By Priiya Swapn
Most of my school life was spent running small errands for akkas in return for dried fish, sleeping in hot sand, following the moon’s orbit in the night, and swimming towards the setting sun hoping to catch it. My school was in the middle of a fishing community and I was mostly found in the middle of big books with oversized pictures, which were called encyclopaedias, as I later found out. I would steal dried cashew fruits from common roofs and hide behind the tallest bookshelf in the library till the librarian would lock the doors and retire for the day. It would then be mine - the adventures of a book looker. I would pull out the thickest hardbound books and read them upside down, utterly convinced that this was my superpower.
Few years back I was convinced that quick adaptability and learning languages was my new superpower, so I started travelling, on the basic barter system of contribution of labour in return for food and stay. It was my first crossing of the Himalayas with the bakkarwals and their animals that left me forever enchanted by the mountains. I sought after ways of doing more. By chance I met Sajjad and accepted a fellow traveler’s call out to go to his village and help out in a school 70 kms from the town of Kargil.
I stayed in the village, farmed, herded goat and sheep up the mountains and taught English Conversation classes with more than 140 students for the first three months I spent in the Suru valley. Their excitement to learn English was scary for me. I started working on different methods of teaching the language. The teaching part was new and hectic but the villagers soon understood that my love for the mountains would make me stay. They started offering to take me to trek higher snowy peaks. My eating habits and lifestyle reminded them of their older ways, they were convinced that I was an ancestral spirit visiting them in modern times. For six to seven months in a year, for the past five years the spirit continues to haunt the valley. Trying to make English language more accessible through theatre, movement and daily conversations.
Evergreen School started in a room at a small house in Kargee village, 18 years ago. It was the idea of a few young men who had a chance to cross the Zozila Pass and realise that education in local govt schools was inadequate. The alternative was the few private schools that were in Kargil town and were beyond the reach of most families living in Suru, both economically and logistically. 18 years later, the middle school still runs on local donations and supports children who are without families or resources. The student roll has increased from 90 to about 170 in the past four years, and families living near the school have been supporting the stay for those children who have moved away from distant villages to study in Evergreen.
Last year, the school managed to build enough rooms to accommodate all the classes individually. This emptied one small room cum kitchen on the ground floor, which was instantly captured by the students of the reading club who had been eyeing that room to create a space for peacefully reading the books they have. For now, the story telling and play devising sessions have shifted to this said room.
The idea of reading for pleasure is new. Reading text beyond school was so far limited to religious texts or reading sample papers under the pressure of finding a government job. While the dream to have a library in the mountains was brewing in my head quietly for a while, I felt it could not be imposed. It’s only last year when more and more children started saying that they have read most books in the library twice, I realised that it is time to extend the invitation to more people to help us expand this library, to take reading to a new level. In the view that my primary mode of engagement in the school had been theatre, I felt that a constant fuelling of these processes can be made possible through access to various forms of art and expression. The idea behind making this library a space where more than reading can happen is rooted in exploring art to its deepest possible avenues. We are working on getting the resources together; contributions of books, funds for building infrastructure and educators who would want to work on different programs with the library are all on our wishlist.
In the first month of my visit, I had to explain to everyone including the police and the army why I wanted to work here and why I was doing it for free. I later made friends with all of them. The region has a war narrative attached to it and it is difficult for an outsider to look beyond it. But I have been there for the past four years, and I have seen things change. The interactions between schools and the communities across Kargil have increased. I realised that all this was made possible through books and all those after-school reading sessions we had, while bringing the goats back from the mountains and planning on how to change the book into a play. I don’t deny that maybe I am looking for the library of my childhood all over again. I find comfort in watching people have silent conversations with their books. That library near the sea was my home, and now I would love to build one in the mountains. To make a home anywhere with books, maybe that’s my superpower.