I live in a big city, New Delhi, which holds the distinction of being among the top ten most populated cities in the world, and I attend a good school. In my school, and almost everywhere I look nowadays, I find people racing, trying to get ahead. Getting ahead no longer means doing your best, it means getting ahead of the pack and staying ahead. My city is a demanding city, it makes your lungs work hard to draw out some oxygen from the enveloping haze; it makes you constantly look over your shoulder to keep yourself safe. It stresses self-preservation in order to get ahead, and in this race we are often too busy to worry about the person next to us, who too is trying to keep pace.
When I visited Ladakh in 2015, I spent a few days in Turtuk. There I taught the eighth grade at the Turtuk Middle School. My class consisted of a lively bunch of boys and girls, readily taking part in the activities I had planned for them. I noticed, however, that there was one boy who seemed out of place. Unlike the others, he didn’t have a volley of curious questions for me and usually just sat in the corner of the classroom, a silent onlooker to my lessons. He, the ‘Quiet One’, was older than the other children, but he never answered my questions nor did he speak up about a topic that interested him. It had taken me time to get the rest of my students to open up to me, but he remained a mystery, closed off, it appeared, to all the alien wisdom I had to offer.
I use chocolate as my magic tool when it comes to teaching classes in Ladakh. Nothing can be a better treat for the children, and no amount of verbal persuasion comes even remotely close to the wonder chocolate does when it comes to getting the children to open up. I remember leaving my bag with the chocolates in class one day, only to came back to find it empty. I couldn’t understand where they had gone, but when I saw the mischievous grin on one other boy’s face, I could guess that it was him, the class clown, who was behind the missing chocolates. This confused me, as I had never encountered an incident like this before. There was something about this boy that I never understood. What surprised me was that this boy hadn’t taken the chocolates just for himself but had shared them with all his classmates. I felt as if his bluster was a cover for a lack of confidence, a discomfort with the unknown. I put away my initial irritation at the incident, and decided to take the bull by the horns.
I was creating a role play based on the Solar System with the class, and I gave the ‘Boy who took the Chocolates’, the main role of the Sun. I could see he was surprised, but he didn’t protest and then much to my delight, he surprised me by taking his role seriously, learning his lines and doing his best. On the day of the role play, it was heartening to see him standing in the center, with the other children circling him, as they played their roles as planets.
After a long time of wondering and observing, I discovered that the ‘Quiet One” had a speech and learning disability, which prevented him from being sent on to the high school in the district. He would sit with the children in this school, therefore, and learn what he could, with the help of the other children.
Flitting from one grade to another, I would find him equally interested in a storytelling session for the sixth grade as he was in making a human body chart with the eighth grade. He stood apart everywhere, yet he fit in too.
I watched him play with the younger children during the lunch break, as I quietly ate my food. Age was no barrier in the classroom or the playground with these children, and they extended helping hands to each other irrespective of whether someone fit into a conventional group or not.
In fact, groups didn’t exist for these children, and the children of this school embodied what Ladakh had taught them, and me – everyone is welcome, everyone is family.
The ‘ammalays’1 and ‘appalays’2 would nurture all children alike, and even the littlest children would extend a helping hand where they could: in the fields, in the kitchen, in the classroom. I watched these children learn, grow, imbibe, and help others around them do the same. The boy who didn’t speak, the ‘Quiet One’, found a voice in the other children, his curiosities and dreams emerging through the dreams and aspirations of the others who helped him.
I come from a city where we are taught self-preservation, but every year I visit a place that teaches me that helping others is so much more important. The saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, and in Ladakh I see an example of how this ideology actually works in practice, better than anywhere else. Every village that aspires to be a town, every town that aspires to be a city, like those in Ladakh, are trying to adopt and emulate the ways of a city, but I think the city too could learn a lot from the village. It’s time for us to find the village in our cities, to help raise our children and to build strong communities.
- Ammalays – Ladakhi for mothers.
- Appalays – Ladakhi for fathers.