They decided to name it the Swami Vivekananda Airport in Raipur. I’m not sure that great man of peace and spiritual enlightenment would have felt honoured, but at least the airport is a peaceful, quiet, sleepy place, even if the only reason for that is the relative lack of economic development and the consequent lack of demand for services to and from it. But Raipur’s new airport was my first glimpse of Chattisgarh since I left Bilaspur in 1968. Then it was an ill-served region of the state, ruled from Bhopal, now it is a full fledged state with Raipur for its capital.
The road from Raipur to Bilaspur is a single lane black top for most of the 110 kilometers. I don’t believe I ever travelled this road when I was at school in the 1960s. But take out the traffic and it must have looked little different then as now, except for the sections at either end that had recently been converted to a two lane road.
Bilaspur is now a busy thriving city. It has all the look and feel of a city on the move, impatient for anything new and glitzy – bill boards selling the latest in cell phones, motor bikes, cars, skin whitening products and fashion. There’s even an Apollo Hospital, someone said proudly. All the old cinema halls have gone I was told – I wouldn’t have known, I never went to one when I was in school. The road that I cycled down every Sunday from the Railway colony to the Girls Degree College to visit my sister is unrecognisable. It used to be a tree lined route with fields on either side beyond the trees. It is now a busy thoroughfare with houses, shops and apartment blocks on either side, but, curiously there are still two rows of trees almost in the middle of the road. Could it be that they kept the trees that used to be there and simply widened the road on either side?
Driving along in an auto-rickshaw the transition from the city to the railway colony is abrupt and palpably obvious. The houses are neater, more regularly spaced out and the narrow tarmac roads with relatively sparse traffic cannot have changed much over the last 50 years.
There is a 5 foot wall now all along the playing ground and as the auto drove alongside I had no inkling where we were, and so I came upon my old school rather suddenly; inexplicably, it was an emotional moment. The same red brick building still stands, the heavy gate padlocked; a large sign proclaiming 'South East Central Railway Mixed Higher Secondary (English Medium) School' looked like it could do with a fresh coat of paint. A smaller sign warned of CCTV surveillance – the first indication that some things had changed. An event to mark the departure of the graduating class of 2014 was in progress, allowing us to wander round the school building and grounds, thanks to the caretaker, Mr Santosh Prasad.
The School has been extended considerably; it now runs two shifts a day to cope with rising demand, and the average class size has grown to 40. But there’s still a backlog of 200 kids of railway staff who cannot be accommodated.
The look and feel of the building and class rooms does not prepare me for what came next: this school now has modern IT knitted into its DNA. No more daily attendance sheets and roll calls. Staff and pupils alike sign in using finger print scanners. Minutes after the start time the head master has his day’s attendance figures. An SMS message goes out to the parents of any absent child. CCTV cameras are in every classroom and corridor. I put my right thumb into the scanner just to see what happens; the machine beeped and flashed a message rejecting my input. I may well entertain a misplaced notion of it being 'my old school', but the machine was clear: I did not belong. I thought I had moved on and the school was the same. But the school had moved on too; recognisable, yes; but not recognising its own past.
No more chalk and blackboard – though they are still there. Every class room has a roll-down white screen and a projector suspended from the ceiling. The teacher plugs his or her laptop into the school network to access all the teaching material she needs.
Head Master Mr KK Mishra is very obviously proud of his school. He reels off statistics of his school kids’ achievements, including one girl who represented India at an international sports event. No, the school did not focus solely on cramming, as so many Indian schools do; yes, the emphasis was on all round development; and yes there were adequate toilet facilities, separate for boys and girls, and they were subject to a regular cleaning and inspection regime; and of course clean filtered drinking was available from numerous water points dotted round the school. Amartya Sen and Jen Dreze would be proud. If half of all schools had these facilities then India would be sure to collect the promised demographic dividend.
I walked from the School through the Railway colony. The roads looked and felt the same but I couldn’t be sure of the way. Unexpectedly and rather abruptly I came upon the old bungalow. It’s now the official home of the Divisional Railway Manager, that probably explained the presence of a Railway Protection Force guard at the gates. Structurally its the same, somewhat spruced up and refurbished with air conditioning units slung from the bedroom windows. But the big surprise was the grounds: immaculately maintained lawns with luxuriantly stocked flower beds, a small central pond, a swing, scores of flower pots lining the drive way and a floral archway. What an amazing change! Who keeps it all going? I asked. No less than 10 full time staff, they said, some contract workers and some railway staff.
I walked out of the front gate and across the road into the Officers Club. The badminton court has been extended, the tennis court now has flood lights and a new high quality playing surface. There was a flight of steps that I have no memory of, that took you up on to the flat roof of the club house. The club house itself was closed and so I shall never know whether the old gramophone player still exists (probably not) but, peering through the glass window I could see something I would never have predicted in 1968 – a row of exercise machines.