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!

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When the Truth Lies in Between

Many of us pick up a valuable skill at workplace– of being able to hide what we truly mean behind innocent sounding and non threatening words. Anyways, here are some statements that many of us have heard (and understood what they really mean). And yes, I have used some of them too!

  1. We have seen what you shared. It is good. But we do have some inputs.
    (What they really mean) I am ok with it. But my boss thinks that your piece doesn’t reflect his ideas. I am now going to tell you that you need to rewrite it.
  2. So, we have put together a team of advisors who bring in significant expertise and can make sure that we are proceeding in the right direction.
    (What they really mean) All of them are important people. All of them have to be in the team. You will have to listen to all of them. But you have to make sure that this bus doesn’t go off the cliff!
  3. We want a brief report.
    (What they really mean) It should have everything. It should be a summary. It should have the background. It should showcase our achievements and how we did that and our challenges and why we couldn’t overcome them. And make the challenges seem like grounds for more work (and securing funding). It should also have recommendations. It should also be targeted at policy makers. And we are paying you to make this brief.
  4. We are very close to the end of the road on this.
    (What they really mean) No. We are not.  There will be another couple of rounds of feedback and, maybe, then we will be somewhere close to the middle of the road.
  5. We think that you are best suited to make this presentation.
    (What they really mean) Actually, nobody else wants to do this.

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!    

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!