SIX-YEAR-OLD AVANIKA has no typical day. She has a fondness for cooking and cleaning house, a fondness that her parents encourage. Avanika’s grandmother died recently but while she was around Avanika had her share in caretaking. She reads, draws, hangs out with the adults and children who frequent her home and the NGO that her parents run in Udaipur. She can identify a dozen medicinal herbs and knows how to make basic herbal mixtures for a cold and cough. Avanika speaks three languages, reads two and has never been to school. As things stand, she will probably never go to school.

Avanika is one among hundreds of children whose parents have chosen homeschooling as the best form of education the country can offer. But within the spectrum of homeschooling Avanika’s parents occupy a radical end. Vidhi and Manish Jain have spent their adult lives working as consultants in the developmental sector. They are looking for land to become full-time farmers. Unlike many home-schooling families who insist on a certain number of study hours and follow at least the ghost of a formal syllabus, Vidhi and Manish do not believe in structuring Avanika’s education in any way. “We don’t think of ourselves as home schooling parents. We are very, very against the whole culture of schooling.” “If Avanika wants to do something, she knows which adult she needs to seek out. If she wants to go swimming in the lake there is someone, if she wants to work in the garden there’s someone else. A lot of opportunities unfold if you give it a chance.

For Avanika’s parents, homeschooling was a decision that grew out of a largescale rejection of a consumerist lifestyle and a belief that formal schooling is irrelevant to people’s lives. Every decision to homeschool seems to come out of a completely different set of imperatives. On the trail of homeschooling parents, one hears of gifted children, dyslexic children, parents who compare their children’s schooling unfavourably with their own, parents determined to protect their children from the traumas they had in school, religious and secular parents.

“Regular schools seemed to not give enough attention to children and alternative schools gave perhaps a little too much,” Sangeeta Raj says, a deadpan reference to her own part-time job in an alternative school in Bangalore. Her husband, Satish Kumar, is a designer. Together they are homeschooling two children, 10-yearold Shalom and sixyear- old Eshaan, but say they have no violent objection to schools. “We all went to regular schools and didn’t turn out too badly,” she says. “My only ambition for the kids is to ensure that they don’t turn into self-centred brats,”

For Arun Elassery and Kanti Ratna the choice of homeschooling came from their desire for adventure and a fully conscious life. It has far surpassed any desire for the ‘good life’ that their own education could have given them. Arun grew up in Delhi, went to IIT Kharagpur and married Kanti who is also an software engineer. They have experimented with life in cities, small towns, villages, farming and in Auroville. Currently the family lives in Delhi, Arun has a 9-to-5 job and they seem sure that this too is transient.

THEIR THREE CHILDREN Aditi, Srikant and Dinkar each have sketchbooks filled with drawings of trains and aeroplanes and railway maps. In their young lives they have moved house so many times (Kolkata, Bangalore, Trissur, Kuttipuram, Kolkata again, Bangalore again and now Delhi) that change has been their only constant. Of the three, 13-year old Aditi is the only one who has ever been to school. While living in Kolkata, Aditi’s parents had a concern so fundamental that it almost seems laughable. Aditi’s schedule while in primary school did not allow her parents to ensure her eating as well as they would have liked. “She left very early in the morning so she couldn’t eat before she left. Then she would often not eat what I packed for her. Then she would come back hungry and upset and tired. It troubled us that at a stage when children’s bodies are growing we pay so little attention to nutrition,” says Kanti. In Class IV they took Aditi out of school to ‘give her a break.’ Aditi has never been sent back.

Wherever they are, Aditi and her two brothers begin their day with yoga. After breakfast they do a few hours of studying with their parents, usually with Kanti. Kanti likes the current CBSE textbooks and spends around an hour with each of the children working ondifferent subjects. She keeps a close eye to ensure that the children have healthy diets and exercise. Wherever they live the children are immersed in music, dance and martial arts lessons.

The idea of parents who choose not to send their children to school is at odds with a country obsessed with formal schooling. One of the most common questions homeschooling parents are asked is about a future without school-leaving certificates. Answers vary widely. Some parents already have clear plans. Since Kanti and Arun intend to have their children write the National Open School exams, the children’s annual schedule is a rough approximation of that of their school going peers. Sangeeta and Satish feel assured of their children’s academic competence but for now are not interested in board or entrance exams.

Others like Vidhi believe that the biggest gift they could give their child is zero engagement with the world of board exams. “If Avanika grows up and says she is interested in becoming a doctor we will send her to spend time with our friends who are medical doctors, with herbalists, with all kinds of practitioners, then she can decide whether she really wants to. Most children who say they want to become doctors have no clue what the profession entails. They are just parroting that line,” says Vidhi.

FOR MANY PARENTS, Manish and Vidhi’s response to this question is bound to cause consternation. It goes against two deeply-ingrained beliefs. One, that someone who has not had formal schooling can even attempt highly competitive examinations. The other, that young people have world and time enough, to contemplate what they really want. It is fairly common to hear parents worrying frantically about their children (who are waiting to re-attempt a college entrance exam) ‘losing a year.’ And here are parents who are suggesting that children have years to decide what they want to do.

Vidhi believes that the future of the country lies entirely in people who don’t go to school. By taking her child out of the race for greater wealth, she believes, she is doing her bit for the nation. But, she argues, that time to contemplate is not the privilege of the well-off. Before Avanika was born, Vidhi worked in a campaign going from rural household to household in Rajasthan urging parents to send their children to school. Parents’ complaints about school rang painfully true. Parents said to her that their children in local schools no longer had anything in common with them; did not like the food cooked at home, often would not speak the same dialect as the parents and certainly did not work in the fields anymore. “Farming families who know us have been very responsive to the idea of homeschooling. It makes sense to them that school is only a part of their children’s lives. The rest of the time they can work with the family or apprentice in a trade,” says Vidhi

Homeschooling is near-impossible without the full participation of both parents and often, the extended family. It absolutely needs parents who have more than a dim recollection of school. Homeschooling is ideal for educated parents willing to expend elbowgrease and time in research and lesson plan design. Both Sangeeta and Chetana Keni, mother of 9-year-old Aniket say that parents are in greater danger of being indisciplined than children. “I find that if we are only doing reading for a few days then Shalom will eventually want to go back to doing Math. In school there is little onus on the child to take responsibility for her education. In homeschooling you will find children driving education themselves. I hear from other parents that their children will not study if parents don’t sit with them throughout. But I can easily assign Eshaan and Shalom independent work,” says Sangeeta.

As many home-schooling parents will tell you, they had no intention of replicating school at home. A couple of hours of serious work is enough to ensure considerable headway. Parents who tutor their children make up for their lack of formal training with an excellent understanding of their children’s rhythms. Kanti’s children prefer to sit on the floor to study so she is happy to sprawl on the floor as well. Chetana’s son Aniket was a highly gifted child who did badly in school. Aniket today will happily advise a homeschooling neophyte, “Make sure to finish study before allowing your child to play.”

“Aamir Khan saved my life,” Keni laughs. “After Taare Zameen Par I had something to show people when I explained Aniket’s situation.” Chetana, who left a high-flying IT career in Bangalore, does hours of research to find pedagogical methods which suit Aniket. However, Chetana says homeschooling is easier on parents that regular schools. “I don’t have to kill myself getting Aniket to school at the crack of dawn and doing all those projects and his homework,” she says. “Homeschooling requires parents to relax.” Often it is strangers who find it embarrassingly necessary to either compensate for the perceived neglect or to test the child.

While some homeschooling families embrace all things alternative with pattern- book perfection, 53-year-old Anita Loganathan in Bangalore, chose homeschooling because of her disenchantment with alternative schooling. When her son Manu was 12, Anita says, his school which does not believe in rewards or punishment, asked her to stop him from playing competitive sports. Mother and son balked because Manu was passionate about tennis and one of the best players in the circuit. Negotiations ended with Anita pulling Manu out of school. Now 21, he’s in an American university on a tennis scholarship.

Anita says that as one of the earliest homeschooling mothers in Bangalore she had few resources. On her own, she settled on arranging a bunch of tutors who agreed to teach Manu between tennis practice. One tutor insisted that he get tested to prove that he did not have a learning disability.

AFTER MANU, Anita says, several tennis-mad children in Bangalore have been home-schooled happily but he had a difficult time. “If I had to do it again I probably wouldn’t. My poor fellow was really lonely. He really wanted to be with his friends,” says Anita. This leads to the second most common question about home-schooling: social skills. But most home-schooled children are comfortable with adults and non-competitive with other children. Assured of their parents’ attention and time, they are neither clingy nor insecure. Arun jokes that Thrissur heaved a sigh of relief when his noisy, affable brood left town. Aditi, his remarkably unjaded teenaged daughter, says, “I don’t miss school and I’ve always had many friends.”

Though six-year-old Eshaan has never displayed any interest in school Shalom remembers what school was like. She likes the pageantry of school life and even uniforms but is also familiar with the horror stories she hears from her friends about school. “Two years ago I thought I wanted to go to school. My parents took me to a school but then I realised what I really wanted was company.” Her parents thought it was hilarious when she said she wanted to celebrate Annual Day. But they were quick to move house to give Shalom a neighbourhood full of children.

Anita mentions a new phenomenon, parents who homeschool becayse they want their children to do the IGCSE syllabus but can’t afford international schools. Kanti’s father, a retired government official, “Who can afford school fees these days? And after paying all that money and the incidental expenses you don’t even get a decent education.” He has come to approve whole-heartedly of the education which keeps his three grandchildren happy and friendly.

One hears rumours of parents who have taken their children out of school because they wanted Vedic education or Scripture classes. Creationists are polarising figures, caricatures creating empathy, hatred and disbelief in equal measure. It is difficult to associate Dr SP Mathew’s polite, brisk voice on the phone with fundamentalist beliefs. Dr Mathew and wife Dr Vinita Mathew are homeschooling their children. They run a small hospital in Mumbai and do not believe in evolution. A few years ago they were utterly convinced by a sermon about the need for parents to take a greater role in education. They took their elder daughter Grace out of school and Vinita underwent a short teachers’ training course with a Christian curriculum. Now the two older children are being taught a mixture of lessons from the ICSE, CBSE and Christian curriculum.

“I wish I had had this kind of faith when I was in medical college,” says Dr Samuel. “I would had greater pleasure in everything I was learning. The human body, every cell is a miracle. And that richness is what I want my children to know.” His wife says, “At home we are able to protect them from unnecessary influences such as the media.” But will homeschooling make it difficult for them to mingle with children of other faiths? The parents insist tha t the children are sent to play with children in the neighbourhood everyday and also encouraged to learn sports. “We don’t want them to look down on other people. We just want them to understand God’s role,” says Dr Samuel. But what will their daughter write in a biology exam? “She is being taught about evolution so she can write exams. But she will know what we believe as well. Exams are just for passing,” says Vinita.

As true a statement about formal schooling as any.