Most journeys in India involve a fair few sharp intakes of breath for those unfamiliar with the infamous driving: creating three or even four lanes where there is officially two is commonplace and the horn is a means of constant communication. So I was pleasantly surprised to suddenly pull up outside Area 0 at Gocharan after a relatively short and relatively uneventful road trip from Kolkata.
And what a sight to behold! It was like turning up at an elaborate Indian wedding – flowers strewn everywhere, shehnai music blaring out and women milling around in their best saris. I felt somewhat under-dressed for such an occasion.
We were met by Ashish Biswas, Ted Prize labs project manager, looking as proud and slightly apprehensive as any father of the bride. One of the most rewarding parts of this trip has been meeting people in person who I would normally only communicate with via email or phone or Skype, such as Ashish.
Before all the formalities began and the light began to fade, I decided to tackle the challenge set down by Sarah Schoengold at TED – to get a photograph which illustrated the unique honeycomb design of Area 0. The design of this flagship lab was actually the first Sugata sketched out very early on in the project.
I never thought it would be that easy, but I didn’t actually think I would personally be scaling great heights to achieve it. A trip to the roof of the nearby nursing home resulted in a good, but not complete shot (above). So it was off down a dirt track and into the darkness of a bemused local man’s house to climb his many stairs to his roof across the way.
Unfortunately, this view was blocked by some impressively tall coconut trees so my trusty companion had a brainwave and, as we didn’t understand each other’s language, simply beckoned me to follow him up a spiral staircase onto the roof of Area 0 (fortunately I have a good head for heights). When he realised I still couldn’t get the hexagon from there either, he decided to help me up to the actual pinnacle of the roof, much to the bemusement of the gathering crowd below. Don’t anyone let the University know though, as this wasn’t on my risk assessment…
I was somewhat relieved to be safely back on terra firma and for something else to be the focus of attention, namely the opening ceremony, which began with a blessing. Candles are lit and a song is performed to invoke the blessings of the gods and is symbolic of driving away darkness and ignorance to let knowledge spread – a fitting analogy to the School in the Cloud’s ethos.
There followed a speech by Sugata explaining what School in the Cloud meant and how it differed from regular schools and that, used wisely, it can open up new horizons for the children in the future in terms of career paths.
Beautiful dancing and singing and input from B.K. Basu, who heads the NGO that initiated and maintains the Chandrakona School in the Cloud site, followed and then it was time for what everyone had been patiently waiting for – the chance to try out the School in the Cloud.
As there were so many children to get through, they had to be called in batches and a huge crowd formed all around the hexagon’s glass walls to see in while they waited patiently outside. It was such a melee of people and shoes outside that it wasn’t until several hours later that I was able to reunite my left sandal with the right!
Paint and games were popular with the children and, once over their initial shyness, speaking with Katy Milne from Area 6 at Greenfields in Newton Aycliffe, UK over Skype was a real hit. She picked a real challenge for her first appearance as a ‘Granny’ – the noise and learning going on right ‘at the very edge of chaos’ made conversation pretty tricky.
All too soon the last of the children filed out and made for home with their parents and Area 0 became suddenly quiet. As we left, tired but content, the blue neon sign became visible in the darkness, signalling to everyone passing by that Area 0 was here to stay.