Saturday, 15 September 2012

Why me?

No, this is not about 'Why do all bad things happen to me only?'

My friends have often wondered how I end up not only meeting so many strangers, but also how they tend to open up their mind and heart to share their life experiences with me. Sometimes, even I wonder because for a major part of my life, I have been a very shy person, scared to talk to people. Whether it is the Indian girl whom I met on a bus in Bristol (she has a Chinese brother - both adopted by a couple in Luxemburg), or the Indian-American Kannadiga whom I met at a Zakir Hussain concert in London, or the 75-year old World War veteran whom I met by the Thames river.. or more recently, some migrants I met on the train, or the security guards I get to meet at IISc .... 
All these people and the conversations I have had with them have had an impact on me and have enriched my life.
This is the first in the series of recording such experiences. I will start with the most recent one that happened yesterday.

I was introduced to the book 'Siddhartha' in the morning and having gone through the gist on Wikipedia, was trying to relate to the thoughts presented in the story. It was mostly reaffirming, but did leave me disturbed and exhausted. So I was planning to leave early when I had this 25 minute conversation with the security boy (I did not track the time, he did). I was the listener for most part, which is usually the case with me, except when I am talking to my very close friends.

The security boy helped me put up some posters on the notice board; I had nothing to do, but felt an obligation to stand there till he finished his job. I thanked him and turned to go, but he started a long conversation which never seemed to end. He told me about a TV program that he watched about Emu rearing and all the money it could bring. I asked him if we have the right weather conditions to rear Emus, but I could see that he had done all the homework as he explained the process. He also talked about how he wants to go back to his village and become a farmer and stay close to his people. He went on to talk about how his family lost a lot of money and family jewelry because of his dad's poor choices (mostly influenced by his alcoholism) and his mother's innocence. He had taken up a job as a security guard and got his father also enrolled at the same place. He has just started his Diploma course in Mechanical Engineering and hopes to get into a good job soon. He pays for his fees and along with his father, is paying off a loan they took to have a shelter for themselves. He says he cannot spend time with friends after college because he has to report to work. He also regrets not spending enough time with his mother because he is either at college or at work for most part of the day. He talks to his father on the phone since he doesn't get to meet him too because they work in different shifts. With all this, he manages to participate in debates and elocutions as he loves to talk (no doubt about it!).

During the entire conversation, he smiled as he talked. He did not seem to have any complaints about anyone though he admitted not having trust worthy relatives. He did not seem to have any hatred towards his father for all his alcoholism and poor financial management. All he wished for was to have a few good friends who would stand by him during his troubled times. He seemed to have everything worked out for becoming a farmer - the loans that he could take, the subsidies that he could make use of and the trust that he could build with his fellow villagers.

I was amazed by his attitude and sincerely hope that life doesn't become so hard on him that he loses his optimism. I also had a few lessons to be learnt from him about forgiving people and taking everyone along. Though I have experienced financial and other hardships during my childhood, I thanked my stars for not having to earn for my fees or contribute to the family income. I also feel lucky to have been blessed with some really good friends and had (and still have) the luxury of spending time with them.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Learn, teach and have fun at Munsiari

While I was in Munsiari earlier this year, Malika suggested designing a program for independent travelers who would like to do something beyond just tourism and explore the connection with the land and its people. Some of my friends are planning to go on such a trip. I have listed some activities that can be done at the place.

Learn from the community
  1. Farming
  2. Knitting
  3. Carpet making
  4. Cooking
  5. Singing and dancing
  6. Anything else one wishes to learn

Teach the community
  1. English
  2. Car driving
  3. Food processing
  4. Tailoring and designing
  5. Singing and dancing
  6. Cooking
  7. Solar repairs
  8. Accounting/Finance
  9. Film making
  10. Anything else one wishes to teach

Apart from these, one could participate in local wedding parties and go on treks. Munsiari is the starting point for many treks in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas.

We shall be staying with families in the home stay program. 

We are looking at a 2 week program starting mid November. The charges are tentatively Rs. 700 per day including food at the homestay. Transport to the place is extra (Need to take a train from Delhi to Kathgodam and then a taxi to Munsiari @ Rs. 500)

If anyone would like to join in this adventure, let me know by mid September so we can book train tickets.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

What a year it has been!

--> The year gone by (August 2011 to August 2012) has been an exciting one. I am writing a short summary for my reference.

Went to Rameshwaram with parents, was amazed by the temple structure with all its fresh water wells. Also went to Dhanushkodi and experienced the vastness of the ocean. Developed cold feet, almost cancelled my Canada trip but eventually made it.
In Toronto, attended TEDx and TIFF. At b-school, met many people from many countries, was thrilled. Soon realized I was not meant to be doing assignments after assignments. Steve Jobs died. Got lost. A friend sent a link about Malika Virdi. Decided to get some real education back home for lesser fees.
Went to Montreal with a borrowed credit card and camera. Cycled in Montreal on a rented cycle. Walked on the cobbled streets of Quebec city. Came back to Toronto. Caught up with a friend from college after a decade. More assignments. Met some ordinary people. Met some amazing people. Made few friends for life. Volunteered at an urban farm and earned some vegetables.
Wandered on the streets of Toronto. Fell in love with the place. Watched a weirdo play in a cute little theatre. Was reminded of Ranga Shankara.
Learned to make Aloo Parantha and Groundnut chutney. Baked cakes with classmates who turned into friends. Went for swimming classes for the third time in my life.
Knew I was going to go back, but felt a sweet satisfaction in putting full effort into studies. Had a crush on one of my professors (coincidentally got a A- in his subject).
Saw Disney on Ice and felt like a child. Sang Christmas carols. Had a traditional Christmas dinner with an amazing family.
Visited friends on the other side of the Niagara. Renewed a friendship. Painted a wardrobe at her home. Enjoyed a guided walking tour along the streets of New York, with a friend.
Got a sweet farewell from my desi classmates. Had a calm and relaxed journey back to Bangalore.
Prepared sandige with mom. Attended Mylara jaatre in North Karnataka with mom's family. Witnessed madness. Climbed a water tank to take pictures. Sent photographs to people I met at the fair (and they still keep in touch!).
Went to Haridwar and Rishikesh with parents. Was overwhelmed by the mighty Ganga. Went to the Taj Mahal and did not feel anything. Toured Jaipur and liked it. Toured Delhi and hated it. Parents went home and I continued onto Munsiari (and the rest, as they say, is history.) Found myself.
Decided to go back home. Left the details of the journey to chance. Met some dreamers and achievers on the way. Enjoyed the hospitality of a wonderful family in Nainital. Travelled in unreserved class along with a foreigner. Shared recipes of Ragi mudde and Dose in a crowded train.
Came back to Bangalore with mixed feelings. Back to my garden experiments. Appeared in an article in Sudha (Kannada) magazine and liked it. Looked after 3 puppies for a while. Went to aunt's place to take refuge from angry mom. Learned to make Rave unde and nippattu from uncle. Also got some lessons on cultivating land. Started writing in Kannada.

Now, looking forward to another eventful year ahead!

Monday, 23 July 2012

My conversations with Malika Virdi

These are some of the many conversations that I had the privilege to have as I saw Malika Virdi's many facets - as a woman, as a person from a minority community, as a mother, as a mountaineer, as an artist, as a leader, as a last-minute project manager, as an agony aunt, as a farmer, as an activist, as a former Sarpanch, as a teacher, as a grandmother (to neighbour's kids), as a volleyball player, as a cook, as a strict task master, as a pet-lover, as a friend.. as a person living life to the fullest.
 Photo courtesy: Diba Siddiqi

I am scared of you!
Malika Virdi: It was nice of you to offer to take a back seat while working with the German researcher and let the locals get some visibility.
Lavanya Keshavamurthy: Thanks. I was not sure if I did the right thing. I am scared of you!
MV: It is because of the competitiveness that we are taught in the corporate world. It is refreshing to see that you are different. We'll see if this leads to our friendship. But, you can be scared of me if you want.

I want to die only once
MV: (Recollecting a conversation she had with a local during her Himalayan trek) I asked the person who lives literally on the edge, if he doesn't get scared of jumping off trees and cliffs. He said, “I do not want to be scared and die a 1000 times before I die. When the time comes, I will die, and nothing will stop me.”
LK: (repeating to myself, “I do not want to die a 1000 times before I die”)

Farmer or more?
One of the questions I wanted to find answers to was whether one can make a living as a farmer. We were trying to scare away some monkeys when we had this conversation. When I joined the fight, she had given up on a catapult and was trying to use a bow and arrow.
MV: It is a tough life if you want to make a living off farming. Look at those langurs (monkeys). They destroy half the crops, if they haven't already been eaten away by pigs and porcupines. And then, there are jealous neighbors who let their cattle graze in our fields.
LK: Also the unpredictable monsoons. Which is why my parents fear when I tell them I want to be a farmer.
MV: They are right. You should have an alternative source of income.

Leeches are better than humans
LK: I want to leave around May 15th.
MV: You cannot leave before you finish all those items on the board. Or, do you have someone waiting for you in Bangalore?
LK: :-) I am told that leeches start appearing around the last week of May. I am scared of leeches.
MV: People are far more dangerous than leeches. We will ensure that you will not be bitten by leeches. (I was overwhelmed when she said this)
LK: I know. I have met some really creepy people in my life. Coming back to leeches.. I have this awkward scary feeling towards creepy crawly worms. It is similar to some people being scared of spiders.
MV: No, you don't know. You only know psychologically that some humans are bad. You haven't seem them all.
LK: hmmm..

Generalist or Specialist?
It was a few days after I had driven a taxi in Munsiari. By then, I had also done some basic carpentry fixes, built a slow sand filter, cleaned my room before vacating it, looked after goats, cooked for the family, etc..
MV: (addressing the women of the Sanghatan (women's collective)) We have to know everything and we will. We will drive a taxi, we will grow food, we will clean our house, we will cook, we will knit, we will use the internet, we will repair solar lamps, we will also be carpenters and plumbers if need be.
LK: I always had this fear of not being a specialist. To make matters more confusing, people told me 'you should not do this or that because you are an engineer/woman/team leader/inexperienced/etc..' But, now, I feel I had always been right.. I mean, I believe there is nothing wrong in learning and doing any kind of work; no job is big or small.
MV: You are right. Cities tend to make you grow vertically, forcing you to be good at one skill and ignore the rest whereas most of these other skills are life skills which we ought to know. Being in a rural setting makes you grow horizontally, forcing you to learn the much needed life skills and making you more complete.

How do you decide what is important?
LK: I made this list of pending items. There are some things which I may not be able to complete and there are some that I can continue from Bangalore.
MV: Hmm.. the fish pond is top priority. The kids have been waiting too long to see fish in their pond.
LK: (I was surprised because I expected something more 'important') Fishpond?
MV: Basanti's kids were the first to learn to bake cakes in a solar cooker and also teach others. They deserve to have the first fishpond in their village.
LK: But, there is so much work to be done.
MV: How much? Will it do if all the women in the collective work for a day?
LK: What? May be. I don't know. I am not sure. We'll try.
(I seriously was not confident of completing it, but eventually, we did complete it.
There was another (cement) pond already built by a well-off family in the same village, but Basanti's kids were indeed the first to get fish from Malika's pond. Oh, were they happy that day!)

These stones are God?
During 'Creative Edge' – a week reserved for artistic work, my art project was to sketch the story of the pond at Malika's place.
MV: Have you seen where the Jal Devi is (Water Goddess)?
LK: No, you have a Jal Devi?
MV: Yeah. (pointing to few irregularly shaped stones) You see those stones there? When we started creating our pond here, we did not know that this place was originally a water source and that the villagers worshiped those stones as the water Goddess. I am not religious, but the villagers believe that we got water in the pond because of the Jal Devi.
LK: I am not religious too, but I respect their belief. Their beliefs are so much simpler and non-intrusive compared to that in cities. Also, these people here are so open to others' beliefs and non-beliefs and are pretty modern in their thinking.
MV: I am glad you could see beyond their simple lifestyle. Some of these women just go along and treat religious events as inevitable social gatherings.
(We both knew who we were talking about.)

Do you mind moving?
Apparently, I was sitting in Malika's place in the office.
MV: If you don't mind, could you please move to a different place? I already have so many of my documents here and it would be tough for me to move.
LK: I moved to 5 different homes and you ask me if I mind moving 10 feet? :)
MV: :-) We knew you would understand us moving you to so many different homes.
LK: I did enjoy the love and hospitality of 5 different families.

Real world learning
We were discussing about my MBA course..
LK: Oh, we had a bit of accounting, a bit of economics, a bit of leadership, etc..
MV: OK. Here's some real social entrepreneurial learning opportunity for you. You need to create financial statements for our collective and also suggest an organizational model for us.
LK: I was planning to relax after the research project...
MV: Relax, huh?
(At the end of my stay, we had the template for the statements and 2 accounting classes conducted for the women in the collective to take it forward. I also got an opportunity to learn and share what I learned about producer companies as a possible alternative to co-operative societies.)

Competitiveness is good, no?
MV: (During my end-of-term appraisal) It is refreshing to see an urban woman be so non-competitive. You even let Ola wear your best sari during the mela!
LK: But, I would get numerous other opportunities to wear a sari. Wait a min. Did u say being non-competitive is good? During my corporate life, I was always asked to be more competitive and more visible. Thank you for bursting this myth.

20 years are not enough
LK: (looking at my TODO list) 2 months are not enough to do all that I want to do.
MV: 20 years are not enough. (20 years is the amount of time Malika has been in Munsiari)

It is not about 'who you are' (man/woman/outsider/local), it is about 'what you do'
One of the other questions that I had asked was about how local people (especially men) react when outsiders (especially women) try to bring about change in a community.
MV: I will not answer this question for you. I am sure you would have found the answer yourself.
LK: Yes, I did.
(Over numerous kitchen conversations, I saw that everyone (man/women did not matter) who had been touched directly or indirectly by Malika's work, had a great deal of respect for her)

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Making a world of difference to one starfish

A chance meeting with the manager of Himalaya Public School (HPS) at Chaukori, as he came to drop members of Himalayan Education Foundation (HEF) to Munsiari, proved very valuable to Ola and me. Prakash invited us to visit the school on our way back from Munsiari. It worked well for us as we did not want to make the 12-hr journey at one go. I had also heard a lot about the school, so was curious too.

Chaukori is about 4 hrs by road from Munsiari, at almost the same altitude as Munsiari. But, it was unbearably hot that day because of deliberate forest fires in the area (to clear forests for agricultural land).
At the school, we were given the option to stay in a room or in a cozy tent - what we chose is anybody's guess. I was floored by the hospitality at the school as well as at Prakash's home in Nainital. The respect and love showered on us was overwhelming. It is hard to believe that such wonderful people still exist in today's world.

Prakash's sister Devbala (also the principal of the school) spoke with passion about the school started by her father with the intention of providing good education for rural people so that they could be confident enough to compete with urban children. The school was started in a goshala (cowshed) with classes conducted in the morning the same classrooms turning into dorms in the night.

Over a hearty (and special) meal, Devbala recounted how, before mobile phones became available, they used to travel a few hrs by bus to the nearest telephone booth which may or may not be working. Prakash shared stories of how people came forward to help in various ways, the recent addition being a computer lab set up by one such group of people. Another person, Jayant, through the Himalayan Education Foundation supports schools and school children in the remote villages of the Indian Himalayas. The Himalayan Public School is one such school. When we visited, a library was being built and I saw carpenters turn into computer students by night. There were no barriers for learning.

We spent the evening with Hemlatha, 12-standard student who has aspirations of becoming a doctor. I liked her for her composure and the way she spoke in simple but flawless English. She is one of the beneficiaries of the Himalayan Education Foundation.

At the time of leaving, I asked Prakash as to how I could return his favour (for dropping us to Almora and hosting us at his school as well as at his home). He jokingly said that I need to pay 200 USD. But, I decided to take it seriously. So, this is a request to my friends, especially those in the US, to help me in passing on the favour to some needy student.
The cost of sponsoring one non-residential student in first grade is approximately Rs. 5000 per year, going upto Rs. 11,000 for a student in 12th grade. The fees for residential students starts from Rs. 36,200 per year. Details are available on the website of HEF and HPS.

Even as I write this, I wonder how this write-up will help in reaching out to thousands of students in need. Then, I remember the story of the starfish wherein a little boy makes a world of difference to the one starfish that he throws back into the ocean. So, even if one person reaches out to one student, it is worth the effort putting together all these words.

Camera courtesy: Ola Da

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A book from here and a book from there..

During my stay at Munsiari, one of the community needs that came out strongly was the need for a good library or a reading space, preferably with books/audio-video in the local language (Hindi).
A friend's friend heard about my trip and came forward to support a library through an initiative called READ.

All I did was to put these 2 pieces together and today, a library for children and young adults in the age group 5-25 yrs is in the process of being setup.
There were 3 main reasons for the need for such a library. 
1. While the children and young adults have access to conventional education, they do not have access to books on a wider variety of issues and subjects, particularly on the natural sciences and natural heritage. 

2. Through a collection of audio video material, to bridge the digital divide.

3. Access to any kind of learning material (apart from school books) is almost non-existent and the nearest big town where books are available is more than five hours by road.

Books from the following sources have been suggested.
  • Eklavya - The complete list along with the rates, is available here.

There is also a need for building/buying racks/shelves and related library infrastructure.

If you are interested in participating in this initiative, there are 3 (actually 4) ways of getting involved.
  1. Buy some of these books yourself and send it to Munsiari (or any special books that have inspired you as a child/young adult – I plan to send Kalam's “Wings of fire”)
  2. Bear the cost of some books/infrastructure by sending money directly to Himal Prakriti
  3. Contribute indirectly though READ
  4. Visit the place and actually setup the library and experience it first hand
About READ
READ Initiative” is a group with an aim to provide access to good books to underprivileged children in India. Their main focus is schools and community centre libraries where books can be made accessible. By contributing books for the library, they intend to ensure that the “library/ reading space” becomes a special treat for the children.
They have successfully completed two years and have provided books to 11 schools across India.

About Himal Prakriti
Himal Prakriti is a non-profit, non-governmental organization registered as a charitable trust. Its work has been embedded in the community, and its role has been to extend support to the various conservation and livelihood issues in the Gori valley through education, training, research and advocacy activities. Through its educational initiatives, they aim to build on the community capacities in understanding and appreciating our natural heritage and to build on the body of knowledge that will strengthen lives that are dependent on nature in the Himalaya.

PS: Please ping me for the contact details of READ/Himal Prakriti

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The story of Basanti's fish pond

The beginning
The pond at Basanti's place (first of the 5 homes I stayed in, in Munsiyari) was already half dug up when Ola and I came in to the picture. We started digging bit by bit and soon Basanti’s sons joined in and the pond grew to a decent size of approximately 6m by 4m.

To put plastic or not?
The soil at the base of the pond is very permeable and there was no chance of water being let in before making it suitable for a pond. I was totally against putting plastic and wanted to try other alternatives such as creating a thick layer of compacted soil, gleying using dung and other organic matter or using a layer of natural clay such as Sodium Bentonite. After a quick breakfast discussion with a soil expert who was in Munsiyari by chance, it was decided to go ahead with layering the pond with plastic as we did not want to run the risk of the fish dying. The soil expert gave a few practical tips and suggested that the plastic needs be fully protected from direct sunlight to avoid UV rays from decomposing the plastic. 

15th May 2012 - One lovely day and a dozen strong women
My assessment of the work of layering with organic matter and plastic was about 2 to 3 days of dedicated hard-work and there was little chance that I could take out so much time in all the other things that I had to finish. Malika told me that there was no way I could return home unless the pond was done!! She suggested a shramdaan from Maati women and there we were, about a dozen strong women from ages 12 to 50 shoveling mud, carrying cow dung and even cutting stones. Lunch break coincided with a bout of rain and we got a chance to catch up over a hearty lunch that included Rajma and Aloo Mutter from Basanti's garden.
Though ideas came from everyone, Rajda (Basanti’s husband) took the lead and sweated it out even though he was quite weak from fever. By 6 pm, the pond was done and I had seen a live example of the community happily participating in a project that did not have anything to do with them directly. Later in the day, Rajda created a water inlet and the pond was full by the next morning. On the 20th, the kids dived into the pond at Malika’s place to get fish for their own pond.

Within a few days of the pond getting completed, the place came alive with the pond attracting damsel flies and dragon flies, apart from tourists. There is something about water and fish that attracts people - I remember my friend and I standing by the pool at the Infosys campus and spending many quiet minutes leisurely watching the fish.
The last time I called to check, Basanti had added more fish into her pond, this time from the Gori Ganga river in the valley.

Now for all the boring details:

Final size of pond (approx): 6m * 4m,  2 ½ feet deep
Plastic sheet (used to build temporary roofs): 2 thick sheets of 6m by 7m, total cost Rs. 1500.

Steps we followed
1      Dig dig dig
2.     Create a slope for layering the plastic
3.     Clear stones and smoothing the surface by tapping with hands and legs
4.     Layer the pond floor with organic matter (leaves, cow-dung, hay)
5.     Cover with plastic with a good 2 feet of plastic sheet coming over the bank of the pond and a large overlap between the 2 sheets
6.     Secure the sheet by placing heavy stones on the edge
7.     Cover sheet with soil, leaves, hay, dung – a thick enough layer to support an ecosystem.
8.     Place few big stones and wood to create spaces for fish to build their homes and play
9.     Beautify the edge by planting local plants
10.   Put in the fish

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Small is beautiful indeed

A few months ago, a friend recommended the book 'Small is Beautiful' by E.F. Schumacher. This book lives up to its name as it is a small book of 250 pages and it suited me fine as I am generally a lazy and slow reader.

Though the book was written more than 30 years ago, the ideas are still relevant. I would say they are more relevant now than ever. It links human behaviour and economics and puts people at the forefront of development. Though progress and development are meant for people, most of the huge development programs that we generally know of somehow miss the human aspect. A classic example is the surge of many unnecessary flyovers in Bangalore, most of which have no provision for people to cross the road. Also, I haven't come across anyone who is happy to be working in such projects either.

The author talks about the use of simple 'Intermediate technology' which is not only less expensive, but also easy to train and control. I could see this in action as I saw a few people make a stone path in Sarmoli village in Munsiyari. The people cut stones that are locally available and laid them out using their hands and simple tools. They seemed satisfied with their work and happily posed for photographs. The other important thing is the ease of taking in feedback and suggestions from locals, on the go. In this case, the local who was accompanying me told them that the stone path is better than the cement one since the stone path provides a better grip especially when there is snow. Whether the suggestion will be implemented or not is secondary, but the ease of providing feedback is nothing compared to the complexity and bureaucracy involved in the massive projects in cities.

I had the same feeling when I visited a couple of micro hydro power projects and water mills which are built almost entirely from locally available materials. Unfortunately, some of these have begun to shutdown as huge hydro power projects are making their way into these serene places and their impact is already visible through many landslides in the area.

Which brings me to the concept of Buddhist Economics which has simplicity and non-violence as its base. The author makes a reference to 'The Middle way' by saying "It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them." Which translates to achievement of maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption, i.e., small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results. A demonstration of this principle could be seen in the little village of Paton (Munsiyari, Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand) which I was fortunate enough to visit (thanks to Malika for forcing me to go on the trip and Ram for guiding us). The village is off-grid, yet, as Ram noted and I couldn't agree more, people have light, can charge their mobiles and watch their favourite TV serials - all powered by solar energy!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Knowing where your food comes from

Two weeks ago, I had to move to another home since I had to vacate my better furnished and more beautiful room to accomodate a German couple. My hostess was pretty upset that I was leaving but I did not mind much because the new home was less than 100 meters away and I could drop by my old home almost everyday (and I still do). What I did not realize was the home-grown food that I was going to miss. And the tasty natural milk from the cows. And a chance to sit in front of the fire and wait for the milk to slowly come to a boil as I knit my scarf. A farmer's home is a lot more different as it is generally more active with a lot of work to be done, come rain or shine. There is cowdung to be cleared and taken to the fields, there is grass to be cut for the cows, goats to be taken care of, weeds to be cleared, seeds to be planted and plants to be watered.

The knowledge of where our food comes from does make a difference and can add to the satisfaction of a good meal. The closer it comes from, the less is the distance between us and our food (especially our daily meals). As my friend and roomie noted, when you eat with your hand instead of a spoon, it feels much better since you have nothing between you and your food. She being a European hadn't been exposed to eating with hands. I was impressed by her observation and the clarity with which she put her thought across. More so because English is not her native language. Coming back to food, my current hostess does grow some potatoes and greens, but nothing like having a larger land where you grow green peas, rajma, beans, methi, radish, onion, garlic, etc.. Additionally, the green house accomodates some exotic stuff like raspberries and brinjal (I call brinjal exotic because I do not remember seeing one in the last one month!).

The other advantage of having fields/gardens is that the cycle gets completed for kitchen waste. No food gets wasted, more so when there are cows. Even in my current home, food waste is given to neighbours who have cows, but the whole feeling is different. It is similar to living in urban areas where we live in small isolated islands, not knowing where food comes from and where the waste goes.
Though groups like DailyDump and MySunnyBalcony are doing a very job of closing this loop in individual homes with their composting solutions and urban gardens, there is still a long way to go. What worries me however, is that these beautiful villages are making the same mistake as their urban counterparts as families are either becoming smaller or are moving to towns and cities making fields and cows difficult to maintain. But, I also see hope as a few committed individuals like the people in the women's collective I am interning with have kept up their struggle to maintain what they have realized is important to them - their connnection with their land and everything that it produces.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Language and lifeskills paying off (literally)

When I considered spending a few months in Munsiyari, I asked Malika about learning/working opportunities with Maati(the local women's collective)/Himal Prakriti (a local trust to preserve local bio-diversity). Though she welcomed me, she could not promise anything on the earning front. How could she? I do not have any specialist skills that could help me earn anything worthwhile here.. or so I thought and hence came here without any expectations.

Within a few days of seeing my enthusiasm and my work (!!), I was being considered for the next funded project in the pipeline. Even as we discussed the timelines for one of these projects, I found myself working as a research assistant on a German research project on student migration in the valley. I am not new to surveys and data collection, but the reason I got included in the project makes me laugh! Since I am the only intern who knows both Hindi and English and is available to work on this project right now, I am part of it along with a local and together we are collecting migration related data in the neighboring villages.

What amuses me is that I barely manage to communicate in Hindi (though I can understand quite well and enjoy watching movies) and the less said about my grammar, the better. Hindi is a language that I learnt on my own (with some help from dad) when I was 9 years old and when I think of it now, it makes me feel proud. When I changed my school in my 4th standard, the new school had Hindi since 1st standard so I had to catch up with them. I still remember the day I cried as I wrote the Hindi alphabet as an answer to all the Hindi questions asked in the entrance exam. Since I was good at the other subjects, I did get admitted into the new school. I spent the whole of my 3rd standard holidays learning Hindi from "Learn Hindi in 30 days" and also by watching TV. Even with all this, my Hindi is still pretty bad though I put on a fake confidence when I have to manage in Hindi speaking areas. This same Hindi now helps me earn a few hundred rupees per day and it covers a major portion of my living expenses here for a few weeks. Thank life for the small mercies!

Another skill that is paying off is my driving. Though I have an interest in learning new stuff, I must admit that I am a pretty slow learner. Almost a decade ago, I went for driving classes and then I went again after a couple of years. Since we did not have a car then, I lost touch. I took lessons again, this time with my brother in our Bolero. I remember he waking me up at 5 am and there I was, a little girl in a big car, half asleep and half scared trying to learn the dreaded half-clutch. My friends threatened to not accompany me unless I drove at a speed of more than 20 km/hr. But, I did not give up and finally reached the stage of getting compliments for my driving. Today, I am 'world-famous' in Munsiyari as probably the only female taxi driver in Munsiyari because I happened to drive a couple of tourists around since the regular driver wasn't available. It was my first driving experience in the hill side, and except for a small glitch (the half-clutch again!), I think I did a decent job at my new part-time job. I received a payment of Rs. 300 for a couple of hrs of driving (plus free entry to the local museum, some compliments and many raised eyebrows). On the way back, I offered a lift to a local till my village. She refused because I had already gone past my village - I hadn't noticed it as I couldn't properly gauge the distance by car and all houses looked the same for the first few days :)

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A typical day in Munsiyari

I thought a good way to start writing about my experiences at Munsiyari would be to describe a typical day here. But, the fact is, there seems to be no such thing as a typical day.

When I came here more than a week ago, I was down with fever and hadn't eaten in 2 days. I do not know how I survived the 11-hour journey by road taking us from the lower Himalayas into the higher Himalayas, a journey that I almost missed because I forgot to get down at Haldwani and finally got down at Kathgodam - the last train station in this part of Uttarakhand. When I arrived, my 'family' (the homestay where I am put up) was waiting for me and all I remember from that day is that I had 1 hot roti and slept under 4 layers of blankets.

The next day, there was a meeting regarding forest rights hosted by a organization called Kalpavriksh from Pune and a local women's collective called Maati. And I finally met Malika Virdi - she is the reason I am here. I saw this video while I was in Toronto and was inspired by the holistic development with a strong connection with the land. So, here I am, to learn first hand.

Among the many things that I have found myself getting into, I am supposed to work with an engineering student from Poland who is here through Engineers Without Borders to work on mapping and improving the water supply system at the village we are staying in. So, one day, we go and map all the houses and the water connections in our village. The next day, we are looking for the right kind of soil to make model of the village so that it is easier for the locals to understand the topography and the gradients. Another day, we restart work on a half-done pond as the kids can't wait to put the fish in. The kids have joined in and there has been very good progress so far. As we work together on these activities, the student and I have struck a strong bond built through conversations on life, travel, culture, war, beliefs (and non-beliefs), water-filters, cheese, dogs, etc..

My other task is to get a decent solar cooker working. Some families here do have a box solar cooker given by the government of Uttarakhand and the kids do an amazing job of baking cakes in them. However, there is a need to be able to build one locally so that every family can have access to it. In the little free time that we get, I get to help my family with some gardening both outside and inside a green-house. I am impressed by the fact that science and technology has reached these remote corners.
In all these activities, the goat belonging to my family gives birth to 2 young ones and all the focus shifts to these as the mother refuses to feed its young ones. So, off I go with my new-found friend on a 2 km uphill trek to the nearest market to get a feeding bottle to feed the kids. Even with all the care, only one of them has survived so far.

There are other minor things that I get to do like fixing a phone, layering the kitchen floor with a mixture of mud and cow-dung, fixing additional shelves in the kitchen, renewing my tailoring and knitting skills, translating a water quality testing manual from Hindi to English (!!) so that my Polish friend could understand.. just to name a few.

In my broken Hindi, I ask the lady who runs the family I stay with, about what she feels about letting some stranger into their home. She said she was initially scared but then, in the 8 years that she has been running this program, she has had only good people coming in, and only a handful of them were like me who treat her family as theirs too! I realized I had passed the first test with good marks :). For me, the reason I feel the home-stay program is amazing is that when they let us into their homes, they let us into their hearts too!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Madness at Mylara Jaatre

I had heard a lot about the Mylara jaatre (village fair) from my aunts and grandmom. For a long time, I had thought Mylara was a fictitious place since it appears in the Kannada proverb "Konkana sutti Mylarakke hogodu" which roughly translates to "beating around the bush to make a point".

This time around, I happened to make it to the jaatre and could see another proverb in action - "jana marulo jaatre marulo" meaning "What/who is crazy? The people or the crowd".

My brother had tried visiting last year but did a U-turn after looking at the lakhs of people gathered for what is called Karanika (prophecy). He warned me about the crowds, but I saw an opportunity to take some colorful pictures. What I did not anticipate was the need for a long-range lens to capture the rustic innocence of the village folk.

I do not want to sound like an NRI or a foreigner visiting India, but I was truly stunned by the reactions of the people to a woman 'press reporter' - that was what I was promoted to as I stood on a water tank with a SLR camera in hand and a "photographer's cap" on my head. My dad watched in disbelief as he could not prevent me from climbing onto the water tank. People always want to say 'you cannot climb this', 'you should not do that' because they are limited by their own capabilities and thinking - whether it is a 10 ft water tank or a 10,000 ft mountain. I decided enough is enough, and with help from a bunch of guys, happily perched myself on top of the water tank from where I could get a panoramic view of the curious event that was to follow.

Every year, lakhs of devotees of Mylaralingeshwara (one of Lord Shiva various forms) visit this place called Mylara
(in Bellary district of Karnataka) on an annual piligrimage. People from north and central Karnataka come in tractors, bullock carts, buses and various other vehicles that are artistically decorated. It is amazing to see so many people united in one wholistic and simple belief. It is believed that whatever is pronounced by a lead Gorappa (a clan in North Karnataka)
during the Karnika turns out to be true.

The person who pronounces the prophecy fasts for 9 days and then on the day of the Karnika (which falls on Bharatha Poornima in Maagha month), climbs a 15 ft oil-smeared pole as if he is climbing a coconut tree and then says whatever God wishes to say through him. This time it was said "Muttina raashi, Kashta pattu, sukha pattitale parakh" which translates to "Heap of pearls (refering to the people), work hard and reap the benefit, thus is the prophecy". Once this is said, he falls off the pole. Just before the prophecy is pronounced, the Gorappa orders for silence and the huge gathering obediently follows his order. After the event, junior Gorappas are available for detailed interpretation of the prophecy.

The guys who gave me space on the water tank filled me with interesting tit-bits about the event and ensured that I did not miss capturing any interesting incident. They also gave me some complimentary buttermilk. In return, I need to send them their pictures that I took, by snail mail. I had assumed that everyone who went to college had access to the internet - I believe most of them do have, on their phones. Anyway, I finally get an opportunity to return a stranger's favor of sending pictures of our family outing long ago when we couldn't afford a camera.

Many more people waved, smiled and requested that their photographs be taken - I gladly obliged all of them with a big smile on my face too. Then, it was time to get down from my position and I almost did a Gorappa act by trying to jump off the tank as I have always had this problem since childhood, of climbing onto rooftops but too scared to get down. Finally, my uncle and dad helped me get down the conventional way.

We camped overnight in some beneficiary's farm and had yummy dinner that included chilli bajjis. The local farmers consider it a privilege to be able to give up part of their farms for the event. A good night's rest under coconut trees and a full moon and we were ready to start the second leg of the tour. The next morning, I watched as everyone (including oxen and tractors) took a dip in the Tunga Bhadra river before heading out to the village of Mylara where the main temple is situated. While my family went to say Hi to God, I opted to take more pictures of the people at the fair.

I couldn't believe as some people followed me and called out to me to have their pictures taken!
My day was made as this T-shirt aptly captures what I felt for being given an opportunity to experience this madness!

That was not all. On the way back, my aunt and grandmom entertained us with interesting stories about Lord Mylaralingeshwara. One story goes like this. Lord Mylaralingeshwara lends money to Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupathi for his marriage, but Lord V fails to return on time. When Lord M asks for the money to be returned, Lord V says that he will return it when the tamarind tree bears fruit. And believe it or not, all the tamarind trees near the temple of Lord M apparently do not bear fruit!! I would like to believe that there is some scientific reason behind this, but the story is very cleverly formed. Lord V surely maintains his reputation of being cunning!
Another story is a sweet one. Supposedly, Lord M accompanies all the people who comes to visit him till Harihara (on the way to Davanagere) to say bye to them. People thank Him for accompanying them till there, visit the temple at Harihara and then head back to their homes.
It is interesting to note that people not only give a human form to God but human character as well!

The way I saw the entire event with all the associated beliefs and stories is that it gives the people something to hold onto through the thick and thin of life, something to have fun and something to give back to society.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Granny's wisdom over a cup of (sugarless) coffee

I was visiting my aunt in a nearby village after a long time. My aunt's 75-year old mother-in-law looked at me and I was expecting the 'when are u getting married' question when she surprised me by asking if I would like to join her for coffee. The effects of urbanization had reached this village too and her sons had split and the younger son and his wife worked the whole day in a nearby factory. So, she had no company for her evening coffee. I gladly accepted the offer especially when she offered sugarless coffee. She needed my help with the kerosene stove and soon coffee was ready. I offered to teach her how to light the LPG stove but she was scared to try something new. Our talk moved onto dinner and granny expressed her disapproval of her daughter-in-law's lack of dedication while cooking because of the TV. I watched her patiently as she waited for all the mustard seeds to splutter and then added the masala which was ground using the grinding stone. I had just got some lessons on slow food. I offered to teach her to light the LPG stove again, but she refused. Another lesson - do not try to teach until the student is ready. I watched in awe as she made perfect ragi balls for the entire family. At the end of the cooking, the kitchen was tidy. Needless to say, the sambhar she prepared was yummy and mom keeps asking me for that recipe. What I realized at the end of the day was that all the granny needed was someone to talk to and someone to share her wisdom so that she feels valued for her contribution to the society however minute it is.

I experienced a similar situation yesterday, with our elderly neighbor aunty.
Mom and I were bragging about the sandige (a south Indian fried snack) that we had prepared.
Aunty got excited and offered to teach us aralu sandige - a version of sandige made with puffed rice. It was the same need for sharing what she knew and passing it on to the next generation. I realized at a micro level why some institutions are focusing on grandmothers' wisdom for our own sustainability. For now, I am off to my grandmom's place to finish my lesson on rangoli that I had started a few months back.