Dr Shiva Balak Misra was only in his early 30s when he made the groundbreaking discovery of a type of fossil that is among the oldest life forms known to exist on earth. At the time, he was a student at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, pursuing his MSc.
The discovery was and continues to be monumental. As Dr Misra told BBC in a 2007 interview, “Before this discovery, it used to be unicellular organisms. But the fossils that I stumbled upon were multi-cellular and established a crucial link in the history of the evolution of plant life.”
Today, this fossil is named after him — Fractofusus misrai, an Ediacaran fossil dating back to over 600 million years ago. While he first discovered it in the year 1967, it took almost 40 years for him to receive the honour.
Spindle-shaped organism with primary and secondary branches and (right) an artist’s 3D reconstruction of Fractofusus misrai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In those four decades, the geologist had already left the scientific community behind. Though he kept in touch with his friends in northern America and regularly contributed to scientific journals, his life’s mission had changed almost entirely.
‘Glory, name, fame…were of little importance to me.’
Dr Misra had always dreamt of pursuing science.
“It was hard to get admission in the subject in those days, and it was a fact that acche bacche (bright children) would pursue the field. I, too, wanted to be among them. I didn’t have the assurance that I would get a good job, but it intrigued me nonetheless,” Dr Misra, now 84, tells The Better India.
Pursuing the field he so loved, however, was only a luxury for him at the time. Growing up in the village of Deora, Uttar Pradesh, he had spent most of his childhood in abject poverty. It was the early 40s, and his village had almost no education facilities, he recalls.
The nearest junior high school was a whopping 12 km away, so the young boy would walk the distance every day to study. “There were no pakka roads, only tracks for bullock carts. If it rained, the fields and tracks would fill up with water,” he says.
Dr Misra belongs to the remote village of Deora in UP (Photo: Flickr, Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya)
After completing class 8, Dr Misra headed to Lucknow to study further. Here, he began pursuing science and supported himself by tutoring other students. After completing his BSc, he found a job with the Oil and Natural Gas Company, where some of his colleagues were applying to study further abroad. He decided he would give it a shot too. In 1966, he landed in Newfoundland to begin pursuing his Master’s.
A year later, while conducting geological mapping for his thesis, he discovered the Ediacaran fossil at a wilderness area named Mistaken Point. The discovery was reported in the British scientific journal – Nature.
“I was the first person to map the area and submit the report,” he says. “After the discovery, the professor who had sent me to Mistaken Point went on sabbatical. The instructor who replaced him was a bit clever. When we submitted my findings to Nature, he put his name before mine on the report. The tradition, however, is that the name of the original worker should come before. There was nothing much I could do at the time.”
Dr Misra’s findings first appeared in the scientific journal Nature (Photo: Flickr)
He submitted an individual paper to the Geological Society of America, which put the discovery on the map. Even as congratulations and commendations poured in from close friends, and the discovery was lauded, his name remained out of the public purview.
Meanwhile, as Dr Misra spent time in Newfoundland, back home, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh were being devastated by famine. Thousands had died and there was a sharp drop in the production of food grains. With a few fellow Indians at the university, he began brainstorming what they could do to help India back up on her feet.
Having had the opportunity to study in Canada, make an important discovery, and in turn contribute immensely to science did not erase his experience of the hardships in the tiny village of Deora. “Promoting rural education was my dream,” he says. “Glory, name, fame…these were of little importance to me.”
In 1970, Dr Misra returned to India. His new aim and life mission were simple — establish a school in his village and change the course of its history.
It has been 50 years since, and the Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya (BGV) has transformed thousands of lives in villages across Lucknow, Barabanki, and Sitapur districts. Set up by the octogenarian and his wife Nirmala Misra on the border of Lucknow and Barabanki, the institute runs nursery to class 12 with the aim to provide quality education to children from low-income families.
Set up by Dr Misra and his wife Nirmala, the school has transformed thousands of lives with quality education (Photo: Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya, Facebook)
Dreams of a revolution
When he first returned to the village and declared that he would build a school, Dr Misra was met with disbelief, he recalls. “People couldn’t believe someone would leave a job in Canada to start a school in a village here.”
Around this time, he married Nirmala, who in no time began taking up his cause as enthusiastically as he did. Their son Neelesh recalls that his father’s only condition before marriage was that his wife must play an equal and important role in setting the school up.
“The journey was equally challenging for my mother,” Neelesh, a journalist and author, and founder of rural media platform Gaon Connection, tells The Better India. “She belonged to an affluent family…came from the city…and landed in a village that had nothing.”
“Humne unke dream ko mann se maana (I accepted Dr Misra’s dream as my own),” says Nirmala, who was a teacher when she got married and is BVG’s principal today. “We wanted to especially encourage girls to study, and generate employment for women in the area.”
Dr S B Misra & Nirmala Misra during the initial years of BVG (Photo: Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya)
At the time, the education of girls in the village was abysmal. “They’d drop out of school after class 4 or 5,” Dr Misra says. “My wife would go from door to door, village to village to pursue parents to send their girls to study. She told them she would take care of their daughters.”
Nirmala recalls, “They would say, ‘Arrey principal sahab, our girls have completed class 5, they can read books, write letters…What will they do by studying?’”
Meanwhile, parents belonging to lower-caste families did not have even a few rupees to put together and send their children to school, Dr Misra notes. “We held some socio-economic programmes like training in sewing to generate employment, and utilised the Central government scheme for a dairy project to help improve their financial condition and send their children to school.”
Today, things look different. He says that girls constitute about 60 per cent of the total number of students at BVG, and almost all children from families belonging to lower castes come to study here. The school also runs programmes for widows, older women, and the unemployed, through entrepreneurship programmes, environment conservation workshops, skill training, and more.
When he had first purchased the land in the 70s, he had done so from his savings. But in a few years, these began running out, and as the school expanded, Dr Misra knew he would need more funds. Alongside, the couple had sons Neelesh and Shailesh and had to put together the money to educate them as well.
The early days of Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya, which Dr Misra set up with his own savings. (Photo: Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya, Facebook)
So he joined Kumaon University as dean and professor of geology, where his two sons studied as well. During this time, Nirmala took over the school’s functioning. The geologist retired from his position in 1999 and rejoined his wife in the efforts. Today, the school runs on government aid and donations from well-wishers.
The real ‘goldmine’
🤼🤼♂️It’s kabbadi time at Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya as it celebrates its golden jubilee. This village school has been the lifelong mission of Dr Shiva B Misra and Nirmala Misra.
Watch this space for more fun events!
https://t.co/HKlsZYIFcf pic.twitter.com/uGpSCWUxlE— Gaon Connection English (@GaonConnectionE) August 6, 2022
Dr Misra says that over the years, the perspective of the villages impacted by BVG has shifted from “any education is good enough” to emphasising quality education.
“Our villages have schools today, but their general standard is not up to the mark. Today, these areas look different from back in my day — we have roads, water, electricity, better financial stability…but education remains lacking.”
In a scenario such as this, BVG does an exemplary job in ensuring education that sustains a bright future for its students. Many here are children and grandchildren of previous graduates. Several pursue dreams perhaps far and beyond what was imagined when the school was first set up. They’ve become graphic designers, media professionals, IPS officers, and more.
Neha Raj, a 16-year-old studying in class 10, comes from a farming family. At BVG, she takes a keen interest in English and Maths. “I love going to school,” she gushes. “It is my dream to be an IPS officer one day. As children, we’ve heard many stories from our parents and grown-ups about the transformation in the village since the school was built. With BVG’s encouragement, girls are being given so many more opportunities to succeed.”
Dr Ashutosh Awasthi, who has been teaching Hindi and Sanskrit at BVG since 2018, says, “You will find talent in every corner of the village. BVG gives this talent a sense of guidance and direction. When I was teaching in the city of Lucknow, children had many opportunities to pursue a bright future. The case is not the same in India’s villages. But the school works hard to give equal opportunities to all. The students interact with professionals, speakers, and experts from across cities in India to gain a wider perspective on life.”
He adds, “Dr Misra’s vision is an inspiration to us. He is always up to the challenge to innovate when needed, to explore new ideas…it’s not just the children who grow. He values teachers, their opinions, and their ideas. He takes everyone along on this journey to create inclusive education, regardless of class and caste barriers. When he first envisioned BVG, it wasn’t just for himself — it was for all of his community.”
Meanwhile, Neelesh says his father’s work influences his own in many ways.
“For my brother and I, the school and the struggles to keep it running were part of growing up,” he says. “I seldom heard my parents have a conversation that did not involve the school. This is their shared love, it binds them.”
“Gaon Connection came from my parents,” he says. “That empathy, that affinity for rural India…it came from their struggles.”
“My mother gave up a lot to help my father in his dream. [During our time at Kumaon University] we spent years living away from her, while she remained in the village to look after the school. She lived without her two sons for BVG. My father assumed the role of two parents. They gave up their savings…her jewellery…everything to set up the institution.”
Neelesh also recalls Dr Misra’s discovery all those decades ago, which led to UNESCO declaring Mistaken Point as a World Heritage Site in 2016.
“I long for my father to find that glory, that respect for his discovery. But he does not seek it. I have observed when my parents are the happiest, and it’s when they are sitting on the verandah of the school, looking out at the children and the result of all their hard work,” he says.
Visiting Mistaken Point? Keep an eye out for “Fractofusus misrai” one of the oldest large fossils ever discovered! pic.twitter.com/bdfDGqbTGl— Env & Climate Change (@ECC_GovNL_) June 1, 2016
For his work, Dr Misra has received the A P J India Volunteer Award and the Laadli Media Award for writing on gender sensitivity. In 2011, he released Dream Chasing, a book that reminisces on his struggles and journey thus far.
He notes, “I look back on my life and wonder how I did not stop even after so many pitfalls and roadblocks. But I kept moving forward…I would call it my life’s biggest achievement.”
He says that in the last 60 years or so, he has taken many big steps that have led him here — leaving Deora to study in Lucknow, and leaving Lucknow to study in Canada.
“After the discovery of the fossil, when I decided to return to India, many colleagues and friends told me I was ‘sitting on a goldmine’. But I knew I had left this ‘goldmine’ behind, that I would only achieve my life’s mission here, back home,” he says.
You can contribute to Dr Misra’s cause by visiting Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya’s website, or click the link here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao; All images courtesy Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya