I never knew that life would take me on a journey where I’d get to breathe life into a saying that goes,” Mitti se, mitti par aur phir mitti mein, to phir ghuroor kis baat ka?” (Moulded of clay, living on it and one with it in the end – what is your arrogance about, then?). Being selected for the JSW Foundation Fellowship brought me to a halt for all I thought I knew and gave me a green signal for all I could learn.
Standing at the Pune airport, the baggage in my heart felt heavier than the one in my hand but that didn’t stop me from spinning like a kid in her brand-new dress; I had this big, wide city all to myself and I blocked every other noise with the sound of ‘You got this’ because right where I stood, felt like Holy ground. The training period lasted for two weeks and throughout team iVolunteer paved the way for us to create a safe space wherein healthy debates, new ideas and perspectives were welcomed and challenged. We broke bread and ice together –Thirteen of us, tracing
our origin stories and coming from such diverse cultural backgrounds uniting there for a common goal that both drove and unsettled us was something surreal to witness. I remember feeling like I had some raabta (Urdu: an unexplainable connection with someone/something) with the cohort and above all that we were training for, I was constantly taken by surprise watching how genuinely we cared for each other’s well-being and growth through it all.
I learned how to listen intently, be in sync with what I think, say and do, went empathy mapping and realised the importance of giving up the illusion of control while being flexible and making the best of what was available. Unlearning my definition of development and realising the weightage context held were a few lessons that weren’t taught in a classroom setting but became pivotal in changing my approach towards everything once I was on the field.
Oh, also, I urge people to try misal-pav; it turns your mouth into a nebula and every bite into the birth of a star. No cap.
From Pune, we came to the TISS campus at Tuljapur. Situated in the lap of nature, it was a treat to wake up to the sound of birds chirping and students meeting over breakfast for a change. In the lectures with professors, we picked up some important theories on rural development and understood the working of different government bodies at every level.
Professor Ramesh Jhare trained us in PRA tools to better understand the demography, occupation, needs and challenges to aid in different types of mapping of a village and its community.
Post this we were sent to two different villages to try our hands at the PRA tools we had learned. Meeting with the community in the village of Mardi and trying to learn about them while also simultaneously unlearning any bias I subconsciously held made me feel like I had turned up with a knife to a gunfight. There, it dawned upon me that this mitti unites us and language didn’t pose as a barrier for me to understand that whether it’s the capital of Uttar Pradesh or a small village in Osmanabad, people have the same drive to survive and do better while dodging certain fears that try to hold them back. I finally felt ‘ready’ to move onto my work location armoured with newly acquired knowledge and skills, determined to cause ripples of change and soil my hands on the field.
I got posted in Maharashtra at a plant location called Dolvi with my co-fellow Keshav, both of us ready to brave the season. The first two weeks flew past getting acquainted with the CSR team and visiting existing interventions of the JSW Foundation across verticals of solid waste management, health, community development, water, education, mangrove restoration, etc. I also got to spend time with a tribal community called the Katkari. Katkaris are usually found at the foothills or the slope of hills and have one of the highest tribal population densities in Raigad.
Climbing uphill for long periods gave me room to think about my preparedness. So, I felt ready and I had it all planned out – How I would welcome them to new ideas and things I would share with them – from grocery stores and cereal aisles and packets of sanitary napkins, I couldn’t wait to give them all that they had been missing all this time. From clean water to smartphones to give them answers to everything they could possibly ask for, I thought I had it all planned out. And then, I arrived and met with them. Before I could welcome them to anything new, they brought out plates and piled them high with fish cooked to perfection and buttery bhaakri, fresh bhaat and they fed me. I was offered cups of steaming tea and was taught what it meant to sit a while, unhurried by the clock I thought I’d ‘teach’ them about. They brought laughter to our conversations, a rare insight in each discussion and fled all barriers of language and taught me things I didn’t realise I was missing all this time. They healed the earth, planted seeds in fallow fields, held mitti between their fingers and brought it back to life. They threw light on corners of our community we have neglected and abandoned. The katkari reminded me of ways in which we are all connected, tied together by a single string stretching as far as Kashmir and even as far as the house next door.
Mamta adorned my hair with flowers and took me to her favourite spot for a good view.
Interacting with the community felt like filling the white gaps in my thoughts with screaming colours. In my two years as a fellow, I hope to give back to the people and add more value to their lives than numbers.