Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of depression and anxiety.

The fondest memory that Portia Putatunda has of her departed father is of him playing and singing nursery rhymes with children.

“He was very fond of children. I always observed how he engaged them. During playtime, he would recite tables and rhymes to teach them. He would visit rural areas and distribute books to children for free. This memory is so deeply embedded and always inspires me,” she tells The Better India.

Carrying her father’s efforts forward, today, Portia runs a free boarding school under Planet Spiti Foundation in Komic, Himachal Pradesh, which is the highest village in India. A teacher, a caretaker, and in many ways, a mother to these underprivileged children, Portia takes care of their education, provides food, and supports their overall growth.

‘An attempt to be close to my father’

Born and raised in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Portia completed her graduation in journalism from Kolkata and landed an internship in The Times of India.

“I always wanted to pursue journalism. After working with TOI, I worked with many other organisations. I was a news producer at CNN before I decided to quit journalism,” informs the 32-year-old.

Always fond of travelling, she visited Spiti Valley in 2013 for the first time. “I found peace and fell in love with the place. I loved travelling and visiting such places, but at that time I had no clue I would end up living in the valley itself,” she says.

Portia's students showing their work
Portia opened a free boarding school in Komic to honour her dad’s memory. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

When she made her second and final trip to Spiti, Portia had lost her father and was slipping into depression.

In 2018, the valley called out to her again and she re-visited the place. “The first time I visited the place, I was a happy, chirpy and highly motivated individual, but this time, I was a lost and grieving soul,” she shares.

She continues, “I lost myself when I lost my father. He had always been my support system. I went into depression and nothing felt right. I kept focussing on the fact that he was gone and could not feel any connection to him.”

Searching for this lost connection to her father is what paved her way to Spiti. “I thought, if I am high up in the mountains, then I’ll be closer to heaven and hence my father,” she says.

Portia stayed in Kaza with a local family for a month and started teaching their children. “I wanted to spend more time in the mountains and this family took me in. I would teach their kids in return and it was a great experience. One thing that I noticed was that education, especially for the underprivileged kids, was in a very bad shape and I wanted to do something about it,” she says.

Portia plans various play activities for the kids to provide a wholesome learning experience
Portia also provides free food, lodging, clothing and shelter to these children. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

In 2020, she quit her job and career and moved to Spiti. “It took me a lot of courage to give up my life in Mumbai where I was working and move to Spiti for good. Everyone called me stupid for doing that, but I had to do it. It was a step closer to my father and also to finding my purpose in life,” she shares.

From Kaza to Komic

Unsure of the first steps to take, Portia went to children playing on the streets and parks to approach them.

“I honestly did not know what I was doing. I just spoke to the kids playing on the streets and told them that I will give them crayons and sheets, and teach them art. This intrigued them. Initially, only a few showed up. I would sit under a tree in Kaza and teach these kids how to speak English, sing rhymes, and draw,” she says.

Word spread among the little ones about the crayons and watercolours, and they started to show up in larger numbers. “There was a time when close to 40 children used to show up to learn. This gave me the motivation I needed to take this up seriously,” she says.

Portia visited remote villages in the area and realised how the children in those areas do not have any access to education. “There was no way those kids would walk all those hours to reach Kaza to study with me. Besides, the parents did not understand the need for education. They were very reluctant to send their children to school,” she says.

Apart from their regular syllabus, the children also get to do activities such as gardening, painting and dancing. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

As Kaza was a tourist hub, Portia was unable to find a reasonably priced place to set up a small school and a library. “I also wanted to set up a dormitory and a kitchen for children who do not have a home to go to. I was running out of money and needed a cheaper place,” she says.

This is when she got to know about a place in Komic which was up for rent at a very low price. “Renting the place is Komic seemed the right thing to do. This way I would be able to reach the children living in the remotest areas,” she says.

In 2022, she moved to Komic and rented the place to start a free boarding school under her foundation —  Planet Spiti Foundation.

Following her father’s footsteps

“When I think about it, my greatest motivation is my father. All of this work and my foundation are a tribute to him. I’m just continuing what he started,” she says.

Moving to Komic was the first step towards her dream but what Portia was not aware of was the problems that would follow. “The major issue that I faced was convincing the parents to let their children go to school. They would say “kya karega padh ke, momo bech ke bhi paisa kama lega” (What will my child do with education? They can earn even by selling dumplings),” she says.

She continues, “I would spend hours talking to them and ask them to send them to school. At first, many were unmoved but slowly they caved in. Moreover, if I take a child and give them food, shelter and education, it lightens their burden.”

The kids in her boarding school are in the age group of 8 to 10 years
Portia started with three children which has now grown to 10. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

She started her boarding school with three children and the number has grown to 10 presently.

Calling herself “mother” to those children, she says, “These children are not orphans and are not abandoned by choice but by poverty. Around 50 percent of these kids do not have a surviving parent, but the rest have parents who can’t raise them. This is where I come in,” she says.

‘The children keep me going’

Every morning Portia wakes up to the sound of the children outside her window.

“They would call me Portia madam and giggle at my window. I believe this is the best way to wake up every morning. After waking up, the first thing I do is to light up the tandoor to heat up the classrooms,” she says.

“We use firewood or cow dung for the tandoor and I cook on top of that sometimes. I prepare breakfast and the kids get ready,” she says.

The children start their day with a small assembly and then head to their classes. “I teach them everything from mathematics and science to English and art. I also conduct many activities like gardening, dancing, etc throughout the week to keep the learning wholesome,” she adds.

The children’s age group is between three and 10 years old. The classes go up to 5 o’clock in the evening.

Portia's classroom in Komic
Portia left her journalism career to become a teacher and “mother” to these underprivileged children. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

“A girl, who is older than other children, takes one class at my school. She used to be very shy. But today, she helps me in taking care of the children,” she shares.

“I love living and studying with Portia ma’am. I am studying hard to be the best student and grow up to be a doctor. Earlier, I was shy and couldn’t speak Hindi or English, but now I’m teaching seven younger kids and getting paid a small token amount for it too. It is very exciting as I can now buy gifts for my grandma and send them home,” says Tanzin Norzom.

Talking about the hurdles, Portia says, “The main issue that I have been facing for quite some time is funding. I built this place with my savings and there have been months when I am unsure how I will buy vegetables and food for us. However, something or the other always works out and we end up having just enough money,” she says.

“My concerns have always been — what next? I have always had this feeling ‘aukaat se bahar ki zimmedari leli’ (Did I take up a responsibility that I am not capable of fulfilling?). I am capable of undertaking the primary education of these kids. But I am looking at prospective schools which can take them in when they will need secondary education,” she says.

“Self-doubts keep bothering me, but what keeps me going is the smile on all these little faces. These children are so untouched and pure. I believe that I am just a medium, and it was the fate of these kids that brought me here,” she adds.

Portia with the kids she teaches
The children in her boarding school are in the age group of 8 to 10 years. Picture credit: Portia Putatunda

About her journey of healing from her father’s loss so far, Portia says, “I have had my fair share of low moments in life. There was a time in my life when I thought that I will never be able to feel connected with my father. Now, all I want is to have good things to share when ‘I see him again’. Even if it means making a difference in just one child’s life, it will be enough.”

If you wish to help Portia, you can reach her at 93680 68121. (As Komic is a remote village with low network connectivity, messaging through WhatsApp would be the best option.)

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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