Mountains of the mind

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 26.10.14
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Diya Gupta was born and raised in Calcutta, and lived in the city for 21 years. She studied at Modern High School for Girls and Lady Brabourne College, and read for a BA and an MA in English from Jadavpur University before being offered a place at Cambridge University. She then worked in academic publishing.

After living in the UK for 10 years, and enjoying a comfortable and happy life there, Diya felt that things were too easy, even a little staid. There was a whole other world out there that she had “very little experience of”, and doing something more fulfilling than a regular 9-to-5 job appealed to her, as it did to her husband Shaun. So when a British Buddhist monk told them about a volunteering opportunity for six months at Munsel-ling School in Spiti, the couple took a leap of faith and decided to do it.

It wasn’t easy. It meant dismantling their settled lives, leaving well-paid jobs, giving up a beautiful flat and putting all their belongings into storage. It meant not having a home for a while. And initially Diya struggled with giving up so much. But she has no regrets. Every morning the mountains greet her as she wakes up in Spiti. The nights are quiet and peaceful; the walks simply incredible; the people friendly and welcoming; and during the day she hopes that what she is doing helps the children there. “I wouldn’t give it up now for anything,” she declares.

Diya shares with Metro notes from her Spiti diary

Munsel-ling School, Rangrik, Spiti. I never dreamt that this would be my address. Yet here I am, a volunteer and teacher for six months, tucked away 3,600 metres high, up in the remote Himalayas. The nearest cities are Manali and Shimla, both at least a day’s drive away. It is a far cry from the bustle and thronging millions of Calcutta, where I grew up; from the English serenity of Cambridge, where I studied and worked; and from urban, grungy Sheffield where I had moved to for the past three years. The place Spiti reminds me most of is imaginary – Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, the White City, hewn out of rock against a vast mountainous backdrop, where the leading characters play out their destiny.

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, who visits Spiti, might have agreed. “‘Surely the Gods live here’, said Kim… ‘This is no place for men!’” I have lived in Spiti for two months now, and it still seems otherworldly. I wake up every morning to bright sunlight forcing its way through the curtains. The mountains — craggy, barren and brown in the foreground; snow-capped and white in the distance — greet me. And my flat overlooks the school playground of Munsel-ling, teeming with life. With apologies to Kim, this is very much a place for men, and their children.

My husband Shaun and I came to Spiti with the hope of helping these children. Quality education is hard to come by here, and the unforgiving winter months, when the temperature drops to -20 degrees Celcius and Spiti is shrouded in snow, make it difficult to retain teachers. Shaun teaches physics and chemistry, particularly to Classes IX and X, and cooks up experiments in the chemistry laboratory that transform the dry words of the textbook into living, breathing, practical science. I teach English from classes VI to X, especially creative writing and grammar, which the children have found hard and dull in the past. Pronouns and adjectives, modals and auxiliaries aren’t exactly thrilling! So I am finding ways of sneaking grammar into the class without the students noticing, so to speak.

The boys are obsessed with sport, especially cricket and the Indian Premier League. “Which is your favourite team, ma’am?” they kept asking. “Kolkata Knight Riders,” I said finally. “Because I’m from Calcutta and I liked the TV show Knight Rider.” “Ours is the Chennai Super Kings,” they affirmed. “Because they are the best!” Equally valid reasons.

I decided to hold a grammar quiz in class, hoping to get the students competitive in learning their collective and abstract nouns. The boys insisted that their team name be Chennai Super Kings. The next day, however, while being quizzed on singular and plural nouns, they did an about-turn on nomenclature. “We want to rename our team Kolkata Knight Riders,” they said rather coyly.

I gave them a look before changing the name on the blackboard. Was it possible that, with the magical combination of allowing a quiz in class and a cricket-based team name, I had risen in their estimation? And the Kolkata Knight Riders did much better, grammatically speaking, than the Chennai Super Kings. I chose my favourite team well.

While the children’s abundant energy keeps Shaun and me busy, we fill our weekends exploring other parts of this vast and ancient valley. Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti, has only recently opened up to tourism and is rapidly changing. As the weather grows warmer, more visitors — Indian and international — gravitate towards this town with its eclectic mix of small hotels, eateries and general stores. Momos, chowmein and thukpas abound, and the long-awaited German Bakery has recently set up shop, with its coffees and yak’s cheese omelettes. Near the beautiful Sakyagompa, magenta-robed monks go about their business — a familiar sight in traditional Buddhist Spiti.

Shaun and I now know some of the monks well. We are helping Kyegompa with a funding proposal to open a new museum, and were taken on a monks’ tour of Kye with its exquisite thangkas or paintings from Buddhist scriptures, imposing chortens with sacred relics, and compelling, if rather mysterious, manifestations of the Buddha. My favourites are the Avalokitesvara or the Compassionate One — the present-day Dalai Lama is meant to be his reincarnation — and Vajrayogini or Krodikali, the Female Yogi or the Fierce Black Lady.

Kye also bears testimony to hundreds of years of historical connections with Tibet at a time when national borders were immaterial. Many of the thangkas are the result of gift exchanges between monks in Tibet and those in Spiti.

The most enduring image from Kye, in my mind, however, is of two young monks on a motorbike driving to my flat. With their shaved heads and black leather jackets thrown over magenta robes, they were the epitome of monk cool. I also enjoy watching monks play cricket in the school playground — every bit as enthusiastic as the boys.

Munsel-ling thrums with the vibrancy of its 550 students and many visitors from across the world — a French artist, Canadian medical students and engineers, Tibetan charity workers, National Institute of Fashion Technology students. All are discovering Spiti and helping out in the school, much like Shaun and I.

In providing education in English, Munsel-ling — which, in Tibetan, means “the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance” — opens the door for Spiti children to modern life, if they want it. As the glaciers melt and the Spiti river flows fuller and thicker, the valley grows greener every day.

The stars burn clear and bright at night and the moon, a vast and resplendent orb here, lights up the school playground like floodlights over a cricket match. The boys would be cheering.