Being of South Asian descent, I have been lucky enough to travel to India many times before. Whether it was to see relatives, top up on the latest Indian fashion or to attend a wedding, India for me was always a place of colour, community and culture. It was not until 2017 that I got to experience India through an entirely different lens.
After completing my undergraduate degree in Law, I was fortunate enough to be accepted on a purpose led charity trip with 13 other students under the organisation CAREducation. Our goal was to travel to Manali, a city in the state of Himachal Pradesh, in India to teach children a variety of subjects at a local boarding school. The city’s name is the literal translation of ‘Himalayan land’ as it sits in the foothills of the Himalayas, very unlike the busy concrete jungle of the West. The school itself sits at the bottom of a deep illustrious valley, full of greens and browns and blues (but only when you have the courage to look up from the path to the clear sky above). We stayed with one of the governors of the school, Sunderji, who owns a cottage at the top of the valley. Every day we would make our way down to the school passing by local villagers and a variety of local animals! We were often guided by a beautiful black dog who would wait for us outside the cottage and scurry down the path to the school…. almost as if he had learnt our morning timetable.
The Himalayan Buddhist Cultural School, or HBCS, stands in a grand cove shaped arena encompassing a vast playground. The walls are an inviting yellow and there are red, green and blue embellishments on the pillars of the balcony that run around the edges of the school. The real sight though is the one looking from the playground out to the mountains. Large statuesque mounds of earth and history stare back at you proudly and you can see the odd twinkle of lights coming from small houses dotted all around it.
What we quickly learnt though was that whilst the scenery around us was movie-like, the reality of the lives of the children boarding there were not. The school holds classes from kindergarten to class 10, the British equivalent of nursery to year 11, and is open ten months out of the year. The other two months are summer holidays where the children travel back to their homes, to their families. These journeys home can often last a couple of days minimum and sometimes up to a week.
The school was founded by a variety of benefactors, including CAREducation, the Himalayan Buddhist Cultural Association and many other donors. The sole aim of the school is to provide a good quality education to the most underprivileged children in the Himalayan region and to provide a good foundation for future studies or to find work in the cities. The school therefore is a platform for children to find a new way of life, a way out of a generational lifestyle, a way to find their purpose. Standing in the cove-like arena and staring back at the mounds of earth and history, I could only help but wonder, what was my role in all of this?