Part 1: “Julley!”
“ Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free… ”
The first two lines from Tagore’s poem was apparently dedicated to a place like SECMOL, it’s just that SECMOL happened after the great poet bid his last goodbye to the known world.
I had gone there to teach kids a language that they are struggling with (or so I thought).
Developing their English was the main purpose of my 21-day volunteering experience in the month of January, 2015.
Why will I let emotions rule this piece of narrative, the one that was supposed to be only a travelogue, before I set off on my journey?
Because (in the words of one of my good friends) – ‘The place owned me’.
Now, at times when I try and look back to remember everything that I had taught them, my thoughts are often disregarded, and eventually won over, by the beautiful tune of ‘Namza Yaari’ (a Ladakhi song) that I end up humming every time I remember SECMOL.
I think even my pet pigeon, Pudding, is also quite pro with the song now. She sits with me through the entire song, as we let music unite two different species in a loving bond.
I learnt more in SECMOL than what I could ever teach anybody, anywhere.
Sustained by the passionate educator and loving guardian of the place, Rebecca Norman, upon being birthed by the determined (and quite famous!) environmentalist, Sonam Angchuk, and his good friends, the place breathes ‘freedom’- a feeling that is indispensable in creating an ideal environment for the fruitful acquisition of knowledge.
The Student’s Educational And Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) has attained global recognition under the supervision of the founders, who are not only dedicated to the cause of education and empowerment, but are also committed to bringing a major change that also, and largely, involves the environment. While one goes visiting remote villages to teach children, the other is often seen ruminating on his ongoing initiative of turning the barren soils of Ladakh into a cultivable region, with the help of artificial glaciers or ‘Ice-stupas’.
SECMOL is all about ‘doing it’ and ‘living it’, rather than ‘reading it’, ‘knowing it’ and ‘numbering it’.
The kids who come to stay there are mostly the teenage students of Ladakh, who have been disappointed in their attempts to clear the State Examinations that is required by the education system in India, in order to proceed with their aspirations of higher education.
The Matriculation Examination (for 10th Standard) is their biggest nightmare. There are also others who have been able to clear that hurdle and have been able to secure seats in local colleges, but are unable to match-up to the academic and communicational excellence that is required by the competitive employment industry today.
SECMOL realizes the importance of these aspirations. But the way their system prepares the kids to overcome the hurdles is what distinguishes them from any other contemporary educational institutions in the country.
SECMOL not only boasts of ‘successful’ people, but also has an exhaustive list of ‘aware’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘human’ people who have been associated with the organization in the guise of staff members, coordinators and volunteers.
A narrative pertaining to SECMOL cannot be called ‘fair’ without some quotes and characteristics of the people who make the place alive.
I doubt that they have even the faintest idea of how much wisdom they possess, so much so that it unconsciously peeks right through their sincere words and kind deeds.
And here’s why and how-
Rinchen, the Campus Manager, who delighted me with some unforgettable conversations, once opined in a grave tone – “Ajanta, at times it is important to block things. Or keep them aside, to make room for new things.”
The 31-year old has sustained her life impeccably, though. With over a decade of experience in passing through the challenging fields of education and career, the sensible and unquestionably inspirational lady now manages the campus.
She has traveled extensively, both within and outside the country, but remains a Ladakhi by heart- simply, yet beautifully, ‘present’.
Kunzang, a teenage student, would often tell me that she wants to become a nurse.
And I would ask, “Why not a doctor?”
And she would say- “Nurse log feel karta hai, unko pata chal jata hai. Woh sabko help kar sakte hai.” (Translation: “Nurses feel, they get to know, they can help everybody.”)
As much as I wanted to tell the girl that even doctors feel and they know, I just could not help but admire the sense of responsibility that she had inculcated in her being, and her life.
She has seen her elder sister, who is also a nurse, helping the sick and needy in remote parts of the cold desert, and at odd times too. Kunzang realizes that a nurse is supposed to attend to those who need her, whenever that may be. This heartfelt realization is something that is not always discussed in medical schools, but I did not have the heart to tell her that.
Angmo, again a student, had passed in her 10th standard examinations, and had come to SECMOL only to ‘learn more’.
She would often say- “Mujhe sirf yaad nai karna, mujhe samjhao! Mujhe sirf marks nai chahiye, mujhe pata karna hai ki yeh kya hai.” (Translation: “I just don’t want to remember things, make me understand. I don’t need only marks in my examinations; I want to ‘know’ this thing for what it is”. )
I suppressed a laugh every time she would say that, as I remembered my school days.
I went to a school where many children would pester the teacher for just one more mark to be added on their papers. Some would rain down on the teacher if there was a miscalculation of marks.
And on the other hand, I have this village girl who knows how difficult it is to compete in the educational realm without the much-coveted ‘marks’, yet her smiling face and inquisitive eyes keep looking up to me till the time I get up on my lazy behind (*ahem), and fetch a mirror to show her how ‘Reflection and Refraction’ (a chapter in her 10th standard Physics book) work.
Binoy, the cook, had not visited his hometown for 7 years.
And all the subdued homesickness and longing for his near and dear ones, are beautifully complemented with words like “Paise ka kya karega, aaj hai kal nahi? Zindagi mein aur bohut kuch hai”.
(“What do I do with money, it’s here today and gone tomorrow. Life has so much more to it than just that”. )
Binoy has been working as a cook for SECMOL for over a decade. The people living there cannot do without his delicious thukpas, dal and veggies. He seldom speaks in his native tongue (Oriya), for he expresses himself better in the language that he learnt there, when the place started to ‘own him’ too.
And he hardly ever expresses his concern about all the land and properties he left behind in his hometown, so that he could cook for the children for so many years.
While rushing for work, the same work that he has been doing for the last 11 years, he’s often heard muttering to himself- “The kids must be really hungry after the ice skating class; I’d better hurry with the stew”.
And I had read so many articles and seen so many videos on ‘Self-motivation’ when I was working with some reputed corporate entities, and they would show us how that will help to improve the ‘management structure of the company’ and ‘aid it’s sustainable growth’;but only Binoy could show me how it’s done for real.
There are many such people in SECMOL who can make a person feel alive with their words, actions and spirit. They are all a part of this story and they will reveal themselves as we turn the pages.
What Did We Do?
-ensuring that the CAMPUS is maintained as ethically and organically as possible,
-engaging in enlightening conversations, workshops, classes and talks arranged by the volunteers, staff members and the democratically-run student’s group,
– making sure that the arid lands of Ladakh do not bother our little potted plants too much,
– hugging each other, smiling at everyone and laughing our guts out on some silly joke;
we also dived into some of the best experiences that one can ever have in their lifetime.
a)Have you ever danced like a maniac when you know, (read: have known all your life) that you’ve got two left feet? And here’s the cherry on top, the songs are in the native tongue of a place you are visiting for the first time!
And my city-bound life had made me ‘an unmovable object’ by the time I found myself in the midst of these people in Phey, Ladakh.
But guess what? All the cynicism, all the reluctance at being too visible, too ‘me’, started to tap-dance their way to the dance floor.
As the hall resonated with the tales of how the pretty girl had such long hair, that the young guy couldn’t help but lose his heart to her… The city-girl, with her shield of inhibitions, lost the battle.
The kids had love and friendship for their weapons, and I could see that nature had given it to them.
So, this time I lost myself to them. And to celebrate my loss, we danced!
b)The much awaited first-snow in the campus
c)Oh, yeah! Music can traverse boundaries.
Pink Floyd, if you read this, just know that you all are being worshiped here in this very chansa (kitchen).
There are two guitars here in this “wood-and-mud” room, and almost every kid knows how to play the SECMOL anthem, “Wish You Were Here”, on the guitar!
And I’ll just let Tsewang Namgyal show you how-
I said it before to the students of SECMOL, and now I can tell everybody else –
“Yang ikha nga skaarma ma maangpo thonngs, naam-e kha chhikpo man pa se khaang skaarma ma maanpo thonngs.
This is the first time I have seen so many stars, both celestial and grounded.
End of Part 1
P. S – Any person who wishes to visit SECMOL, can write an email to Rebecca Norman, at this id – firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, since the campus is subjected to extreme weather conditions, at times, the communication networks suffer; and reciprocation from the campus can get involuntarily delayed. Should that be the case, it is sincerely suggested that the willing visitor be patient, and hope for the best.
Update – As of today, 21st of May, 2017, I have an update from Becky.
The minimum duration of stay for a volunteer is now 28 days, and not three weeks, like it was. Cheers! 🙂