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Anjali Desai And The School Of Butterflies

--Audrey Lin, on Jan 31, 2013

She came to India for a year. Almost a decade later, she’s still there.

Growing up as the daughter of immigrants in Texas, Anjali Desai always felt she was on the receiving end of her parent’s love, support, and sacrifice. From a young age, these gifts from her parents instilled in her a deep desire to go back to India to serve.

Initially, she landed in the country for a one-year Indicorps Fellowship to work on a women empowerment project. Looking back, Anjali laughs, “I remember being really excited about that. And really clueless as to what that really meant. I realized when I got there that it’s a loaded word, and you can’t really empower anybody.”

“You can’t really empower anybody.” It might seem like an odd comment from someone who’s taken part in generosity projects of all sizes—who’s supported streams of volunteers at an NGO that serves the underprivileged, helped spin a pay-it-forward restaurant into motion, assisted marginalized women to earn a living with their stunning fabrics and crafts, published guidebooks for culturally-sensitive travel through Gujarat, and, oh yeah, started a school in the slums and spent the last five and a half years creating a safe and nurturing environment for kids whose lives revolve around cycles of poverty, alcoholism, and gambling.

Whew—just thinking about it all makes me dizzy.

But really. It’s not about all that.

“Empowerment usually means you’re enabling somebody to do something,” she explained. “Like an external process. But everything we need in life is inside of us… When we think that we can empower anybody, I really feel like all we can do is encourage somebody to look inside. And to be there for them as they go through that—as they pull out what they find and work through whatever’s coming up.”

Over the last decade, that’s how she’s come to view service. As Anjali shared with us on the Awakin Call last Saturday, her quiet, gentle, resilient voice seemed to flow from an inner knowing—a strength of heart that manifests as the life she lives.

Humility Lessons from Village Women

When she first arrived, Anjali was one of two Indicorps fellows assigned to work with women in Kachchh. She recalled coming in with the thought: Okay, we’re going to empower these women and they’re going to stand up for themselves.

But as soon as they arrived, they found themselves experiencing otherwise:

“These women were up at the crack of dawn. They were working throughout the entire day, and they still made time to be able to embroider and make these beautiful pieces of art that were so integrated with their own identity. They were amazing mothers and they took care of each other and their neighbors."

After observing all of this, she realized, “There’s really nothing we could teach them. We’re the ones that are going to end up learning in this.”

Looking back, Anjali describes, “That was my first humbling experience—realizing that we can’t do anything for anybody but accept that we’re in something together and learning from each other.”

The Birthday Gift

When fifteen year-old Manisha saw her friend Anjali walking home, she stopped her abruptly.

Didi (sister), when are you going to teach us?” she asked. “I’ve never been to school and I really want to learn. My parents are starting to talk about getting me married off.”

Everyday, on her walk home from volunteering at Manav Sadhna, Anjali passed a slum community. She would often stop to say hello and get to know the children. In these communities, girls are usually married off by sixteen, so Anjali knew that Manisha’s words were true. For awhile, she had been brainstorming ways to help this community, but in that moment, she realized, “There’s really nothing to think about.”



The next day, Anjali and a mentor, Jayeshbhai, went back to that community. It also happened to be her birthday. “And it was funny, because there were just so many blessings to get it started.”

As the two were walking, Manisha’s alcoholic father passed them. Jayeshbhai stopped and said, “Brother, when are you going to stop drinking? See your sister over here? It’s her birthday—what about getting her a gift?”

The man, smiling in his drunken state, replied, “Yes, sure, anything you want!”

“She wants you to stop drinking,” Jayeshbhai responded.

“Okay, okay,” Manisha’s father brushed it off. He then hopped on his bike and rode away. Anjali figured they wouldn’t see him.

The two continued to the slum and informed everyone that they would be coming the next day to start the school. As they made their rounds, everyone was out and about, and Jayeshbhai announced, “Well, it’s didi's birthday! Let’s get ice cream.”

What struck Anjali was that these children are covered in dirt—they have not bathed in days but they are full of smiles. “And the first thing—the first thing—they want to do is offer us bites of their ice cream! Before they even dive in. These kids, who are eating once a day.”

Then, Manisha’s father came back on his bike with a single-serving cake—“the kind of cake you would pick up to nibble on between meals,” which they cut up into twenty pieces for everybody to share—and he offered, “For you, from today, I’m going to stop drinking.”

Lessons from the School

As promised, the day after her birthday, Anjali walked to the slum to gather the children for school. When she got there, the children had forgot that she was coming. So she went from house to house reminding all the parents.

Then, in order to attend school, named Patangyu (“butterfly”) by its students, the children had to shower. She would go from house to house, wait until the children had bathed and gather them up. That day, it took her two hours to get all the kids together to begin to learn. For the next year, it would take her two hours every day to gather the children together.

“It got to the point where they would wait until they saw me coming, and then they would hop in the shower,” Anjali laughed.



As the school rolled into motion, Anjali envisioned it to be a safe space to teach literacy and skills through values. But as the first few days and months unfolded, she realized that another plan was in store. Her students would come in bearing the harsh energy of their environment—family and caste rivalry caused fights to break out every few minutes; threatened by distrust, they clutched their personal lunch bowls, refusing to put them away for lessons; and brief attention spans made them unable to sit for more than five minutes. Beyond that, if a child got in a fight, or was offended by something that was said, he or she would stop coming to school for months at a time.

“Learning was much further down.” Anjali realized. “It would take a few years to get them to a place where they could absorb any sort of literacy education.”

Working with children who reflect so much instability, Anjali found herself feeling the pressures of her insurmountable cause: education in the slums.

So she changed her aim. Instead of focusing on her expectations for literacy, Anjali began to shift her focus towards intention. She realized:

“It’s not so much about transforming the children as it is about transforming myself. So if I can be present, and if I can be all the things that I’m trying to teach them, then in so many ways, that is the most I can give them.”



In a way, it’s a delicate balance of action and renunciation.

“Of course, we’re doing activities and we’re learning; no doubt all the activities are happening, the action is happening. But at the center of it, it’s really about me being present and being non-attached to them enough that I can give them without feeling any of the burdens of whether the fruition is there or not.”

Of the countless lessons that she learns throughout each day, she shared that her biggest realization is in many ways a reflection of the Bhagavad Gita: “You do what you can do, the best that you can do it. And you do it as an offering without expecting anything.”

Today, five and a half years after that memorable birthday launch, several of Anjali’s students have taken on leadership and mentoring roles in the school. One student, Rahul, is the assistant teacher and runs the school when she is away.

Without a set curriculum or any particular objectives, just a simple intention to share what she knows with the children around her, Anjali found herself tapping into a sense of effortlessness. An inner stillness and steady faith that come with the alignment of head, hands, and heart in service.

In such a spirit, when asked at the end of the call, “What can we do to support you?” Anjali tells us simply to spend time with her greatest teachers: children. Wherever we are.