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. 

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?