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!    

This is What They Said

“Damn that Autocorrect!”

I have, I must confess, used more colourful language than that when the autocorrect function on my mobile has transformed what I want to say into something else. We get so worked up when our words get distorted. But we do not always necessarily accord the same importance (and frustration) when the words of those we work with get changed in our writings. Strange, isn’t it?

“It’s ok. You can change these few words. Basically, this is what she meant.”
“It means the same. But this sounds better.”
“We are just summarising what they said. We are not changing it.”

I have agreed to some of these. Or rather allowed myself to let it go. But it isn’t right.

What children and people say matter. How they say it matters too. It may not always fit the neat ‘quotable quotes’ boxes that we want in our publications and websites. But if we want to come closer to our aims of being authentic and participatory, we have to let go of our urge to make what others say ‘presentable’. Each comment – whether considered clear or chaotic – is moulded by the unique experiences of that individual and articulated with that cadence of voice that only he/she possesses. Reflecting that voice, however it may sound, makes our collective work and the stories we tell about it real and impactful.

Maybe, even as we wage our bigger battles, we need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of these crucial fights too!

Just Finish It

March 31st marks the end of the financial year for many. It also got me thinking about how a lot of assignments end. Very often, this is what happens.

Stage I: We are all really excited about this!
Someone wants to document the journey, achievements, challenges and learnings that emerged from a programme.  Failures (or, areas of improvement in NGO speak) are added. This last bit involves a certain amount of negotiation. The winning argument – we can say that we need to work on these aspects in the next phase! Anyways, so the team and the consultant hold one or more meetings. Everybody is brimming with ideas, excited and cooperative.

Stage II: Getting into it
The sense of enthusiasm is still palpable as more meetings are held to spell out the specifics, make field plans and other necessary arrangements. There is a deluge of documents. People are eager to share. Sometimes, this initial stage also brings in a sense of the people who inhabit this universe – who all need to be consulted, who will give feedback and, most importantly, who has the final say.

Stage III: The Actual Work
The blood, sweat and tears part starts. Interactions with participants, organisational staff and others occur. New leads emerge. Often, this adds new dimensions and enriches the documentation. Sometimes, this snowballing thing also threatens to snowball out of control! Timelines, costs and other factors have to be considered. After the fieldwork is completed, the consolidation and writing begins. First, draft outlines and then draft documents are shared.

Stage IV:  Close to the Finish Line
When we are really lucky, this stage (finalising with feedback) comes and goes quietly without causing any heartburn. The designated people provide feedback within the designated time frame. Further steps, especially where designing and printing are involved, occur seamlessly. There is more feedback. It is incorporated and we are done.

Stage V: It’s Not Over Yet!
Very often, stage IV begins to expand over space and time. In fact, it takes over our lives. We wait for feedback. Or, after we have incorporated all the feedback, there is more feedback. Or we spot mistakes that need to be corrected. When that is done, more mistakes surface. This is when we just want the assignment to end and to get our lives back. The only consolation are those words that capture a world of wisdom…This too shall pass!

And it usually does. Till it happens again.

There’s Something About Train Journeys

It can be full of surprises, adventurous and even exasperating (especially when delays occur). But there is definitely something about train journeys. In fact, travelling by train to various locations across the country for work constitutes one of the key perks of the job for me!

Of course, there are all kinds of journeys. There are those undertaken with professional acquaintances who turn into friends as we journey together. Conversations ebb and flow and programme framework and emerging effects are discussed with as much intent as the environment in which all this is done. And of course, the mandatory discussions on weather (it is going to be very hot this year) and politics (should not even start on that one) crop up. Other passengers also chip in and before you know there is a very busy collective dialogue happening! The required energy for these interactions comes from buying and consuming all kinds of stuff from the vendors who pass through. Well, one has to contribute to their livelihoods too!

There are train journeys where you are on your own. These journeys help in catching up on sleep or work (and sometimes both). They also offer that valuable sliver of time to start or return to that book that needed to be read. We may sometimes stumble into an introspective space. And not having mobile network during such times is a good thing!

The people in the compartment become our universe for that time. Men, women and children from different backgrounds travelling to different destinations for different purposes – one becomes a part of this rich drama. Both the diversity in our conditions and the overarching commonality of human experience become visible.

And then we arrive at our destinations. Usually, for me, this is followed by landing up at a hotel, freshening up quickly, grabbing a bite and then  plunging into work. Unless of course, the Indian Railways chooses to rearrange the (much emailed upon and finally agreed on) schedule because we reach in time for dinner instead of breakfast. Well…that is a story for another time!

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!

Insights from 2016: The Abridged Version

So, it is the season to be merry. It is also that time when we become  reflective as we look back on the year, on the triumphs and trials, the expected and unexpected. So, what did all the assignments and other professional engagements in 2016 teach me? Here are the highlights!

*We bring all of ourselves to our work, even the parts we are not aware of. It is worthwhile to figure out what these parts are and how they influence our perceptions and performance.

*Being participatory will bring on headaches. But it is absolutely worth it. It will yield benefits that we have not even thought of.  

*Going beyond the ‘quotable quotes’ kind of lines from children and people in publications is difficult. Sometimes, very few even expect you to! But we need to fight this battle too – of ensuring that we present what we hear and experience.

*It is ok to make mistakes and fail. The important thing is to learn from the experience. The more important thing is to be able to apply those learnings (and we can then reach the hallowed lessons learnt stage!)

*Sometimes, a dream runs its course. We or our circumstances change. Or both. Sometimes, it is just time to move on…in a different direction.

*Believe in causes. And professional commitments and deadlines. And self care.

 

Food Tales

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to travel and sample varied cuisines. From roadside dhabas to grander not-to-be-missed establishments. From hurried but refreshing tea stops to the sometimes celebratory, end of assignment dinners. And the variety has been exquisite!

Since I love sweets, I always ask about that. I have had amazing sweets at a small roadside stall while travelling in Malda (West Bengal).  In Dumka (Jharkhand), I tried out a small shop that had been recommended. My host ensured that we took out the time for this – actually, we did this just before I had to board the train! In Jalandhar (Punjab), there was Lovely Sweets – a multistoried shop which, from its opulent exterior, looked more likely to offer gold jewellery than sweets and snacks! In Jammu, three of us went to a famous local eatery Pahalwan. It was started by a pahalwan (wrestler). Business had boomed and I don’t think his descendants ever needed to step into a wrestling ring for work. We ordered sweets and more. One of my companions had dhokla (which seemed to have successfully travelled from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir) for the first time. He enjoyed it!

There have been some other pleasant surprises as well. I was facilitating a workshop in Rajasthan. All of us had mentioned our favourite foods as part of the introduction round on the first of the four day workshop. On the last day, a participant cooked what I had shared – khichdi, potato fries and tomato chutney – for dinner. Drawing on her heritage, she infused a distinctive South Indian flavour to them. The tastes were unfamiliar but good and made even more special by this unexpected act of regard and generosity. It became one of those beautiful moments where good food and companionship combine to create a memorable experience.

So even as struggles with handling multiple assignments and deadlines continue, I know that the future will bring more possibilities of the gastronomic kind as well. And that is a reassuring thought!