It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More
‘Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.
Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.
And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.
Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..
And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.
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This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The
Discovering the charms and the challenges!
‘Ki ki so so lha gya lo’
Six voices shout in unison with those of our driver and his friend as we cross the mighty Chang-La on the way to Leh. Our driver and now friend, Namgyal Tibetan, as he insists we call him, tells us that everyone who crosses the several passes in Ladakh chants this. Ladakh means “the land of passes”. Namgyal, who perhaps has the most impeccably managed car in the mountains, tells us the meaning of the phrase, which I now only bleakly remember (and with a bit of help from Google) to be somewhere close to “Victory to the Gods”. The stereo of the car plays songs sung by Namgyal’s Tibetan friends who have been long enough in India to be in the army and get posted at the LoC (Line-of-control). As a male voice sings ‘LoC pe baithe hum yahaa… (Here we sit at the LoC)’, we wind our way back from Sumdho, where we had stayed back last night at a school for nomadic Tibetan kids, while visiting the twin lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, during the weekend.
Curious Kids at the school in Sumdho
And I say weekend, because it wasn’t a vacation. It was a six week internship, with Ladakh Ecological Development Group, that brought us to this fabled land. LEDeG, as it is called, is an NGO working for and in Ladakh and seems to have been around for donkeys years. It is only a testimony to the extensive development work done by the organization that almost everyone in Leh and the surrounding villages knows them by the name of ‘Ecology’.
We started our stint with a brief introduction to everyone at the small but spacious office at Karzoo in Leh. For the next few weeks we were going to work with the very same people and gather some key information for them. These would form the basis for an informed case study of the development work done by the NGO over the past several years, or even decades. We were about to realize, volunteering doesn’t always have to be about building houses with spades and shovels or clearing crops. In our case, the NGO wanted resources that could help with more managerial inputs and devote time to a case study for them. It is here that for so many of us, who have studied at technical and management institutes, the opportunity lies, to give back to our society.
Surveying the locals on one of the field trips
Over the next few weeks, with great help from the NGO, we extensively visited the remotest of villages within Ladakh; from Leh to Kargil and the valleys that lay in between and beyond, of Suru and Sham, of Shyok and Nubra. The key challenge with an arid land like Ladakh lies in the seasonality of agriculture and irrigation. For more than half of the year, the land remains covered with snow. Realising this, LEDeG has over the past several years, invested in developing alternative sources of energy, irrigation and water distribution across Ladakh. And we had set to gauge (and if possible, measure) the impact of these interventions. We met several families. In some places, the interventions had massively helped farmers to the extent that they could now buy multiple cars and in others, only modestly. We met farmers who loved the machines provided by LEDeG, and those whose cattle, houses, and trees (and hence wood that is a crucial commodity here) could all in some way be linked, even if indirectly, to the aid and support provided by our NGO. We surveyed them, chatted with them, ate with them and stayed with them in their homes.
There were the other experiences, which were difficult to measure in counts of cattle and houses. Like the moment when we met the residents of a village which had ended up being in a different nation at the end of one of the Indo-Pak wars. Borders mean little here. If you ask them, “Which nation do you prefer?”, they don’t have an answer. But then, if we had been the ones facing the brunt of enemy shells in three different wars, would we be left with any answers?
But most probably, you’ll come back with much more, with the understanding of how people in a far off land, with little access to even electricity, leave aside cinema, live their lives with such grace and contentment. How, in spite of gathering their own wood and walking miles to collect water each time they want to wash their clothes, they don’t complain and how money is just a small part in a community that somehow just knows how to greet every visitor with a smile, whatever the difficulties.
The Happiest People
Lots to learn? Yes. Visit them once. More than anything else, you’ll come back with the experience of a life time.
This article was originally published with The Alternative
In the spring of 2009, I visited the magnificent land of Ladakh for an internship with a Non-Government Organisation. Part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir in north India, the beauty of the place takes your breath away! In this photo essay I share, pictures of some of the most wonderful people I met along those several journeys we took in Ladakh during our stint there. These are mostly kids, guess they very appropriately signify the innocence and simplicity of the Ladakhis.
Here they go.
This is the first in my series – ‘Us & Them’ – capturing the people I’ve met along my travels