Published: 09th October 2018
Magsaysay winner Sonam Wangchuk on growing up in Ladakh, running away to Delhi and returning to transform the land
Sonam Wangchuk, better known as the real-life Phunsuk Wangdu tells us tales from his childhood that have made him what he is today
A few years ago, people only knew Sonam Wangchuk as the professor who inspired Aamir Khan's very famous Phunsuk Wangdu in the movie Three Idiots. But that isn't the case now. Everyone knows the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay award winner as someone who changed the face of Ladakh with the revolutionary Ice Stupa project, a method to conserve water in the form of an artificial glacier. He is also set to build an alternative university in Ladakh, called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL), he calls it the University of the future, which would help in solving the problems of the mountain people.
But this is all present. What was Wangchuk's past like? How was it to grow up in an ice desert that is isolated from most big cities? I was curious, like the hundreds who were present at a Rotary Club of Madras event in Chennai a few days ago. He was more than eager to share. For me, this was a deja vu moment - the one that I had when I turned the pages of Roald Dahl's Boy: The Tales From Childhood, a long time ago. I felt like I had been transported to a different world, far far away, a few decades back in time.
For someone who didn't go to school until he was eight, Wangchuk jokes that his real learning ended when he started going to school. Was it really a joke? I don't know. "Back home, I spoke Ladakhi and in school, lessons were taught to us in Urdu, an unknown language. Most of our teachers weren't even proficient enough in Urdu and this was a huge hurdle," he recalls. That wasn't the end. After high school, the students made a shift from Urdu to learning everything in English. "I wasn't a good student and I was always told that I couldn't do anything. I was often sent out of the classroom, but ironically, I learned more things standing outside. I was an out-standing student, you know!" he laughs.
Award time: Wangchuk won the Rolex Award for enterprise in 2016
Very soon, he knew that he was meant for bigger things and that's when the first line in Wangchuk's book of rebellion was written. He ran away to Delhi, to join a school where his brothers studied. "This wasn't a great school. It was very poorly funded, but it had the best teachers. Now here, in Delhi, school starts late compared to Ladakh and so I'd already learned a few chapters. So I'd always answer in class and was the teacher's pet instantly," he says. That was when it hit little Wangchuk that kindness can do wonders to inspire a child to do better. "Now all the teachers thought of me as an intelligent child and I couldn't let my reputation go bad. So I started studying harder and graduated with really good grades," he says.
Keen about changing things back home in Ladakh and to help better the infrastructure, Wangchuk wanted to study Mechanical Engineering. But his father suggested that he study Civil Engineering instead and try for a government job. What followed was a heated debate which led to Wangchuk's father asking him to fund his education on his own. "I said okay and that was the easy part. Tough part? Finding the money," he recalls. That was when he tried his hand at tutoring. Wangchuk remembers how he rented a hotel to start a tuition centre, where he employed a method of training good students to teach the weaker ones. The centre was a success and he ended up making money for his entire course in a short span of time.
Cut to 2018, Wangchuk is certain that changes have to be brought to our education system. To begin with, he suggests that every child gets their schooling in their mother tongue."Our education system is 300 years outdated. Schools must not limit our desires but mend our life," he says. Also, Wangchuk has a solution to deal with the hectic education system. Wonder what? Take a break!