My summer of volunteer in Spiti leads me to a nunnery in the Morang village of the valley, in the backdrop of snow-hooded Himalayas and on the shore of the Spiti River.
To conceptualize a new volunteer program for Ecosphere, the organization I’m volunteering with, I’m spending an evening with a nun to learn about her life. I’m a little anxious; the closest I’ve been to a nunnery is in the wanderings of my curious mind, and the last thing I want to do is cross the thin line into insensitivity.
The head of the nunnery asks a young nun to be the victim of my questions and she heartily abides. Dressed in a traditional red and orange gown, with a pretty blue veil, I guess her age almost accurately as 22. We walk to the kitchen, making small talk about the weather, and warm up over tea. She tells me she came to the nunnery 6 years ago, out of her own choice, and has been a student since. Her big dark brown eyes are filled with young innocence that’s hard to miss. As we laugh over trivial jokes, I quickly forget that she’s a nun; we talk about our lives like college students meeting for the first time. I remain conscious enough to leave out the subject of boys, though.
Each day in the nunnery sounds quite similar to the next. The nuns, locally known as Chomus, spend upto 12 hours a day studying Philosophy and English. The highlight of the days is a 1-hour debating session, each morning and evening, in which a rotated panel of 5 nuns sits upfront to answer philosophical questions posed by the rest of the 44 nuns. My young nun laughs and tells me that if the panel is unable to answer a question satisfactorily, the others boo them.
Life isn’t easy in the winter months for these nuns. Temperature falls below -15 degrees at night on average, and surviving without any heating facilities in unthinkable to me. Burning firewood collected over the summer is their sole way of survival. She doesn’t make a big deal of it though, dismissing my sigh by talking about this summer so pleasant; they spend many a night studying outside under the moonlight in the summer.
It’s dinner time at the nunnery and as she gets ready to leave, I ask her if she’d like to take a picture with me. Excitedly, she grabs a red shawl traditionally worn on the head by nuns, and takes off her blue veil. In a split second, the realization of her austere life as a nun dawns back on me. Below her veil, my sub-conscious self had expected to see flowing long hair to complement her young face, instead of her almost-bald head. It steals a few degrees of femininity from her, and as I pose with her for a photograph, I feel just a little guilty of myself. In my fake smile, all my questions come back in a flash. I wonder what she thinks as she looks at herself in the mirror every morning. I wonder if she ever thinks about looking pretty, about being with someone…
Perhaps in her alternate universe, life has a meaning that people like me will never discover.