Diya Gupta


Tender Feet

9:38 PM, Tuesday, 15th July, 2014
Primary school children in Spiti
Children learning their letters - or rather, numbers!
Our scary doorstep!
For the past ten days, I’ve been struck down by flu in Spiti. With a burning throat and a scorching forehead, I felt my body become the locus of gnawing aches and utter weariness. It is incredible how, at such times, we are entirely reduced to our material selves. Physical pain consumes us; we become little more than a suffering conglomerate of bodily parts.

As I lay on my bed, biding my time and waiting for the fever to pass, the sound of the school children playing reached me from the window. Such happy sounds they were! I could hear the thwack of the inevitable cricket bat (often just a flat piece of wood) hitting the ball, shouts of encouragement and effort as the volleyball passed back and forth across the net (these games take place simultaneously), and the children running about everywhere – or, as they like to put it, “roaming here and there.” I felt like Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant who has let the children into his garden.

The children have recently been swarming all over our front doorstep and stairs. British health and safety authorities would be most disapproving of this doorstep. We live on the first floor of a two-storeyed little house, and the doorstep has no boundaries – you could easily take a wrong step, fall to the ground and break a leg. Shaun opened our front door one day on his way to class, to find a motley crew of children on the doorstep, staring at him wide-eyed and trying their best to peer between his legs to glimpse the inside of our flat.

After Shaun had weaved his way through the children, one little boy remained on the doorstep, smiling at me (ill, and in pyjamas) with glee. All of a sudden, a football smacked him full in the face. “Ah!” was all he said. “Hey!” I shouted to his friend. “What are you doing? He could have fallen!” Within seconds, though, the boy had run downstairs after his friend. There was a football to be played with!

The football belonged to medical and engineering students from the University of British Columbia in Canada, who visit each year to check on the students’ health and clean drinking water facilities. This was why the children were now outside our flat; the health screenings took place on the ground floor, and those who were waiting either played football outside or had a romp on our steps.

I helped out with some of the younger children by translating questions into Hindi. How little most of them were! They trotted into the health centre, their tender feet grubby with dirt. Some wore serious what-are they-going-to-do-to-me-here looks on their faces, while others were smiling happily, quite enjoying not having to go to class.

“How are you?” I asked them. “Fine,” they said, regardless of the state of their actual health – many of them are quite ill. “What is your favourite subject?” I continued to enquire, trying to kill dead time between examinations. “English,” said some; “Science,” said others. One boy said, “Maths.” I was most impressed. “Would you like to be a doctor like didi here?” I said, pointing at one of the Canadian medical students. The children squirmed in their chairs, covered their faces and burst into giggles.

I was quizzed, in turn, on my health as soon as I returned to class. “Ma’am, you are feeling fine now?” “You need to take hot water and put some salt in – you know what salt is, Ma’am? – and make urrr-urrr sound.” “Ma’am, I was feeling very boring when you did not take class.” “We always do so much funny in your class, Ma’am.” I’m never entirely sure what this “do so much funny” business is (it’s come up before), but I decided to take these questions as a sign that I was missed.

What happens when these children fall sick, like I did? Many of them live in cramped hostel quarters, cheek by jowl with each other. Some don’t have their own towels, many don’t have soap, and enough water for washing in Spiti is always a challenge. There are no doctors in Rangrik, the village where the school is located; the nearest doctors are in Kaza and clearly overworked. Who looks after the children with the attention and empathy they so clearly need? Shaun and I are on the way to finding out. And this is where we will be directing your valuable gifts from our online campaign earlier this year.
Diya on 6:23 PM, 20th August, 2014
Hi Jason, there's no way I'm playing cricket with these kids - they're pretty good! I'll be the photographer taking pictures of Shaun jumping around with them! ;-)
Diya on 6:20 PM, 20th August, 2014
Hey Ushasi, I'm glad I do so much funny too. It's quite unintentional! It would be wonderful to be remembered by the kids. I've grown very fond of them!
Jason on 3:16 PM, 19th August, 2014
Great news! I am looking forward to seeing 'funny time' photographs once you get to a better internet connection. I hope to see you and Sean playing in those photos too!!!
Diya on 2:56 PM, 19th August, 2014
Dear Benti, how nice to hear from you and to know that you have enjoyed reading the blog posts! We are away from Spiti for about 8 days at the beginning of October, but otherwise here until the end of October when our six months is up. Would be lovely to meet you, so do let us know if you're going to be in Munsel-ling! I have now recovered entirely and am thoroughly enjoying the lovely August weather here in Spiti! :-)
Diya on 2:53 PM, 19th August, 2014
Hey Jason! I would love to get the children some 'funny time' gifts. Someone Shaun's mum works with has promised to send over some cricket sets - if that works out, it will be brilliant! I'm waiting to see how things pan out with that offer!
Ushasi on 2:36 PM, 19th August, 2014
Those kids sounds adorable. I'm glad you do so much funny. They'll remember your lessons better and with fondness. :)
benti banach on 8:04 PM, 18th August, 2014
dear Diya, Graham-la informed me about your blog. Warm heart-felt stories, thanks. All sounds so familiar. I miss it. Till when will the two of you stay at ML? I will probably drop by around mid September for a couple of days. Would be nice to share some experiences. All the best and steady recovery! Benti Banach
Jason on 7:36 PM, 18th August, 2014
Always nice to catch up with your blog Diya! Great to hear that the donations are going to something so beneficial. Could some of the donation also go to getting the some more 'funny time' gifts, like more balls, bats and skipping ropes? We all know that a happy mind can help to have a happy body! :)
Diya on 12:04 PM, 26th July, 2014
All well and dandy now, Laura! We now have a plan for how to use the online gifts - update to follow in a future post! :-) So glad you're still following and enjoying the blog!
Laura Clark on 3:41 PM, 25th July, 2014
Hope you're all well now Diya! Hope the online gifts can go some little way to answering those very important questions at the end of your post. Great reading as always.
Diya on 11:05 AM, 21st July, 2014
Kaza is 8 km away from Spiti. Not far, but certainly not ideal!
Debalin Das on 11:04 PM, 17th July, 2014
How far is Kaza from Spiti?
Diya on 4:01 PM, 17th July, 2014
Hello Debalin! Nice to hear from you. The Canadian students have been brilliant at doing some thorough health screenings, but the problem is what comes afterwards? The only doctors are at Kaza, and they don't have many facilities and lots of patients to look after! The Canadian students work in Spiti only - it's a university project.
Debalin Das on 10:40 AM, 17th July, 2014
Hahaha! "Selfish giant"! Your blog is becoming more enjoyable to read with every new iteration. But waiting to read more about the presence of medical attention there. It's good to hear that students from Canada are coming to conduct yearly health screenings. Do they come to Spiti only, or to other places of India also?
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