I spent some time last year traveling Sikkim, a beautiful state in India located in the Himalayan mountains. Taking the mountainous, roller coaster rides, sitting in the back of an SUV, and having my innards constantly shaken to the point that I thought if this can actually and miraculously people of constipation. I spent a lot of time being on the road, mostly driving through extremely steep, mountainous roads and navigating dangerous switchbacks. Frequently, I saw little children in groups of twos and mostly threes, walking to or back from school. It's evident that they came from poor families. They wore school uniforms with ties, and never carried school bags. Most of them were single digits in age. When in threes, there was usually someone slightly older among them, escorting the younger ones. Often, they walked with their dogs. The children never seemed to be in a hurry. They took their time squatting by the roadside and examining stones, twigs, flowers, and insects. There were no school buses and no parents escorting them. They walked dangerously close to the edge of the mountains, and excitedly waved at us as we sped by, leaving a wake of dust through the half-built mud roads. Our driver told us that they are used to walking long distances. And I had so many questions as I watched them from my backseat, moving in reverse before disappearing. If they all went to the same school, why did they walk in groups of threes, at different times of the day? Don't they have fixed school hours? Where were their school bags? How did they make sure that they are not lost? How did they walk during harsh winters? Why were they never escorted by adults? How did they get the energy to hike such lengths through the steep mountain roads? What jewels did they seek in those pebbles and twigs they collected?
There is so much to observe, wonder, and learn when you are on the road. I come from the strata where I am used to seeing children being escorted to schools by adults, in cars and buses. They carry cell phones for their safety, and are computer wizards. They are busy, enrolled in a bunch of coaching classes after school. They learn to swim, dance, paint, and recite with elan. They come first in class, and are duly reprimanded by parents if they do not achieve that coveted 95+ percent. That is one reality, the one borne from the complexities of city-life, children caught and strangled between a web of parental aspirations and societal expectations, their lives mostly run by machines, nannies, tuition teachers, and helicopter parents. And then, there is this reality. Of little children who walk to school in chappals, excitedly waving at cars, being escorted by their dogs or older siblings, and crouching over the ground to play with flowers and insects. I have a feeling that there are beautiful stories hiding here, chapters of human lives that have never been explored and have not made it to the mainstream media. If I could, I would shadow them to understand what the harsh lives of these simple people from the mountains look like.