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

Portia Putatunda’s fondest memory of her late father is that he used to play and sing nursery rhymes with the children.

“He was very fond of children. I always watched how they involved them. While playing, he would read tables and rhymes to teach them. He would visit rural areas and distribute books to children for free. This memory is deeply ingrained and always inspires me.” India’s best.

To continue her father’s efforts, Portia today runs a free Planet Spiti Foundation boarding school in Kumik, Himachal Pradesh, the highest village in India. An educator, caretaker, and mother to these disadvantaged children in many ways, Portia takes care of their education, provides food, and generally supports their development.

‘Trying to be close to my dad’

Born and brought up in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Portia has completed her graduation in Journalism from Kolkata and did an internship with The Times of India.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue journalism. After working with TOI, I’ve worked with many other organizations. I was a junior producer with CNN before I decided to quit journalism,” says 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 traveling and visiting such places, but at the time I had no clue that I would end up living in the valley itself.”

Portia students showcasing their work
Portia opens a free boarding school in Comique to honor her father’s memory. Image credit: Portia Putatonda

In 2018, the valley called her again and she revisited the place. “The first time I visited, I was a very happy, cheerful, excited individual, but this time, I was a sad, lost soul,” she said.

After losing her father, Portia was slipping into depression when she made her second and final trip to Spiti.

“I lost myself when I lost my dad. My parents divorced when I was only eight and he was my support system. I lost my mom and dad,” she says. “I got depressed and nothing felt right. I kept focusing on the fact that he was gone and I didn’t feel any connection to him.”

The search for this missing connection with her father is what paved her way to Spiti. “I thought, if I were high in the mountains, I’d be closer to heaven than here is my father,” she says.

Portia stayed at Casa with a local family for a month and began teaching her children. “I wanted to spend more time in the mountains and this family took me in. I would educate their children in return and it was a great experience. One of the things I noticed was that education, especially for underprivileged children, was in very poor shape and I wanted to do something about it,” she says. .

Portia plans different play activities for children to provide a wholesome learning experience
Portia also provides free food, lodging, clothing, and shelter for these children. Image credit: Portia Putatonda

In 2020, she left her job and career and moved to Spiti. “It took a lot of courage for me to give up my life in Mumbai where I used to work 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 parents and also to finding my purpose in life,” she shares.

From Casa to Comic

Unsure of what first steps to take, Portia went to the children playing in the streets and parks to get close to them.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I just talked to the kids playing in the streets and told them I was going to give them crayons and covers and teach them art. That’s what got them interested. At first, only a few showed up. I’d sit under a tree in the casa and teach these kids How to speak English, sing rhymes and draw.

Word spread among the youngsters of crayons and watercolors, and they began to appear in greater numbers. “There was a time when almost 40 kids used to come to learn. It gave me the motivation I needed to take this seriously,” she says.

Portia visited remote villages in the area and realized how children in those areas had no access to education. “There was no way for these children to walk all those hours to get to Casa to study with me. Besides, the parents did not understand the need for education. They were very reluctant to send their children to school.

Apart from the usual school curriculum, children can also do activities such as gardening, painting and dancing. Image credit: Portia Putatonda

Since the Casa was a tourist center, Portia could not find a reasonable place to set up a small school and library. “I also wanted to set up a dormitory and kitchen for the children who had no home to go to. I was running out of money and I needed somewhere cheaper,” she says.

That’s when I got to know a place in Comic that was for rent at a very low rate. “Renting the place seemed like the right thing to do. This way I would be able to reach the children who lived in remote areas.

In the year 2022, she has moved to Kumic and rented the place to start a free boarding school affiliated with her foundation – the Planet Spiti Foundation.

Following in her father’s footsteps

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

Moving to Comic was the first step towards her dream but what Portia didn’t know were the problems that would follow. The main problem I faced was convincing parents to let their children go to school. They said “Kya karega padh ke, momo bech ke bhi paisa kaam lega” (What will my child do with education? They can even earn by selling dumplings), ”she says.

She continues, “I used to spend hours talking to them and asking them to send them to school. At first, many did not move but slowly gave up. Moreover, if you take a child and give them food, shelter and education, it eases their burden.”

The children in her boarding school are in the age range of 8 to 10 years
Portia started out with three kids and has now grown to 10. Image: Portia Putatonda

She started her boarding school with three children and has increased to 10 currently.

Describing herself as the “mother” of these children, she says, “These children are not orphans and are not abandoned by choice but by poverty. About 50 percent of these children do not have a living father, but the rest have fathers who cannot raise them. This is the place where I came to him,” she says.

“The kids keep me going”

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

“They would call me Madam Portia and laugh at my window. I think that is the best way to get up every morning. After getting up, the first thing I do is light the tandoor to warm the classrooms.”

“We use wood or cow dung for the tandoor and I cook on top of that sometimes. I make breakfast and the kids get ready.”

The children start their day with a small gathering and then head to their classes. “I teach them everything from math and science to English and art. I also do many activities like gardening, dancing, etc. throughout the week to keep the learning meaningful.”

The age range of children ranges from 3 to 10 years. Classes run until 5 p.m.

Portia's Classroom at Comic
Portia left her journalism career to become a teacher and “mother” to these underprivileged children. Image credit: Portia Putatonda

“A girl who is older than the other children, she takes one class at my school. She was very shy. But today she helps me with the children.”

Speaking of the hurdles she faces regularly, Portia says, “The main issue I have been facing for some time now is finance. I built this place with my savings, and there were months when I wasn’t sure how to buy us vegetables and food. However, something Or the other one is always working and we end up with just enough money,” she says.

“My fears have always been — what’s next? I’ve always had that feeling “take responsibility for spring by chance” (Have I taken on a responsibility I can’t handle?). I am able to attend primary education for these children. But I am looking forward to potential schools that can take them in when they need a secondary education.

“Self-doubt constantly bothers me, but what keeps me going is the smile on all these little faces. These kids are so untouched and pure. I think I’m just a medium, and it’s the fate of these kids that got me here,” she adds.

Portia with the children she teaches
The children in her boarding school are in the age range of 8 to 10 years. Image credit: Portia Putatonda

Mihir Golani, a traveler who recently visited Portia School, says, “It is a wonderful initiative that she has taken. And teach them to play with them.”

About her journey of healing from the loss of her father so far, Portia says, “I’ve had my fair share of bad moments in life. There was a time in my life when I thought I wouldn’t be able to feel connected to my dad. 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 would like to help Portia, you can reach her at 93680 68121. (Since Komic is a remote village with low network connectivity, messaging via WhatsApp would be the best option.)

Edited by Pranita Bhatt


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *