Three Stories, Three Transformations
By: Narendra Shandilya
In my last two weeks at SRIJAN, I have witnessed multiple incidents, events and stories. A few of them have had a transformative impact on me. This has been a journey encompassing a few thousand kilometers, a few colleagues, a strong support system and a learning experience. I will be narrating three stories which struck a chord with me. All the three experiences connect to larger part of self-discovery and creating meaningful impact with work.
An invisible line
/Bhoori Devi is the head of a family in a remote village of Kanwarpura. She is a widow, managing a family of five. Her husband died of alcoholism five years back. She belongs to Bheel community, a Scheduled Tribe. One thatched mud house, decorated with red mud border, one goat and a small portion of infertile land are all the valuable possessions she has. Her mother in law, a ten year old son and a fourteen year old daughter are completely dependent on her income, which she earns by selling manual labor, which is highly dependent on availability of work in her neighborhood. Her family spends 50 Rs daily on consumption of tobacco products. Her daughter and son are addicted to pan masala, whereas she herself is a chain-smoker. Her monthly income is 1800 Rs approximately/
I vividly remember the broad smile which she greeted me with. The warmth & affection she showered on me was unprecedented. I have never felt such acceptance from a stranger in the first meeting. After exchange of pleasantries and quenching her keenness of knowing who I am and what my life has been, came the pertinent question of the caste I belong to (a question which decides your identity, skills, social status and almost everything in rural India, for that matter in urban areas as well), and I uttered,” A Brahmin!!” and the things turned upside down. The conversations switched from ‘tum’ to ‘aap’ and there was an obvious sense of me being somewhere up in the power hierarchy.
In no time the news spread in the village that a Brahmin is staying with the Bheels, and there were people from the village, apparently of a higher caste than the Bheels who came and asked me to stay with them, for a Brahmin staying with a Bheel was unacceptable to them. I resisted this strange proposal, for I was very much comfortable staying there with them, but somehow the Meenas convinced Bhoori Ji to let me go and stay with them, as she will be accountable for all the sins of keeping a Brahmin. Bhoori Ji terrified with the thought, herself started asking me to leave and stay with the other family of Meenas, with an assurance of not letting the team know.
The same awkwardness stuck me the next day, when the Meenas came again with the same offer in the evening. This time the proposal was of staying with them for I was done with the task of staying with the Bheels and observing their whereabouts, but I again resisted letting them know that I can’t lie to my organization. After rounds of negotiations the Meenas were convinced; telling me how they act the same when they are in cities or towns, but also shared the constraints of following the same in the village.
For me it was a small act of courage and doing what is right, but I could see the contentment Bhoori Ji had the next day, of me rejecting the offer of those who always appeared bigger to her.
The lady who rides motorcycle
We are structured beings, our brains are guarded by pre-conceived notions of society and its people, and when it comes to woman we can only perceive what we get to see in a quotidian life, where a woman is still an object of honor and dignity, and an image of an ideal woman is already constructed in our minds, which is why I wasn’t able to comprehend a simple sentence of Shanti Ji.
Shanti Ji, a confident State-level professional in SRIJAN, who could easily manage a dynamic of events, a number of meetings happening almost every day, taking care of 3-4 villages in Dooni Block, Tonk, Rajasthan, encountered my obvious questions of how does she commutes to one village to another and manages 32-34 meetings in a month, to which she replied by motorcycle and the reflex I had was ‘who drops you?’ and she answered that she rides it herself. It came as a shock to me where I could admit my stupidity of not keeping a woman in a Ghagra on the same page a woman in a pair of jeans is and this event was nothing but an end to my stereotypical understanding of a woman in a village.
It will take multiple generations
We are born with different passions and different hobbies but it takes a lot of courage to deliver the social responsibilities we hold to the country we are born in and this insight came to me as a conversation with Dr. Yogesh who in spite of dedicating 17 years of his life in the construction of a just and equitable system of healthcare, still does not plan to exit to pursue his personal interests.
When I asked him about what is the exit strategy, where does he see the end to his journey of serving the remote villages of Bilaspur, he answered that though he wants to do farming and spend some personal time gardening, he is ready to put multiple generations of work to better the system he and all of us are a part of.