I travel a lot. For many years my New Year Resolution has been ‘to reduce travel this year’ but I have never been able to achieve that. Frankly speaking I have never honestly tried to accomplish my resolution. Because basically I love the challenge of moving. Sometimes I feel that I like instability because it keeps me awake and keeps me related to everything around. Too much stability is harmful to me.
During most of my travels, I am the only woman in the group. When there are more than three people, we generally travel in a four wheeler. I have good relationship with most of my colleagues, so they take care of me and are sensitive to my needs.
Cultural norms about authority and position are very interesting to observe. For example, in most situations the best chair is reserved for the topmost person. The authorities are served tea in better cups (and possibly with better taste!). The boss would get the first glass of water and s/he will have the first and the last words. In many places, the subordinates would stand up when the boss enters – that does not mean they all have respect for him/her. But who cares? In many working cultures the position of the person in the vehicle is also seen as very essential to emphasize his/her authority. For example, in a four wheeler the front seat would be mostly occupied by the most senior person.
I have always found such norms very funny. I have never asked others to change it because most authoritative people are very sensitive about their power display and about their position in front of the group of subordinates. However, I have never followed those standard guidelines for myself. I like to shock people – not for the sake of shocking anyone but I believe that action is more important than mere words. So, whenever I have to travel in a crowded four wheeler I take the back seat and ask the junior most colleagues to occupy the front seat. As it is, we move in their field area and they should be treated well for the amount of work they put in. My young colleagues initially felt very awkward about the reversed position, but somehow they learnt to live with that. And we all were happy about it. Until that incidence happened.
We went to a small tribal hamlet. A large group of women was waiting for us. We all went to the hall where women had arranged the meeting. I was the chief speaker (rather the only speaker!) in the meeting. We had discussion for about three hours. We discussed many topics – the life of women, means of livelihood, workload, health issues, income generation opportunities, and social constraints, education of girls... and range of topics important to their life. We also discussed how they could collectively overcome certain problems and prepared an action plan for the next three months. The focus of the discussion was changing life through challenging situations collectively – in their context. Then we had few home visits which were useful in understanding the various activities women have undertaken and which brought change in their life.
The discussion was followed by a well prepared tribal food – which I enjoy very much. We all ate well and after handshake with every woman (they nowadays proactively come forward for handshake instead of the traditional ‘Namaskar’) we were about to leave.
As I was approaching the rear seat of the vehicle, one woman asked, “Tai, won’t you occupy the front seat?”
Before I could utter a word, another woman from the group answered, “How can Tai take the front seat when there are so many men around? Woman always has to remain behind, no matter how clever she is!”
I was stunned by her observation. Though I had an understanding with my colleagues, and they had never directly or indirectly forced me to remain behind, we all realized that my action was giving a wrong message to community women. The action and the message were in complete contradiction. It was contradictory to what I was speaking in the meetings and what my role required. I was talking about empowerment to them and I was presenting myself as ‘disempowered’ amongst men.
I realized that it is sometimes necessary to build appropriate image – appropriate to what you are speaking, appropriate to what your role demands – even though it may sound as an artificial action. People are bound by their contexts and they interpret your action in their own context.
From that day,we (me and my colleagues) have developed a tacit understanding. When we are visiting a village, while leaving, I consciously take the front seat. It is because when we reach village, not everybody is around. But when we leave village, almost all women come to see us off. Their smile at my position in the vehicle is an award to me and a promise to them. For that to happen an effort of Image Building has to be taken, no matter howsoever I dislike it. Women’s dreams and their aspirations are more important to me when I interact with them – because I am imposing myself on their life without invitation. In my world, I can do whatever I want, but in their world I need to do whatever I indirectly promise them.