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THE VILLAGE OF CHILDREN

 

There’s a village in Sikkim filled with children. At 7.45 a.m. they pour out of the houses, hundreds and hundreds of them, a stream of blue uniforms and little blue clip-on bow-ties tumbling down the hill. Tiny figures totter by, bent under the weight of massive school bags, chattering groups of little girls skip past, a marauding pod of lads charge through intent on fun, last a solitary aesthete. By 8.00 a.m. the streets are empty, the last straggler running, hurtling through the school gates just in time for the clanging bell.

At precisely midday the pupils clog the streets again, heading home for their lunch. Afternoon lessons last until 3.45 p.m. when the first of them re-appears. Within three minutes every available inch of road is filled again with the blue children, the blue bow-ties, the babble of voices and the laughter as they flood by.

The hills of Rumtek have long been colonized by worthy missionaries; here in Martam the Catholics made their stand. St. Joseph’s Convent School is the school that ate the town.

The pupils live in hostels, dotted wherever you look, boarding houses for tiny inmates, sent from far-flung villages into school. Martam is one huge boarding school; families have turned their homes into small hostels where the students stay. It’s a major source of income. All you see are children, hundreds and hundreds of children in a village made for adults in the hills.

This was the village where Bongo grew up, his family house huddled down on the corner, a sprawling warren of rooms round a courtyard, a farm with vegetables and chickens, a little dot of normality surrounded by institutions.

Bongo took me to see one of the hostels. It was deserted, everybody at school. On the plain main wall, just inside the door, I spotted a large sheet of paper. Someone very talented had been set the ultimate task of writing out the daily schedule.

At the top of the sheet was written:

Time Table – FOR UNIQUE HOSTEL

These letters had been labored over, slightly thickened and colored-in. The dot over the ‘i’ was an artistic squiggle, repeated throughout the document – a defiant little sign of personality amidst the perfectly printed letters of the sign.

Waking Time                                      4.45

Washing Time                       4.45 a.m. – 5.00 a.m.

Tea Time                                 5.00 a.m. – 5.10 a.m.

Study Time                            5.10 a.m. – 7.00 a.m.

Break Fast                             7.10 a.m. – 7.20 a.m.

Changing Dress                    7.40 a.m. – 7.45 a.m.

Leaving for School                                       8 o’clock

Lunch Break                                                     12 p.m.

Tea Time                                                         3.45 p.m.

Games Hour                         3.45 p.m. – 5.00 p.m.

Washing Time                       5.00 p.m. – 5.10 p.m.

Study Time                            5.10 p.m. – 7.00 p.m.

DINNER Time                      7.10 p.m. – 7.20 p.m.

Recreation                             7.20 p.m. – 7.30 p.m.

Study time                             7.30 p.m. – 9.00 p.m.

Sleeping Time                          ‘SWEET DREAM’

It’s a devastating schedule. Underneath this document, preceded by a large red star, the inspirational, if somewhat Nihilist phrase:

Someone had made a tiny correction in blue pencil for the second line.

‘But IS life itself.’

I liked it the first way.

Then there’s that heart with an arrow, another star and below, that final thought:

‘Honesty is best policy.’

Well, excuse me, I just have to weep.

In one room, stark and swept clean, a line of aluminum boxes stood under a window. Soft floral light fell through soft floral curtains on the shiny silver surfaces of twelve lost children’s lives. Everything they had with them was tightly closed and put away. Four of the boxes, each about a meter long, had locks, but each lock hung off the clip open. The policy of honesty was on display. In each of these silver boxes a toy, a piece of home, pictures to be taken out and kissed once a week, images of Mummy and Daddy and a village miles away, a village they would see twice a year.

I shivered. Stuff like this gets to me. I have my reasons.

Bongo pointed at the name on one of the tin boxes.

‘See?’

Anja, I read, age 7. Someone had crossed out the ‘7’ and put ‘8’.

‘Who’s that?’

‘Tipp and Ellen’s daughter.’

Tipp and Ellen were the owners of the hotel I was staying at.

‘Why is their daughter living here? They only live ten minutes away.’

Bongo smiled sadly and stared into the distance. There was something he wasn’t telling me.

*

The orphans of Sikkim came in all shapes and sizes, some with crisp school uniform and neat bow-tie, some with a robe and a bowl. Some sit in the Beauty Salon, waiting for their close-up but Bongo was orphaned too. He was an orphan with a family. He couldn’t bear to leave. Peter Pan was stranded in a room of padlocked cases, trying to find one he could open. Of course, he didn’t want to find the key.

Pandora’s Box of Bongo’s secrets stayed slammed tightly shut, glinting sadly in the afternoon light. A gust of wind caught the floral curtains and through the open window I heard the clang of a distant bell. Five hundred chairs screeched back from five hundred desks, five hundred students thundered across wooden floors, five hundred voices found their freedom. It was 3.45 p.m.

The village of children sprang awake as blue uniforms, battered bow ties, satchels and laughter tumbled into the street. I could do nothing but stand, smile and let the torrent pass by me. I knew that if I raised my trusty Sony for a single shot I would be besieged by children wanting a picture. There were five hundred of them – no way. So I stood and smiled gently, careful not to over-excite them, trying to exude a benign air of visiting headmaster. The afternoon carnival passed me by, a flood of excited voices, a sweet river of new Sikkimese life.

‘That’s her,’ he said as a little girl came tumbling up for a hug.

‘That’s my little Anja, she’s my baby now,’ and he scooped her up in his arms.

‘Oof! You’re getting heavy!’

She didn’t smile at all, just hugged him silently, burying her little head in his shoulder.

I had to walk away.

*

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