Of purpose and passion
Aug 30 2013
The unflinching bond of family, courage of voice and the strength of community, takes the revolutionary legacy of a dreamer forward
Jhumki Basu was not blessed with time. Her story reads like a modern Joan of Arc except that the enemy that took her life at the age of 31 lay within. Even as she fought cancer for seven years and faced her impending death in 2008, she continued to make her days count. Jhumki’s revolutionary work around democratising science, training teachers and engaging students, continues to have an impact through the Jhumki Basu Foundation set up by her parents.
No strangers to courage, even her accomplished parents, Dipak and Radha Basu, were wondrous of their daughter’s strong will and determination to forge her own path. I spoke to Dipak Basu, a serial social tech entrepreneur, author and founder of Anudip.org, a non-profit organisation based in India that helps the poor in rural areas and urban slums by creating livelihood opportunities.
Grief-stricken and seeking answers, Basu takes a posthumous voyage into his daughter’s life. He travelled and conducted over a 100 interviews to capture a powerful story of purpose and passion.
His book, Mission to Teach, will make you stop and think about the magnificent human spirit. It is also the story of the unflinching bond of family, courage of voice and the strength of community. It will make you cry as much as it will strive to inspire.
Q. It must have been tremendously painful to retrace Jhumki’s life.
After Jhumki’s death, the outpouring of love and support was overwhelming. I started out to write this book to stay close to her. Initially Radha, my wife, could not speak objectively without breaking down. Gradually, towards the end, I was able to weave my wife’s voice into the book. We both realise that there is so much we need to do and that is why we keep on going.
Q. “A meant failure when A+ was possible.” Can you talk about the influences in her early life and the turning point in her life?
As any parent, we were very proud of our daughter. Whatever she did, she was just the best child we could have. She had a natural ability to excel, a love for teaching and strong sense of social service. My wife is Tamilian and I am a Bengali, we did our engineering in India and came to the US. But we had strong ties to India and we went back in the 80s. Jhumki saw herself as a world child and was surrounded by strong people who became her role models.
It was only after she passed away that I found out that the spark that ignited her mission to teach was her trip to Russia and her work with distressed and destitute teenagers when she was only 18. I visited Russia after her death and met the people who had worked with her. I was startled hearing about the stark, and often dangerous, situations she had put herself to do her thesis.
Q. About 69 per cent of high school children are not prepared for college level science. What is democratic science pedagogy?
Jhumki saw a dramatic increase in the interest in science when there was more engagement instead of theory. Both teachers and students are positioned as powerful and important participants in their own learning and as change agents of a larger global society.
Through engagement, student voice and bringing in environment and cultural context in the materials, science is customised to the students. The chapters present researcher, teacher, and student centred lenses for investigating democratic science education. Reflecting elementary through high school education, both in and out of school, in the US and globally.
Q. She continued her work despite the cancer.
When Jhumki was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 24, we were devastated. But she used her work to combat the pain. She used the time during the painful treatment, waiting at hospitals to continue her work. She knew the inevitable was coming, she had a mission and she accelerated her work.
Her energy levels instead of getting sapped actually increased. In fact, she even ran a triathlon three months before she passed away and continued to work till she died.
Q. The Jhumki Basu Foundation is dedicated to continuing your daughter’s vision.
Everybody said that her work must continue. The foundation came from a series of conference calls with her friends and supporters. We started with trepidation, as my wife and I are techies, not educators. Sci-ed Innovators is a movement that Jhumki started to get inner city kids more interested in science.
The foundation is well supported by the school districts and the government and growing fast. Many of Jhumki’s students are involved in running it. We raise funds, make grants, and manage scholarships. Our recent science fair had over 70 schools participating with over