What can be done in 24 hours? – Rajen Shah

As I planned my current business trip, it was clear that any trip to India would always be incomplete without a visit to Nirvana school. The nearest international airport to the school is Chennai, some 150km away; and there is a daily direct flight to the city from London. I arrived in Chennai at 3.30am and in Pondicherry just before 7am.

Pondicherry is a lovely seaside town with a deep French influence. The school is close to the sea; in fact the school has stunning sea views.
The school is led by energetic Mrs Vinodini Samani, affectionately known as “Massi”. She is in her 70s, but her energy and drive is amazing! She is supported by two young headmasters – Elumalai Raj who heads the nursery and primary school, and Ranjit Kumar who heads the high school.

After a breakfast meeting with Elumalai and Ranjit, I headed out to Nirvana school for a packed day filled with various meetings.

After meeting Massi, we had a meeting with all the nursery, primary and high school teachers. As part of this meeting, I asked the teachers for their suggestions on what would help to further improve the school. Some of the suggestions from the teachers included:

1. Consideration of teacher training to recognise students with special educational needs, and provide tools to help them learn better.
2. Consider investing in Tamil to English dictionaries for all high school students.
3. Pairing Nirvana teachers with others from outside to help improve their spoken English and to share ideas on teaching methods.
4. Consider investing in a Science Lab at the Primary school.
5. Further consideration for spoken English training, an area where the teachers and the students still need more resources.

These will be taken into consideration as we plan for 2016.

The school has always been able to attract volunteers from around the world. This time was no different. I met two volunteers who were helping to organise the new high school library, coding up all the books and arranging them by interest.


I also viewed the computer room, which has been redecorated and is operational again after the fire earlier in the year.


I also sat in on a practical adult education tailoring class which was running that day.

Massi is famous amongst volunteers and visitors for her home lunches! Together with the volunteers, I had a scrumptious lunch at her house. It was delightful, and I needed a nap after…but it was not to be…. as I had a meeting with the contractor on our proposed solar power project early in the afternoon. A few years back, we installed solar power in the nursery and primary school to mitigate the impact of frequent power outages, and to make the school’s finances more sustainable over the longer term. At that time, an option of supplying excess solar energy generated back to the grid was not available, and hence we had to also invest in expensive batteries, and also re-wire (at a later stage) the school. Calculating the payback timeline with the same specification was not making economic sense with a timeline over 20 years. However, now we are able to supply back excess power to the grid and hence the design can be made much simpler, and batteries are not required. We went through some potential designs and finalised an option which has a much shorter payback timeline of 10 years, as the cost dropped by half! Watch the space as this gets finalised!

After meeting the solar contractor, I met a teaching consultant who will potentially be joining the school to help out on some of our key projects, including spoken English. We will be running a pilot on this from next month.

I finished off my visit at Nirvana with a pleasant evening dinner meeting with Massi, Elumalai and Ranjit. And next morning, I returned to Chennai and continued on my business trip… A lot can be done in 24 hours!



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