That school by the woods


“The Cuckoo Movement for Children” is an informal group of friends and volunteers who have been working with rural children of Tamil Nadu since 2004.

They have established libraries and nurseries in villages across the state. They also partner with local schools to introduce the kids to traditional folk arts, music, martial arts, theatre, organic farming, engaging them in exciting discussions on socio-political and environmental issues, organizing movie projections.

The dream of the Cuckoo movement members to establish an alternative school with free education dedicated to rural children has only grown with time. Seven acres of land was acquired at the foothills of the Jawadhu Hills, Vellore District, Tamil Nadu.

A beautiful place in the lap of nature, only line that separates the land and the forest is an elephant trench.

The first structure was planned entirely made of earth, with a minimal use of cement/ chemicals. The structure mainly reflected the ideology of cuckoo.

Varun and Jeremie were the architects for the task, who share a similar passion, build from earth. To overcome the lack of funding they came up with an idea, a 10day free workshop on construction. The word spread like wild fire and in no time they had more volunteers than they could adapt.

I was among the 34 who were chosen from all over India to volunteer in the building of a school for the underprivileged village kids. I felt blessed and the force was such that it swooped me off my feet and put me on a bus to Singarapettai town with 8 others travelling to the same destination.

It was mostly a silent journey on the window seat, while wind and dust took turns in flashing my face, and far away television kept screaming in Tamil. It was dark when the bus stopped and further we had to hire a rickshaw to the Puliyanoor village, we stuffed ourselves in 2 rickshaws and a journey in the dark began which was more of an ice breaker in discomfort, we all were tired but laughing hard the time we came out of the rickshaw.

Far away in the dark, we saw a few unfinished huts, and people from cuckoo movement working their guts off to make things comfortable for us. We had a briefing/ introduction session and by the end of it, I was astonished to see that people from different courses of life had gathered, there were architects, engineers, IT professionals, farmers, psychologists, journalists, photographers, theatre artists, entrepreneurs, writers, even an aspiring cricketer.

There has been no one dull moment since then. There were discussions about varied subjects, there was music, there was dancing, there was singing, there was fresh air, there was laughter, and more importantly there was freedom. You could be ‘you’.

The daily routine began with waking up at 5:30AM to a rooster call, a rock slab acted as bed, which was collected from the abandoned temples. The wind blew just enough to keep the blankets flying. I sit up, spread out my eyes and stretch my arms just to embrace the beautiful hills and clouds.

By 6AM sometimes 6:30AM we were all ready and working we had brick passing chains, as the days passed we dropped less on each others feet. Mortar pits were the best where we mixed soil, sand and water to a certain consistency by walking in circles and having life conversations. I mostly got out of the pits covered with mud paste/ mortar with no regrets.

Learnt masonry from the best, and we would start building walls. A rare bell rang when an ice cream vendor drove his bike in and we all would lose control and shout out for ice cream. We worked till 2PM and would rest till 4PM while the sun is shining at its best. We spent time playing with the dogs or taking long walks or sometimes just drop our bodies under the big old tamarind tree.

When the sun mellows down at around 4 we hit back to the building site, we are now joined by the village kids who never failed to shower love, there was a time when I rode a cycle into the village with 3 kids balancing themselves on it and they made sure I was not harmed or made fun of by anybody in the village (almost as overprotective as my mother).

We would finish work around 7PM, sometimes 11PM depending on the energy we had. Once we were exercised for the day we spent time relaxing our muscles, listening to stories and experiences or at times watching a movie that was projected. The food needs a particular mention to how simple yet amazing it was just enough to recharge your body for the next day. I would then walk to the rock slab with blankets, laying there and gazing at the stars waiting for the moon to rise from behind the mountains; it was too pure even to define its beauty in words.

We did this for 10 beautiful days. As days worked with, our energy level sure was dropping, but that didn’t kill our spirits, we just got excited about every little and larger thing there was. Like after the 8th day when we found a mirror and saw our faces we all screamed and laughed for what we had become, to the day when the walls were complete and we raised a beam, there was no stopping us as we danced under the torchlights for every cheesy song there was.

The last day was more special where we celebrated a birthday and how we all tried to establish a big surprise and almost failed. In the evening when the sun set, we accompanied few tall trees in a dried up pond with fire torches adding light to the venue, the 2 theater artists (also volunteers) took time and delivered a spine chilling performance.

By the end of 10days the school wasn’t complete, but the process had sprouted something amazing in me. I was as guiltless as a newborn. I didn’t realize unlearning would just make me a better person. I felt light and clear inside. I cannot thank everyone enough who made those 10days happen; what a wonderful world of our own we had built.

* The school is now being finished by professional masons and would be completed in next few days.