As I woke up that morning I was determined to have a good day. I rummaged through my bag and fished out a Snickers’ bar that I had bought at the local shop. “Strange place,” I muttered to myself. It was impossible to find bread, instant noodles or even toothpaste of a recognisable brand in Lamayuru but the shop was well stocked with Snickers. And thank God for that! Autumn had set in Ladakh. And Lamayuru was colder than most places I had been to. I needed the chocolate to keep me warm.
There would be no breakfast. At least not for me. In the dining room there would be deep fried puris to be had with jam, which the students washed down with copious amount of saccharine milk tea. My mind wandered to this very day, a year before. When breakfast was buttery croissants and freshly brewed Italian coffee while pouring over the writings of James Herriot in my favourite bakery in Pondicherry. And here I was, one year on, dreading the prospect of being offered sugary tea as soon as I walked into the dining room. And sure enough Lama Tharchen was standing at the door with a mug full of tea for me. “Good morning”, he smiled at me and offered me the tea. “This tea has so much sugar,” I thought to myself, “that if he ever offers it to a diabetic he could be tried for attempt to murder.” For some reason everyone thought that I preferred this over-sweet, milky tea over the local butter tea. I hated it. And I was determined not to let my birthday start on a bad note. I refused the tea point blank and instead sat down with some butter tea and Tsampa, and pretended, like I had been pretending for a week now, that this was wholesome breakfast.
I was half way into my volunteering stint in the Lamayuru Gonpa School and it was as good a time as any to admit none of it had gone as planned. When I was first offered the opportunity to come and teach the children in the monastery I was overjoyed. Education has been the one cause that has been closest to my heart and I knew from my previous visit to Ladakh how sparse the facilities here are. Over a period of a couple of months I designed a workshop on story telling which I thought would allow the children to express themselves and at the same time sharpen their language skills. Abhigya, who has worked with over 50 schools in Ladakh and who knows each school like the back of her hand, had warned me that Lamayuru was a difficult school to teach at. She told me not every lesson might go as planned and I would have to improvise. But I had a contingency plan and I was sure I could cope.
And so it was that on a cold Sunday morning that I took the rickety local bus, packed with locals, from Leh and arrived at Lamyuru after a 5 hour journey. The Lamayuru monastery is on top of a hill and as I climbed the steep gradient, a little boy appeared around the bend. His name was Tsering Namgyal and he studied in the third standard at the Gonpa School. Tsering offered to carry my bag. I told him he was too small to carry a bag that heavy. He insisted and in spite of being refused again, he took it from my hands and began climbing wit it. I implored him to put it down he wouldn’t listen. So I picked the little Tsering up, along with the bag, and began to carry them both to the monastery! Tsering laughed and finally handed the bag over to me.
The first day too began on an encouraging note. As starter, the students were supposed to introduce themselves – only they were not allowed to say the truth. They had to lie about everything, right from their name to what their ambition in life was. Everyone giggled as Konchok Padma proclaimed he was actually a robot from the future and as Tsewang Gyatso insisted that he had grown up in a forest à la Mowgli. The idea behind this exercise was to let the children give vent to their imagination and come up with amusing stories. The ice was instantly broken and how!
The next morning there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find an apologetic Lama Tharchen at my door. “Sorry sir,” he began, “but the children are off to Khaltsi today.” He informed me there was a Puja in Khaltsi and the children were needed to go there to assist the monks with the prayers. “But what about their classes?” I asked. Lama Tharchen told me there would be no school that day, they would only be back by evening.
And this, I had begun to realize, was the problem at the Lamayuru Gonpa School. The education of the children was secondary to their monastery duties. The students rose early in the morning and devoted 3 hours to learning and reciting holy text. Then, some of them had cleaning and cooking duties as a result of which they missed classes on a regular basis. In a festival week some assisted monks in making colourful butter idols which are worshipped and then left to decay to symbolise the transitory nature of our world. Or on a day like this, when there was a Puja taking place, the Lama would simply announce a holiday and the children would have to spend the entire day at a Temple.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around the village. The Lamayuru monastery is one of the oldest in Ladakh and has an interesting story behind it. Legend has it that the place where the monastery now stands was once upon a time a lake. The great Nimagon prayed to the water spirits and the lake mysteriously drained. A monastery emerged in the shape of a Swastika. Later, in the 10th century, Naropa arrived here to meditate in a cave. The cave can still be seen, and is a part of the monastery complex.
With legends like this, and stories about how they could hear the shelling across the mountain during the Kargil war, and how real their fears were of the Pakistan Army marching into Lamayuru, Sonam Gyaphel, the ever smiling owner of Moonland Hotel, kept me entertained. I had met Sonam just a day before and he was warm and friendly and was always keen to talk. Since there were no classes I had walked into his hotel for a cup of tea and had ended up spending most of the afternoon there. In the evening, I made my way up the monastery, hoping to meet the children and ask them about their day. Instead, I saw Phunchok, the cook, alone in the kitchen. I asked him about the children and he coolly informed me that the Puja would take longer and the children were to stay back in Khaltsi for one more day.
So it was only after a couple of days of holiday that I could start teaching again. Unlike the first class, I was soon to discover that there was a huge gap between the activities and lessons I had planned for the children and their grasp of English language. Obviously, the students were hardly to be blamed. With their education being only secondary to their monastery duties, this was to be expected. Also, the Lamas who taught them were themselves not very good at English so there was no way the students would be. After a few daunting classes I tore up my lesson plans. Abhigya was right, I would have to improvise. Over the next three days I tried many different approaches but failed to really communicate with the children. In the beginning of the week, I had despaired that two weeks of teaching was very little time to make a significant contribution to these students’ lives. But a week into it, I had begun to question if I was even making even any difference at all and whether I was actually a complete waste of their time.
Thus I had woken up on my birthday bereft of ideas and dreading taking another class. While I stood at the highest point of the monastery and gazed at the village sprawled out below I saw two familiar figures approach. I was not alone in my predicament. Gabriel and Lauren, an American couple, had been teaching the children for about two weeks now. They too had found the going tough. “No luck buddy,” Gabriel said as he saw me. “They still don’t have stamps,” Lauren sighed. They had just been to the local post office which had run out of stamps and had been expecting new ones from Leh for over a month now. I thought of the unposted letter in my room. Yet another reminder how distant from civilization Lamayuru could sometimes feel. The would-be recipient would have to wait.
Later, the three of us discussed our respective morning class as we made our way to the dining room. For some reason the children, usually the first to dash off to the dining room when the lunch bell was sounded, had decided to stay back in class and finish some work. Gabriel and Lauren had a half day and they set off to help their host at her farm. I was not very keen on eating alone on my birthday and quickly gulped a portion of thukpa. It was towards the end of my solitary meal that I began to notice the children giggling and slipping into the dining room one by one. Soon, Lama Tharchen came in and in an unusually authoritative voice asked me to follow him. I got up and did as I was told. All the time the children were trailing us, trying to keep their giggles to themselves.
Lama Tharchen was taking me to the classroom and when I entered it after him I saw a sight that will warm my heart for many years to come. The children had, each one of them, made a birthday card out of colourful craft paper and stuck it on the board. Each card was personalised with a drawing, of a dragon, of the monastery, of a football, of a bird etc. and each saying ‘Happy Birthday’. It was amazing how each card misspelt ‘happy’ and ‘birthday’, both, in innovative and different ways! Nevertheless, this sight was the best gift a teacher could have asked for!
Sensing perhaps that I was trying too hard Lama Tharchen told me, “Sir, let us not study today. We can all read books or something. I will also sit down and read with all of you.” I nodded.
Abhigya founded Avalokitesvara Trust in 2011 and since its inception, set up reading rooms with books in English, Hindi, Tibetan etc. to encourage the joy of reading in these remote areas of Ladakh. The trust has supported the children of Lamayuru as well as 50 other schools. There was a wooden bookshelf in a corner of the classroom with about 250 beautifully handpicked books and the young monks here often come to read or browse through their curated selection of picture books.
Everyone took out their favourite books and settled down to read. I sat next to the shy Rigzen Chospel who was having difficulty reading a book. It was Dr.Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, a book I was particularly fond of. I asked him if I could read with him and in reply, he moved the book closer to me. The Cat in the Hat is a very funny book, where the cat implores two well-behaved kids to stop behaving themselves and have some fun. I thought it would be fun to do different voices for the different characters and thus I gave a playful Italian accent to the mischievous Cat, a French accent to the kids, and a grumpy, snobbish English twist to the voice of the pet fish. Soon enough Rigzen and I were in splits as we followed the antics of the cat. The illustrations helped too. Two of the Konchoks who were sitting nearby (there were five Konchoks in all, in a group of 15 students) wondered what we were up to. I and Rigzen had to begin the story all over again. By the time we were done, almost everybody had gathered around our small group. I asked if they would like me to read another Dr. Seuss story. “Yes,” all of them quipped enthusiastically. So, Horton hears a Who followed. Followed by The Grinch who stole the Christmas. Followed by If I ran a Zoo. Followed by Green Eggs and a Ham (which was such a big hit we read it thrice and then a few more time over the course of the next week!) Before the afternoon was over, we had read and laughed over every single Dr.Seuss book we had. It was perhaps the most satisfying birthday I had. We had learnt to have fun. And even if we were not going to end up learning a great deal over the next week at least we were going to enjoy our time together!
We were still laughing over Green eggs and Ham as we hiked to the dining room. Lama Tharchen was standing at the door. “Good evening sir. Since it’s your birthday here is something special for you,” He offered me a huge mug of the dreaded milk tea! I couldn’t bring myself to refuse it. It was still an overdose of sugar. But it was also the best tea I have ever had.
The bonhomie in the class grew in the week that followed. Apart from reading books, we discovered singing. “Puff the magic dragon” was a particular favourite. It helped that I had printed out the lyrics of the song before leaving Bombay. The children loved to read it, while singing along and on some days our class began to resemble a karaoke club!
Gabriel and Lauren too had made a lot of progress with the kids. They had worked tirelessly for two weeks on a small essay they had made them write “When the Rinpoche came….” (Rinpoche which means the ‘precious one’, is a term given to a reincarnate lama) where each kid described what duties they were assigned when the Rinpoche visited Lamayuru monastery. They helped the children describe their day and the children made little sketches of various activities and soon enough everyone in class had a little personalised booklet describing, and illustrating what they did on the day the Rinpoche came.
So happy were we with the kids that we decided, one Sunday, to take them on a picnic. Tsewang Gyatso, one of the students, is from the Wanla, a village on the other side of the hill, and he often walks from Lamayuru to Wanla to meet his grandparents. That day, the entire class took to the road with him. Being particular about our responsibilities as teachers, Gabriel, Lauren and I decided to divide ourselves with one heading the line, one in the middle and one behind the last student. We did a head count in the beginning and set off.
We crossed a mountain, spotting many chortens (prayer flags) on our way. The children sang Ladakhi songs, interspersed with bursts of “Puff the magic dragon”! We crossed a dry riverbed. After about a couple of hours of an uphill hike, the teachers began to tire. “Only a little more now”, the children kept encouraging us. We had abandoned our policy of being at different points in the line and were decidedly at the end, the three slow-pokes of the group. While we were on the verge of exhaustion, the children kept hopping across rocks and boulders as if it was a walk in the park. Some stayed behind to help us across treacherous passages and occasionally one of the leaders would come back to do a head count and make sure all the three teachers were safe!
The roles of the classroom had reversed. The children were now guiding us. As I let them help me, I wondered how quick we are to judge and condemn. I had not lost a moment’s time in deciding their English was pathetic. I had never paused to consider that perhaps there is a classroom outside of this classroom with a subject I did not excel. And the patience with which the children now persisted with a weak student was a lesson in humility for me.
As the days passed, I was acutely aware of my time at the monastery coming to an end. One night I stayed back in the dining room after dinner. I wanted to have some fun with the kids. To pull their legs I begun to tell them about the different flavours of ice cream I have had in Bombay. “But have you had seabuckthorn ice cream?” Thinles asked me, “My father has a whole factory of it!” I called his bluff. Not to be outdone, I asked them if they had ever tasted Pani-puri. The children were clueless. “Yes, yes,” one of the Konchoks said, (he had been to Pune), “It is like a hollow eggshell and they fill it up with some awful syrup… Cheeeeee.” The children all laughed at me. “How about a dosa?” I asked, “Has anyone had a dosa?” The children shook their head. I told them it is my favourite food. “My favourite is Pizza!” Konchok announced. “Mine too! Mine too!“ Everyone else joined in. “Really! Where did you eat a pizza?” I asked. “I have never had it,” Konchok said, “but I have seen it in movies. And it is my favourite because it looks so yummy.” The other children agreed.
I kept thinking about what Konchok said that night. Something about it was so innocent, so touching, so heart breaking. The next day, I told them that I would leave for Leh in a couple of days but if any of them could come to Leh I would definitely take them out for pizza. The children were very excited. They asked me if I could talk to Lama Tharchen and ask him if they could all go in the monastery jeep. I did. Predictably, Lama Tharchen said no and a morose air hung over the class for the whole day.
I had only two days left and I wondered how I would ever be able to say goodbye to the kids I had grown so close to. As it turned out I never did. Lama Tharchen knocked on my door that morning and informed me that the children have gone for a Puja. I knew instinctively that they would not be back before I left.
I somehow dragged myself to Hotel Moonland where Sonam tried his best to cheer me up. His hotel is one of the best in Lamayuru and caters to a lot of western clientele. I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. I asked him if they ever made pizzas at the hotel. He said they did. I told him how the children at the monastery had never tasted pizza. I would be gone before they came back, but could he, if I paid him, make pizzas for them someday? “Of course!” said Sonam and he even told me that there would be no charge for it. I insisted he let me pay. It was something I wanted to do for them. I asked him to do me one more favour, this time for free.
There were only Lama Tharchen, Lama Gyaltsan and Sonam at the bus stop as I took the bus back to Leh. Before I boarded the bus, I looked up one last time at the Gompa, hoping somehow the children would appear at the entrance to bid one final goodbye. No one did.
Only a week had passed since I had returned to Bombay. To be uprooted from the tranquillity of the mountains is in itself a terrible shock, but to be then stuck in the din and dirt of Bombay is a crueller one. Between traffic jam and whatsapp chats our lives are suddenly lost. Hence, I cursed when my phone buzzed again that morning. There were some more messages. I looked at the sender’s name – Sonam Gyaphel. I opened the photos. Sonam had kept his word. He had invited the children over one evening and baked pizzas for them! As I had requested he had clicked pictures of the five Konchoks, three Tsewangs and the rest of the gang tasting their first pizzas and sent them to me!!
I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. What is learning if not the discovery of a new idea? Be it a story, song or a new, exotic sounding dish? What is learning if not new experiences? I learnt a lot of things from the kids – but the most important lesson learnt was to do away with preconceived notions and lofty ideas of education. To travel without baggage (but always with postage stamps!)