenes they witnessed was that of Indian coolies unloading cargo from ships. At the end of a day’s hard labour, the coolies would queue up and their supervisor would pay them…. something. The coolies could not count the bags they unloaded and they had no idea how much they were owed. The supervisors took advantage of their illiteracy.

Anna and his brother saw this day in and day out. They started chatting up the coolies, and persuaded them to learn to count. 1-2-3-4-5. Then, a little more. Then, a little more. And a little more, until they could at least look out for themselves. Those arithmetic sessions became a nightschool for Indian labourers.

Anna and his brother had no grant. No land. No property. No licence, exemptions, accreditation. No social networking. No great standing in society. Where they stood, there they started.

They taught reading, writing and arithmetic to countless people, but to generations of their children and grandchildren, they taught this simple, invaluable lesson: Action does not need props. Do what you can, when you can, where you can, as you can… and soon you can do more, more often, in more places, in more ways, for more people.

Prajnya, and Prajnya’s Education for Peace Initiative, begin in this spirit. Right here, right now, on this blog, in our imagination and in our work, in your hearts and minds, in this network.

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