Lessons in Love

At his City Montessori School in Lucknow, India, Jagdish Gandhi teaches kids how to change the world.

Ingrid Eissele| March 2008 issue

Sitting in the back seat of his car one evening, Jagdish Gandhi puts away his cell phone and places a handkerchief over his thin knee. It’s time for dinner. What’s he having? A delicious curry? No, raw onions, roughly chopped. “I rarely eat at home. No time,” he explains as he spoons onions into his mouth while his driver honks through the traffic chaos of Lucknow in northern India, home to 2.5 million people. Outside, the air stinks of exhaust and smouldering fires. Inside, tears fill our eyes as we listen to prayer texts from a cassette player.
“Gandhi” is not Jagdish’s real name. He took it as his when he was 12 years old. He is from the countryside, and his parents were poor farmers. One of his uncles told him about Mahatma Gandhi, and Jagdish admired his work for the poor and his peaceful fight against the British colonial overlords. When a Hindu fanatic murdered Gandhi in 1948, Jagdish wanted to change his name immediately. “If your father agrees, you can do this in India,” he says. His father agreed.
Gandhi in some ways resembles his namesake—the 71-year-old is slight but energetic and wears dark-rimmed glasses. He’s also carrying on Mahatma Gandhi’s work through his City Montessori School, which has more than 32,000 pupils scattered among 20 buildings throughout Lucknow. Every three to four years, Gandhi founds a new branch school, because yet again they’re bursting at the seams. Will he someday have 100,000 pupils? “Possibly,” he says. “As many as possible.” But Gandhi wants to do more than teach reading and writing: He wants to change the world.
At the Indira Nagar School, one of the 20 branch schools, Gandhi hurries like a whirlwind into the building. Two hundred children are sitting on the floor. Their hair is neatly combed; their blue-, red- and grey-striped ties are perfectly tied. Gandhi “just wants to say a few words,” but then speaks for a good hour on war and peace. No one dares whisper.
“Throughout the world,” he tells those gathered, “there are enough atomic bombs to destroy our globe one thousand times over. The people building the bombs tell us that the bombs bring us peace, that human beings must kill each other for peace. Is that what you want?”
The children shout, “No!”
Gandhi looks out at his young audience. “We are all children of the same father. Why should we kill each other?” he asks. “Every one of us is equally close to God.”
Seventy percent of City Montessori School pupils are Hindu, one-quarter are Muslim and the rest are Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Jewish. In daily life, however, it makes no difference. “You can come to Lucknow by bus, plane or train, right? The ways are different, but the goal is the same,” says Sudersh Kaur, a Sikh and one of the 20 principals.
For such tolerant views, the school won the UNESCO prize five years ago for teaching peace. That’s a special recognition in the conflict-ridden Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. At the same time Gandhi was speaking to his pupils, for example, Muslims were being chased through the streets of a neighbouring city, their businesses destroyed in revenge for the murder of a Hindu parliament member.
Gandhi, himself a practising member of the Baha’i sect, which embraces equality between the sexes and tolerance of all religions, believes religious racism is one of the major evils of the day. “Krishna came to us 5,000 years ago, Christ 2,000 years ago, Muhammad 1,400 years ago,” he says. “All of them are messengers sent from the same God.” What better recipients of this message than children? Teach them while they’re young, according to Gandhi.
Eight-year-old Sajal, a Hindu, paints the Christian Saint Nicholas, and celebrates Christmas as well as Ramadan. In the classroom, pictures of Krishna, Jesus and Buddha hang on the walls. “You are wiser than many adults,” Gandhi reassures his little ones. They are to be faithful to their own religions, but citizens of the world who can tolerate the fact that others are different. Gandhi wants his school to be “a lighthouse of society.”
Gandhi started his school in 1959, when he and his wife Bharti began giving private lessons to five children. Their pedagogical mission: “to develop the wisdom and goodness of modern children.”
A well-known saying hangs in the foyer of one of the 20 branch schools: “If you plan for a year, plant a seed. If you plan for 10 years, plant a tree. If you plan for 100 years, teach a child.” One of the things Gandhi and his fellow instructors teach the children is to care for the poor and to ignore the caste system. As part of this practice, students help in homes for the elderly and in hospitals; they care for orphaned children, and clean parks and temples.
“Mr. Gandhi wants to pound his beliefs into us,” says Iyoti, who attends 12th grade. “By the time you’re in the last year, you’ve heard them so often that you can’t forget them.” No matter how difficult Gandhi can be with his preaching, none of the children allows him to be criticized. “He inspires us,” says Himank, 17, who wears Gap T-shirts and is known as a party animal. “He wants us to have the courage to open our mouths,” Iyoti says. “Even the girls.”
Aradhna, 17, adds, “The more education one has, the less of a role religious differences can play.” Like her friend Iyoti, she is a Hindu. Neither hesitated to collect money for the relief of earthquake victims in the neighbouring Muslim country of Pakistan, although they don’t have much themselves. Their mothers teach at the school, and compared to most pupils, Iyoti and Aradhna are poor. “Some of us are ­really wealthy, but because of our school uniforms, it’s not a big deal,” says Aradhna.
These two girls are part of Gandhi’s dream, which he calls “the unity of the world.” He spoke at the UN Millennium Summit in New York, but sees the UN as a paper tiger, since it has allowed hunger, genocide and ecological disasters for more than 60 years. On the other hand, he believes the European Union is setting a good example, with a united economy, one currency, laws applicable to all and the security that no nation will attack another. A world government could resemble this, he believes. Conflicts between nations should be handled at a roundtable, with neutral judges to hand down decisions when the parties can’t agree.
His pupils play this out. In their World Parliament, China, in the costume of Genghis Khan, debates the United States, who is dressed as a flower girl. Iraq is a girl dressed in black who demands the right to education. And Saudi Arabia, wearing a habib, demands “global solutions for global problems.” During all of this, a small angel of peace in white satin lifts his arms and lets them fall, as if he wants to fly away.
It’s a beautiful sight, but Gandhi knows conflicts between adults are tougher to resolve. In 1992, when fanatical Hindus destroyed a mosque and massacred thousands of Muslims in the city of Ayodha, 35 miles (55 kilometres) away, the conflict threatened to overflow into Lucknow. Gandhi asked the religious leaders of both sides to the school. Afterward, the leaders went through the streets with loudspeakers, calling their adherents to moderation. Thousands of students and parents walked through the streets carrying banners with the slogan “God is One.” The teachers went into the neighbourhoods and explained to the families “that no religion calls for this violence,” Gandhi says. They were successful. Escalation of the violence was prevented in Lucknow.
On one recent Sunday, 2,000 students from 17 countries were guests in Lucknow. Children from India worked side by side with children from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, England and Bosnia. They had discussions, or made collages from newspaper headlines, bird feathers and used computer parts. The Earth was in the intensive care unit of a hospital, wearing a bleeding bandage and getting an IV. “Get well soon” was written on a bouquet.
“They’re so friendly,” Amina, 17, from Bosnia, says about the Lucknow pupils. Her mother, a secretary in Sarajevo, raised Amina on her own, after Amina’s father was shot and killed when she was 3 years old. No one has to explain to Amina what war is all about. Even Max from Kathmandu, Nepal, a big fan of the Backstreet Boys, knows what war is about—fear for his grandmother, who still lives in the village from which he fled; fear that the Maoists will take her hostage.
All the while, Gandhi works away in his tiny office. He sits cross-legged, his back ramrod straight. A clutch of assistants stand around him, handing him notes and files. A quotation from Martin Luther King adorns a cupboard door: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” The glow from Gandhi’s Lucknow lighthouse can be seen from very far away.

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