The classroom is filled with curious stares. The echo of the giggles begins to get louder. Kunzang, 6, the youngest nun enrolled in Timosgam Nunnery School, is busy reciting ‘A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat, D for Giraffe, …, M for Giraffe, …, S for Giraffe…” much to the amusement of the older nuns, waiting for class to begin.
I am here at the Thechen Chosling Nunnery in Tingmosgam for two weeks as a Teaching Volunteer with Avalokitesvara Trust in a bid to engage in conversation, drama and fun with the young nuns and reflect upon issues related to Gender, Body and Sexuality.
After having spent the first week- waking up at the break of dawn to attend morning prayers with the nuns, making some clumsily moulded mokmoks in the kitchen and tripping on Shrek during our movie evenings- the young nuns had warmed up to me by now.
On this sunny Wednesday morning, we are awaiting class to begin. Tsepal, 15, points at the rolls of brown paper strewn on the floor. “Ma’am-ley, kya hain?” (Ma’am, what is this?), the young nun asks, nudging me. “Yeh copy ko cover karne ko laya?” (You brought this to cover our copies?) Dolma provides an explanation.
I tell them that it is a “secret” and they would know soon. Jigmet Teacher uses the broken skipping rope to ring the bell. Young nuns who were so far freely waltzing in and out of the classroom, suddenly begin to seek my permission to enter the room. “Ma’am-ley, may I come in?” they ask, in a robotic tone. School has commenced for the day.
Drawing on our previous day’s session on Body Sculpture, where we used our bodies to form shapes and objects, we begin today’s class on Body Mapping. The young nuns divide themselves into groups of four. I hand out one roll of brown paper to each of the three groups. When I write ‘BODY MAP’ on the whiteboard, Othsal points at the India Map nailed on the wall. “Map?” she asks. I smile, and ask the groups to map the body of one member from their group just like “India has been mapped”.
Amidst the sight and sound of confusion, the groups begin to work. Youton is asked to lie down on the paper with her arms by her side. She breaks into a loud bout of laughter, while her group members ask her to immediately calm down. In the other corner, the young nuns are arguing with eachother on who could become their specimen for an experiment they are grappling to figure out. Eventually, the youngest in the group, Chuskit, is the chosen one. She agrees without much debate.
Thirty minutes after sketching the bodies of the chosen members from each of the groups, we all sit in a circle. I ask the nuns to mark body parts that they believe would answer my questions. They nod in partial agreement.
“Which is the most important body part?”
Eyes. Heart. Stomach. Legs. Hands.
They mark relevant parts and explain their ideas behind this choice. That was easier than we imagined, their relieved smiles suggest.
After a couple of easy questions, I hurl the biggie at them.
“Which body part do you hate? Which part do you want to remove from
your body?” I ask.
There’s a sudden wave of silence. Nobody utters a word. Suddenly, Eiga murmurs a few words in Ladakhi, and her entire group burts into laughter. The laughter epidemic spreads to the others in the room.
For me, their laughter spoke louder than their words.
At once, I knew that it was the dreaded ‘V’ that they were referring to and amusing themselves with. After much prodding, they agree to mark the ‘V’ on the body map. Othsal marks the ‘V’ and almost as if it were a responsiveness to stimuli, rushes out of the room. There’s a lot of chaos in the room as everyone is laughing and finding corners to hide their faces behind. Jigmet Teacher is also giggling away like a school girl herself. Once she manages to compose herself, we ask everyone to form a circle and sit.
And that moment marked the beginning of two pathways: it was the first time the young nuns were to speak on their vaginas and touch upon a topic that was so far discussed in silences, the dreaded ‘M’- Menses. The second pathway was the one I was treading on. As a journalist-turned-researcher, it was a journey I had seldom imagined I would be able to embark on, and well, find meaning in at the end of it.
The three weeks I spent in Ladakh with young and senior nuns was a collection of such beautiful moments. Moments of self-doubt, moments of extreme jubilation, and of happiness I had never really known could exist. It was also a collection of moments of resignation, when I had to co-exist with beg bugs and insects of sizes even my zoology textbook had never mentioned. Having led a very comfortable life back home in the city with my daily groceries reaching home at the end of a phone call, it was a very challenging yet enlightening experience to walk two kilometres downhill and then, uphill to buy milk, chewing gum and biscuits. The fact that I didn’t have any phone network or cable TV magically began to feel normal by the end of Day One.
Till the end of the last day, I was deeply fascinated by their humble efforts to keep me happy. Whether it was about heading straight to the library and spending two hours at a stretch when I had raised my voice at them in class for not “reading enough” or it was about keeping a
packet of Maggi Noodles for me in their private shelf only because I had told them how much I missed eating it at home- their love was unconditional and almost always, overwhelming.
Honestly, the fortnight with the children that I spent both, inside and outside the confines of the classroom and library, has taught me lessons to last me a lifetime. Besides being able to find happiness in the smallest of moments and making mokmoks that became relatively edible, I have also picked up a sentence or two in Ladakhi to keep this journey in the mountains going.