Here is an excerpt from The fourth idiot
The character Phunsuk Wangdung from 3 Idiots reminds you of Sonam Wangchuk, who fought against the education system in Ladakh. And won
I didn’t like the film 3 Idiots it was loud, preachy and presumptuous in the manner it delivered its message, assuming that the audience wouldn’t get it if the story were told any differently.
However, when I saw shots of the wood-panelled classrooms and an endless expanse of beige sand set against a familiar backdrop, I felt an instant head rush. This was the SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) campus on Phey where I volunteered for five glorious months of my life.
It was the scene in the film where Aamir Khan’s character goes by the name of Phunsuk Wangdung, which I felt was based on Sonam Wangchuk, the man who founded SECMOL in ’94. Wangchuk, who flunked his class XII boards overcame the ‘failure’ and went on to become an engineer.
With SECMOL, he brought about reforms that completely transformed the Ladakhi education system. SECMOL strived to introduce Ladakhi as the medium of education as opposed to Urdu. When the system finally fell in place, the failure rate dropped as well. Ladakhi students, as expected, fared better and made more sense of the world around them when they were taught in their mother tongue as opposed to an alien language.
Wangchuk’s teachers too believed he was an idiot. Nothing had changed a decade later when he turned into an educator. Teachers refused to fathom why hundreds of students didn’t grasp lessons as easily as say, kids from Kashmir did. In early 2004, when I went to Ladakh to spend five of my most memorable months in the mountain paradise, it hadn’t yet turned into the tourist hub that it is now. Some of the students who I taught had never stepped out of their hometowns and villages and didn’t even know what a train looked like.
So imagine their Geography teacher explaining in Urdu what a stalactite in Ireland looked like. (Oh, but they did trip out on Floyd. And sang along to Time. Well, that experience didn’t involve passing or failing and I’d never felt a bigger high.)
Back to Wangchuk. The man didn’t throw clever one-liners to prove what a genius he was. It was all there for us to see. The Phey campus was designed so that it was completely self-sufficient. Wangchuk got onto the green wagon much before Copenhagen became bigger than a dot on the climate map. The entire campus, comprising 20-odd resident students and 10 faculty members, ran on solar energy. The buildings were built from mud, to stay warm during winter and cool in summer, and we never felt the need for a heater even when temperatures dropped to minus points.
This was the first time I saw a large-scale compost system in place. The compost was used in the substantially large vegetable patch in front of our cell rooms where some giant sunflowers also took root. We stayed quite happily in roughly 6×6 feet rooms called cell rooms for a while. I’m pretty sure we would have kicked up a fuss at our modest living arrangements anywhere else in the world, but not in Ladakh. Not when you open your door in the morning to look out at sunflowers and the overwhelming Zanskar range. Water was pumped up right from the Indus that ran a few hundred feet below.
The students pretty much ran the show whether it was stocking the pantry, fixing anything that’s fixable from light bulbs to printers. SECMOL also had a media centre that trained class XII dropouts to be rural media practitioners, complete with an audio visual set-up (and oh, we were plugged into G3s. I still remember my jaw drop when I looked at all the Macs neatly set up).
The media centre fuelled Ladakh’s only news magazine Ladags Melong. All the students I worked with did their best to contribute to the magazine. The most exciting bit for me, and any teacher would agree with this, was
that they were all so hungry to learn and were the sharpest young minds I’d ever known.
Wangchuk loves people he was always open to volunteers and people like me who wanted to break away from the rut to give teaching a shot, he encouraged management students to do their projects on campus and gives the students the best deal he can.
Along with his partner Rebecca Norman, Wangchuk continues to run SECMOL, with child-like enthusiasm and mad passion. There was never any preaching or stereotyping on campus. Plenty of that in 3 Idiots.