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