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Extraordinary Indians: Ravi Gulati

Last updated on: November 5, 2009 14:11 IST

Image: Ravi Gulati with some students at his home-cum-school
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar A Ganesh Nadar
Ravi Gulati left a corporate job and took to teaching children of drivers, barbers and maids near his home in New Delhi's Khan Market. Today, in his unusual classroom every student is a teacher and every teacher a student.

"I don't expect the kids to pay me back but pay it forward," says the man who has turned his home into a learning centre for the poor. A Ganesh Nadar continues our series on Extraordinary Indians.

In the midst of New Delhi's trendy shops in the bustling Khan Market lies an unexpected oasis of service. The address 13, Khan Market is not a store, but a doorway to a place where children of various ages chat quietly among themselves. Ask them who is in charge and they reply in unison: "Ravi bhaiya."

Ravi bhaiya sits in a room on the second floor. He looks less than 40, is fair, tall and very soft spoken. When he speaks, he does so forcefully and with passionate conviction.

"I have not made any sacrifice, I am not doing anyone a favour. I am doing what I want to do, what I like to do," says Ravi Gulati. This aptly sums up his life because what he does has benefited scores of children in the capital.

After obtaining a post graduate degree in business management, Ravi worked in the corporate sector for eight months. The job did not provide him the satisfaction he sought, so he quit to explore what he really wanted to do with his life.

Ravi actually wanted to work in a village, but stayed on in the city because two poor children needed tuitions from him. While he taught them he realised what he was doing was equally important as what he would have done in rural India. Moreover, he liked teaching children.

Soon he was teaching the children of barbers, electricians, maids, drivers and the number grew to 20 students, thus laying the foundation for Manzil.

In 1996, he, along with his mother and a family friend Dr Geeta Chopra, founded Manzil. Ravi's mother Indira had been working with mentally challenged children for 30 years.

The youngest child in Manzil is 7 years old; the oldest is 28. Apart from the nominal charges Manzil takes for the computer classes, there is no other fee.

Back in the classroom, Ravi explains a mathematical equation to a student who insisted that he already knew it. "Okay, then you explain it to the class," says Ravi which is another way of life in Manzil. "Here, every student is a teacher," he adds.

'Our students are taught to question'

Image: Every student is a teacher and every teacher a student
13, Khan Market is Ravi Gulati's home, but he has turned it into a learning centre for poor children. Through his organisation Manzil, he conducts basic computer classes for children and young people who mostly live in the servant's quarters surrounding the upmarket Khan Market.

The classes last 45 days or so and cost Rs 50. This enables children to apply for jobs that require a basic knowledge of computers.

Many students also come here to improve their communication skills in English, the lack of which becomes a handicap while looking for employment. Manzil tries to bridge this gap by conducting English speaking classes.

"If our English classes help our students find jobs, fine with us. If our computer classes help students get jobs, again fine with us, but that is not our main aim," emphasises Ravi.

"Our students are taught to question," he adds. "Not doing that will make you a rebel without a cause, but questioning to know choices and make that choice thoughtfully is wisdom. This cannot be taught, or learnt from others. You have to experience it yourself. You have to find it yourself."

Manzil's entire programme is run by students. 'Teaching is the best way to learn' is its motto.

"I firmly believe the present education system does not necessarily benefit the student and in fact often harms him/her," says Ravi. "True education comes from a space where you discuss in a spirit of fearless inquiry and thus gain knowledge and experience. There is no barrier between the taught and the teacher. There is a dialogue that helps both."

'We should all have choices'

Image: A Manzil class
Manzil has two aims which it tries to fulfill with every student. One is to help the students earn a livelihood and the other is to help them see that whatever they choose to do should have a positive effect on society.

"The Hindu scriptures -- the Vedas -- have perhaps the highest ideals and our society today is perhaps the lowest in practicing it. We are the possibly the most corrupt society with the highest possible ideals across any culture anywhere in the world," says Ravi.

"We talk about the Vedas and principles that we never practice," he adds. "Living it right is the whole experiment."

Ravi encourages his students to do what gives them fulfillment which most often might not necessarily bring them the highest price in the 'job market.'

"We encourage them to act in such a manner that they add a positive value to society," he says.

There are 150 students in Manzil. Shalu came at the age of 13; ten years later, she is a teacher at Manzil. She joined Manzil when she was in Class 7; she is now in the final year of college.

"I learnt to teach here, to speak the truth, how to interact with others, how to handle people, learnt all this by myself," says Shalu. "No one taught me to teach. Even the fact that I was scolding my students too much was pointed out by my peers and not Ravi bhaiya. Today I give my students the same opportunity, time and space that he gave me then."

Ravi, who gave up a promising corporate job to pursue his calling, makes a distinction between doing a job that only makes you happy and a job that benefits society as well.

"You may be creative and employed in the ad world which creates non existent desires. Ads reinforce a consumerist mindset and, in my view, is not helping society that needs to consume less, not more given the reality of serious global environmental problems."

Students are encouraged to take charge of their learning

Image: Manzil students sing for rediff
Some of the students who come to 13, Khan Market attend regular school; there are others who don't. In one English class, a mother and son attends class together.

Since all the students are encouraged to teach, they teach music, puppetry, drama, painting, dancing, craft, candle making etc. The teachers are not paid any salary.

Students are encouraged to take charge of their own learning. Ravi quotes Eklavya who learnt archery in spite of Dronacharya refusing to teach him, thus championing the thirst for knowledge, wielding the tools of initiative and creativity to blast away a new path if one finds the regular one obstructed.

Ravi and his family largely sustain Manzil themselves while some friends also help. Once in a while they are 'discovered' by some organisation and get some institutional funding. Mainly, Manzil is supported by individuals who care.

Manzil also has a branch in Kotla, a slum area in Delhi.

At times Ravi says he feels satisfied and sometimes not. "I love it when my students do social work, or go out of their way to help others. No one needs to pay me back, but do pay it forward."

Ravi Gulati can be contacted at: 91-11-2461-8513, 3292-5597. Web site: