Arpit Gala spent the past weekend helping build a bandh on a river, walking up to 13 kilometers in a day and eating plain dal-rice.
This wasn’t boot camp but a unique kind of exchange programme between his school, St Xavier’s Boys’ Academy at Churchgate, and a tribal school Prabodhan Vidyalaya at Ambatha in Nashik District. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” said the class IX student.
For the past 25 years, Boys’ Academy has been running the exchange programme in which for three days every year, 60 odd class IX students spend time in Ambatha – a mostly forested area – and the Prabodhan Vidyalaya students simultaneously come to Mumbai.
The student swap is part of a broader “twinning programme” where each of the seven Jesuit schools in the city is paired up with a Jesuit school in a rural area.
“The point is for each group to get an idea of the other’s world,” said Brother Thomas Vaz, principal of the Jesuit managed Prabodhan Vidyalaya.
In a globalising world where foreign exchange programmes are a rage, one that offers students unseen glimpses of their own country has continuing significance.
“It’s not just about cultural exchange, but also social commitment,” said Savio D’Mello, vice-principal of Boys’ Academy. It is an opportunity for Xavierites to come face to face with the foreignness of rural life, he added.
At Ambatha the city slickers learn to cope with the bare minimum – sleeping on the floor, eating basic food and also get a taste of the exotic, like learning tribal dances. “It really gave us a taste of rural India,” said Anand Rathi, who had gone last year and played host to the students who came here this past weekend.
The visiting 85 odd Prabodhan Vidyalaya students saw museums and the usual tourist spots, went boating and shopping in the city. “I’ve been looking forward to coming here for days,” said Hiraman Gaikwad, a class X student. “Everything was wonderful, but it was very sad to see urban poverty in the slums,” he said. Most of the tribal students are children of farmers.
“Some of them have been saving money to spend in Mumbai for more than a year,” said Sandip Badgujar, the teacher who accompanied the class.
Despite the socio-economic chasm the students say they have formed lasting friendships. Basan Chuksi, who went to Ambatta last year writes postcards to his friends while classmate Jehan Sahukar gets phone calls from there sometimes.
“They are very poor and there is sometimes a language barrier but their affection is very touching,” Sahukar said. Though the Ambatha students’ first language is Marathi they interact with the Xavierites in Hindi and also learn English from them.