Things happen when man and mountains meet
It began with unfinished business.
My last affair with Ladakh was short lived when the finishing line of that incomplete trip turned a friendship sour. Two years later, I got a second chance to visit the land of high passes by a vehicle called Avalokitesvara Trust, with some pending distances to be covered on the map, and some journeys to be made inwards by following the inner compass.
You forget how much you can give when there are no takers for your learnings, experiences, stories and love. Like those unsent emails saved in the drafts folder. I was there to teach little monks in a monastery school, and my preparation was exactly how I used to study for my school exams. Starting late which leaves you unsure with last minute anxiety.
I reached the school and sensed being a foreign body to those little monks. 26 in total, ranging from class 1 to 5. I decided to park that lesson planning module, and for the next two days I mostly listened to them, talked a little, and we laughed a lot when someone farted in the classroom. It came from the fact that I’m a kind of person who takes some time, and sometimes a whole lot of time to open up with people. Thanks to friends at Cartoon Network for providing two cartons full of games and stories which helped me break the ice.
“Why are you here?”, asking me in walks the Bodhi language teacher.
“That’s one of the biggest questions of philosophy”, I tried to ignore him.
“Why have you come here?”, he rephrased.
“As you know, to teach these kids”, I sent it back straight.
“But, why here?”, the question, like a tennis ball, was again in my court.
Before I could answer, he asked again “Where are you from?”
“Chakradharpur. It’s a small town in Jharkhand and I work in Mumbai”, I replied.
“Less privileged kids even there need education. So, why here?”, he repeated.
After a pause I broke my silence, “There is a selfish reason. I live in a city where being stuck is the new vacation. Stuck on that song looping in your head, stuck in traffic, stuck in jobs, between jobs, stuck at ideas or having no idea, stuck in EMIs, stuck in-and-out of relationships and so on. This is not an escape from that stuckness. It’s about navigating that stuckness. I can’t afford to buy a house there with rates as high as Rs 17000 per sq. ft. And I don’t want to. So I climbed up to an altitude of 17000 ft. instead. As a volunteer, I have the privilege of staying here for a longer duration. Where you’re not in the human race but a human being. In return, I can teach these kids with whatever little I know.”
“Ain’t you missing something? People are receptive here. And that makes the difference”, he said after hearing me patiently.
He further added, “Try teaching underprivileged kids in your hometown or in Mumbai and sooner or later some people will stop you from doing so.”
I recalled having met an Indo-Canadian girl some time back who was making a documentary on a school for slum kids in Dharavi and she had told me how the founder of that NGO was threatened by the goons to shut it.
“You will know it.”, the Bodhi teacher interrupted my thoughts and smiled as if there is more to this than meets the eye.
I started with Dolch Word List. It’s a list of 220 frequently used english words that even a child with learning disability can easily recognize. My objective was to make the kids familiar with those words; the lowest common denominator.
I had collected some original stories written by a few other copywriter friends using those limited Dolch words. I married those stories with Origami and so “Storigami” was born, the next in my to-teach list. This exercise was meant to make reading enjoyable for the kids. Having a library is one thing. Cultivating a habit of reading in childhood is another. Also, if you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right. When they made a paper piano, I let them play music on a piano app on my mobile phone.
Something commonly available and as easily ignored is a newspaper. It has plenty of words. But what if you are asked to keep the words you want and blackout the rest? What remains is called “Newspaper Blackout”. The objective of this exercise was to help those kids understand sentence formation and improve their writing skills. The kids painted the newspaper-canvas with black and each one of them turned out to be a piece of art, still hung on the walls of their classrooms.
Long ago I had submitted an idea to a client, a notebook brand. It was about writing a story using Google auto-suggestions. As you type, Google shows you words and phrases in the drop down list. Writing a story based on those words. But, the client didn’t buy it. It always remained in the back of my mind and I wanted to vent it out. Again, I chose newspaper as medium for the next exercise, “Once Upon a Time”. Instructions were simple, cut the words from the newspapers and paste it on a cardboard to complete the story. Words formed sentences and sentences formed a story. The tale was waiting to be told.
The next in my to-do list was “Say The Same Thing”. It’s a vocabulary building exercise where 2 players start with random words each, and keep on saying words common to both, until they utter the same word.
A: Cup B: Sky (two random words)
A: Water (cup & sky both hold water) B: Blue (blue cup, blue sky)
A: Sea B: Sea (blue water is sea)
Did the kids understand at all? They picked up slowly and then found God.
By now I was clocking a simple life. Waking up at 6:30 am. Breakfast at 8 am. 9:30 – 10 am, school prayer which still echoes in my head at times. 10 am – 3 pm classes, includes lunch break in between at 1 pm. 3:30 pm – 5 pm, watching the wild horses graze on the great Indus river bank. Being isolated, freezing those moments of silence into notes and poetry for myself. Unlike, writing for a target audience whom you’ve never met to sell that McDonald’s burger. 6:30 pm calls for dinner. Helping the boys with homework till 8:30 pm and then sliding into my sleeping bag.
A week later I went to Thiksey which is about 22 km from Leh and it was too late an evening to return. I tried to hitchhike for a long time but in vain. Finally, a taxi came to my rescue. While making a conversation I discovered the taxi driver was an uncle of a class 5th boy in the school I was volunteering. He dropped me at Leh and I opened my wallet to pay the fare.
“I can’t. You’re teaching my kid”, he refused.
I insisted, “Please, it’s your bread and butter”.
“It’s okay”, he said and left.
I remembered Bothi teacher’s words.
I believe women are the utmost creative between the two genders with their ability to create new life and shape it later. While a man finds the joy when his brainchild sees light of the day. Being into advertising profession you strive for your ideas to get that respect and the recognition it deserves. And many a times you attend funerals in your mind when the loneliness of an idea kills it. It was not about that 10 Rupee fare he refused to take. It was about the respect and the recognition he gave back.
When I shared this incident with my pen friend she wrote back, “We carry our world around us and one day you become a foreigner in your own hometown, and an unknown place becomes your home.”
I remembered my last semester in college when almost everyone in the batch was having a job offer or two, and I was not getting through the campus interviews. A professor stood by me back then. I wrote him a postcard saying I was in his shoes, and thanked him again for taking me home, cooking for me and feeding me each time I failed.
During my stay in the school, I noticed they burn down abandoned plastic bottles and remembered Ladakhis are known to conserve. To remind them of the same I taught the kids how to make a recycle broom out of those thrown bottles. It was nothing less than Harry Potter’s magical broomstick.
When I last went to Ladakh I was a different man. Arrogant, ruthless, unforgiving and impulsive. I remember the day I reached. While looking for an accommodation I knocked the gate of a guest house. There was no response for a moment. I was about to leave and on that tick of the clock a woman, the owner of the guest house opened the door. She apologized for the delay, but I had made up my mind by then. I refused to stay there and just left.
This time, after two days of arrival and staying in that homely guest house, it suddenly looked so familiar. Same lane. Similar gate. “Is it the same guest house? And the same lady?”, I tried to stitch the pieces of my memory. I asked her about the past incident. But, she failed to recollect anything. My instincts were telling me it’s the same person. But I was not sure then, and I am not yet sure about it. I told her, “Let’s do one thing, I apologize to you for that rude behaviour assuming it was you, and you forgive me as if you’re her”.
The last exercise I carried out in the school was “Found Object Assemblage”. It’s an outdoor activity, for a change where I asked the little monks to find whatever they could and then make something out of it. This is what they made after collecting a pair of worn out shoes, a scruffy tyre, a crushed coke can and more. We were struggling with how to fix the bottle caps as eyes and one of them brings out the chewing gum from his mouth and says, “sir, stick with it”. And we burst into laughter.
Initially I was bit apprehensive about their hygiene, but later learned that many of them come from poor and broken families. They even share sweaters. Few of them haven’t been to their home for past two years. This school has become their home. When they were watching an animated film on the projector I was watching them having a good laugh.
And finally the moment knocked on the door to exchange “julleys”. Did I get more than I gave back? Perhaps, I didn’t keep a count. Not even the total expenditure of the trip.
On my way back, as I heard the announcement “the plane has safely landed”, in my mind I quickly ran a slideshow of all the pictures clicked.”Welcome to Mumbai, sir.” a pretty air hostess greeted. In my head the school bell rang and I hummed that Pink Floyd song, “Welcome my son, Welcome to the machine”.