Teacher’s Incredible Journey of Building an English-Medium School in Remote Sundarbans

“It took me so many years, but I did not give up on my dream,” says Satarupa Majumder, a 47-year-old teacher from Kolkata.

That dream was to take education to one of the remotest areas of the Sundarbans and it was born in 2012 during her first visit to Hingalganj, an island on the Ichamati River at the Indo-Bangladesh border of West Bengal. For nine years now, Satarupa has been running the Swapnopuron Welfare Society (SWS) in Hingalganj.

Swapnopuron, which means “a dream come true” in Bengali, is one of the very first English-medium schools in the heart of Sundarbans. With five centres spread across connected islands, Swapnopuron has impacted over 1700 children since its inception.

Satarupa generously carved out some time for me while juggling meetings in Swapnopuron’s Kolkata office and planning her trip to the Sundarbans for the weekend. Here’s her story of infectious determination, unwavering faith, and tireless hard work.

A Sewing Machine and the Road Trip of a Lifetime:

Hingalganj, an island on the Ichamati River at the Indo-Bangladesh border of West Bengal
Picture for representation only.

It all started with Satarupa’s Toronto-based aunt coming down to India. She had a ritual of making a few donations to help people out during her annual trips. This time around, she asked Satarupa to arrange for a sewing machine to help skill a community of women in the Sundarbans. So Satarupa dug out one of her grandmother’s favourite possessions — a Singer machine that had been uselessly lying around ever since she passed away.

Joining her aunt, she took a 3.5-hour-long ride over 86 km from Kolkata and reached Katakhali village in Hingalganj. The village mainly comprised families of beedi workers, fishermen, a few farmers and daily wage labourers. With the everyday struggles of survival being the main focus for residents of the cyclone-prone region, education had taken a backseat.

Satarupa distinctly remembers seeing kids “who were either playing in the mud or rolling beedis.”

“I couldn’t help but compare those kids to my 7-year-old daughter back home. When in preschool, my daughter had access to things like a toddler gym class, a group of peers, and many privileges. In contrast, I was seeing these kids who might never get a chance even to see a decent playground. Could I do something about it?” she says.

The region has several government schools, but the quality of education was dismal, and kids mostly went there just to receive mid-day meals. As a result, many dropped out and got pulled into child labour in the business of making beedis.

Bikash Biswas, a 35-year-old English teacher and branch coordinator with Swapnopuron, says that the area has over 20 government schools. Still, they lack all the required facilities to give these children a safe, nurturing environment.

A resident of Hingalganj, Bikash has a Masters in English Literature and Diploma in Teachers’ Education. He completed his education in a government school in Hingalganj itself and went to college and university in Hooghly. The difference between his time at school and government schools in the region now, he says, “is the way teachers taught. Twenty years ago, the teachers here were motivated. Today, due to poor facilities, lack of infrastructure, and skewed teacher-student ratios — that dedication has dwindled.”

(Determined to make a difference, Bikash has been a teacher since 2007. Having begun with the same government school where he was a student, he has now been working with Swapnopuron since 2018.)

Upon Satarupa’s arrival in Hingalganj for the first time, few people in the village quickly learnt that she was a teacher. While she had been observing the kids, their parents were observing her. Just before she could leave, they approached and asked her to teach their kids some English.

“I remember casually saying that I would love to come down sometime, but I never really thought I would”, says Satarupa. At the time, she was a middle-school teacher of Economics at a renowned school in Kolkata. On that day in the village, she had a young child back home, a full-time career, a conservative joint family — there was no way she could be back to help.

But, extraordinarily, a few months later, she found herself on a boat ride back to Hingalganj. A firm believer in having a purpose in life, Satarupa says it was the “call of the universe, and she had to answer it.”

TGIF! For the Most Beautiful Reasons:

kids at Satarupa Majumder's Swapnopuron Welfare Society

Every Saturday morning, Satarupa would take the 6:20 am local train to Hasnabad station. From there, a rickshaw ride would take her to the Dasha river bank, followed by a boat ride across the river, and finally an auto-rickshaw ride to Hingalganj. There, she would teach kids till three in the afternoon and make plans for the next week on her way back home.

“I used to do my job at the school five days a week. But I’d always wait for Saturday — a day of all things freedom and happiness. Crossing the river, teaching the kids — it was an adventure for me,” she laughs.

These initial Saturdays involved speaking to parents, counselling those who were not sending their kids to study, gathering kids, and teaching English. In a few months, she had taken eight Katha (0.5 acres) of land on rent using her salary and had set up a makeshift school.

However, getting kids to come regularly was difficult. The area wasn’t easy for her to navigate alone. Though she was never scared or doubtful, not knowing anybody in the region was a hindrance. Thus, one of the first stepping stones for Satarupa came in 2014, when she met a man called Aamir Hussain.

Aamir da, as she refers to him, was a high school teacher in Basirhat, a town located about 30 km away from Hingalganj. Some people told him about “this lady who travels every week to teach kids.” Intrigued, he reached out. Impressed by her dedication, he started supporting and encouraging her. He created space for her to work in the community by helping her speak to residents. And when Satarupa decided to hire the first few teachers to join her school, his wife was one of them.

But fate took a sad turn in 2016 when Aamir da passed away because of a heart attack. It came as a massive shock for Satarupa. Her strong pillar of support for four long years was no longer by her side.

The Moment of Truth and Triumph:

Even in his absence, Aamir da’s faith was always with Satarupa. Slowly, the work she had been doing started taking roots. Since many of the local teachers she hired didn’t have the adequate skills she required, Satarupa arranged for a teacher training programme at the National Institute of Creative Performance in Kolkata. She also used her salary to pay theirs.

“Convincing them to come to Kolkata once every week was a task in itself. I couldn’t have done it without Aamir da’s support. He helped me convince them by speaking to their husbands and families,” she adds.

Starting with 25 kids in Nursery, Lower Kindergarten and Upper Kindergarten classes, Swapnopuron slowly expanded to Grade 4 by 2016. But the moment of truth arrived with the realisation that kids were going back to government schools after Grade 4, where the lack of facilities would eventually take them several steps back.

Satarupa knew she had to set up a high school. “By this time, I had realised that my profession as a teacher in Kolkata alone was not giving me the happiness I sought. So I had to make a concrete decision — either I could continue with my full-time job, or I could set up a high school in Hingalganj.”

No prizes here for guessing – she quit her job, along with a very comfortable salary. But the choice came with hesitations about her family’s reaction. “I came from a strict family. Women needed permission to go so far away from home, all alone, and spend that much time at a strange place.”

Moreover, she had a daughter to look after. Thankfully, her husband Debashish Majumder, a businessman in Kolkata, was highly supportive, and her conviction won everyone else’s support as well.

Now, she had the fuel she needed to dedicate herself solely to her cause. Using her Provident Fund, Satarupa paid the first advance to lease another piece of land in September 2018, on which she built a structure of hay with ten rooms for Classes 5 to 8. In 2021, Swapnopuron expanded to Class 9. Today, the school charges a small fee of Rs. 100-150 per month, which is often waived off for those who can’t afford it.

A Steep Climb Up and Up:

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In 2019, the school grew from 100 to 182 children, and the number kept increasing month on month. Satarupa hired more teachers. Impressed by her work, renowned changemakers in the city joined the organisation as board members. Well-wishers pitched in with donations, and her team started raising retail, institutional and CSR funds.

While following the CBSE curriculum, Swapnopuron focuses on a lot of activity-based learning for primary school. From craft and culture workshops to outdoor activities and storytelling sessions — they focus on the holistic development of children. To conduct such sessions, Satarupa invites experts at regular intervals. They have had people like accomplished storyteller Priyanka Chatterjee and students from Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, join them on the island.

The word about their work spread from home to home. Satarupa and her staff members went door to door, convincing parents to send their children to school every year.

In the process, she observed various issues in the community, which involved everything from men abandoning their wives for multiple marriages to children being married off. She felt, first-hand, the insecurities of women and children and resolved to help them.

Working with the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights, they started conducting several child protection and women empowerment workshops to ensure the schools, families, and society would work together to keep children in classrooms.

Come Cyclones and Viruses; the Dreams Went On:

Swapnopuron was among the few educational organisations in the country that could continue teaching despite COVID-19. Satarupa worked with her team to divide students into groups of those who had smartphones at home and those who didn’t.

They took a few weeks to prepare and then started online classes. Those with no phones received worksheets in their homes. Additionally, they trained mothers in the area to help kids during online classes. To support the families, the team also distributed 13,550 ration kits over ten months.

Just as the battle against COVID was being won, Cyclone Amphan struck and created havoc in the islands in May 2020. Swapnopuron braced itself again. With Satarupa’s encouragement, the team set up six community kitchens and served 76,100 meals over 21 days across Hingalganj and five neighbouring islands. They had to stop classes for a month because of the lack of electricity and phone network.

Hearing about their work, people started approaching the organisation to help — with funds and volunteers. And together, they began rebuilding projects in the Sundarbans, which included rebuilding houses, cleaning ponds, introducing pisciculture and vegetable gardens as means of livelihood, and several other projects supported by individual donors.

It was this work and their strong reputation that helped Swapnopuron draw the local administration’s attention. The administration was amazed to see their progress.

“I have been seeing Swapnopuron’s work not only as an educational institution, but also as an organisation that is helping empower the local community here. From relief work to empowering women, to bridging the gap in online education during COVID-19, they have done impressive work,” says Sukanta Sarkar, Upa-Prodhan, Hingalganj Panchayat.

The administration reached out to her via the Local Panchayat Sabhapati, Archana Mridha, asking if she would set up centres in other parts of the island. “I said we definitely would if they helped us with the places to set up centres. So they did, and today we have been able to set up five new centres in six months,” says Satarupa.

Bikash, who was very closely involved in the relief work, calls it one of the most complex and challenging things Swapnopuron has ever done. “We saw people in the remotest areas lose everything from houses and cattle, to all their belongings, including children’s books. Bainara village was one of them. So it meant a great deal to me when we were able to set up a free coaching centre for 205 kids from Bainara for five months after Amphan, followed by a permanent branch near the village,” he says.

One Challenge, One Student, One Teacher at a Time:

School in Sundarbans

Towards the end of 2020, Satarupa had started hiring teachers and faculty members from Kolkata and other parts of the country. But human resources, like financial resources, is a huge challenge for the organisation. “Convincing teachers to come to a cyclone-prone area is not an easy task. If I had to hire good teachers, I had to make sure they had a proper place to stay in the Sundarbans,” she says. Satarupa now rents a two-bedroom quarter for teachers to use whenever they stay in the area, and Swapnopuron has a total of 16 teachers.

Anupa Dutta, an educator with 20 years of experience, is one of them. She quit her job at a renowned school in Kolkata to work with Satarupa. Her role involves everything from teaching to counselling the teachers and parents.

“I live in Hingalganj for 3-4 days a week. My husband and son are not supporting my decision right now, but I have made up my mind,” she narrates excitedly from the teachers’ quarter while sharing in the same breath that there’s no electricity right now, and she’s sweating in the heat. “When our students are so determined to learn despite all the challenges they face here, why can’t we persevere?”

“Education is Love”

“It’s love,” says Satarupa, “the way every single subject can impact these children.” She tells me about Masoom Birla, the first kid to join her school – who is now in Class 6. Masoom’s childhood was scarred with hardships. Coming from an extremely underprivileged background, he has a sick father and an ailing mother at home. But no matter the circumstances, his will to learn drives him and inspires several teachers. “Masoom was one among the 12 of our students who participated in the Science Olympiad Foundation exam. He won a medal for his performance,” Satarupa shares with pride.

Talking about the impact, Satarupa emphasises depth over numbers. “While we began with a small number of kids, we have now seen an urge among the residents to educate their children. Women, who are running their families as single mothers, turn to us for hope today. They approach our teachers and ask for their kids to be educated. This is a tremendous success. Because unless we can impact the entire community in this way, we will not be able to have a long-term impact on the kids.”

Bikash and Anupa agree with this belief. “Ritika Ghosh, one of my students in Class 1, lost her brother to an accident recently. That little girl was so depressed that she was not able to come to school,” says Bikash, who continued to go to her place to counsel his parents. “I told them that they had lost their son, but their daughter was there. She would fulfil their dreams. I spoke to them till they were convinced to send her to school,” he says, adding how bright a student she is and how much she loves to dance.

Debjani Adhikari is another such student of Class 3. She lost her father in an accident, and her mother works as a beedi worker. “Many of these children are first-generation learners. Seeing these parents trying so hard to help their kids get educated always fills me with pride.”

A Dream Come True

Swapnopuron stands true to its name, not only for the students but for everyone involved.

“This place has taught me that nothing is impossible,” says Anupa. She helps me connect with Ruma Das, a resident of Hingalganj who sends her daughters Moumita and Sushmita to the school.

“Compared to the previous Bengali medium school where my daughters were going, Swapnopuron school has brought a massive change. For me, the biggest change is how they try to talk in English, even at home. English is important for one’s career, and I want my kids to learn,” says Ruma. Being a Naik with the Indian Army, Ruma’s husband is rarely at home. So she manages the house alone while taking care of her in-laws.

Her daughter Moumita, a student of Class 2, one among the thousands for whom these dreams are being woven, chimes in, “I learn English, Environment Studies, Social Studies, Math and Bengali at school, and I really like my school. Why? I like my school because it’s the most intelligent school. It is an English medium school,” she says.

Moumita’s smile is a testament to the fact that though it took many years, Satarupa Majumder never gave up on her dream.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

Author: Aaron Ryan