Dumurdi was a tribal village nestled in Ayodhya Hill. Thirty families, all Mundas, lived there. They collected minor forest produce, reared livestock, and did some farming on rocky soil around the village. Most able-bodied men and women went to work as labourers in faraway places.

Dumurdi Vidyashram, the non-formal school for young dropouts, stood on the edge of the village in a forest clearing. It comprised four mud-plastered wattle huts and two sheds open on three sides.These were set around a mantle of granite that resembled molten shellac dropped from the sky, with a big neem tree spreading its branches over it. Beautiful murals, made with pot shards and charcoal, lined the cottage walls.

There was no fencing around the premises, nothing that set it apart from the general ambience of the village, except a pucca latrine and a plastic water tank sitting on top of a wooden scaffolding. A kerosene pump lifted water from a well. At the entrance to the premises, on a free-standing mud wall, the name and address of the Vidyashram were painted in the English alphabet.

“Why English?”

This was the first question I asked Amitava, pointing to the lettering, as he rushed out to receive me with his arms opened like the wings of a happy bird.

“Why not?” he shot back and guffawed, clasping my shoulders. “Our children’s mother tongue is not Bangla, mind you, and their language doesn’t have a proper script.”

Amitava hadn’t changed in all these years. The same musical voice, the delicate frame, the same amused expression on his thin lips, and quick eyes set on a soft, lightly bearded face. Only his fair skin had gained a deep tan, and the beard had flecks of grey. He gripped my elbow and proceeded to show me around the premises.

On a wide stoop of the cottage near the entrance was a dispensary. A doctor from Balarampur town visited it once a week. Two long, thatched sheds served as classrooms. A third shed, with bamboo fencing around it, served as a crèche for little children. Behind it was the storeroom, where they processed amla and lac collected from the forest.

“When we started this project four years ago, I had no idea how elementary education is linked with a tangle of other issues,” Amitava said. So, what started as a non-formal coaching centre for tribal children who’d dropped out of school had now grown to include a dispensary, a crèche, and a collection centre for minor forest produce.

“I’m sure you know that the sex ratio among the tribal population in our state is significantly better than the overall picture in the country. This means that a girl child is not as unwelcome in a tribal family as she is elsewhere.”

I nodded. I’d seen tribal women work alongside their men in fields and construction sites as equal partners. No doubt they enjoyed a better status in their society than their caste Hindu counterparts.

“Hmm. But if you look at the female literacy rate, it is very low among the tribes. And the dropout rate is also very high.”

“That,” I said, “is mostly because all adult members of the family go out to work, and it is the girl who runs the household and even looks after her younger siblings.”

“Exactly!” Amitava exclaimed. “And there’s no anganwadi centre to take care of the small kids. In this region, most parents remain away from home during the entire paddy season.That’s why we set up the day boarding for kids.”

The other big menace, he said, was malaria. It had been stalking the villages here since work on the power plant and the large-scale felling of trees began. Occasionally a fever would turn fatal, but more often it caught its victims in a mild and relentless grip. A child would remain down for one or two weeks, and when she’d return to school, she wouldn’t be able to catch up. There would be no literate adult at home to assist her, no facility for remedial coaching in school. On top of that, there’d be insult and punishment from teachers who were usually high-caste Hindus. The result: dropouts.

“A few chloroquine tablets and a little awareness can alter this picture. But the anganwadi centre, even if it’s there, won’t stock them, and the awareness campaign is a joke. They paint health-centre walls with dos-and-don’ts about malaria, written in Bangla. Not that English or any other language would have made any difference.”

“Okay, so that explains the crèche and the dispensary. But tell me, why are you collecting forest produce from the villagers?” I asked.

Amitava looked into my face and flashed an impish smile. “Come,” he said, “let me show you.”

Inside the tin-roofed store, three village women were bottling pieces of dried amla. Pellets of lac were heaped on palm-leaf mats.

“Do you know the concept of opportunity cost?” he asked me and, before I could respond, explained it. “Even if you make education completely free, there are hidden costs that poor parents have to bear when they send a child to school. Take, for instance, the money a girl can earn for her family if she’s sent to town to work as a domestic help. Here we are trying to meet a part of the opportunity cost in our own small way.”

They collected the minor forest produce only from those villagers who sent their children to the Vidyashram. Processed and bottled, the products were marketed through a cooperative society based in Purulia town. Nabin was in charge of that department. There were also other workers who managed the crèche and ran a kitchen. With three teachers, including Amitava, there were twelve staff members. Seven of them were local village women.

I met them in the evening. Inside an open shed, we sat in a circle around a kerosene lamp on a huge palm-leaf mat. An informal meeting, accompanied by hot tea and muri, was held daily at this hour to take stock of the day’s work, update account books, discuss the routine problems and their solutions.

This evening, they talked about the low yield and poor quality of the lac. Since stone-crushing had started at the plant site, dust particles were precipitating around the trunks that had lac deposited on them.This had adversely affected production. It was the same story with honey: air and noise pollution were driving away the honeybee colonies from the forests.They went on talking as the chorus of cicadas rose in the surrounding forest.

I tried to follow the drift of their conversation, but the tough uphill trek I had undertaken earlier in the day was turning my limbs heavy as wood. A haze was slowly spreading over my mind. As the darkness thickened and the cicadas grew shriller, I watched the circle of animated faces around the wick lamp beginning to disintegrate.

They soon melted away in ones and twos down the forest paths leading into the villages. Only Amitava, Nabin, the cook, and a tall, sturdy woman with a pockmarked face remained. She served us dinner.

“Her name is Savitri Munda,” Amitava whispered to me. “I’ll tell you her story.”

Savitri, it seemed, was walking on padded feet. She never spoke a word.

Excerpted with permission from Field Notes from a Waterborne Land: Bengal Beyond the Bhadralok, Parimal Bhattacharya, HarperCollins India.