This is a story about a boy and a girl falling in love—with education and with each other—in rural northern India where marriages are arranged and tribal girls don’t stay in school.
Jhumi Bai and Dhana Lal are members of the Scheduled Tribes in India—a government designation for indigenous populations. With this designation comes marginalization and poverty, conditions that too often translates into little schooling and a life of hard labour, crushing rocks to build roads.
But both children grew up hoping that education would change their lives—together.
Meet Jhumi Bai
She started school at age nine, when the local teacher convinced her father that her education would help the family, even though she was a girl. She was the first female in her family to ever go to school.
By the time Jhumi Bai was in Grade 3, she was arranged to be married to Dhana Lal, who was in Grade 6. Another determined student, their parents decided they would be a good match.
The young couple didn’t talk to each other in class. That wouldn’t have been appropriate in the late ‘70s around rural Rajasthan.
“We used to write each other notes,” says Jhumi Bai, blushing slightly at the memory.
But these were not love notes.
“Do not discontinue your education,” Dhana Lal wrote to his future wife. “If you get well educated, then we can have a good life in the future.”
She wrote back, “You also do not leave your studies.”
By Grade 6, she was the only girl spanning four villages (an entire government Panchayat) to be in school. At 16, she was also the oldest in the class. That year, she got a job at the village health centre using the monthly wage to support her family.
The following year, the government opened more schools to rural areas. They needed teachers. Any female with a Grade 5 education and any male with a Grade 8 education was eligible. Jhumi Bai woke at 4 A.M. to travel to the testing centre from her village. She passed and became a teacher. She wanted her husband to do the same.
Meet Dhana Lal
In boyhood, Dhana Lal swam to school when it rained. The small stream that cut through his path in the dry season became a flowing river during a monsoon. Dhana Lal tucked his clothes into his backpack and flung his bag across the river. Once across, he’d complete the 12-km journey to his classroom.
Dhana Lal was in Grade 9 when Jhumi Bai became a teacher. Although he was interested in business, he thought of all the teachers who had helped him and his wife get an education. He agreed to follow his wife’s plan.
While Dhana Lal prepared for his test, Jhumi Bai started teaching local children in the community of Kalthana, where there was no school. She convinced the authorities to create a primary school for Grades 1 to 5.
When Dhana Lal passed his test, he became the Headmaster and Jhumi Bai taught Hindi. While teaching, they continued with their own education through distance learning. Dhana Lal eventually received a college equivalency and Jhumi Bai reached Grade 12. During this time, they also raised a son and a daughter, eventually sending both to college.
A School Built on Love
Although the infrastructure of the school was very humble—classes were cancelled when it rained because of leaks—they filled it with learning and laughter for close to 25 years. But they hoped to have a school that would one day rival even the private schools in the city, a school that would provide kids from the village the same opportunities to dream big and learn without limits.
In 2013, the transformation started. WE Charity, which had been partnering with villages in Rajasthan since 2008, expanded to include Kalthana. Dhana Lal led the ground breaking for the new classroom. Over the next few years, hundreds of hands from North America and the UK helped build the new school, getting to know the power couple leading the change.
In the summer of 2016, the couple proudly showed off the renovated classroom, outfitted with new desks, toilets (including game-changing stalls for girls) and a new clean water system that featured a hand washing station.
“I dreamed there would be a better school here one day,” Dhana Lal told the crowd gathered to celebrate.
The couple’s love of education and each other had broken down so many barriers.
Then, tragedy struck.
Dhana Lal suffered a heart attack and passed away in October, 2016. He was 50-years-old.
Students, parents, neighbours, and staff of WE Charity mourned the headmaster, who had co-piloted teaching programs in Kalthana, forever changing the landscape of education in the region.
Beyond that triumph, Dhana Lal was a man that believed in every child’s right to an education; he was a husband and partner who never understated the importance of his wife teaching and the value she served as a role model to young girls.
A couple months after Dhana Lal passed away, another new classroom opened at the school. This time, Jhumi Bai watched the celebration with quiet tears running down her face, remembering Dhana Lal’s infectious happiness on such an occasion. Still, she pledged to continue being the best role model and teacher possible—it’s what he would want her to do.
“I always used to think, children from this school should be the best and they should get the best education,” she shares. “That’s why I continue to teach.”
Although her heart is broken, it is through teaching that Jhumi Bai is slowly overcoming her loss. Standing in front of a classroom full of students, she keeps the memory of her beloved Dhana Lal alive.
Wanda O'Brien loves finding out people’s stories and learning from different cultures. A Canadian abroad, she’s worked on four continents.