Sunday, June 11, 2017


To learn of the sudden passing on of Subbaraju last month, came as a huge shock to me! A brilliant, passionate, gentle and humble soul I must write about.

I first met Subbaraju in the early 2000s during my exploratory travels across India in a community called Timbaktu Collective in Anantapur, AP. It was a time when I was very young in my understanding of 'natural learning'. And that first simple and yet profound conversation with Subba made a lasting impression on me. His fascination for the story of Totto-Chan (which he introduced me to) showed his deep love for freedom. His humility and willingness to engage in simple honest conversations kept drawing me to him since that day. He also introduced me to John Holt and advised me to read them if I wanted to understand children, learning and freedom. Every time I visited Timbaktu after that, I would make sure I had at least one long conversation with him, sharing insights from my own journey thus far.

Subba was born in Tirupati to a poor farmer-turned-daily wage labourer who died when Subba was merely five. He was academically bright and made his way into IIT-Madras purely through merit, and completed his B.Tech in Civil Engineering there. He then went to IIT-Bombay where he completed his PhD in Energy Systems Engineering with a 'Best Thesis' award.

Soon after this, his search for life's meaning and purpose led him to question things and also recognise his love for working with children and working with the soil, plants and trees. Among many things, his search led him to the discovery of two simple and profound books (yes, just like his own personality!) Totto-Chan and The Man who Planted Trees. With whatever money he had, he used to photocopy and distribute them among friends. Along the way, Subba identified and joined the Timbaktu community and began working with the children of families from poverty-stricken villages. An alternative-school was one thing. But his real passion shone through the Children's Centre that he had lovingly created.

“Lots of open area, play equipment (like swings and slides), a library of books, lots of games, simple equipment to try out Science experiments, materials like bamboo and clay, tools to work with and a caring adult to watch over and guide gently: create a space with all these, let the children be and watch what happens. After all these years of experience, I can say that this is all we need for a good place of learning for children.” he always said.

Subba had carefully collected a large numbers of the best children books in both English and Telugu, and knew each story and book intimately. Working with bamboo was another passion of his, because of which so many children have learnt to skillfully make furniture, lamps and other articles of daily use. More than anything, one could see the children there were free and happy, two things Subba held very close to his heart.

Also in his own words: “It is important to keep some time and space for children’s interest in land and animals if agriculture is to gain respectability, if traditional arts, crafts and skills are to get respectability. We want these things to get a respectable position in the minds of the people. We think doing well in the mainstream is very simple, it is just a matter of following certain directions – and one can do very well. On the other hand, what children do [at his learning centre] is way beyond following certain instructions and directions – they create their learning paths.”

During my last visit to Timbaktu two years ago, I got to visit Subba's house for the first time. He had stopped working at the school for various reasons. And with all the time he then had, he had created a stunning edible home garden – clearly one of the densest and best I've ever seen - edible greens, fruit trees and creepers, vegetable plants, cherri tomatoes, passion fruits and numerous other herbs and plants along every possible wall and in every possible corner.

Water-saving Irrigation using bamboo pipes 

Keerai saplings in all kinds of containers on his terrace 
On his terrace while showing us the garden. Seeing beyond his garden 
gives us a glimpse of the completely barren land all around Subba's house 

Here's why I think Subbaraju's story is an extremely important and relevant one for us to know. It is a rags-to-riches story, which redefines “the riches”. After seeing academic success in IIT, one of the Icons of 'Modernity' ' Development' 'Science' 'Progress' or whatever name you want to give it, he neither pursued a life “climbing up the ladder further" by going to the US, etc. (we know the trajectory!) nor did he go back to his village on an ego-trip to “become a saviour - give back to society – build a school – train poor children to qualify for IIT to break free from the shackles of poverty – develop the village, etc.” (we know that trajectory too!) which I think is even more destructive than the former. He took the courage to choose to transcend his own story and create a third path; one of real enquiry into the nature of freedom, Science and Development, arriving at his own meaning and his own plan. An extremely rare story to come by!

The last time we met, when I told Subba “One day, when our little community has its own space, we'd love for you to come and stay with us for a few months and help us set up a lovely place like this!” he gave me a big smile, nodded a big nod and said “Done!” Will now need to work with what he has left behind of himself: memories and inspiration!

An interview of Subbaraju with footages of his children in a Science exhibition - Long & Winding Road / John Dsouza

Techie, tree-lover from Timbaktu - Ajit Ranade

Children's Resource Centre - Sanjeev Ranganathan

Children's Resource Centre - Timbaktu Collective website

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