The Phunsuk Factor

Sonam Wangchuk,believed to be the inspiration behind Phunsuk Wangdu of 3 Idiots,talks about revolutionising education.

Written by Debjani Paul | Published: October 31, 2013 3:28:31 am

Sonam Wangchuk strokes his chin in quiet thought,forming his response to a question from the audience gathered at Room Open to Art and Design on Shirole Road. He begins answering in his quiet tone,but the waving hands and intense gaze give a glimpse into how passionate he is about his work. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” he says,quoting Mark Twain almost at the beginning of the discussion. The quote comes to define the rest of the discussion just as it does Wangchuk’s dedication to reforming education in Ladakh through Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL).

When the movie 3 Idiots released,thousands fell in love with Phunsuk Wangdu or Ranchhodas Chanchad — one of the “three idiots” — whose journey began as a rebellious student,but ended as a revolutionary educationist. But fewer people know of Wangchuk,who is reportedly the inspiration behind Phunsuk Wangdu.

It’s not hard to see how Wangchuk and his work has inspired such a wonderful character when you hear of the SECMOL Alternative Institute Campus (SAI Campus). The institute has revolutionsed learning in Ladakh,combining traditional community knowledge and ways of life,along with other standard educational curriculum. Wangchuk’s mechanical engineering knowledge has been put to use in every inch of the institute,with intelligent solutions like organic farming,or the use of solar energy,which powers the entire campus.

But perhaps it would be best to start where it all began for Wangchuk himself — as a student in Ladakh.

The place was notorious for its abysmal educational performance at the time,with almost 95 per cent students failing and several dropping out of school. “I was one of the kids there who spoke Ladakhi,on whom Urdu and English textbooks were thrust suddenly. It broke me as a child and I was low in self-esteem. I used to think I would become a criminal. But then I went to a school where the teachers were kind to me and taught me self respect. I have always been grateful to my teachers for that,” he says.

The final push into educational reform came later when Wangchuk went to college. He wanted to study mechanical engineering,but his father insisted that he learn civil engineering instead. Wangchuk decided to follow his own dream,and began to teach school students alongside to support himself. “The system was so arrogant,no one questioned why so many children were failing. The reality is completely different in the mountains. While they were teaching about roots and shoots and seeds in their textbooks,Ladakhi children had already grown those plants by the ages of seven and eight,” he says.

While Wangchuk’s work was being lauded both nationally and internationally,it wasn’t long before objections began to be raised. “For the first five years,we had decided to support the government. But after that,we began to ask questions. But for every teacher or official that we criticised,we honored two others who were doing good work. But it still wasn’t enough,” says Wangchuk,who was even accused of working for anti-national interests.

That portion is not shown in 3 Idiots. “Four months before the movie was to be filmed,I met Aamir Khan and the film team,though nobody said anything about a movie. Though it’s not about me officially,I could see the similarities in the second half,” he says.

But he was surprised by the first half,which also has many similarities with his own college life. “I used to barge into marriage parties to eat and do counter pranks on raggers. Even my family had trouble believing I wasn’t part of the film project when they saw the movie. But it must be a coincidence,because I never told Khan’s team about those details,” he says.

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