During the week that I spent in Leh, every time I’d look out from my balcony, I’d see three teenagers hanging around the hotel lobby. They’d sit aimlessly, waiting for that elusive odd job to come their way. Odd jobs, not oddly so, didn’t seem to come their way often. I’d see them in the morning when I was on my way out, and then I’d see them again when I came back for lunch. When I stepped out again in the evening, they’d still be hanging around. “Do you all go to school?” I asked when I saw them on the third consecutive morning. “Yes,” they chorused. Why were they sitting around in the hotel lobby then, I wondered aloud. “Summer jobs,” they chorused again. At that moment those fresh-cheeked boys who always spoke in unison, became The Three Musketeers to me.
There were lots of schools in Leh, the musketeers said, none very good though. They were in Class X and pessimistic about their academic future: “like most of our older friends and siblings, we’ll also probably drop out — few students pass the board exams you see!” I’d read a newspaper report that the pass percentage in many government schools in Leh was quite abysmal — last year, only three students passed the Class X board exam in one of Leh’s bigger state-run schools. “Why,” I asked them, “do so few pass the board exam?”
All three shuffled their feet as only bashful teens can. “Teachers are bad,” said one in a rare solo performance. The other two said, “students are bad too!” It was like a dam had opened. The three stumbled over each other to tell me how often their teachers were absent, how bad the textbooks were, how little their unlettered parents could help. “My English textbook has stories which are so difficult for me to understand, not because I don’t understand the language — but because I don’t understand the culture they depict…” said one.
His younger sister, said the other, was struggling in Class I. “Yesterday, she had to memorise the names of five animals, five foodgrains, five sports and five freedom fighters,” said he, “when I left home, I saw her also trying to slink off to escape studies!” All three felt that she’d been sensible to run off: “What good will it do for her to memorise those spellings anyway?” they pointed out.
I reflected sadly that they’d be amazed if I said that young adults all over the country, had the same sorts of issues with state-run schools. At least, I said trying to sound positive, Ladakh has so many schools. In parts of UP, children have to travel so many miles to reach their school that many were forced to drop out. The three musketeers chorused, “how lucky!!”
The boys in their own laid-back way, were exploring other avenues while still in school. They all wanted to be part of Ladakh’s tourism sector. “What we want is to somehow form relationships with hotels, travel operators and tourists. Then, when we finally fail in the tenth-class exams, we’ll have a career waiting for us!” said one. That is why, the three said together, this summer job was so important…
Images of the last three days flashed in my head — the three musketeers lolling on the sofa; lazily watching tourists go by; sleeping under trees in the somnolent afternoons… “Do you think you’ll achieve what you want lolling on this sofa?” I asked bluntly. They replied, “maybe… but first let us flunk the exam!”