Originally posted on Vishnu’s personal blog, and shared with his permission.
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Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community School. A place in the sky: two hours of travel from Tawang right on the border of Bhutan and just about 25 kilometers from the border of Tibet and China! The entire school children, staff and all the visiting volunteers were lined up to receive me and my host Vasudha Wanchoo , the head of the administration at the community who was returning from the U.S. after two months. Lama Lobsang Phuntsok was right in front of the line to receive me. Many silk scarves and flowers and beautiful hugs from the children of all shapes and sizes made my fatigue of my seven-day journey disappear in no time. I was there on top of the mountain surrounded by higher mountains and a lovely community whose warmth was instantly overwhelming. A cup of tea and a guided tour by Lama Lobsang Phuntsok around the campus set the tone of my entire trip and I knew that the trip to the far away land was not going to be a waste.
[singlepic id=1920 w=300 h=225 float=right]When I woke up the next day in my room and opened the curtains of the window, I saw the mountains of my dreams, the mountains I have been struggling to paint in my sketch books all these years! I could not believe it as I stood there with a sense of dismay and wonder. Dreams come true, do they? They do some day; I knew it at that moment. Very soon children were all around me wishing me Good Morning as I was temporarily put up in a teacher’s quarters and Lama Lobsang came apologizing asking me if the children woke me up too early. He did not know how wonderful it was to be embraced by so many loving children and repeatedly asked about all the film stars I may have met and seen in Mumbai and I knew that’s all they knew about film making: film stars!
[singlepic id=1919 w=300 h=225 float=right]As I slowly got acclimatized physically to the location and while secretly hiding my fears about my fitness I got to know the wonderful institution of Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community School. ‘Jhamtse’ a Tibetan word means Love and Compassion. A dream come true for Lama Lobsang! Lama Lobsang belonged to that region and having lived a life of poverty and deprivation he had resolved that one day he would do something for the poor children of the region. And during his stay in the USA he gave shape to his dream which finally took concrete form just six years ago. And what I saw was far beyond my imagination. I had not imagined that the place I was going to in a far remote corner of the country would be an up to date, well organized institution for the orphaned and underprivileged children of the region. Well constructed dormitories, well equipped class rooms and dedicated teachers in that breathtakingly beautiful unspoiled surroundings: I would have not believed it had I not been physically present there myself. Well appointed kitchen and a mess with wash basins with bottles of liquid soaps and most of all clean toilets and bathrooms. A sight which one does not very often get to see in a public place in India!
[singlepic id=1918 w=300 h=225 float=right]The atmosphere there was very relaxed. While I hesitantly started to conduct my Cinema Workshop for the children of Class 7th and 8th I realised that the children there, 82 in all, were not as remote as they seemed, from the day to day realities of the world and very soon they came on to my wavelength leaving behind their persistent enquiries about the film stars which I had banned after a couple of days into the workshop. Very soon we were into serious orientation about the history of cinema and the methods of film-making. The alternate day screening of some classics I had carried with me opened their eyes in a certain sense, so to say, to the cinema which lay beyond Bollywood and Hollywood which was their routine fare. Hopefully I was on the way to change their mindset about cinema once and for all.
[singlepic id=1925 w=300 h=225 float=right]What a wonderful life: to be hugged by ever loving children every time one passes through the campus. Such bright faces full of smiles and eyes looking for love from every passing soul. All the children in the community come from the surrounding villages of the Monpa tribe barring a few Nepalese children whose parents had settled down in the region. Many children there were orphans, a few belong to single parents and some were just underprivileged. Lama Lobsang Phuntsok himself went around the surrounding villages to admit the children in the school by convincing the parents and guardians that education was of prime importance if progress has to happen in the region. The region, according to some, belonged to a larger Tibet, and the Chinese Govt. continues to call that entire region of Tawang a disputed territory. Some locals still feel a sense of insecurity on that issue and are afraid that one day the Chinese will just march in and take over the disputed territory. [singlepic id=1921 w=300 h=225 float=right]But most people now believe that it is not anymore a realistic scenario in the present context especially because of the large presence of the Indian army in the entire stretch.
One fine day during my workshop I ventured out with my host Vasudha to a Monpa village down in the valley. Going down the slope was easy because there was a newly built kachcha road. Looking at the unspoiled beauty of the place, [singlepic id=1923 w=300 h=225 float=right]frantically taking photographs for eternity and to show them to my family when I get back to what is considered ‘civilization’ to prove that I have been to places an average Indian cannot believe exist was an exhilarating experience. We walked down from a beaten path to the nearest village down in the valley. The houses were made of stone and tin and bamboo roof. Smoke was emitting from the rooftops and I was told that wood fire is always burning in these houses to keep them warm and the smoke-filled houses often created eye ailments in the people there. [singlepic id=1922 w=300 h=225 float=right]We came across a blind old woman who was carrying a small child on her back who was pushing her to keep walking. That made an interesting picture.
The primary occupation of the people living there is agriculture. They cultivate in small terrace fields and mostly grow a type of rice which does not require too much water. The people there look poor but there were signs of progress. We saw a new school coming up nearby and we met a girl in the village who spoke good English and we were told that many children go to nearby schools and some had even studied in Jhamtse Gatsal School Community where I was staying. [singlepic id=1924 w=300 h=225 float=right] I also saw community water taps in the villages; in fact everywhere in Arunachal Pradesh. A mix of old and the new and I wondered how some people live in such places which we cannot imagine not only in India but all over the world, sometimes blissful in their ignorance of the rest of the world! Climbing on the way back was a tough task and I started imagining the last words I would utter before I collapse like “Tell my family that I love them.” Well, I survived all that nonsense to sit here and write this report on my trip. It only reminded me that I was not young any more.
Photographs and Text © Vishnu Mathur.