It’s all in the mind

It’s been three weeks since I officially finished my six weeks of Youth for Sewa. And what a six weeks it’s been! Two days after I finished YFS I headed to Nagpur for a two week varg (camp). I could go on for hours about all the inspiring, hardworking karyakartas I’ve met, about the wonderful girls from the vastis who have made me feel like part of their own family and about the overall experience of being in Bharat.

 

IMG_3764
My farewell get-together at Ekta nagar organised by the girls.

Living the Bharatiya (Indian) lifestyle for six weeks has been many thing – fun, exciting, comforting, eye-opening, at times challenging and many more. Of course I’ve loved and cherished every moment of it, but undoubtedly I have come across situations which have led me to have a deep think about our society and its people.

There is an idea that I have come across and fully adopted it into my personal philosophy which I think is very pertinent. The idea is this – as long as basic attitudes and mind-sets don’t change, it will be impossible to effect change in society. Money, facilities and schemes are completely futile if the accompanying mind-set of the individual who is given all of these things is not correct. Hence, working at grassroots levels to develop future samaj karyakartas (workers of the society) is so important. If their characters and mind-sets are developed in such a way that they have their citizens’ and nation’s best interest at heart then there’s no limit to the issues we can solve in Bharat.

Ultimately if the people who we provide these facilities to do not care to use them then it will be a) a waste of money and resources and b) it won’t have resolved anything. People’s mind-sets, in Bharat especially, need to slowly change. I’ll give you two obvious examples of this.

  • One evening I was on my way back from the Surajya office. When the auto rickshaw was stopped at the traffic light I noticed a highly amusing yet ultimately saddening sight. There are many public toilet facilities dotted around in Bharat on the roadside. A man was relieving himself outside on a wall. The wall was of a public toilet facility. Now at first sight it was perhaps slightly amusing, one of those classic “only in India” moments. But as I pondered on it more and more, it really frustrated me. The toilets were no more than two metres away from the guy, it would have taken him approximately five more seconds to relieve himself in the urinals there. But no. He chose specifically to urinate outside, despite having the knowledge that the toilets were right there.
  • Whilst Modi’s Swacch Bharat campaign (which is still relatively new) has definitely gone a long way in reducing the amount of rubbish around, it’s still a highly prevalent problem. There have been many occasions when people around me have ignored the very nearby rubbish bin and just thrown their litter on the floor. The classic line “people will never change, it’s not worth the hassle” is an excuse thrown around to justify degrading our land.

Whilst these may seem like trivial things, when 1.3 billion people do them it’s far from trivial. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that people simply don’t care. They don’t care that their actions have wider consequences. They don’t care that their actions are influencing the next generation to make the same mistakes. As the two examples I outlined above show (especially the first one) it’s not a lack of money or facilities that’s necessarily the problem. Of course many suffer from poverty and lack of basic amenities and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed too. But all the money and facilities in the world won’t solve the issue of apathetic individuals.

To come up with a solution to this is tough. This isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s a way of life that’s existed for generations. We the samaj karyakartas can’t backslide into throwing around the ubiquitous phrase “people won’t change, it’s not worth the hassle”. It’s absolutely worth the hassle. Anything that uplifts a person, a community, a society, a nation, is worth the hassle. A good place to start when tackling this problem is the new generation. It has been evident through my work here in Pune that with every new generation comes a new more open minded attitude. Women who I spoke to around ages 30 – 35 who themselves have children up to aged 17 or 18 are so radically different in their approach to their children than their parents were to them. Many of them were just about allowed an education till the age of 14 then it was straight off to be married. Now those very women whose education was cut short too soon are insistent that their daughters obtain an education at least till the age of 18 and then marriage will come after. Already the change is in motion. That which was difficult to achieve with one generation can manifest itself in the next.

Hence youth leadership activities and activities in that realm that teach kids to be on the right path, to be responsible, organised, compassionate, respectful, hard-working and unwavering in their determination to make a change for the better, are so crucial. Such initiatives are being readily taken in many schools and youth groups here in Bharat, which is very promising.

Inculcating such values goes a huge way in creating an aware and determined generation, a generation with a mind-set that understands the need for change to start from the individual. A generation that doesn’t take each other, their community, their society, their nation or the earth for granted. The only way to develop a society is to develop one’s own mind set beforehand.

 

Advertisements

Kishori Ekatrikaran

Yesterday, Sunday 9th July, Surajya hosted a Kishori Ekatrikaran Karyakram. The aim of the event was to bring together girls from vastis all over Yerawda so they could meet new people, interact with each other, benefit from the sessions organised and enjoy a lovely day out. We began planning for this event about a week ago and it’s safe to say it was a great success. The karyakram was held in a local park and involved the coming together of kishori girls (aged 13-18) from 7 vastis (slums) over Yerawda. The final count was 123 girls plus about 15 karyakartas.

IMG_3727.JPG

IMG_3716

We were meant to start at 12:00pm. You can imagine what I’m about to say next. In accordance with traditional Indian concepts of timing (or lack thereof), the programme began an hour late, with the first session commencing at 1:00pm. The first session, after the introduction done by Shital tai, was a group discussion. For this, we split the whole group into three and Bageshri tai, Shital tai and myself conducted a group each. The discussion introduced the theme of the day – it’s only through self development that we can develop the society, or as Gandhi very poetically put it, be the change you wish to see in the world. The first question we asked was “what things are you prohibited from doing that you really want to do, simply because you’re a girl”. This led on to a discussion about why the girls’ families at times restrict them from doing some things and what reasons the parents might have. We then got on to the contentious question of “do we think there are things we do ourselves that might foment our parents lack of trust in us?” and “what can we be doing ourselves to develop this trust”. The overall picture the girls painted was clear. Firstly, the generational gap between the girls and their parents contributed a lot to the sense of not being understood, which really is not restricted to just vasti life but happens the world over. Secondly, because of the situation that the girls live in, they are surrounded by many dangers. As a result, the immediate solution the parents formulate is to restrict the amount of time girls can be outside for, insisting they don’t hang around with boys etc. Now, whilst this is of course not the correct solution, it’s understandable why their parents would try to impose these rules. There are never ending examples of girls in every vasti who have run away with their boyfriends, eloped, become pregnant with the guy’s child and then been abandoned by him and left penniless to fend for themselves. There are also countless examples of girls being used and abused by guys for their bodies, their love, and then instantly being dropped by them. Of course, for girls in that age range of 13-18 this can have a huge physical, mental and emotional toll. Therefore, the parents’ fears aren’t unfounded. Such tragic events happen regularly in the vasti. We discussed these scenarios as well, and as a group came to this conclusion. It’s very difficult having to juggle your own sense of independence with reassuring your parents and their keeping their trust. It’s a very fine balance. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that if we want our parents to trust us, to have faith in our abilities and therefore not restrict us, we need to show them that our character is worthy of that. We need to become individuals who are mentally alert, physically strong, resilient, self-confident and able.

 

IMG_3735.JPG

 

IMG_3729
Sat outside for the group discussion.

 

 

IMG_3730.JPG
Presenting the conclusion for the first session.

These sentiments were echoed in the next session, a talk done by Seema tai Kamble. Seema tai is an entrepreneur who runs, along with her husband, the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This organisation’s aims are the encourage entrepreneurship, industry and commerce within the Dalit community to alleviate their socio-economic problems and be a resource centre for those wishing to start up their own business. One of the organisation’s core philosophies is “be job givers – not job seekers”, promoting the idea that through the businesses it helps set up, these businesses should in turn serve society. Seema tai was an amazingly powerful speaker. Her speech was truly inspiring. She began by asking the girls what they want to change about society, or what changes they would like to see. She then asked them what hopes and ambitions they had for their future. Some wanted to be policewomen, some teachers, some actresses and one wished to be a sportswoman. Perhaps the most inspiring answer came from one girl who stood up, beamed and proudly exclaimed that in the future she hoped to be awarded a Bharat Ratna – the highest civilian award in India conferred “in recognition of exceptional performance/service of the highest order”.

The message conveyed in Seema tai’s speech was an incredibly stirring and highly important one – if we want to change society for the better, the first change has to be within ourselves. Read more, talk more, take up a hobby, hone a skill, keep up with current affairs, be mentally sharp and physically fit. We have high dreams, high hopes, but what do we do about it? It’s all well and good imagining the possibilities, which are endless, but unless we take the first step nothing will change. Every one of those girls sat there has an immense capacity that we cannot even imagine. I spoke about this a lot in a previous blog post, but it’s such a vital message that I’ll repeat it. The amount of responsibilities these girls have from such a young age endows them with inconceivable strength, determination and resilience. The next step is to use these assets in the correct way and for the correct cause – yes, to better their own personal socio-economic standing but through this contribute to the society as a whole. With the necessary tools, a noble attitude, unwavering determination and the right path there is absolutely no limit to what any of those girls can achieve. This was my message to the girls after the initial group discussion when we all re-joined in the hall. I was given 10 minutes to sum up the points made in the discussion and then talk about my experience so far. I wanted to emphasise to them that just because of the situation they live in, that doesn’t mean that they have any less or are worth any less than someone who is well off and doesn’t need to struggle for opportunities. In fact, in some ways they have so much more – insight into hardship, the willpower and resilience to rise from that hardship and the huge capacity that they have had to develop as a result of it.

 

IMG_3719.JPG

 

IMG_3734.JPG

Overall, it was a truly memorable day. Not only was I able to hear the incredible words of Seema tai, but I had the chance to interact with so many new faces and make new friends. All of the girls were amazing. Between spoonfuls of veg biryani at lunch (which was so delicious) we were all chatting away and sharing our experiences. Every time I get to interact with and get to know the girls I’m so thankful. Not only are they wonderfully friendly, easy to talk to people but I come back every time with an increased sense of respect and admiration for them. The Kishori Ekatrikaran Karyakram is just another example of the brilliant work Surajya does with girls from the vasti to instil in them a sense of determination and self-confidence.

A lo(o)ng night

Bharat is a vast land, many different religions, sects and spiritual identities are woven into its landscape. The annual wari (procession) to Pandharpur honours the Hindu deity Vithoba. During the yatra (pilgrimage), the paduka (footprints) of saints Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram are carried in the palkhi (palanquin processions) beginning at Alandi and Dehu respectively. Both palakhis culminate at Pandharpur. The yatra itself lasts 21 days; that is 21 days that warkaris (the term given to those who go on this pilgrimage) walk on foot to Pandharpur. This in itself is an incredible feat as the majority of warkaris are elderly. This yatra has been occurring for over 700 years and is ingrained into the religious culture of Maharashtra. Over a million warkaris participate in the Pandharpur yatra every year.

As we live just off one of Pune’s main roads, we were fortunate to witness the palkhi passing through. The palkhi is a huge deal, roads are literally shut down for the day as the palkhi passes through a certain area. Usually there are thousands of people lining the roads to witness this historic yatra pass through their area and also to pay their respect to the palkhi. However last Saturday happened also to be the day of the ill-fated India Pakistan cricket match – so as expected turnout to see the palkhi was lower than usual.  What made the match rather amusing for me (someone who doesn’t have the slightest bit of interest in cricket but is fascinated by the furore it creates) was that halfway through, there was a brief electricity outage. I can only imagine the despair, screams and shrieks this would have caused Pune wide.

img_3514.jpg
Warkaris on their yantra through Pune.
IMG_3521.JPG
One of the palkhis. 

Seva Sahayog, in conjunction with RSS, have for the last three years undertaken the Nirmal Wari project. Nirmal meaning clean and wari meaning the pilgrimage. As the warkaris travel on foot during the day for three weeks, every night they stop to rest in whatever village they are in. As there are so many of them, warkaris set up tents around the town or even just sleep on the side of the road. A simple yet incredibly pertinent problem thus arises – where will the warkaris go to relieve themselves? The Nirmal Wari project tackles this issue head on. It arranges for over 1000 portable toilets to travel alongside the yatra and every night toilets are set up in the town in which the warkaris are staying. Nirmal Wari has only been happening for the past three years, so what was the system before this? Well, there was no system. When the warkaris arrived at whichever town, they were forced to relieve themselves in fields, on train tracks, at the side of the road, wherever really. As you can imagine, not only was this unpleasant but it created a huge sanitation and hygiene problem as rivers and crops would be contaminated. Also, because of the sheer volume of people who would be staying in the town, this problem would be on a very large scale. So much so that the residents of the towns would evacuate for a few weeks after because living conditions would be uninhabitable. Something as simple as the lack of toilets can create such far-reaching problems.

Thus, the project that Seva Sahayog and RSS has undertaken, the provision of portable toilets for the warkaris, is truly amazing.

Last Saturday at about 5:30pm, around 80 of us Seva Sahayog volunteers set off from Pune to the town of Lonand – this is where the warkaris would be resting that night. The long bus ride was a wonderful opportunity to interact more with Kripa, the YFS intern from the US who is working with Seva Sahayog. Here’s the link to her blog, you should definitely give it a read! This experience was to be a first for both of us. After a much needed chai break mid journey, we arrived in Lonand at about 9:30pm. We (all 80 of us) had dinner on the roof/terrace of a karyakarta’s house and then it was straight to work. First we were divided into groups and sent off to various locations around the town – with there being so many warkaris setting up for the night there had to be lots of toilet stations dotted around the area. As we were walking through the town, we got to witness the bustling night-life of the palkhi. Roadside stalls were selling everything from mounds of haldi (turmeric) to chandan (sandalwood). Bracelets, necklaces, rakhis and many more ornate accessories adorned the makeshift stalls. There were people everywhere. Bhajans were playing everywhere we went. Soon enough, we reached our toilet station which was quite a distance from the main town centre. The noise had died down and the area was relatively deserted. Our station was near a railway track, so throughout the night we got to see trains go past (which was very cool).

Ready with our two key pieces of equipment – a facemask to shield from the smell and whistle – we were told our instructions for the night. Basically, we had to guide the warkaris to use the toilets and not relieve themselves on the train tracks or on the field. If we happened to spot anyone doing that, we were to blow our whistles and tell them kindly to please use the toilets. Our script went something like this “Kaka/maushi (uncle/aunty) please don’t go there! Please use the toilets – there’s light, water and a toilet just a bit further, it’s all free! Please use the facilities that have been set up for you!” (but in Marathi).

And so, our night began. The first few hours till about 3am were quite quiet, the majority of warkaris were still asleep at this point. So we sat on the ground in the pitch black, half falling asleep, half making conversation. Every now and then we’d get a few warkaris come by and begin to squat down – this was our cue to recite our script and guide them to the toilet. The background of the warkaris is that of farmers/villagers. Hence, many of them are not familiar with he concept of a toilet because in their villages they just go in the field. Therefore the reluctance of many to actually go in a toilet was understandable – they’d never seen a toilet before in their lives. Once 3am struck, people came in droves to use the toilets. Initially it did require a lot of whistleblowing and reminding the warkaris to use the toilet and not just go in the open. However, soon enough people became aware of what to do and how to use to toilets. Apart from maybe 10% of the warkaris stubbornly refusing to use the toilets and just going in the open, the rest, after being told, were very happy to use the loos. We even had a few women come up to us and thank us for the service, telling us that before Nirmal Wari began conditions used to be pretty awful but now they know that their needs are taken care of. We were even invited to join them for breakfast by their tent! At about 6am, we headed back to the big house to freshen up and leave for Pune.

 

 

IMG_3577
The toilets.

 

IMG_3571
Kripa and I – a triumphant dawn selfie. 

Many times people will opt for the glamourous work – work that is of course necessary and important, but that keeps their hands clean and doesn’t require them to wear a facemask to guard against the smell of human excrement. Or, many will exclaim loudly the need to engage in ground level unglamorous work but when the time comes they will be reluctant to get to work. A sense of entitlement, ego, or superiority stand as obstacles for many people. Organisations such as Seva Sahayog and RSS that pioneer projects such as Nirmal Wari are exemplary karyakartas of our society. There is no glamour in telling people how to use a toilet or staying up all night to make sure people don’t excrete in open air. But someone has to do it. You will often find that those organisations who take up such work are also the ones diligently serving in the background, without expecting anything in return. As well as 80 Seva Sahayog volunteers, there were over 200 swayamsevaks (RSS workers) who were running around all night ensuring the toilets were working and that everything was running according to the plan. They were also the ones who would stay after the warkaris left Lonand to clean up. Simply being in the presence of such dedicated, selfless karyakartas was a huge learning experience. I was only helping out with Nirmal Wari for one night, many of the swayamsevaks were dedicating days upon days to this noble work. And I call it noble because it is the height of compassion, selflessness, and commitment.

My experience makes evident that there is always work to do at every level of society. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the bigger picture – let’s end poverty, let’s stop child hunger, let’s tackle income inequality. Whilst all of these issues do indeed need solving, sometimes our unwavering focus on these lets other smaller but more pertinent issues slide through the net. Sometimes we fail to see problems that are right in front of us. Such a basic problem as not having toilet facilities can be redressed so easily if karyakartas and organisations are willing to put in the time and effort. What might seem like a small problem to us, caused thousands of people to suffer from contamination for centuries. But thanks to the efforts of Seva Sahayog and RSS, these problems are being tackled directly.

Overall, it’s safe to say that so far this has been the most unique experience of mine in Bharat. I was able to witness first-hand the tremendous effect that concerted efforts can have. My Nirmal Wari experience also taught me the very core meaning of sewa. We don’t do sewa for any reward. Many times we won’t be thanked at all for our efforts. Conditions will be challenging and unpleasant, hours may be long and the work may be strenuous. But that is the beauty of a karyakarta that engages in sewa. They are ready for a challenge, they are prepared and happy to serve wherever and whenever. They care not about rewards, let alone thank you’s. They work because of the inner compassion they hold towards all beings. I truly am thankful that I was able to do my bit for the Nirmal Wari project and moreover that I was able to interact with so many hard-working karyakartas who represent the truest form of sewa.

 

Hats off to the women!

 

So far I have visited four vastis in the Yerawda area of Pune. Two preliminary points stand out very clearly. Firstly, unfortunately much of what we read in the news or see in films about slums in Bharat is true. Basic sanitation and hygiene is low, the poverty is stark and as a result opportunity is restricted. However, there is so much more than that. On TV all we see is the physical condition of the vastis, these brief clips only scratch the surface of what life is like in those conditions. The physical, emotional and mental toll it takes on a person is immense. What I’m trying to say is that describing the condition merely as “poverty” is too dismissive. Life in the vasti is complex. Secondly and most importantly, empty pity is not the route to take when considering vasti life. In fact, empty pity is insulting. As you’ll read in this post, what I took away most from my first few visits is sheer awe and inspiration. The capability and capacity of women living in the vastis is so immense. Therefore, simply seeing them through this lens ignores so much of what makes them strong able ladies who carry their whole family’s livelihood on their back.

Before we entered the vasti I was nervous, to say the least. I was nervous to meet the girls because what if they didn’t like me? I was to spend the next 5 weeks integrating myself fully with them and if they didn’t warm to me then we would have a bit of an issue on our hands. How would they react to a new girl coming into their life and spending time with them? Would they accept me?

I can safely say that these fears were assuaged. Not only were the girls friendly, but many of them were talkative and inquisitive about my life in England. We spoke about what the girls dream of being when they’re older. Answers the girls gave were very telling – they ranged from engineer to air hostess to teacher to police officer to simply making enough money to help aai (mum) at home.

Before I ventured into the vasti, in my first meeting with Surajya’s karyakartas they gave me an insight into what, generally, life is like for girls and women in the vasti.

Families are quite large, so the daughter is often responsible for the siblings; taking care of them when mum isn’t home, cooking food for them etc. From conversations with girls in the vasti I’ve found out the following about the family structure. Each mum works, the dad may not work but I’m yet to come across a mother who does not go out to earn money every day. The most common job is that of a house cleaner – the lady will go to various houses and clean them, wash the dishes and sometimes cook food too. Her albeit small income is arguably the backbone of the household. Jobs of the fathers vary – some work in construction, some work as rubbish collectors, some don’t work at all. Alcoholism is on the rise in vastis. Every vasti I have visited has its own alcohol shop. Unfortunately, there are so many cases where the father doesn’t have a job and instead spends all day drinking.  Alcoholism opens up the gates to physical, emotional and even sexual abuse; common aspects of everyday life in the vasti.

Consequently, many girls struggle to find guidance at home. Whilst every girl may receive an academic education, there is no activity to build their character. Considering the conditions which the girls live in, it can be very easy to stray from the right path. Dropping out of school is easy, mixing with the wrong crowd is easy, getting into trouble is easy. Unfortunately, many times parents will perceive the solution to their daughter going astray to be very simple – marriage. It’s not unheard-of for girls to be married off at 15 or 16 because their parents didn’t like the boys they were hanging out with or because their daughter dropped out of school. Of course once the girl is married at 16, she has her first child by 17 and then the next few children keep in very quick succession. Not only is this a health risk, but by 25 a girl who is married with 3 or 4 kids is trapped. Now it’s easy for us to say that being a young mother isn’t the be-all and end-all, but we say this through the western perspective. In the UK if a girl has a child at 18 or even younger, she can receive state benefits, she can enrol in a part time university course, her education doesn’t stop, her life doesn’t stand still. However, life is incredibly different in the vasti. Once you’ve had your children, there’s little chance of continuing with education, your priority is earning, caring and providing for your family. Hence why I use the word trapped. Therefore it’s so important that girls are encouraged to pursue their education whilst they can and not be distracted, or at least know how to handle distractions. This all comes down to a girl’s character.

My project is to start a weekly Sanskar Kendra for kishori aged girls. For there to be sustained, gradual development of character, there needs to be a medium through which this happens. At school we get taught maths, english, history, science but not necessarily about how to develop ourselves internally, how to better our character. The Sanskar Kendra will (hopefully) fill this gap. Engaging in activities such as khel (games), yoga, talks, discussions, debates, songs, music will all add bit by bit to their character. Slowly the girls themselves will lead such activities, taking on responsibilities which will endow them with leadership skills. The Sanskar Kendra aims to create respectful, conscientious, compassionate, confident, disciplined, organised girls who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

This is not to say at all that the girls and women I have met in the vasti do not embody the above characteristics. Not at all. In fact, a few of them are without a doubt some of the most inspiring people I’ve had honour to meet. Testament to this is the fact that the primary feeling I took away from visiting the vastis is sheer awe. The mother is the first to rise in the morning and last to sleep at night. In between, she goes out to make a living not only for herself but for her entire family, she cooks, she cleans, she makes sure her children are doing their work, she takes care of her parents, she keeps up with the rest of vasti life. Her capacity is immense. Not only are the women awe-inspiring, but their daughters are equally so. This is the daily schedule of three of the eldest girls I met – Pooja, Shilpa and Santoshi, all around 18/19. Wake up at 5:30am, get all the household jobs out of the way – cooking, cleaning, doing the washing, go to college at 7:00am, leave college at 12:00pm, go straight to the sanitary pad production room, have lunch then work there till 5:30pm, come back to the vasti and take the evening abhyasika (tutoring) classes till about 9:30pm, return home to eat and study. The working week in Bharat is Monday – Saturday, Sunday is the only day off. Every time I speak to these girls I’m blown away by how much they do, how much inner and outer strength they have and how they carry out all of their responsibilities with a smile on their face.

One encounter stood out for me amongst them all. When I went on home visits last week we went to Sneha’s house. Sneha is 13, she goes to school and she works. She’s not been working for long, a few months maybe, and now she’s had to stop because school has started again. Her work (she was paid) was going to a couple’s house (both families know each other well and trust each other), doing their cleaning, cooking, and spending time with the aji (grandmother) there. It was only a couple of hours every day and Sneha got on really well with the family. I asked Sneha’s mother why she sent Sneha out to work at such a young age. Her answer will always stay with me. Her mother said this “Financially, we are stable. I work every day, I earn just about enough to keep us going. Sneha has 3 siblings so it a big household but I didn’t send Sneha out to work for the money. I sent her to work, against the wishes of friends and family, because she needs to learn the value of hard work and money and needs to experience what it’s like out there. There’s no use in keeping girls shielded inside the vasti until they’re off to be married – if we do that then when will they learn to take care of themselves? To stand on their own two feet? It’s a tough world out there, especially for a girl, but it’ll be even tougher if the girl doesn’t know how to be independent and how to navigate the streets for herself. Sending Sneha to work adds to her own sense of self-confidence and adds to our confidence in her. Sneha cooks as well, she’s a fantastic cook! Many days she cooks dinner for us. Girls and boys should be taught such things from a young age. All of these things inspire confidence and a sense of independence in them which is vital these days.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing what Sneha’s mother said, plus she said it in colloquial Marathi so I’m loosely translating, but the message is clear.

It makes me look back, admittedly ashamedly, at our lifestyle in the west – how we complain about the smallest of things, how we molly-coddle our kids to the point that they’re not able to be independent and self-sufficient. I look back in shame at the fact that so many kids, boys and girls, start university not even knowing how to make a cup of tea when girls the age of 13 are tasked with cooking dinner for their whole family in the vasti. We shield our children to the point that they cannot stand on their own two feet. I’m not trying to portray the typical “oh we should be so aware of our privilege, we should be grateful for everything we have, those poor people have absolutely nothing”. I feel like many people proclaim such sentiments after seeing a UNICEF or Save The Children advert on TV, or watching Slumdog Millionaire. I’m saying quite the opposite. I’m saying that they have so much that we don’t, there is so much we can learn from women in the vasti! How to be dedicated, hard working, how to economically run a household, how to give your children responsibilities from a young age to prepare them for adulthood. They have so much capacity, inner strength, dedication – so much!  The insight and wisdom you get upon actually getting to know vasti life will last you a lifetime.

This post has really only scratched the surface of all I have learnt so far. And the only way to really get to see, experience and learn from the incredible women here is to meet them. So whilst its no small task, I implore every one of you to, at some point in your life, visit a vasti and get to know the women there. They are the true embodiment of strength, ability, virtue and hard work. They are the true embodiment of women power.

 

 

Surajya – an introduction

I’ve been working with Surajya on the sewa project for just over a week now and there is so much that I want to write about! In this post I’ll explain a bit about the organisation I’m working with then in my next blog post I’ll write about the project I’ve been given in particular and my preliminary thoughts and experiences about visiting the vastis (slums).

Surajya Sarvangin Vikas Prakalp is a social organisation based in Pune. It works with 11 vastis in the Yerwada district, aiming to support and develop the community which resides there. Its activities are roughly split into 3 branches – education, health & hygiene and self-reliance.

Education –

  • Surajya runs daily Abhyasikas (special extra tuition classes) in each vasti which are of course free of cost. These classes are run by elder kids from the vasti itself, Surajya’s karyakartas (workers) simply train them in teaching and set up the abhyasikas. Through this initiative, Surajya ensures that children living in the vasti are given all the educational support they need to feel comfortable and excel in their studies.
  • Character development – due to the conditions and lifestyle in the vasti (which I will talk about in greater detail in a later post), a child’s character development may be restricted. Surajya runs regular sanskar (values) kendras which aims to tackle this problem. Through the medium of games, storytelling, discussions, mantras and geet (songs), Surajya tries to inculcate values such as respect, organisation, discipline, focus, compassion into the children of the vasti.
  • Counselling – girls, particularly, living in vastis face a multitude of problems. From unemployment to illiteracy to physical abuse, their physical and emotional wellbeing can be fragile. Surajya offers counselling services to those women facing such difficulties.

Health and Hygiene –

  • Health camps/check ups – Surajya organises periodic health checks/drop in clinics for all the residents of the vasti.
  • Health and hygiene awareness programmes – Living conditions in the vasti are of relatively low hygiene standards, hence the spread of illness and disease, from HIV to Tuberculosis, is rather common. Surajya arranges seminars on a variety of health issues from menstrual and reproductive health for adolescent girls to standard sanitation and hygiene information sessions. It also engages the youth of the vastis in awareness campaigns that promote the simplest of actions such as washing hands, using a mosquito net and cutting nails which, if done systematically, can dramatically reduce the spread of infection and disease.

Self-reliance –

  • Bacchat gat – women in vastis tend not to have their own bank accounts. Many times they are in fact the single bread winners of the family and their earnings are spent straight away, the culture of saving money in a bank account is not as prominent. Surajya has set up bacchat gats, literally saving groups. A group of up to 20 women will put a certain amount, maybe 200 or 500 rupees, aside each month and put this into a joint bank account. Then, if an emergency arises they can take money from this joint account in the form of a loan. Not only does this work on a practical level, but it instils in the women a sense of financial independence which further enhances their character and confidence.
  • Courses – Surajya organises nursing, tailoring and fashion design courses for women who may not have any educational qualifications or who have dropped out of school.

Another initiative that Surajya has undertaken, one which I personally think is fantastic, is the production of biodegradable and sustainably sourced sanitary pads. In India, sanitary pads are highly taxed, thus an absolutely essential product for women all over the country is made further out of reach for those who cannot already afford it. Surajya is working in conjunction with a local hospital in Pune and another company (I’m not 100% sure about the various partners) to produce affordable and sustainable sanitary pads. This initiative is amazing on many levels. Primarily, the pads manufactured are distributed for free in the vastis to all who need them. Secondly, they are made by girls in the vastis! Girls over the age of 17 work in the production room for about 4 hours a day and get paid to do so. The production room is very near to the office, I have been a few times and the girls (who are all lovely, wonderful and so friendly) have shown me the process. The inner absorbent lining of the pad is made from banana leaf fibre, making it a plentiful resource and entirely natural. The rest of the materials used to construct the pad is also natural, not a single chemical/plastic material in sight. Thirdly, although this is much more implicit and subliminal, I guess engaging in this project slowly works to de-stigmatise talking about menstruation, a problem which mainstream Indian society faces.

Here is a photo of the girls (Pooja, Shilpa and Nirmala) showing us the process.

IMG_3552

As you can see, Surajya is heavily involved in supporting women in the vastis, so much so that it has become a pillar of vasti life wherever it operates. Not only is this evident in the plethora of social work it undertakes to develop and support women and girls in the vastis, but also in the warm way in which such women and girls interact with Surajya karyakartas. There is no sense of “them” and “us”. As a result of ingraining themselves within vasti life, Surajya’s karyakartas have been welcomed with open arms and this allows their sewa karya to flourish.

 

A busy first weekend!

School Kit project

Last Saturday (10th June) I attended my first Seva Sahayog event – the school kit project. In many rural and urban areas, the mere lack of stationery and textbooks is enough to stop a child from going to school and getting an all-important education. It was found that this was a huge contributing factor to the rising dropout rates within schools. An education is such a precious gift, something as seemingly little as lacking the required equipment should not stop any child, from wherever he or she may come from, from making full advantage of it. Seva Sahayog runs a school kit project, aimed at targeting this issue. Through corporate donations (CSR – corporate social responsibility is a big thing here now, every corporation is required to put 2% of its annual profits towards a social cause) Seva Sahayog is able to collect materials ranging from exercise books to geometry sets, pack them in a school bag and distribute them to those who absolutely need them the most. Such a simple action helps so much. It’s probably difficult for us firstly even to imagine not being able to afford exercise books, let alone this becoming an obstacle against receiving an education. The work that Seva Sahayog does –the school kit project – has its reach far and wide in Bharat, from the jungles of Kerala to the snowy landscape of Kashmir. Over 60,000 such school kits have been put together, all done manually by volunteers.

Saturday’s event was the last such packing event of the school kit programme. There were around 80 people present, eager to begin the seemingly mammoth task. I say seemingly mammoth because, initially, the statement “we need to pack 300+ bags” sounds like a lot. By packing I mean the following system – 1) unfold the bags so that they’re the right way round and not inside out 2) unpack all of the books 3) split all the exercise books into piles of nine 4) put the nine exercise books + 2 exercise books + one geometry box set into the bag. There were also representatives present from the different schools receiving the bags, lined up and ready to pile up their vans. Furthermore, the bags were being packed for kids of varying year groups so each set of bags had to follow a strict plan of what to put in it, so as not to mix up the materials. However, amazingly, we 80 volunteers had the bags packed, transported and lined up accordingly into batches (this was done by creating a huge human chain) in less than an hour and a half. Which just goes to show that team work, enthusiasm, focus and smiles all around can reduce a seemingly mammoth task into a quick job.

 

Tribal Mensa

Last Sunday (11th June) last minute plans were made for me to travel with Nitinji and Vikasji to Talegaon, a 45 minute drive away, to attend a Tribal Mensa event. Nitinji was very brief in his explanation of what exactly we were attending when calling me in the morning, so I was intrigued. Consequently, I used to long car journey to enquire what exactly Tribal Mensa and its activities entailed.

Those of you who know what Mensa is will probably be able to piece together what Tribal Mensa is. But first, it’s important to explain the first part of the term, tribal, because this community forms an integral part of Bharat’s social fabric. 8.6% of Bharat’s population, so just over 104 million people, is categorised as Vanvasi – the transliteration of this is forest dwelling. The closest English term would be tribal. Vanvasi communities are defined by four characteristics-

  • Geographical isolation
  • Their livelihood is based on primitive agriculture and closed economy leading to general conditions of poverty.
  • Each vanvasi community has its own language, culture and spiritual beliefs.
  • Little to no contact with other cultures or peoples.

As a result of these characteristics that define Vanvasi life, this community has very low literacy rates, poor access to education and low levels of health.

There are numerous organisations working within Bharat to serve the Vanvasi community, bring mainstream education into the Vanvasi villages and try to integrate them into the wider society. Vanvasis make up nearly 9% of Bharat’s population, their needs and values should not and cannot be ignored.

As the name suggests, Tribal Mensa identifies Mensans within Vanvasi communities. To be a Mensan, you must have an IQ which falls in the top 2% of the global population; so very high. The founder of Tribal Mensa, Narayanji, carries out testing in hundreds of Vanvasi schools in many different states in order to identify Mensans. The organisation has tested over 15,000 Vanvasi school children and has identified over 2500 to have an IQ in the top 2% of the global population!

Initially, I was blown away by this figure. Upon further deliberation and further research into Mensa I found out that there is always a certain probability that in a given population x% will have a very high IQ. Therefore, we shouldn’t necessarily be in awe that over 2500 Vanvasi children have been identified as highly gifted. Our awe implicitly suggests that we assume that just because they are Vanvasi they will not have as high an IQ. Mathematically, this is an incorrect assumption to make. Rather, we should applaud and congratulate the organisation for taking concrete steps in unlocking the potential of such gifted kids.

When I was in primary school, one of my fellow classmates was an identified Mensan, his speciality being Maths. When the rest of us were tackling long division in Year 3 (aged 8), this boy was sitting his Maths GCSE (usually sat in year 11). When we were coming to grips with calculations of area, perimeter and basic probability in Year 6, he was completing his A Level in Maths (usually done in year 13). I distinctly remember that once a week he would have 30 minutes in the spotlight, stood at the front of the class imparting to us his mathematical wisdom through an exciting maths puzzle or conundrum. His genius was openly recognised and celebrated within school, as it should be. Mentally, I compared this to the situation gifted Vanvasi children face. Firstly, let alone their genius being recognised, many such students face hardships in class because the teachers are not able to cater to their advanced needs. They will not be challenged by what’s asked of them academically, their boundaries will not be pushed and their potential will remain in the shadows. Highly able children and adults need to be stimulated at their level.

Tribal Mensa does just this. Upon identifying Vanvasi children as gifted, and I found that many schools had over fifteen such cases at once, Tribal Mensa runs monthly workshops with them where they are challenged at their level with games and puzzles created to exercise their mental abilities. They’re also given materials to use throughout the rest of the month to keep them engaged. As well as the child, the school which educates the gifted child is presented with an official Mensa certificate, recognising it an official Mensa affiliate institution. What’s remarkable about this is that such Vanvasi schools are then connected into a network of thousands of schools around the world with which they can share resources and materials. It also boosts the standing and pride of Vanvasi schools which are already doing such a wonderful job in providing education to a historically neglected community.

The event was a get together of the organisation’s karyakartas (workers) and the shikshaks (teachers) of Vanvasi schools who have Mensan students. The shikshaks travelled far and wide from all over Maharashtra. One elderly shikshak, who was definitely over 60 years of age, cycled 250 kilometres all the way from Kolhapur to attend! First, Narayanji gave a presentation about the aims, objectives and achievements of Tribal Mensa. What followed was an informal Q&A session of sorts, where the shikshaks brought up issues they were facing to Narayanji and the team.

Overall, this was a very new and completely unique experience for me. The work that Tribal Mensa does it astonishing. It not only identifies gifted minds, but gives them the vital nurturing and encouragement they need to flourish and become the leaders, pioneers and visionaries of their community in the future.

Do have a look at their website!

https://www.tribalmensa.org 

Insight into Indian nuances

I’ve been in Pune now for 4 days. The first few days have been spent adjusting slightly to the new lifestyle, battling jet lag (which I shouldn’t complain about too much, the UK is only 4.5 hours behind) and engaging in that all-important hunt for an Indian SIM card (which I now have, woohoo!).

fullsizeoutput_b61

As I write this (Monday 12th June), I’m sat looking out of the window of my room. The first heavy rains of the monsoon fell just a few hours ago and whilst the air is cooler, the roads are glistening and the greenery is as vibrant as ever, the heavy rainfall interrupted my plans for today. The plan was to go to the Sewa Sahayog office at 2:30pm for my first official “day of sewa”. I was incredibly excited to start what I had come here to do. Lunch had been eaten, my bag was packed and I was ready. However, just before we set off we heard the preliminary pitter patter of raindrops. Upon going to the balcony, what I thought would be Manchester style bearable rain was in fact sheets and sheets of what I’ll call industrial rainfall – 50 times heavier and more powerful than normal rainfall (basically the Indian monsoon). Unfazed, I collected my belongings to head out when my ajoba (grandad) stopped me, informing me that hailing an auto ricksha in this weather would be impossible. I rushed to the balcony again to inspect and realised he was right. After what could only be half an hour of rain, the roads were definitely flooded. I called the Sewa Sahayog office and told them that I’ll likely be later than 2:30pm because it will take us a while to find a ricksha. I was told that actually, it’s ok, just come to the office tomorrow morning instead. Honestly, this deflated me. I responded, eagerly suggesting that I can arrive in an hour or so when the rain stops but was told that it’s alright, whatever was to be discussed today (planning my projects for the next 6 weeks) could easily be discussed tomorrow. This is the first example of the laid back attitude by which Bharat runs.

So, I have since used the afternoon to begin reading one of Youth for Sewa’s compulsory readings – Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – and now I’ve sat down to write.

One thing I must warn you is that I tend to “waffle” a lot. Which isn’t great. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also not the best habit. (See the overt waffling there – I could have left it at “which isn’t great”, writing the next sentence did nothing to strengthen my writing as the two clauses essentially cancel each other out.) By waffle I mean I’m not exactly concise in my speaking or writing. I guess this can be seen as both a boon and curse. If anything the burden of this boon/curse will be on those who read my blogs, feel free to skip to more relevant paragraphs if the waffle gets to be too much.

So, with this time on my hands, I’m going to write about the first few insights I have made into the Puneri/Maharashtrian/Indian way of life.

  • Roads/traffic – now this is an incredibly stereotypical insight but I’m going to make it nevertheless. I have been visiting India more or less annually for pretty much all of my life and I’m still not used to the traffic/road system. Or rather, the lack thereof. I know I sound completely stereotypically western here, bemoaning the lack of order, but I mean it! There is no concept of lanes, the boundaries that separate the flow of traffic seem to be permeable. Vehicles rarely stick to their own lane, only returning there momentarily when an oncoming vehicle comes their way. Motorbikes and scooters weave in and out, without signalling. In fact, the preferred method of signalling, as opposed to using your signals, is honking your horn. I regularly conduct this experiment – I count how many seconds of silence pass between any horn honks, it’s never been more than 10. Now, evidently, my inner Brit is coming out here – we like order and we like quiet (the honking of your horn in the UK will practically send passersby into cardiac arrest and is reserved for only the direst of circumstances). But, what also always amazes me is how this “system” is actually a system. Pedestrians manage with ease to weave their way through cars, rickshas and motorbikes. The majority of vehicles do slow down for you when you try to cross the road. It’s as if pedestrians have a sixth sense about how to manage the roads. I’m increasingly beginning to think that living in Bharat endows you with this sixth sense – hopefully I’ll get it too! The whole road situation, as opposed to frightening me, now awes me (although I will never cease to be overly cautious). It adds to the absolute uniqueness of Bharat.
  • Noise – this is more just as personal gripe as opposed to a deep and meaningful    insight. I’m living just off one of the busiest roads in Pune and oh my the noise is bad. Noise pollution here must be off the charts! This has a lot to do with the incessant horn honking but in addition to that there’s the incessant revving of motorbikes which gets horribly loud. My grandparents, having lived in this apartment for over thirty years, are used to it. I am not. What’s worse is that even in the middle of the night I’ll get woken up by horns and revving. Closing the windows isn’t an option because of a) the heat and b) it would do nothing to quell the noise. On the other hand (I’m trying to find the silver lining, every situation has to have one) I am very grateful to be living where I am. Living off a very busy main road means I have easy access to rickshas as and when I need. Also every ricksha driver knows this roading so returning home at the end of the day will never be too troublesome. Most importantly however, we live just behind one of Pune’s most loved and frequented restaurants – so when I’m startled awake by the deafening car horns, my anger is eased by the smell of dosa, idli, uthappa and sambar that wafts through the window first thing in the morning.
  • People’s nature – this isn’t a new insight but is something that continues to amaze me whenever I come to Bharat. People are very aware, helpful and on the whole, friendly. I do not mean friendly in the Western sense, nothing seems superficial here (I’m not saying Western niceness is superficial but much of it comes down to awkward politeness). It’s difficult to articulate exactly what I mean. People here are honest, impervious to superficial niceties but at the same time respectful. Yesterday my aji and I took a walk down the main road outside, on the hunt for some kurtas (Indian tops, usually a bit longer in length, like tunics). There are many makeshift stalls dotted along the road. We stopped at one which looked promising. As I rifled through clothes, a young lady, no more than 25, began chatting and joking with my aji. Now I’m not saying that such openness is exclusive only to Bharat, but the fact that the girl was addressing my aji as “maushi” (aunty) was lovely. The stall owner, as we were haggling to lower the price, did the same. Part of it may be the ingrained principle of respect for elders, a principle which is so refreshing and important in all societies. Part of it is also the inherent oneness and openness felt in Bharat which allows people to sincerely chat with strangers and address complete strangers as “maushi” or “kaka” (uncle). As I wrote earlier, it’s a way of being, a way of life, that’s difficult to put into words.

That’s all for now, I’ll keep updating regularly – hopefully with more insights and experiences and less waffle.

P.S. I’ve been trying to document all the activities I’ve participated in on this blog but have only half-written some posts. Therefore the events I talk about may not necessarily be in chronological order but I’ll try to make the chronology explicit for ease.