Evening at Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, May 2015
and so does everything around... the situation, the people, the perspective, the needs.... and we too change.... the wise and courageous seek change.. because only change is constant!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

56. At Last...

It is about 9.00 in the morning when I see her. No, I do not know her, and I do not talk to her. I am aware that taking this photograph is an invasion on her privacy. But I take it to remind myself the burden women carry in their life.

I am traveling from Munger (Bihar) to a small tribal hamlet. On the way we have stopped at a dhaba for breakfast. Anticipating non-availability of hygienic food my team has carried bread, butter and jam. So, in the midst of poverty, I am having a luxury breakfast. I am traveling in a car, which has air-conditioning facility. I have packaged water bottle with me. I have instruments like mobile and digicam. I have enough money in pocket and I have enough food. My life stands in full contradiction with the woman who has to carry this burden almost everyday.

We move away. I see men sitting on the top of the bus and tempo all through my journey in the state.

The transport facility is so scarce, that people have to travel like this. Inside the vehicle there is crowd. It is humid and hot. Those sitting on the top of the bus at least get enough air to breathe. I do not know what is happening to those sitting inside the vehicle – and women have to sit inside. Another burden they carry. I see my life in full contradiction with those traveling on the bus-top.

We reach at the end of the road. A tribal (Santhal community) young man is there to receive us and guide us towards the hamlet. He is speaking fluent Hindi and is not at all shy. As we are walking through paddy fields, I have to pay full attention to the marked walking path. One moment here and there, and I would slip in the mud. I can neither enjoy the conversation nor the scenic beauty around.

We reach a small hamlet. A bucketful of water is brought for us. Within five minutes women gather in the community hall. They are surrounded by children. Men too come to listen. The hall is packed. I sit on the chair. Generally I sit on the ground but today I cannot. On the road were many thorny grasses, my salwar is full of those thorns. If I sit cross legged, thorns are sure to trouble me, so I sit in the chair. The local men and women walk through these thorny fields regularly. There is no shop in the hamlet, no dispensary, nothing. For everything people have to walk for at least five kilometers. They live with the thorny grasses happily. I see my life in full contradiction with the life of these tribal people.

One of my responsibilities is to address such meetings. Actually I do not teach them much but I learn a lot from them. The hamlet name is Vannarkola. There are only 36 households in the hamlet. Electricity polls exist, but there is no electricity. Women and children are malnourished. I apologize for not knowing their ‘tribal’ language. They all enjoy my ignorance in a healthy way – ‘it is alright’ kind of expression on their faces. Most families own land – a small land of course. Women have formed couple of Self Help Groups. Some have participated in agriculture development program. I talk about different things.

I pass on the baton to my colleague and come out of the hall. I like this hamlet. The houses are small, with mud walls. I see green paddy fields around and the sky is clear blue. There is deep peace in the environment. I fully enjoy the moment, knowing well that I would never get it in the city.

My team comes out in search of me. They start talking about different aspects of the development program. I leave that peaceful moment behind and jump into the discussion. Well, a lot of things could be done here. We walk through the hamlet, open the doors (in the absence of its owner) and glance at the inner part of some houses. I meet a 10 year girl, whose name is ‘Gungee’. A man is carrying a small child on his shoulders, whose name is ‘Khushabu’. I see utensils, clothes, goats, cows, and birds. I get a feel that ‘this is a fine place’. And again, I see my life in full contradiction with the hamlet. One enjoys such remote hamlets when one’s life is not blocked into it. As I have a comfortable place to stay, I can appreciate mud house. What if I am compelled to stay in it?

The program ends. The SHG is providing tea and biscuits to all those who are gathered. I notice that the kids are given only biscuits. In the eyes of the kids, I see a wish for tea. I invite them to dip their biscuit in my cup of tea. Without hesitation, a child dips a biscuit. Then comes the second child, then the third and so on. I see their smiling faces, the happiness in their eyes.

And I see my life in full contradiction with these kids. For them, just a little tea to dip a biscuit is a source of such a tremendous joy. And for me?

We leave. A group of women and men walk with us about a couple of kilometers, just to see us off. We talk, we smile, we laugh, we plan, we promise to meet again. The feeling of closeness is mutual. The joy in meeting each other is mutual. The wish to meet again is mutual. The connectedness is mutual. The wish to hold hands is mutual. The smile, the happiness is mutual. The bond is mutual.

At last, there is no contradiction.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

55. PWS

It was a cool Saturday in the month of July. I was not feeling well that day, wanted to take some time off. However, I had committed meeting Sachin at 9.30 in the morning. He was coming from Deharadun for some meeting. His friend Jai Prakash had e-mailed the meeting agenda to me, but frankly I had not paid attention. The meeting was in the campus of world known IT company, which was another attraction. So, finally I decided to go.

The moment my auto rickshaw stopped, a young smiling man came forward to receive me. “Are you Savita?” he asked, and when I smiled affirmatively, he pleasantly said “I am Jai”. I was astonished to find such a young man to be friend of Sachin. I could not get the connection at that moment. The other young man M too introduced himself. I started wondering what this meeting was all about.

After all the formalities of security check, photo pass for the day, leaving pen drive at the reception counter etc, I entered the classroom. Sachin was talking to some people. Everything was still hazy.

After a good breakfast (thanks to Jai), we had a round of introduction. There were about 20 people, mostly young, all well educated, enthusiastic and smart. They were meeting for last few months, but it was their first day-long meeting, with some new faces.

We watched a movie ‘UNSPEAKABLE’ – a Canadian documentary based on the interviews of People Who Stammer (PWS). The documentary touched the hearts of all participants. Everybody came forward to share what s/he felt about the documentary and in the process opened up a life canvas which till then was unknown to me.

Who can imagine that someone chooses only that food from the menu card, which s/he can utter easily without stammering? One man shared that he could not eat the famous ‘Baby Medu Vada’ in his canteen just because he feared that he would definitely stammer while uttering that word. Who can imagine that people chose certain career even when they did not like – just because it required almost no talking? Someone talked about the fear of pronouncing his name, so he always shied away from strangers. Many people shared how they could not instantly say ‘Yes Sir/Madam’ when the teacher was taking attendance, and they had to go and meet the teacher after the class to register presence.

I was observing all the speakers and sometimes I felt that the speaker changed the statement in the midst of talking. One participant explained it. He said, “Whenever a difficult word comes, I try to avoid it and say something else (easy) than what I had planned to say”. One man, a father of two kids, shared how he feels when his kids do no want him to place order when they visit a restaurant – fearing that the father would stammer. One woman explained how her friend is getting lonelier because of stammering. Some participants shared that: they speak in a hurry because they fear that they may stammer at any (next) moment.

Listening to all those experiences was touching. Because, I had never known this side of life. I had come across some people who stammered but had not given much thought to it. Sometimes I tried to ‘help’ stammering person by providing the right word – now I understand that this does not help him/her but rather makes him/her more conscious about stammering. Sometimes I had ‘helped’ such persons by taking charge of the situation and did all the talking myself – now I understand that by such action I did not really help the stammering person. I could understand the struggle this group (and many more people like them) goes through life, and I was motivated by their determination to overcome the situation and bring change. It was really an energizing and educative experience for me.

I was also feeling a bit awkward. I was a total stranger to them and they shared their heart’s concern with me, they had shown a great trust in me. I was not expected to be sympathetic and I was not supposed to support – I was to just understand. I was not sure whether my responses hurt them or whether I was unintentionally insensitive to them. I was not like them and still the group accommodated me with ease. Thanks, Pune PWS SHG.

How different God (Nature) has made all of us! How different challenges God (Nature) puts in front of us. We need to support each other so that everyone blooms and everyone has a good life. We need to form a group of ‘People Who Support’ (PWS) – irrespective of the similarities and differences. I am sure the PWS SHG is becoming a People Who Support group through their continuous interaction.

If you know anyone who stammers, motivate him/her to be associated with TISA (The Indian Stammering Association). For more information please visit

Friday, September 11, 2009

54.For Seven Heads?

Request: Please, forgive me if you find this post too full of self admiration.

A hectic week was ahead. On Sunday afternoon I had returned from a week long travel in Andhra Pradesh. On Tuesday evening was a conference call, for which I had to prepare. On Wednesday I was going to Delhi for a workshop, which needed some amount of preparatory reading. Return from Delhi on Saturday night, and travel to Gujarat Monday (next) early morning was the plan. In all, I needed to prepare for five different meetings within two days. Life was too short.

Monday morning I reach office and there is an invitation. The institution has long term relations with my organization, so I cannot reject. I am supposed to facilitate a session on ‘Women’s Empowerment’ on Thursday. I won’t be in town on that day. None of my colleagues are free to do me a favor. I have no option but to request the organizers for change of day – and Tuesday is the only possible day.

Monday night, I come home and prepare for the session.

When I reached the workshop venue, there were only four participants. Swine flu had scared the potential participants, hence the meager attendance. By the time I chatted with the workshop coordinator, two more people joined. Then we had formal inauguration - I spoke informally though – and we had snacks and tea. One hour spent in waiting, introduction and my ‘inaugural speech’.

By the time I started my session, one more participant came – so there were seven heads (– I am not including mine in the total for obvious reasons.) I was given two hours’ time for the session, and I took exactly that much time. I enjoyed the session and the participants’ verbal and non-verbal responses showed joy and satisfaction. They all forced me to lunch with them. After all the ‘give and take’ of cell number and e-mail id etc, I started back for office at 2.30 in the afternoon.

On the way, I suddenly remembered N. I was a full time activist then. N was Vice President. He had arrived in the city to conduct week long training. On the first day, only three participants appeared. I was completely disappointed and thought that canceling the training was the best way. To my utter amazement N had a full two hour session (which was the plan) with them. He was calm, quiet; he did not compromise with the content and with the quality of the delivery. After every five minutes I was looking at the wall clock, wishing to wind up the session and the event.

Immediately after his session was over; (and before the participants left ;) I suggested N that ‘we end the training here’. I was not bothered about putting such a suggestion to the Vice President. N was surprised. He asked, “Why? What is the reason?” I was impatient and said, “Do you mean that only for three people we all should waste so much of time and energy?”

N smiled. “Do you mean that those who did not come are more important than those who came? You should check your premise.”

I was taken aback by his response. However I was adamant. “Is not your time and energy more important? Don’t you think that you should utilize your time more effectively?” I was indeed rude to him. “I will plan some other activity, which will attract more participants”, I added.

N smiled again. He said, “Experience has taught me never to count on numbers, never to play for gallery. All good work needs a farmer like patience. You sow seeds at the smallest opportunity. Who knows, something will grow here too. If nothing grows, don’t feel guilty. Your job is to deliver irrespective of rewards. Do it for the sake of work, joy of work, excellence and duty. Never bring down the quality of work because there is nobody to appreciate. One should always give hundred percent. ”

I was touched by his sincerity and honesty. I gave up. But I was puzzled. I was not fully convinced. I did not understand him then. It has taken 25 years for me to understand what he said that day.

Today if someone challenges me for wasting half a day just for seven heads, my answer would be: I did it because I believed that I had something important to share. I did it because I trust that no good work is wasted. I did it because the cause mattered to me. I did it because I valued and respected those who were present. Less effort from me would have been an injustice. I did it not for any external gains but for the pure joy of working excellently. The work itself was rewarding.

I did not do anything for those seven heads. I did it for myself.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

53. Teachers: Aaj Kal

When I was studying in school, teachers’ day was not of a great relevance to me. No, we did not give flowers to teachers nor did eulogize them. Even during those times, I had a dilemma between Guru Poornima and Teachers’ Day. They generally appeared within a span of few weeks. ‘Why we celebrate two different days for the same event’ – was the question nobody liked me to ask. (Later I read that 5th September is not the real birth date of Dr. Radhakrishnan, it is his registered birth date!) Actually nobody liked me to ask any kind of question. They all wanted only answers and only those answers which they taught me to give. I thought it was profession which one was pushed into. So, I guess, I never wanted to be a teacher. And more than that I wanted the studentship to end as fast as it could.

During the last year in the school, all the students were ‘allowed’ to take a role of a teacher for one day… for one 35 minutes period to be exact. But I remember that I wasn’t interested in teaching anyone, because even then I knew that I could not. Somehow, I was pushed into that role, which I did not like.

But I have good memories of my teachers. The one in my primary school, who could write with both hands, was like a magician. The one in secondary school who became emotional while teaching a poem was exceptional – he taught me to look beyond expressed words. It opened a whole new game of ‘interpretation’ for me. I still deal with facts, interpretations, feelings, thoughts…. with enthusiasm. There was a time when I hated Mathematics. But one good teacher changed my view. He really made Mathematics a fun for me and later during the college days, my Mathematics teacher opened links of Mathematics and Philosophy to me. I can write a lot about my teachers. They have taught me a lot. Though I am not sure I picked up the right aspects of their teachings. So, don’t blame them for my faults and limitations :)

I thought that after completing my education, I will not have to listen to teachers. But I was completely wrong. I realized that learning never ends (good, otherwise what will I do if all learning is over, it would be almost like a death) and I kept on meeting teachers now and then. A traffic police not accepting the bribe (oh! Oh! Not me…) is my teacher. A Train Conductor treating a beggar very sympathetically is my teacher. A tribal woman teasing me “I know your language, but you don’t know mine, then what is the use of schooling?’ is my teacher. A woman who picks garbage from my residential complex teaches me about segregating disposable and non-disposable waste. Thousands of women dealing with domestic violence and alcohol abuse are my teachers. Some artist in the corner of the country engrossed in his art (not for livelihood) is my teacher. A bus driver, working on festival days is my teacher. I am surrounded by teachers; I am given a lot of knowledge and experience free of charge.

That has changed my perspective about teachers, though I do not like people who always preach. I admire practitioners who teach me silently and through their life. These teachers allow me to ask questions and they do not expect me to give ‘taught’ answers. In fact they do not want any answers from me. They are capable enough to ask questions and to find answers for themselves.

Aaj Kal my teachers have improved a lot. Or is it that I have improved as a student?

Does not matter until the learning process is on.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

52. HMV

I am bit naïve even after attending so many workshops. I assume that people would prefer to interact for a longer time, which is not the case. This workshop too was over before the scheduled time – a usual practice. As the organizers had asked participants to book for ‘cheapest flights’, many of us were stuck at the venue. The workshop was over at 11.00 in the morning and my flight was at 8.50 in the evening.

The first taxi to the airport was to leave after lunch. Many local people had made their own arrangements, but the outsiders decided to have lunch at the workshop, chat for some time and then leave for airport. There were about 12 people, women and men, representing different organizations and government departments.

The workshop theme was ‘Empowerment of Women’. There were different perspectives regarding what is empowerment (whether it is primarily economic), the process of empowerment (whether it is primarily individual or collective), role of outsiders in women’s empowerment and so on. It was interesting to listen to people with different backgrounds and working in different states. Sometimes people agreed and sometimes they did not agree. Everybody was passionate about his/her ideas, but the basic respect for the ‘other thought’ was never lost in the discussion. The discussion was taking place in a very healthy environment. Now a days I hardly get a chance to participate in such open discussions (for me it is mostly ‘what to do list’ – though people generally don’t order me…) so I was fully enjoying it.

The post workshop discussion was on difference of opinions as it was a small group. People differed about whether microfinance should be an agenda of Self Help Group (SHG) and whether SHG Federations should work as microfinance institutes. People had different ideas whether gender aspects could be tackled through grassroots institutions. And some had strong opinions about whether livelihood challenge can be addressed through SHGs.

Suddenly I noticed that one sentence was appearing on the surface more often. It was ‘Come to our place and listen to women’s voices. I am saying what women in our area (meaning in my organization’s working area) want to say. We need to respect their ideas, thoughts and feelings’. People were honestly saying this, but I was just wondering why women have such different opinions and ideas and feelings – and that too about issues like microfinance, empowerment, livelihood etc.

Then the realization dawned upon me. Most of the times we allow only those people around us (especially so if they are ‘beneficiaries’…) who speak the same language and have the same ideas. Development practitioners generally facilitate things the way they want. That is the expected skill. The more successfully one can facilitate (meaning ‘push’) one’s agenda, the more successful one is and the more ‘market value’ one has.

This means we avoid ‘other voices’, we shun away from ‘different ideas’. We allow only those who agree with us, in the process we create ‘His/Her Master’s Voice’ which we wrongly interpret as support and understanding of grassroots realities. In our world we allow only those, who agree with us. Thus, by using HMV technique, we create illusion around ourselves. Then to believe that this is real, we try to find only similar minded people... we try to follow voice of some or the other Master… by creating HMV, we too become HMV….

It is fun to have contradictory ideas and perspectives in life. It is necessary that we question ourselves and bring in changes in life. Being HMV might be the key to success in this world, but by being HMV we do not grow in real sense. Instead of being HMV we need to listen to ‘Voice of My Heart’ (VMH)…

(I do not mean that you all listen to my heart... but your heart...)