Birth of a School

The following article appeared in the special edition of The Hilltop celebrating 20th birthday of the school.

The birth of anything has a special significance in life. The moment is special, it cannot be repeated. And so, when the moment lies before us, one pauses, one does not want to rush the occasion. One does not know what lies ahead. There is something secret about the occasion. This is so for something as commonplace as clicking open an unread email (you wonder what might be in it), or cutting open an envelope you have just received from the postman, or opening a book you have just received as a present. No matter how small the occasion is, there is something special about a beginning. The moment cannot be repeated.

So it must have been when the school began, twenty years back, in 1995. At the moment of its creation, no one would have had any inkling of what lay ahead, what experiences, what joys, what adversities, what prevails, what adventures.

Twenty years back...
Twenty years back…

By all accounts it has been an eventful journey since that day – rocky at times (leaking roofs and teacher shortages and all), and glorious in its own way. The old-timers who were around at the start of the journey tell us what an utterly different landscape it presented in those days: a bare hilltop with almost nothing green growing on it, a large plain area at the top of a hill with open unrestricted view in every direction. How different it appears today, with lush vegetation all around us and trees aplenty. It is wonderful that the school has contributed to the greening of this hill. (The old-timers also tell us about the wildlife which could be spotted here, on occasion. This included even a leopard! That certainly must have been extremely exciting, though perhaps scary as well. As recently as 2012, I have seen wild boar on our hill. Sadly, they don’t seem to be around anymore. The newly constructed 11-12 cluster seems to have deflected them from their paths.)

... the Senior Audi when in its younger days
… the Senior Audi when in its younger days

It is difficult to visualise what this region must have looked like before the school came into existence. By an odd coincidence, the dam that we see close by, not far from the tip of Python Hill, came into existence just before the school itself. So this beautiful lake that we see at the base of our hill would simply have not been there, and looking down from Python Hill into the valley far below, one would only have seen a meandering Bhima River. A few months back, in May, some of us went for a walk down to the river, and we crossed over to one of the islands in the middle. (The water level had fallen very low, and large tracts of land had been exposed.) We came across a fascinating sight: the recognisable remains of dwellings which had obviously been abandoned once the waters rose because of the newly constructed dam. The contours of some of the rooms could clearly be seen. In a way, all this archaeology is part of our own history. It was a moving experience for me to look upon the sight.

The birth of the school is a very special event. The must be very few endeavours that humans engage in which are so rich in possibility as starting a school, which hold out so much promise. We can be thankful that we have had the opportunity to be associated with the school in these early years.

– Shailesh Shirali

Campus notes on Natural History – The Wild Banana

A few years ago on a field trip to Singheshwar some teachers had brought back saplings of wild banana (Musa acuminata or Musa salaccensis) and had planted two of the three saplings on the side of the road leading from Jr. Auditorium to the Dining Hall (DH). The saplings survived but would not do much apart from leaving out a few leaf shafts in monsoon and drying up to inconspicuous stumps in the dry season.

This monsoon, one plant surprised many of us by growing plenty of leaf shafts and also a flower bud. The flowering started soon after and following are some observations on the pollination ecology of the plant.

The flower in bloom
The flower in bloom

I have been looking up on the jelly like secretion of the wild banana flower that has been blooming opposite the Senior Audi. The secretion was strange because I had never seen any flower do this with the only exception being the ferns that secrete a watery sweet fluid to attract ants that in turn keep the herbivores at bay.

I found that the jelly like secretion is a nectar concentrate of about 15-20 % sucrose (anyone who tastes it can verify this) and is primarily an adaptation based on its pollinator choice. Turns out that the wild banana prefers vertebrates (bats and birds) to invertebrates (insects) to help with pollination in it’s natural habitat (jungles of South East Asia). This behavior is termed as “Pollinator Syndrome” and “Zoophily” is the term given to vertebrate driven pollination.

The jelly secretion
Close-up of the flower: the jelly like secretion

I was not a little disappointed when I checked one morning, after assembly, to find that ants were on the nectar because one of the reasons to make the nectar viscous and sticky is to discourage insects. On closer examination I realised that only the last set of inflorescence (group flowering) was ant infested as the jelly had begun to dehydrate and ferment (tastes a little like Neera as Amresh put it). The fresh inflorescence and jelly secretion (happens overnight) was untouched by the ants! Nature had contrived to give evidence to confirm the need for the jelly, with a control right beside it and I almost dismissed it!

Bananas do not need pollination to develop fruits. In the absence of other plants nearby it seems they can self-pollinate and give seedless fruits (Parthenocarpy). This process is known as parthenogenesis. All we need to do is hope the fruits develop fully and then cut one open and see if the seeds have developed.

A few days ago I saw a hornet wasp on the banana plant at around 9:00 AM. I wonder if this contradicts the zoophily theory of pollination syndrome.

The jelly can keep out only the insects!
The jelly can keep out only the insects!

– Arun Kumar

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoophily

www.jstor.org/stable/2388300

 

The Journey of the Chandan Quadrangle

The new boys dorms – Chandan and Chinar – were completed a little over a year ago. The accommodation was spacious and the architects had provided for an open quadrangle with courtyard corridors lining the periphery. However, this central space had been used as an ad-hoc construction dump as the dorm was being built up on four sides. Clearing and cleaning up – that usually follows construction – never took place presumably because the builders were stretched for time. We were thus unfortunately saddled with a lovely space filled with all sorts of ugly building rubble.

At the start of this term, the boys of Chandan – 16 in all – expressed a desire to work on this dump and convert it into the sort of space that was originally envisioned for it. As house-parent, I was excited about their proposal. Working collectively towards a common goal would give the boys – a mixed group of class 10, 11 and 12 students – the chance to grow comfortable in each others’ company. They were new to mixed-age dorms and themselves unsure if it were possible to work and live happily together in a dorm such as this one.

And thus, around the end of June, we began work. The mission was to create an aesthetically pleasing central quadrangle, with flower beds on three sides and a vegetable patch on the fourth, surrounded by a central lawn with a grassy mound where the boys imagined themselves basking in the winter sunshine. There were other fanciful plans as well. For instance, Jai of class 12 – full of enthusiasm and energy – visualized creepers and climbers crawling along pergolas and pillars and drew images of artistically designed seating spaces. But voices in the group and also from outside suggested we work in a phased fashion and leave such embellishments for later.

One such voice was Gogate Sir’s – a retired plantation and forestry expert, responsible for growing much of the tree cover here at Sahyadri School. He happened to be visiting in June and helped us draw up a plan of action. We were to first dig up the periphery – two feet wide and three feet deep –then make the flower and vegetable beds by filling up the pits with a uniform mixture of clayey soil and filtered sandy soil, and finally plant seeds and saplings after giving due consideration to their individual requirements for growth and our desires for an aesthetic spread. Work on the lawn – digging up 6 inches of central space, filling it up with a mixture of loamy soil, clayey soil and manure, leveling it after having planned for drainage and then planting the grass – would begin only after the flower beds and vegetable patch were completed.

Digging, digging and digging more
Digging, digging and digging more

And so for the better part of three full months, we divided ourselves into flexible groups of 5 or 6 and worked in three shifts of 45 minutes each. We worked in the mornings, occasionally in the afternoons and almost always in the evenings. We worked when it was sunny, when it was cloudy and sometimes even in the rain. We worked with spades and pick-axes, with rakes and sickles, with trays and wheel-barrows, with sieves and shovels and with our minds and our hands. In the process, we dug out rocks, stones and broken pieces of glass, taps, gloves and concrete slabs, iron rods, leather jackets, bricks of odd shapes and bags of cement. But we did more than dig. We carried. We filled. We planted. We watered. We moved. We mixed. Interestingly, these actions were not restricted to our relationship with the land. They were also apparent in our relationships with each other.

At times we were excited and thrilled at our progress. At other times we were despondent at the seemingly endless work required. A few of us were sometimes tempted to shirk, but when we saw others toil with cheer and good spirit, it brought us guilt and the urge to chip in and compensate. We realized and discovered much in the process – about how difficult and unpredictable life must be for a plant as much as for a farmer, about how it takes hard work and consistent effort and then some luck to grow well, about how we occasionally need to spade back to prevent boundaries from being breached, about how we need to be alert to the growing of weeds that drain health and nutrition from within, about how easy it is to pluck, how difficult it is to bear…. We may have learnt these in the context of gardening, but these were lessons for life.

Our little garden
Our little garden

At last, we did it. Or so it initially seemed. Forty to fifty different species of flowering plants and several vegetable varieties were planted. Most of them have responded well and have flowered and grown. The lawn was also readied with the help of didis working for the gardening department. Shankar dada, Satish dada and some of our parents – from whom we got guidance, tools, resources and lots of good wishes – are happy with the progress and fairly sure that the lawn and garden will be flourishing by the end of the year. We can already see birds and butterflies and ladybugs and frogs. A dusky crag martin couple recently made a nest for their three newborn chicks. It was interesting to see our boys watch the birds so intently. One of them even made a toilet for the little ones with the help of old newspaper!

Almost ready to fly now..
Almost ready to fly now..

But yet we cannot say that the work is done – and not just because we still have pergolas and creepers and seating spaces still to grow! In fact, the work will never be done. For we have only lately realized that our plants need watering every evening and that the weeds periodically have to be dug out and that the space regularly has to be cared for and looked after. The journey doesn’t end. It just moves from one phase to another, before eventually passing on from one generation to the next. At one level, the journey of the Chandan quadrangle is a microcosm of the journey of a school. At another level, it appears to mimic life itself.

– Rishi Jayaram

Colours of Sahyadri

Nature was, for the longest period of time, something I had read about or oohed and aahed over when I went on picnics and vacations. The words to describe the sights would come easily to anyone who has read any travel article—the cerulean blue of the sky, the fluffy clouds that look like cotton candy, dewdrops shining like diamonds on blades of grass, a lake shimmering like a sheet of glass, the brilliant disc of the full moon, the ink-blue night sky dotted with crystals, the stormy grey of a rain-cloud filled sky—I could go on and on…

Little did I imagine that I would one day be living in the midst of all those words I had read! I had first visited Sahyadri towards the end of March. The hillsides were dappled with shades of brown. Green was visible in patches on tree tops and the lake was far, far away looking as though someone had accidentally set a large sheet of glass with jagged edges in the valley.

I came back towards the end of May and the colours had not changed much—the bright blue sky overhead, the Impressionist orange-red glow of the sunsets, the varying shades of grey-blue on the lake’s surface, mirroring the porcelain white clouds.

... the Astachal sky
… the Astachal sky

The monsoon blew into Sahyadri and how the landscape changed! A riot of colours unfurled itself. The greens came first, from the palest yellow-green of baby leaves to the deep, dark rich green of the older ones who had seen a few summers. The blue of the sky changed to iron grey, molten grey and silver grey depending on the whims of the rain gods. The white clouds turned grey and then black with the effort of holding in all the raindrops. Then came the flowers in the deepest of butter yellows to the fieriest of reds, oranges, an artist’s palette of blues and violets, and the babiest of baby pinks, milky whites, and waxy creams. The jagged edges of the glass lake seemed to smoothen themselves out and reflect the spectacle of the grey and black skies.

Bheema at the outset of the Monsoon
Bheema at the outset of the Monsoon

I have been here for four months now and each day has brought fresh enchantment as I watch the myriad shades of sunshine through the leaves, butterflies clad in the colours of the skies, the leaves and the flowers, and make fresh discoveries, such as the pale-green Moon Moth, the fierce-looking Owl Moth, the humongous Atlas Moth.

I now look forward to the next term and seeing the greens fade into yellows and the yellows into browns, the skies regaining their porcelain shimmer, the clouds their candy fluff, and the sunsets their vibrant oranges.

– Seema Srinivas