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. 

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!

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).

 

Rewriting the Script

A poor programme participant was surviving against great odds. The programme team established contact with him/her, built rapport and motivated him/her to participate in the activities. The person was initially ‘resistant’. But then, the project team’s efforts proved successful. The person gradually began to participate and derive benefits. He/she became a strong supporter of the programme. His/her life changed substantially. He/she recognised the contribution of the programme in facilitating these significant transformations in his/her life.

So, this is the typical template of a ‘success story’ or ‘testimonial of change/impact’. The considerably rich and versatile case study method is often co-opted to build this very restrictive narrative. There is, of course, nothing wrong in wishing to record and present the positive changes influenced through a programme. On a more positive note, there has been an increasing interest in reflecting upon the programme inputs as well as the experience of the person/s who engaged with it. But there is SO MUCH MORE that needs to be done to make these narratives more real, grounded, ethical and resonant.

Not a label
The programme participant chosen as the ‘subject’ may have had a difficult life. But  he/she was a vibrant, complex, growing sum total of knowledge, experiences, skills and resources (in whatever shape or form) navigating life before we were even aware of his/her existence. He /she cannot be reduced only to labels that characterise him/her through deprivation. Any change that we are able to document and present is because he/she chose to engage with the programme. So, we should explore and highlight the nature of this engagement, factors which shaped it, evolving effects, and the continuing dynamic between these aspects. A representation that robs a person of his/her dignity and agency discredits both the programme and the participants.

Complexity and differences are not our enemy
While we all understand that change is rarely a linear and direct process, our success story templates fall consistently in this trap! Our narratives can be more nuanced by highlighting the actors, facilitating factors and constraints, circumstances and other elements and the interplay between them. We could attempt to identify the relative weights that these carried in influencing the change. And it is ok if the person has certain opinions and experiences that detract from the expected success story template/script. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing!Why are we so wary of reflecting differences?

What is success?
This is a more fundamental aspect. Are we willing to revisit our criteria of success? How do the programme participants define success in their own lives and in terms of the programme’s scope of work? Has the second helped with the first? How do these conceptions of success match with the programme’s envisaged outcomes? A more in-depth exploration can provide richer and varied dimensions of takeaways and successes than imagined. Such an exploration can also reveal other aspects that, somehow, escaped attention and needed programmatic emphasis. Sometimes, when we see what we want to see – we don’t go beyond that!

Ultimately, we are holding up a person’s lived experiences to external view. That is a huge responsibility, even when we change the names (and adhere to other ethical norms).

If that person was me, is this how I would have wanted myself to be represented?

How Informed is Informed Consent?

All of us who document and research are familiar with the notion of informed consent. Together with confidentiality and Do No Harm, it forms this trifecta of inviolable principles to guide our practice.  But I am not sure if those who agree always fully understand the implications of that ‘yes’. More importantly, I don’t know if that ‘yes’ comes from a sense of agency and choice.

Very often, we seek responses from people who have been a part of our projects as direct recipients of services or inputs in some form. I detest the term beneficiaries. But if, at some level, we have placed them in that category (or also allowed them to think like that), then they may feel obligated to participate. The ‘yes’ may then actually mean – ‘Sure. I will tell you what you want because I want to continue to be a part of this.’ Have we ever said to someone – You can choose not to be a part of this process at all. This will not have any impact on how we engage with you and your subsequent access to the project/programme?

Also, our dialogue with participants can be intrusive.  They may have consented in the beginning. But they probably did not know that the conversation would get into the realm of the deeply personal. Having said yes initially, they may feel unsure about backing out in between.

 Sometimes, people also say things as part of a conversation. Buried feelings and emotions may surface. They may remark about certain people or structures/systems in ways that they would not otherwise. Even if they have given consent, they may not fully realise the implications of having those words written and ascribed to them. Moreover, do we share that this conversation will shape a narrative that may be go beyond the immediate purpose and be recycled across outputs and channels?  

It is, undoubtedly, a great privilege to be welcomed into someone’s house and be given that time. In fact, I am often overwhelmed by the hospitality and the openness with which people share. It is, then, my responsibility to capture what is spoken, and left unspoken, in a manner that is dignified  and authentic as far as possible. It is also my responsibility to unpack this notion of informed consent, to check back with them even at the cost of losing out on those quotable quotes.

Besides, sometimes, knowing is enough. Everything does not need to be written explicitly for (donor and public) consumption.

We have to get better at this. I am definitely going to try.

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 Top Five … Reactions to being a Consultant

Here’s a list of another kind – the top five statements that I get to hear the most.

Number 5:  You don’t have to report to anybody!
This is partly correct. Yes, I am my own boss. But then things like nodal/contact persons, seniors (“we have to consult them you know”) and feedback exist. Let’s just say…it is complicated!

Number 4: You don’t have to do that 9-5 thing.
I am happy about this. But then, on the flipside, distinctions between day and night and weekdays and weekends and holidays and other days can get blurred very easily while chasing deadlines. Moreover, there are expectations that, as a consultant, you will manage to deliver on time no matter what! “The world is on a seven day break. But then we had agreed on that date for finalising this. Remember?” And then you kick yourself for being a conscientious professional and not slipping in 1-2 days of leeway (and recovery from holiday) time!

Number 3: You can choose what you want to do.
Our lives are a curious mix of choices and chances and compulsions. Being a consultant doesn’t change that completely. So, there are some assignments you do because you want to and some because you have to.

Number 2: Don’t you miss working in an office, having colleagues and all that?
As a consultant, you work closely with various teams across organisations and locations. So, the scope for meaningful interactions is always present. You can also hear all the office gossip without really being affected by it (unless it directly concerns you)! Of course, there are no official support structures and systems to always fall back on. So, there are pluses and minuses (including numbers 3-5). Anyways, it has worked for me for the last 8-9 years.

And the Number 1: So, what do you do exactly?
To be fair, just saying ‘consultant’ probably does not make much sense. But then in my case adding the words ‘process documentation and knowledge management’ doesn’t usually help either! And then – ‘for the development sector’ does the rest! Some smile knowingly and desist. The more hardy and curious kinds ask more questions. I guess that is social work too…clarifying about social work!

Me and My Work

So, I had read of this exercise where you think of something and see what words come into your mind. I was possibly subjected to something like this in college by my room mate who was studying psychology (I served as the de facto subject for countless experiments). I was curious to know what I would come up with regarding process documentation. And here are the results – the words that tumbled forth in an unplanned and unapologetic manner!

Enriching
Entertaining
People
Travel
Stories
Words
Reports
Publications
Insights
Empathy
Joys
Challenges
Humane
Development
Writer

Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.

 

 

 

 

It’s Complicated

The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!

So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.

It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!

These Are A Few of My Favourite…Posts

Now as I try to return to the practice of blogging, I couldn’t help but look back at what I had posted so far. There are some posts that I really enjoyed writing. In fact, the experiences referred to have stayed with me. So, without further ado, here are three of my favourite posts.

Playing Detective

What My Pishi Taught Me

A Shiny Piece of Plastic