The Extraordinary Courage of Ordinary People

I met Kanchan towards the end of last year.  This was for a project on addressing multisectoral dimensions for preventing child marriages in a state in India. The work also included supporting married adolescent girls and young women in accessing services as well as reconnecting with education and vocational opportunities. Kanchan was one of the participants in a case study documentation initiative. A mother of three daughters at possibly 21 years of age, Kanchan was a remarkable young woman.

Her life had been an uncertain patchwork of agonies and fears and joys and loves. More than acute poverty, her childhood was coloured by an overwhelming sense of fear, of lack of confidence. “We never lived in peace,” she said. She later realised that this was one of the key factors that drove her to a ‘love marriage’ with a man who gave her a sense of security. Even though he was poorer than her. Even though her family objected.  To the adolescent Kanchan, married life seemed exciting. It would also be a respite from her then responsibilities which included caring for two younger cousins. She had done that since their mother had passed away. In many ways, she had become a mother while she was still a child. Marriage would also mean discontinuation of education. She had mixed feelings about that. She liked learning. But she rarely asked any questions. Having strict teachers who were also not averse to corporal punishment didn’t help either!

Anyways, she stepped into a new life, a new world. This new life had its highs and lows as well. Three daughters were born in quick succession. She had also not brought any dowry. While she was always sure of her husband’s affections, his support was less consistent. It wasn’t easy. Then, she heard about a centre where girls who had dropped out of school were being taught. She wrote a letter, addressed to the centre facilitator, with a request that she be allowed to join. She was promptly asked to enroll. Kanchan waited a few days and then chose an auspicious day to join. She would get up at 4 am to complete household tasks and then attend the classes. Her in laws and mother took care of the children during those hours. It was not a very stable arrangement.  But Kanchan was determined to figure out ways for doing this.

Within a few months, Kanchan had grown to be one of the star pupils at the centre. She had gotten over her fear of teachers. She had also discovered a love for poetry.  But she felt that her biggest achievement was gaining in confidence – that she could now speak before any one. Kanchan wanted to become a teacher in some form, any form. She wanted to demonstrate to children from difficult circumstances that education could be fun and engaging and that it could give you skills and tools for the rest of their lives.

Kanchan’s story was part of a collection of such narratives written in English. The staff read out the narratives to the participants including Kanchan in their languages. I was later told that she cried when her story was read out to her. She said that this was exactly what she had shared. This was her life. This moved me. It was, undoubtedly, one of the best things that anyone can tell a writer. That they have captured the essence of the person, that the words feel true and carry their hopes and fears, sorrows and joys.

I heard about her reaction when the covid lockdown was in its initial days. We were all struggling to understand what was unfolding around us. Hearing her response anchored me.  It reaffirmed that, even when so much is uncertain, I need to do what I do. More importantly, Kanchan’s irrepressible spirit and yearning for learning and to improve herself – those are things that make us human, help us navigate what life throws us at.  Of course, the struggles now have multiplied. It is about survival for many.  It is also about holding those in positions of power accountable for actions for survival and well being of all.  It is also about all of us doing our bit. But I also know that it is the extraordinary courage of ordinary people that will see us through this. 

Finding Hope

I wanted to write about something that made me smile and feel hopeful.  And this did both. And more.

I was in the middle of an assignment. This included an interaction with children living with their families in an unregistered slum location in a city.  There were six girls – all part of a children’s group supported by two non government organisations (NGO) under a project. Five of the girls were around 10- 12/13 years old. One girl was older – about 15/16 years. I had already spoken to some of the older children. So, I was keen to talk to them about their lives, what they considered as risks (whether framed as a ‘disaster’ or not), what they had done so far and, what else/more they wanted to do.  So, here we were – sitting close to each other on a small, raised bed within a one room house.

It was a VERY animated discussion. The younger girls tried to speak one at a time. But, too often, one would feel the need to correct another or add something. Or just say something completely different. The older girl would then feel compelled to step in, to maintain order. I let the conversations flow, the internal dynamics to emerge. The points of unanimous concern as well as those single, different and significant notes – all of these came up. It was an interesting and enriching experience for me. I got what I was looking for. I wrapped up the discussion and thanked all of them for their frank and enthusiastic participation. And, usually, that would have been the end of it.

But the girls – the younger ones – decided that the staff from the local NGO and I needed to be served tea. They had a quick discussion. There was consensus. Each girl would go home and get one rupee. This would be pooled to buy two cups of tea. They jumped off the bed and ran out of the house. Within minutes, they had returned with two cups of tea and four biscuits. The girls had probably needed to take more than one rupee from their homes. The staff and I were offered the tea and biscuits.  I broke my biscuit into multiple pieces to share with them. But the girls flatly refused to take even a small piece. “This is for you. We got it for you,” was the response. So, the staff and I had the tea and the biscuits while the girls sat around us.

I was very moved by this – this gesture of care and kindness and hospitality. Maybe, it wasn’t much. Maybe, they do it for all visitors. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. But, somehow, it made me feel hopeful. As long as we are able to think of others and care for them in this beautiful, instinctive manner – maybe, all is not lost. And that is something worth holding on to. Especially now.

Growing

My first ambition was to be a dancer – a classical Indian dancer. I was torn between Kathak and Odissi – two very different and very beautiful dance forms. I attended Kathak classes for some time. But then Guru ji (the teacher) kept changing the timings. It became quite inconvenient for my mother to ferry me to and fro from the classes. And this was in a small town in the late 1980s- early 1990s where life on the streets pretty much stopped at 7pm. I carried a heavy burden of resentment for a while, a keenly felt sense of unfairness of it all, of being denied the life I wanted. I was quietly dramatic. And then, one day, that burden lifted on its own. There wasn’t a specific moment of epiphany. It was just the realisation that my love for music and dance was not dependent on my making a career out of it, that these would always be a part of who I am. And I also fell in love with the power of words in prose and poetry.

I devoured books in the school library. I also followed my older brother through many of his phases of binge reading – western cowboy novels, comics – home grown and foreign , science fiction, even the obsessive Bermuda triangle and conspiracy theory phase. I participated in essay writing competitions, one of which led my father to always erroneously attribute more success to me than I actually achieved! I actually didn’t care if I won. I enjoyed the process of finding my way, collecting thoughts, seeing them meld and take shape in the writing.

As I grew older, writing became a part of the sense making process. Poetry, writing diaries, writing on scraps – all of that. When I lost a childhood friend suddenly to an untimely and senseless death, I grieved in poetry. Emails to close friends became a way of thinking through my fingers. A raft through good times and bad and the career switches (from a brief stint in business journalism to the development domain and then to a different role within it). It’s been 11 years since I took the decision to move from full time employment to a consultant doing process documentation and qualitative research. Some other things also found their way to me – which was also ok.

It has been quite a journey. The work has taken me to places and people and children who have taught me the many meanings of struggle, despair, love and joy and accomplishment. It has been a privilege to be allowed entry into so many ‘universes’ – each unique and yet also sharing common, fundamental human emotions and experiences. So much of all this never found its way into learning documents, manuals and research reports. But all of it enriched me.

Increasingly, I find myself thinking – what next? Seeing so much around us tilting horribly out of balance, dealing with the inescapable truths of human frailty and mortality – all of this makes one keenly aware that our time on this pale blue dot has to mean something. If nothing else, it is definitely important to transform creative dissatisfaction from a self perpetuating trap to stepping stones to where we need to go.
I haven’t figured it out yet. I am also not fully done with what I am doing now. It is unsettling and exhilarating – this not knowing. But this is how we grow or at least I hope to!

Hope Floats

 Disturbing violence against children.  And adults and systems that commit the far bigger crime of momentary concern before falling into patterns of apathy and indifference.  My work often takes me into these unnerving and depressing realities. We are taught, as social workers, to recognise the boundaries of our engagement. And then there is qualitative research which tells us that objectivity is a myth. Who we are influences what we see and what we do about it. I honestly think I made my life more difficult since I became aware of the concept of reflexivity! It is difficult to negotiate this complex labyrinth of principles and codes, of how we reveal ourselves or not within work environments that are deeply challenging. You see human behaviours that don’t deserve to be called human. Even as one struggles to acknowledge that there are possibly painful back stories, it remains soul crushing.

 So, what has helped me continue?

I started choosing my assignments a little more carefully. I decided to be associated with work where I  learn something and where I can make a specific contribution with whatever skills and abilities I have. I am not going to change the world (I can’t even broker peace within my extended family!!!). But I want to put whatever I have to the best use that I can. And this can be an multiple levels –  consolidating insights through process documentation work that can shape future initiatives or at the least provide some easily do-able suggestions, participating in research that highlights important issues and strategies that work or don’t,  helping organisations become more reflective in their child protection work through better systems of monitoring and documentation and consolidating  technical/legal/experiential learnings into accessible guidelines/manuals for greater systemic use.

Being open to work experiences and people that reaffirm faith in humanity has helped in a big way too. There are kindred spirits out there. Finding these fellow travellers has meant a lot to me. And the interest and excitement of those who are taking their early steps on this journey has also been reassuring. There are islands of good intent and positive actions everywhere – within communities and systems. We need to strengthen and amplify these and help others learn from those experiences.

 And the resilience of children. That has been an eye opener. They may choose means and strategies that I don’t understand. But it does not take away from their courage to live through difficult circumstances.  After all, at the end of the day, I come back to my comfortable home while they battle with what they have.

Also,  I am not sure if I am ever going to attain that elusive work-life balance. I have been pushed into making some adjustments because of health issues (a recurring back pain – a congenital gift). But more than that, I have realised the importance of emotional self care. We cannot do what we do if we do not recognise what makes and unmakes us and how that seeps into our work. We need rest for our physical and emotional selves.

The other parts of our lives can help nourish our work life. I return to poetry and books and music and friends and films. And family. Our much neglected families who put up with so much even when they don’t understand! We are a sum of all of this. It helps.  

The Ten Year Itch

I have had the amazing fortune of undertaking process documentation of multiple initiatives spanning 10 years. I have even done this for initiatives that covered 20 years and are still continuing. Most of these were primarily focused on child protection while a few centred on education. The two 20 year old initiatives were particularly unique since these also marked the journey from birth to adulthood (in a way!) of an organisation and a division of an organisation respectively. Nonetheless, each of these initiatives allowed me to engage with and reflect on the complex, organic and often unexpected trajectories of development interventions.

Typically, all of these initiatives began with the passionate commitment of some people. These people – and they were located across implementing organisations, participants (community members) and donors – recognised the relevance and value of what was being considered. It resonated with them for various reasons. They came on board and backed the idea. This idea would grow into a concept note and then a proposal and then a project. Or sometimes not. It might have just taken roots and begun to grow while these tools of development interventions came in later.

In any case, a core group of enthusiasts planned and implemented actions. Each frustration and thwarted effort was keenly felt and met with redoubled efforts. Each positive milestone brought a sense of solidarity and shared joy. This initial phase of intense engagement would then give way to the next one.

The teams involved could now  bank on some years of experience and insights. The project proposals gradually started becoming more refined and the indicators more sharply defined. The work may have also expanded organically in terms of themes and areas. Meanwhile, the organisations would have grown into larger entities with a more substantive array of projects and programmes (and with related worries of covering salaries and administrative costs!) The connections to this initiative, even when considered pioneering, might  have begun to grow loose. The participants – whether in the communities or other stakeholders – would have also gradually become aware of some sense of detachment or even distance with the implementing organisation. The staff at the ground level, of course, would have to continue their work. (And the new staff would often be told by participants that the previous set were better!) This is not to say that the initiative would have lost its relevance and effect. Even with every twist and turn, countless lives would have been touched in myriad ways. But somewhere, that organic sense of attachment and ownership may have begun to dim.

And then, at some point, the top management might experience a desire to look back. It could be to celebrate that milestone of 10 or 20 years. It could be the need to document this unique journey for organisational memory and also to inform the next stage of planning. It could be, and this often a key reason, an interest to consolidate the work and showcase it as a replicable model. And then suddenly, we are all back to pouring our time and energies on to this initiative.

I am not saying that all long terms initiatives fit this template. But many do. Also, maintaining growth of organisations and balancing reflective attention on multiple initiatives is a very real and undisputable challenge. There are a host of other internal and external factors as well that cast an influence. Changing priorities, often linked to donor requirements, do not always help either, especially if we do not plan to see how the gains can be deepened and continued. For me, it is most problematic when we gradually begin to lose sight of the people and children that we work for and with. The rights based approach and participation and sustainable development become words that are not lived fully.

At the same time, there is much that evokes hope. Long term initiatives provide unique opportunities to establish partnerships and engage in journeys of mutual growth. These ties, even when they grow weak with time for some, are still something else. The recollections of the past and reflections on the present might be tinged with frustrations. Yet, they still do strengthen that collective history of initiative and, more fundamentally, that common foundation of hopes and aspirations. For me, it is always humbling to be privy to such moments.

Moreover, the incremental effects add up to bigger and more significant changes. These become very visible and evocative acknowledgements of the fact that change, especially when dealing with deeply entrenched and complex issues, cannot happen overnight. It requires successful strategizing as well as modifications and some degree of trial and errors. And it is ok to fail too. It is all a part of the journey (and all parts that must be documented too).

 

Problematising Success

My work in process documentation often involves listening to multiple versions of the same events.  What people say, what strikes them, how they say it and even what they leave out – each of these strands is important and tells its own story. And I have learnt to accept that I hear and understand through the prism of my own lived experiences. That adds another dimension! Linking cause and effect is not always easy. In fact, determining which actor and which action/s led to a ‘success’ is rarely a straightforward affair.

Recently, I spoke to several people who played a part in preventing (or rather postponing) a child marriage. There was the school principal who spoke to the girl’s father. There was the father who stated that he had decided to act on his own (He did not mention the principal till it was explicitly brought up. Even then, he stressed that he had acted on his own accord). And then there was the seventeen year old girl. She had gone willingly with the man who had expressed interest in her. This was an accepted custom in her community. She now agreed that child marriage was not a good idea. She seemed more worried about the prospect of her parents being in jail rather than the adverse health consequences of child marriages, early pregnancies and the rest that followed. So, who and what specifically had helped prevent the child marriage? I was unsure.

I wasn’t even sure if this could be counted as a ‘success story’.  Since the girl had come back, life had not been easy. She became irregular in school and finally dropped out. She hadn’t been sure about how the others in the school would react. She, anyways, did not have many friends in school. Meanwhile, a dearly loved niece fell into a pond while playing. The child, barely three years old, drowned and died. As the mother recounted this, the girl sat with her head lowered. She wiped tears that came streaming down her face. She looked up and then she looked away. We all fell silent. That sense of loss and grief filled up all the spaces in that courtyard where we all sat under the fading daylight.

Given a chance would the girl choose to not wait for a year and elope to marry? Possibly. It would take her away from her present that seemed overwhelming and unhappy and restrictive (I got the feeling that the father was a dominant figure who did not take dissent well.)

And I couldn’t frame this as a success story.  

The C Word

I am not talking about Complicit which has raced ahead of other worthies to become the Word of the Year (as declared by Dictionary.com and, yes, there is a Trump connection).
I am talking about Complicated. So much these days is termed complicated. Relationship status. Actual income and expenditure levels. Giving back to society. Climate change. Maybe we have grown used to parking aspects that overwhelm us under that label. Maybe, some of these and many other things around us are complex and not necessarily complicated. Now, that sounds complicated too, right?
A recent conversation with colleagues brought up this conundrum. And it reminded me of similar conversations in the past. Instead of focusing on a specific number of desired changes that can be achieved through feasible actions, we often end up with these unwieldly, all encompassing, ‘we are going to die working and still not achieve’ type of project proposals and log frames. We weigh ourselves down with too many indicators and an even longer list of activities that don’t even add up. I too have been guilty of contributing to such spirit sapping traps in the past!
Of course, we are often grappling with issues that are complex and require multiple pathways of inputs and actions. So, our responses need to be complex. But they do not need to be unnecessarily complicated. Maybe, we need to make a rule for ourselves – Thou shalt not complicate. In fact, that’s a pretty good rule for life too. I bet following that rule will be complex! :)

Keeping the Faith

Our work can be soul sapping. Values appear to be commonly espoused but rarely lived.  A senior once told me, in jest, “Participatory decision making is when others participate and I decide!” Unfortunately, that is often the reality. Our battles seem unending.  The small gains made may evaporate before our eyes. So, yes, keeping the faith in what we do is challenging.

But, nonetheless, it is essential. Without belief in our collective potential of making a difference, development interventions would really mean nothing. Change nothing. So, what can we do to keep that flickering flame of hope and faith alive? Here’s what works for me.

Accepting that there will always be ups and downs
Our lives rarely follow smooth and linear paths. In fact, they sometimes seem to be on shuffle with choice and chance. Development interventions are no different. We may make neat theories of change and logical frameworks. But our interventions still have a life of their own with ups and downs influenced by all kinds of factors and contexts.  The engagement with these contexts and factors and the people living them is what makes our work vibrant and chaotic. It is also what lends it meaning. It is up to us to see how we can adapt, course correct (as needed) and essentially navigate collectively and arrive at our goal posts. It is up to us to garner our learnings along the way so that we can improve our future work (including our own capacities of doing this work).

Realising that there will always be allies and that we have to find them
There are people who believe and want the same things that we do.  There are people who can educate us on how to shape our interventions more effectively. They will bring their unique energies, perspectives and resources. They will help us grow. Sometimes, we may find them in the unlikeliest of places. But as long as we keep our minds and hearts open, we will find them. The fellowship in intentions and actions will help our work take root.

Appreciating that every change – even a small one, even at the level of one individual – is a step forward
The issues we grapple with seem intractable for a reason. If they were that easy, they would have been addressed by now. So, we need to move along the continuum from individual to collective, from internal to external change. Each step counts. Of course, these have to be contextually relevant and strategic steps!

Recognising that influencing institutions is a time taking process
Very often, our projects aim to change institutions within a finite three year period. But we get much less time to do the actual work. We need official clearances and agreements and build working relationships. There are written and unwritten protocols and norms and other rules of this universe that need to be grasped and then used judiciously. People get transferred and we have to start from scratch again. We need to be more realistic. Even then, ultimately, we may still need to settle for some sort of a compromise.  And that is ok. It gives us the scope to continue our work in another way.

Committing to doing my best wherever I am and with whatever I know and have
This has helped me remain focused, especially when I have been at crossroads or in uncertain/’everything seems to be falling apart’ type situations. It matters. It may even turn out to be the example or inspiration that somebody else around us needed. There is certainly no harm in triggering some positive chain reactions!

Staying True

My first boss used to make me rewrite everything. This was at a business daily where I was a part of the features team. Actually, I used to write and then rewrite the copy and then take it to her and then rewrite it again as per her instructions. Sometimes, more revisions followed. Most of my articles had an average rewrite rate of 3. I began to do better in my second year. But, by then, I had become a compulsive rewriter with an innate distrust of the quality of whatever I completed easily and at one go!

While typically laborious and sometimes soul crushing, this habit of rewriting has helped me. I learnt the benefits of returning to what I had written after taking a break and then viewing it with a certain sense of detachment. I could then pare and prune more easily. I could even be ruthless when strict word limits were involved. And even though I didn’t always win, I gradually learnt to speak up for what I felt needed to be communicated. It could be about that crucial string of information that held the piece together, something that captured the personalities of people or an interesting aside that lent more ‘atmosphere’ (or context if you will). I carried all of this into my subsequent work in the development sector. It has been an interesting journey, but also one where writing has sometimes taken a backseat.

And what brought all this up? A few weeks ago, I was asked what I do. Instead of the usual ‘development consultant’, I replied with ‘writer’. In my head, I even added ‘rewriter’! In fact, the universe continued to throw some pretty big signs my way. Last week, watching a ballet performance made me realise the need for unswerving loyalty to who we are and what we love and how that difficult journey can also yield moments of great beauty and life affirming satisfaction that can spread out and touch others as well.
So, it is definitely time to pare and prune other professional commitments and stick to what I love and am – a writer (and rewriter)!

Walking with Sorrow

Recently, I got on a van rickshaw after three years. These contraptions (a cycle or a motorcycle attached to a broad wooden plank with additional wheels) are the most common form of transport within many islands of the Sunderbans region in West Bengal (India).  I was here for an assignment. 

As soon as I sat, everything around me went still. Fellow passengers talking to each other, the driver calling out…all of these sights and sounds seemed to recede. I did feel a gust of wind on my face (the monsoons had just made an entry). A strange mix of loss and grief and other feelings that I could not even name washed over me.

Suddenly, I was back in 2014. The family had witnessed my uncle lose his battle with stomach cancer. Then, a friend and another colleague met with a freak road accident while working. They had been travelling on one of these van rickshaws. My friend survived. But her friend did not. I knew her too. We were all the same age, doing the same kind of work. We shared similar hopes and frustrations. It was so unexpected and unbelievable. Then there was another death in the extended family. He was in his early 80s and unwell. Nothing had ever been certain or consistent for him. The last act had followed a similar vein. I was left numb by the cumulative weight of these events.  Grief – present and past – somehow connected and enveloped me.

I was jolted back to the present as the van rickshaw navigated its way past the broken, potholed parts of the roads. 

Walking (and working) with grief had not been easy. But I learnt that it was possible and that we do begin to gradually cohabit with our losses. There were others around me who had been affected even more by these and other senseless tragedies of life.  That was a humbling realisation. I was also struck by the resilience of the human spirit and how it can surprise us with its affinity for hope and tenacity for survival.

I think that year, difficult as it was, also helped me become more self aware. I hope it has made me more attentive to the burdens we bear, the daily skirmishes and bigger fights and their fallouts that mark our lives. In a way, walking with sorrow provided me another route for connecting with others. I think it pushed me forward a few steps in terms of understanding and practising empathy. And that has been a completely unexpected collateral benefit!