On November 12, 2016, during the lunch break of Converge 2016, the annual flagship event by Youth Ki Awaaz, I went up to one of the speakers of the day, the Sabbah Haji (Director, Haji Public School) and said, “I would like to volunteer.”
In the following weeks, a couple of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that my life has become after returning from Europe, fit together and I received an email reply from her saying, “Excellent, Rachit. Your application has ticked off all our requirements.” What this meant was that I had succeeded with my plans of evading the Gujarat summer for some quality time with our good old Himalayan Mountains (which, by the way, are one of the youngest fold mountain ranges in the world; I only got to know this while in class teaching Geography).
Now I am back home where monsoons have arrived. A couple of nights back, while struggling with putting together the next two pieces of the puzzle, I felt the longing for that window by the bed that I had stared from for over 90 nights looking at the Chenab Valley sky. I used to stare till late, hoping to take my count of shooting star sightings to enter four digits. So anyway, with a bit of nostalgic heaviness I stood up from my ‘now’ bed, went to my study, opened my drawer and got all the unopened farewell letters from students. And I started reading them one after the other. The messages in them certainly balmed my ego very well, but there was a different kind of gold in them. It was the smell of Breswana, that village at 7,500ft and 4 hours away from any kind of proper motorable road. That’s when I decided to write this piece and reach out to many other people like me digging for worthwhile experiences.
I had reached Jammu early in the morning at 4.30 am on March 24, 2017, and it was almost 6 pm by the time we arrived at the Haji Estate in Breswana Village, Doda District. The journey included about 6 hours on the road by car and a 4-hour hike up the mountains with trained mules and their entertaining masters. That evening, I checked-in to the Volunteers Cottage, a perfect home for the next three months.
Those pieces that had fit together a few months back had a hat on them and that hat was a teacher’s. As a volunteer teacher at Haji Public School, I was offered free boarding and lodging in return for my time at the school teaching the bright kids of Breswana. A very fair deal (who said The Barter was passé?).
When the Haji family decided to start a school in their home village in 2009, they had started with 2 teachers and 35 students. That year, almost everyone in the village helped them construct the school building, including making bricks by hand! Today, the school has 3 branches with over 350 students and a regular flow of volunteers coming from diverse backgrounds with plenty to give and get.
Every morning, around 20 minutes before the first bell, the students (now, friends) start pouring in, slightly annoyed at how their then polished shoes now look like 20-year-old loafers after their 40-min walk (walk for them, climb for us) to the school. They come in smartly dressed anyway, washed uniforms (hopefully), handkerchief in their pockets, nails cut and combed hair. After a usually eventful morning assembly, a regular school day starts. Despite being a J&K board school, most subjects are taught using CBSE textbooks. The school runs from March until November without break and then a full 3-month winter break. The academic year is broken up into two terms.
Teaching roles at such remote, almost inaccessible places come with extra responsibilities, I think. First, most students are first generation learners, their parents and grandparents never got an opportunity to access quality education. Many hopes from the families lie on the shoulders of these students so a constant awareness of this fact needs to be made.
Second, their exposure to the outside world is very minimal. Their textbooks cover topics of machines and transport systems while many have never even been on the road before. So it has to be the teacher who introduces them to the outside world. Thanks to the recent availability of broadband (Airtel Mata ki Jai!), many doubts can be solved using multimedia tools at the end of the school at the computer lab.
Third, the village is in constant need of skilled professionals. It is very important for the sustainable growth of such villages that their youth return to their homes after completing their education and work for its upliftment. Only I know how many times I had repeated this same statement again and again in the classroom, “Guys, the cities are dirty and polluted and full. Your village is heaven, please study hard, learn some skills and come back here to make it a better heaven.”
Could the experience have been the same if I had gone to any other not-for-profit school in the city? Well, I am sure it would have been great, but definitely not the same. That’s because the whole village life in the mountains enhanced the overall experience, making it better with every single passing day.
Things are really simple over there. Trust is available in abundance. Friendships are made in a matter of seconds, just by a look sometimes. At every single house that I would have passed during regular hiking trips, there was always someone standing by the door inviting to come in for a cup of tea. The humour is beautifully innocent. It tickles you to endless laughter sometimes.
As a teacher in Breswana, I always felt I was given the treatment and attention that a Hrithik or Ranbir would get in Mumbai. We were the heroes who were not bothered about autographs, just a nice little ‘Good Evening, Saar’ from the distance. The weddings and dinner parties are modest but you definitely feel the warmth. There will be no hired waiters in sight, but the hosts make sure you eat enough for the next 30 days. And oh, most of the food is grown locally. Fresh, with no chemicals.
The mountains are just spectacular. As the summer approached, the days started becoming longer and there was plenty of time to indulge in nature activities after quickly completing the school tasks. Every point in the village provides a calming view but there are some special places/spots which are just too good to be true. I tried to do as much sightseeing, as many times as possible. I used to find it very difficult to explain to the locals why I went mad at seeing the views, ‘The city does that,’ I would mutter. The valley where Breswana resides has many Deodar and Pine trees around, sometimes becoming dense, transporting you to a place elsewhere and then sometimes they just open up, providing a full view of the valley.
Of the 400 homes in the village, most live on subsistence farming, and many have fruit trees in their terrace farms that bear incredibly good and fresh apples, apricots, peaches, walnuts and berries, I have heard. I missed the fruit season by a few weeks. Enough reason to go back.
I had put on the tutor mask trying to share as much knowledge I have acquired, often going on my own tangents, realising minutes later that I am writing stuff on the class 7 blackboard that I myself learnt during engineering. It is only now that I realise, it was the rural experience that was teaching me all the while. There are many hardships the villagers live with maintaining a bright smile on the face.
Electricity is not at all regular, only for a few half-hours during the day and then a few hours in the night, but the weather is quite extreme. Sometimes there would be a sudden storm which would leave many electric poles uprooted, meaning no power at all for the next 2-3 days. Only a few have solar panels and inverters, that guarantee the bulb will glow, installed. Being a valley, the water drips down in seconds and the water table is very deep down the ground. The only source of water is a spring that runs from the mountain top. Direct pipes have been laid, but again, a break in the channel and you run you of water. Sewage systems don’t exist, every house has their own little sewage but the waste water (with our soaps and detergents) sometimes flow into the same land that they use for cultivation. Plastic recycling does not take place, there are obviously no government vans coming to collect the waste. And the most important, there are no proper healthcare facilities. No emergency services. The only way to get to the hospital in urgent cases is to put the patient on a cot, collect 40 men and start the journey down on foot, switching shoulders every few minutes. Solutions to any of these are more than welcome.
I have now gone back to my puzzle. Each day in the city now seems like an overdose, it’s manic. Stress during the day and no sleep in the night have returned. What comforts me in all this chaos is the knowledge of the fact that I now have a home in the mountains, where I know people with ocean hearts and they know me. Where a strong group of youngsters are being educated to become good citizens of the world, and where one wakes up with the chicken’s call and sleeps with the silence of the stars. I have these memories, locked with passwords, in the permanent storage of my hippocampus. All this for just ₹650. And that includes the return bus fare from Doda to Jammu (Woah, right!). That’s the cost of volunteering.