You learn the best when your device loses power. That’s when you drop down from your wish-world to hear the music of life around you.
Ugyen the young teacher in Bhutan was dreaming of escaping to Australia. Then he was posted at the most remote school in the world in Lunana, a tiny village nestled among the clouds.
He had come to teach rather reluctantly, but he kept learning as his device waited for solar powered resurrection.
He learnt the value of all that was around him. Like that of a piece of dried yak dung when you need warmth and food.
In what passes for the classroom, A can be for Apple and B for Ball, but C cannot be Car. Because no one knows here what a car is. It must make way for a Cow.
The aspiring musician, used to applause in the bars, learnt that a song is an offering to all beings and spirits. And that one must sing like the black-necked cranes. They are not concerned with who is listening.
See Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
This film is the directorial debut of Pawo Choyning Dorji, the Indian-born Bhutanese filmmaker and photographer. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was nominated for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards (where a slap during the presentation won all the headlines).
Bhutan is a country that measures its economic and moral development in terms of gross national happiness. As an integral part of this, education is a must in every remote corner of the country. No wonder, the entire 56 people of Lunana walked two hours to welcome the teacher, who they hoped, as the village chief put it, “will give these children the education they need to become more than yak herders and cordyceps gatherers.”
A herder teaches Ugyen a folk song that celebrates the sacred bond between herders and their yaks. Later, far away in teeming Australia, as the indifferent patrons of the bar where he croons for money ignore his rendering of a popular number, he stops singing.
Then, from his heart, rises that folk song. It was his offering to himself.
Even if you are not into lessons, watch this film for the breath-taking views and its sheer simplicity. Or to simply tune into what is around you.
The new C is in the spotlight. The old C remains. There is no masking the fears about cancer. And there is no distancing the misconceptions.
Chanda. The name of the girl is not. But the snatches of conversation, more about her cancer than her, are all real.
Father to doctor: “She keeps getting fever and is so weak.”
Doctor to father: “Your child has blood cancer. We will have to start chemotherapy.”
Mother to father: “But she is only five. How can she have cancer?”
Chanda to mother: “Did you fight with Papa again? Don’t cry, I am there for you.”
Father to mother: “Never again will we cry in front of her.”
Father to mother: “I have no money left. Don’t know whom to ask. Let’s release an appeal.”
Stranger to parents: “Saw your appeal. Oh, she likes cars! Come, bring her, let us go for a ride. Keep this money. Why does it matter who I am?”
Mother to school principal: “Doctor said she is recovering and can start school. Please admit her.”
Principal of school 1: “If other parents come to know, they will withdraw their children. As it is, we are constantly fighting with parents.”
School 2: “What if her cancer spreads? Other children will also get it.”
School 3: “We can’t let her skip class every time she has to go for treatment. What is the guarantee she won’t get it again?”
School 4: “She must always wear a mask, sit separately and not mingle with other children.”
Mother’s letter to father: “I am going. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking after a cancer patient.”
Chanda to father: “Why are you crying? I am there for you.”
It was a hot day, with the tin roof adding to the heat inside. The children in the class were eagerly reciting a poem when the tinkling of a bell drew my eyes to the window.
It was a buffalo, followed by its minder, a girl of the same age as the ones heartily singing for my benefit. Some of the students waved out to her as she paused for a moment near the door.
She should have been in the class too; just that she had to swap her books for the buffalo … one of those days.
I was a guest, a rare visitor from another world, far away. A world many of them can’t see, not even on television, because you need electricity for TV. They assumed I was there to “judge” them and they were determined to put in their best, complete with safety pins to hold up torn skirts and trousers.
Plastic chairs walked in on human legs, as small boys staggered under the weight of the chairs for the visitors. Two girls, who seemed to have forgotten to smile, worked the hand pump to draw water for tea. They entered the headmaster’s room with trepidation, carrying cups filled to the chipped brim.
The teachers told me they were happy to have one boy back in class. He had gone missing for months, accompanying his parents as they travelled, yet again, to another district for sugarcane cutting. He was smart; at least on the days he was present.
It was chaotic to have two classes sharing the same room. But that was progress after years of learning in a teacher’s home, jostling for space with goats and cows.
The teachers did not complain about having to walk 2 to 5 kilometers every day as they divided time between schools. Jobs are not easy to come by, especially when you are handicapped by education.
The students did not complain about the irony of learning good deeds and good words when a drunken father beat them up at home and the mother thought nothing of unleashing a curse every time she called out to them to handle another chore.
As I walked out, carrying the precious coconuts and shawls they had gifted, I cringed at the memory of the pride I had felt just the previous day. A corporate king had praised my presentation that painted a rosy picture of the services he was rendering to society.
I had just woken up to the real world and smelt honest earth. They had served me endless cups of sweet tea and tall glasses of sugarcane at every village. Yet, something sad and bitter lingered, somewhere deep within.
My friend, who has chosen social development as his career (his specialty: taking science to remote schools) is not surprised at what I had witnessed 10 years ago. He is not stationed at the village that I had visited but assures me things have changed.
“Parents now realize the value of education. They make it a point to ensure that the children go to school.”
We have the virus to thank for it, he says. All those days the children were forced to stay at home, parents learnt the important role of teachers in education. “They were just not able to cope, even those who had a mobile phone. They realized that only education could give the children a future. And they cannot educate. They needed teachers as much as the children.”
For my friend and his team, it was a challenge to bring the teachers up to speed in the ways of the virtual. “They were fantastic. So much so that the first group we trained became role models for the government.”
Then there was the challenge of educating those children whose reality stood no chance of catching up with the virtual. “We prepared special books for them with plenty of pictures. One day, when they all go back to their real classrooms, we want all of them to be at the same learning level.”
Now that the children are back in the classroom, the teachers are facing a different challenge. “The children are distracted. It is a task to make them sit in one place and pay attention.” Even for the best teacher, it is difficult to match the addictive entertainment value of a smartphone.
My friend cautions me that this is a work in progress. And he does not yet have the all-important data.
Nevertheless, he is optimistic. There is at least one sugar mill that now ensures that the children of the laborers working in the sugarcane fields can continue their education uninterrupted.
The buffalo has not gone away. Hopefully, its virtual avatar now shares the class with the girl, instead of leading her away at the end of a rope.
All of us like surprises, at least the pleasant kind. Even when lit up screens have pushed printed pages to the background, you can delight your reader if you add a bit of wit to what you write. More so in the heading.
“Mosquitoes ‘play’ menace at Bal Gandharva, people ‘clap loudly’... to kill them!” screamed a headline just this morning. Bal Gandharva is a popular auditorium in the city where I live. “Instead of artistes, the mosquitoes had taken centre stage,” the report went on to say.
When a famous cricketer passed away recently, wordsmiths gave it a real tweak: “He took us for a spin, left without a Warne-ing.”
Of course, when you have been a famous cricketer, the pitch condition can disturb your stance even when you are alive: “Imran Khan c Constitution b Supreme Court of Pakistan.”
Technical glitches can get unappetizing for food delivery apps, especially when the media add a dash of spice: “Hungry users fume as Swiggy, Zomato take a ‘lunch break’.”
However, witless use of words can backfire. When a decomposed limb was found in a playground, and the police had no clue, a tabloid boldly announced: “LEG STUMPED”. While the play on stump was, perhaps, not lost on the readers, many found it insensitive, even morbid.
Yes, a little twist can get attention. But your readers must immediately grasp the context. They must not only spot but also appreciate the play on words. If there is even a whiff of controversy, it can raise hackles. The ensuing debate may overshadow the substance of your message.
Which makes it a tricky tool to use in the office, definitely not safe for work.
In the head office of the bank, where I used to work a long time ago, it was routine to send reminder letters to branches. It was my job to prepare the template, change the number of the reminder (REMINDER No. 5) and submit it to the officer for signature. Nothing ever changed except the number. Not that it mattered to the recipient who hardly bothered to respond, even if the number reached double digits.
A young new officer took charge and decided to freshen up things. And I was happy to be his partner in crime. This is the reminder he sent, probably the shortest in the bank’s history.
Within days there was some very officious uproar about the breach of “protocol” and violation of the bank’s “style of correspondence.” I do not remember if that reminder managed to get the report it was seeking. But, for a long time, even a little note from that officer got immediate attention from everyone. His boss pleaded with him to use “normal English.” And they transferred me.
Yes, go ahead and give it a twist if it gives you a kick. But make sure all will get it, and none will be upset. Else, you will end up with snubbed toe.