June Mendez | Opening Doorz Editorial | April 19, 2017
Manish and Vidhi Jain did what most of us would not dare to… they chucked away a comfortable, set lifestyle and embraced life! June Mendez meets this enterprising family who didn’t believe in the American Dream anymore!
Many aspire to get into the big Ivy League colleges of the US, like Harvard, Yale or Brown University but only a few succeed year after year. Many desire to be on Wall Street working with the big names in Finance but again only a few are hired, and still others dream of getting a plum assignment with the UN with a posting in Paris or New York, but wait an eternity for such an opportunity to knock! So what happens when a person has all the above? Wouldn’t he be content? Settled?
Surprisingly though for Manish Jain this was not the case.
With a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University and a B.A. in Economics, International Development and Political Philosophy from Brown University, a posting in Paris working for UNESCO and a dream job with Morgan Stanley, Manish decided to leave it all behind to go back to the grassroots and relearn the fundamentals of life from his grandparents in Udaipur.
“After having worked with various global institutes of power who are supposedly responsible for being instruments of positive change, I had reached the brink of total despair and disillusionment. I had reached a point where I personally didn’t believe in the American dream any more. I realized that there was a fundamental flaw in the dominant system—and began to question the very purpose of our existence on this planet. I also saw there was a resistance to new ideas from so many who could affect a positive change in the world,” reveals Manish.
Manish was critical about the education system but was unsure how to do anything practical about creating an alternative to it. He began to introspect and question his own capabilities and realized that there was so much more he needed to learn about being self-reliant, and in order to do that he needed to walk out of the system.
Taking the step was easy but the anxiety and worry from the extended family made it challenging. From comments about throwing away his career and future, to a fall-out with a very close friend and colleague at Morgan Stanley, the people around did not make it easy.
However, Manish had the support of his wife Vidhi who strongly shared his beliefs. Like Manish, Vidhi too was restless in the mainstream. After having worked with various NGOs and the Spastic Society of India, she too began to question the ‘one size fits all’ education that was being thrust on everyone. It was during this quest for answers that she met Manish and there was an instant connect.
“Manish and I had two pre conditions before we got married,” says Vidhi, adding, “One was that we would never send our child or children to school, and two, was that we would stay in Rajasthan and do something here rather than going abroad. We believe that every element that helps us exist is interconnected and should all form a part of learning, like farming, cooking, building, waste management, etc. We both quit our high-profile jobs a month before we got married and set out to follow our hearts.”
After travelling for a while, they deliberately chose to settle in Udaipur to be close to their village grandparents from whom their greatest learning would happen, and also because they knew they could be more effective in a smaller city where it would be easier to reach out to the larger community. They envisioned Udaipur as a Learning City, and have pioneered various initiatives to utilize and regenerate the city spaces to enable new forms of learning which help relationships to flourish and ensure learning happens at all levels. Along with a close friend from Karachi, they founded Shikshantar—the peoples’ institute for rethinking education and development.
“Since we had decided not to send our child to school we needed to create a community for ourselves as we truly believed that it takes a village to raise a child. We started Shikshantar in 1998, an intergenerational space for learning where people from any background or age group are welcome to learn what they can. Through Shikshantar we want to bring back the belief that there can be many, many different streams of learning and people can create their own alternative,” says Manish.
Shikshantar has had a very positive impact on their fifteen-year-old daughter Kanku. The exposure to people from various backgrounds and different age groups, and the freedom to explore and learn with no restrictions has opened her mind to so many avenues and shaped her into a very compassionate, social person who is comfortable interacting with anyone. Many other alternatives have since emerged, like The Learning Societies, Swaraj University, Families Learning Together, Creativity Adda, Walk Out, Walk On, to name a few.
The Motivation and hope for the future
“We are having lots of fun learning new things almost every day, meeting new people and pioneering new paths. We believe if one’s movement is not fun, it becomes dark and in turn casts a shadow on others. It is very important for a movement to be able to laugh at itself so that one can work on the bigger flaws,” they chorus in unison.
Together, Manish and Vidhi have carved a niche in an alternate lifestyle and thinking. Their ideas have influenced many more people to think about and follow an alternate path to learning and living which is evident from the growing number of participants at the Learning Societies Unconference. Their hope for the future is to create more discussions about Swaraj—to empower people to see things differently, to live in greater harmony for the greater good of humanity and all life on the planet.
(Figuratively speaking, June Mendez is a juggler who adeptly tries to maintain a balance between managing her home, writing and educating her three homeschoolers and other children who often seek her guidance. Her ultimate goal is to see her children and the other children she guides, become better citizens of the world.)