The single life: The rains

Holla! Its raining in Shahpur. The monsoons are here. Not as good as last year, I have been told. But they are still enough to color the place green. As I mentioned in my last blog , the summer here was brutal. But since last month, its been like God is trying to make up for all the heat. The whole place is covered in green, the skies are always cloudy and very rarely sun peaks in.

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The pleasant weather, the tree covered hills and the greenery from my terrace.

Just the kind of weather that makes me very happy and makes sure I look forward to work. Back in June, the scooty rides to and from my karmabhoomi(workplace) Silpatti were a torture I had to mentally prepare myself for – scorching sun and  dry, hot winds . And now they are leisure rides that fill my heart with joy.

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In the corn fields enroute Silpatti
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River Machna. Though water was released into the river just once this rainy season, it was a breathtaking view

I got ill in June because of the heat and had to go home. When I was coming back, my mom was worried I may again get ill in the heat. And I promised her that if it would be as brutal as before, I would come right back. But voila! When I came back, I was greeted with a completely different Shahpur than the one I had left.

Every season in Shahpur brings its own joys and challenges. So let me dive in.

  1. The pests!

So many pests. I know I complained about the pests earlier too, but their numbers have touched all new highs. The place has sprouted all kinds of bugs. I can just say it would be an entomologist’s dream  to be in Shahpur right now.

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Little bugs covering the house by morning. (clockwise from top) outside the gate of my flat,in the front room, the bugs collected while cleaning, in my bucket, just inside the main gate of my flat and in the hallway

Since I had recently recovered from illness, I got even more cautious about mosquitoes. I wasn’t satisfied the fast cards were doing their job properly. So I went ahead and got mosquito coils which last all night long. The only problem: I was choking from the smoke, I can’t say for the mosquitoes . So  began the thought train about a new solution. Turns out it was ubiquitous by its presence – the mosquito net. But I had never thought of it as a real possibility. I had never used a mosquito net in my life and putting it up seemed like a lot of work. But I eventually got down to using it. It’s not too bad. Infact I feel like a princess in a castle sitting inside it.

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The mosquito net

2.Clothing

I mentioned in my last blog that I was wearing shorts and minimal clothing in general at home to beat the heat. But the weather nowadays is pleasant (average 25 degree) and the most important thing-there are just too many bugs. So I am back to conservative clothing, making sure the mosquitoes get very little of me to bite into. Though they are crafty and make the most of the hand dealt to them!

3. Garbage disposal mechanism

Ever since I came to Shahpur, I have been segregating my waste. I throw my kitchen waste just next to my house where a variety of animals finish it off depending on their respective tastes- crows, cows, dogs, cats. Its open house.

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A pic from before the rainy season. A cow and a crow collaborating to finish my kitchen waste

But these days , the cows have plenty of grass to dig in. So the kitchen waste is not enticing enough for them. The dogs, cats and crows eat the leftover fish/meat  bones but most of the kitchen waste just rots away. So I had to start disposing the kitchen waste just like the plastic waste – by throwing it in the disused well next to my house.

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The disused well used to dispose off the waste. The greenery all around in this season is very ubiquitous

4. Market day

Wednesday is market day and I used to look forward to stocking up on my weekly veggies and just enjoying the hustle bustle of the marketplace. But the rainy season has dampened the spirits a tad. The weekly market is laid out in an open ground. And it gets real muddy. And if there’s been fresh rainfall, large parts of it turn into a muddy pond. It’s a herculean task to go around the place and come out unscathed. All my footwear are covered in mud and I have stopped washing them.  I consider the mud on my shoes as battle scars, that I am proud to show off!

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The muddy footwear. All of them look like some variation of this .

5. Fish

The fish sold in the market before could be categorized as small – most of them not more than a couple of kilos. But now, the size of the catch is just huge! I have heard stories of people catching fish as big as my height. I haven’t seen that big a fish, but I have seen fish half my height. Its new and fascinating for me. Speaking of which..

Earlier, there hardly were any fish eggs sold in the market. And now, they are available every single market day. I have been told fish get pregnant, get real heavy and are sitting ducks for the fishermen. I keep getting told by the fishermen that the fish eggs are the real deal. But despite telling myself that the famous delicacy caviar is basically fish eggs, I still haven’t got around to trying them. Hopefully, eventually the spirit of adventure carries me through!

This is as good as the weather gets in Shahpur, warts and all. My mother didn’t believe it for a long time. She thought I was making it all up to calm her worries about my health. One day while talking to her on phone, I heard her say to my Grandma ,”She keeps saying the weather is good. I don’t know how”. But it is. My Grandma got enticed enough to plan another visit. Hopefully this weather doesn’t let her down and stays put for some more time. Though it would be great if pests take leave!

 

 

 

 

Ray of hope 2

I have taken a long time to update on my work and I have finally put pen to paper. In the last blog, I mentioned about how after a string of failures, I found a ray of hope in Silpatti panchayat. Well, I am happy to update that the ray of hope now looks like pleasant sunshine. The project has made good progress in Silpatti. It started small.

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The first class

I had three students in my first class. The next class also, I had three students. But not the same three students. After all the failures before, I was just happy that people were turning up. And it was all girls and the CRP(community resource person). I don’t want to sound sexist but I do believe the project has achieved some success because of all the girls who came to learn. More on the reason why in a while. Slowly, more people started coming and we had 12  people attend at least one class. The best attendance was 10 on the day of a quiz. Yes, on the day of the quiz! I did something right there.

The beginning

The girls varied in age from 18 to 24 and their educational qualification ranged from 10th fail to college pass outs. But one thing was common to all.  They all didn’t know how to use a computer. To give an idea, it took them a couple of classes to get familiarized with the mouse. They were all in awe of the computer. It was something fancy that they wanted to use but never really had a chance to. Even though a few had graduated from college, computer education had passed them by.  They were clear about its importance in their lives. My first question to every new student who joined was, “Why do you want to learn computers?”. The answer was some variation of, “Nowadays everything happens on a computer. We need computer to check for job vacancies, fill job application forms, avail schemes etc”. Everyone was clear about why they needed computers. So the computer classes were very specific to provide them the knowledge that would help them in their lives, not something that they didn’t want like coding, theory of computers like operating system etc. Though I did have some basic theory where necessary so that they feel some confidence in their knowledge of a computer.

The course material

The classes started from the very basics like the parts of a computer so they know what this elephant in the room is all about – the input devices, output devices, the CPU, how the parts are connected to each other. We then progressed to how to switch on a computer, how to hold a mouse and how to shut down the computer. Every student spent five minutes in the first couple of classes to get familiarized with how the mouse works – how to hold it, how far the cursor moves when the mouse is moved a certain degree, how to click.

It was followed by familiarizing with the keyboard, concepts such as desktop, how to open applications such as notepad, calculator, MS word.

We have now progressed to how to navigate to relevant websites using a search engine via learning how to use a keyboard, typing on MS word, some basic features of MS word, typing in Hindi using Google Input Tools  and file system as in how and where to save a file.

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Training module

I have referred to a lot of sources-people, books, articles for the course material but its completely designed by me, as in what to teach and what not to, keeping in mind the goal of closing the knowledge gap.

The progress

I feel good about the progress made by the students so far. No one has attended all the classes and many concepts had to be repeated multiple times, but everyone who has stayed till now feels confident about interacting with the computer. Interacting because earlier they were afraid to approach it even. And now the other day I heard a student say to the next, “ Yaad hai , hume starting main mouse chalana nahi aata tha?” (Do you remember how in the beginning we didn’t know how to use a mouse?). She said it in a way like that was a different era and hearing it made me proud of how far they have progressed.  They are getting good at using Google and looking for various government schemes and job opportunities. I hope to hear them talk about using the internet the same way they talked about using a mouse.

The way ahead

Now that they have learnt how to use a computer , the next step is that this knowledge be used to help their fellow villagers. We took the first step in that direction today. We, as in me and all the students, armed with a laptop and 4G Jio internet connection, went on a village walk and met women from a couple of SHG’s(self help groups).  I talked about the project and let the students show the women what they learnt in class – they showed them how to apply for toilet grant under Swachh Bharat Mission, how videos about relevant topics such as organic farming and mushroom cultivation can be seen on Youtube. The response was enthusiastic. The women came forward with their queries on a number of issues- PM Awaas Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, Ration card coupons to name a few. The students were happy to help. It gave them confidence that their knowledge is valuable.

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Meeting with an SHG
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Meeting with another SHG

It also started a dialogue about what was happening in the village, whether the Sachiv was active in his efforts. Being privy to information has also motivated them to attend the Gram Sabha scheduled for 15th August and ask their doubts from the village representatives. And neither me nor the students had any role in that. Once they got the relevant information, these conversations organically happened among them. Let me illustrate.

  1. PM Awaas Yojana is planned for three years till 2019, but one of the ladies got told by a village representative that her house will be built after five years. The ladies agreed they will ask for the beneficiary list in the Gram Sabha.
  2. Someone took documents and Rs 50 from every house in the village promising them a free LPG connection under Ujjwala Yojana. But the scheme says that a household with a pre-existing connection cannot avail the benefit. So that was another question to be asked, about the Rs 50 taken from them.

We will be meeting more women in the coming days and just spreading the word in the village. Raising the awareness level and closing the knowledge gap was the aim of this project and today seemed a validation of that aim.

Observations

  1. It was a surreal experience for me that holding a mouse could be such a big deal. It was like coming face to face with the disparity in India – the dichotomy of a booming IT industry and the people who had been completely left out of “Shining India”.
  2. Some of the students are college pass outs but have never touched a computer. This is a sorry statement on the state of education in our country.
  3. People like being challenged in an environment where they are not being judged and are having fun. I had designed a quiz where students were divided into teams of two. The teams were divided based on comfort level between the teammates. It made them feel relaxed and they enthusiastically participated. They also encouraged their respective partner to give his/her best. Not only did that class see the best attendance till date, the students actually kept goading me on when the next quiz will be, because they were all raring to do better next time.
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The winning team got a little something as a prize

I had planned to make a standard course material based on my experience with the class. Based on the feedback from the SBI team, I realized there is ample information available on the internet. The students just needed someone to open that world to them- to tell them learning computer is something that they can do.

  1. Knowing English is not a requirement for operating a computer. Just basic knowledge of the English alphabet is enough. Google Input Tools has been a huge, huge help. Also, all the government websites are available in Hindi. This was one of their major fears- that they cannot operate a computer because they don’t know English. Once they felt assured that English was not a prerequisite for operating a computer, they flourished.
  2. I mentioned the participation of the girls as a success factor for the project. This is because they helped each other. If one of them didn’t attend a class, she was open to asking for help from the ones that did. And that help was available. So they were not competing with each other. But seeing each other as friends on the same journey. Men are less open for such a give and take, based on my observation with the class.

Its been an enriching ride for me,personally. I look forward to touching many more milestones with the project.

*This article was written on 3rd August’17

The single life Part 2

I have been contemplating writing a summer edition of this blog since some time now but it somehow never came to pass. Mainly because of my laziness and pseudo busyness. So what forced my hand today? A day-long power cut and the development of a fault in a motor that supplies water to the entire part of the village where my humble abode falls. Hence, no water supply for probably 3-4 days. Add to it, having a fully sweat drenched top the whole day with sweat stains getting bolder with every passing hour made me realize it’s time I write this blog.

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I didn’t even know sweat stains was a concept before this happened to me. FYI: That is not a design!

You may ask why is a sweat drenched top such a big deal? Because I just don’t sweat!  An hour-long workout session doesn’t leave more than a teeny drop or two on my face while everyone else is practically wringing the sweat out of their tees on the sidelines. So much so that an ex-flatmate in Bengaluru hypothesized that I get pimples because of all the pent-up sweat under my skin that doesn’t come out. I have no idea if that’s a real thing but you get the point.

So, how’s my summer going in the village? You get a little idea above but let me dive in. Summer began somewhere towards the end of March, quickly escalated in April and has been in its full glory since the start of May. Full glory, as in, upward of 40 degrees at the peak summer hours with very less humidity.

Just like the trajectory of summer, my quest to beat the heat began in March. I borrowed a small table fan from my landlords. It became ineffective pretty quickly, in a matter of days. Then began the search for an air cooler. A few days and a couple of shops later, after hearing coolers being described with terms such as “Bhopali body”, I found one-small and cute, and brought it home. I must say it quickly became the star of my household. All activities started revolving around it. I missed it terribly whenever I had to go to the kitchen. And all its needs, mainly bucket full of water at regular intervals, were promptly met. This status quo remains to this day. Its star status can be gauged from the fact that my grandma and bua(father’s sister) who came visiting for a few days in April, called it the God of my little household. My bua eloquently put it in words, “ We pray to it to always be merciful (Please don’t stop working, we could die!), we offer it prasad at regular intervals (lugging bucket full of water multiple times a day to and fro from the tank till the room, no problem!) and we take care of it as we would a sacred object (making sure nothing’s blocking the water supply to the khas – the air cooling pads)”.

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The apple of my eye

The cooler is also very hard working. Apart from its main job, it also moonlights as a refrigerator. As I have mentioned in Part one, my major refrigeration needs are taken care of. But if I have to keep something overnight or keep something cool during the day, it goes in the top box like structure of the cooler. This box structure has multiple holes which supply water to the khas. The constant flow of water when the cooler is on keeps the eatables comparatively fresher.

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The cooler doing it’s part in providing refrigeration

Now on to other summer stories…

  • When I came to Shahpur, I brought along conservative clothing (cue: mostly salwar suits or fully covered clothing). It stood me in good stead during the winters but as summer bloomed, it became clear to me, I am going to be miserable if I follow my own diktats, at least at my home. So, I sent a distress call to my mom. She promptly packed a couple of shorts in my grandma’s luggage, who was prepping for her mid-April visit. I don’t know if it helps or I am just a creature of habit, but I look at the upsides- lesser cloth with sweat stains on it and a smaller cloth to wash!
  • Winter’s were pretty much pest free but as summer dawned, hello pests! Ants- check. Lizards – check. Mosquitoes –check. Flies – check. I must say I have learnt to live peacefully with the lizards, but the mosquitoes rile me. I am always carrying a small dread in my heart of contracting dengue, malaria…you get the drift. The mosquitoes coupled with me wearing shorts around the house seems a recipe for disaster. So I keep a constant supply of fast cards- those quick working mosquito repellents, handy. Hopefully I do not encounter an enterprising enough machhar who gets through all the traps I set in my house.
  • During winter, I used to get water supply every other day at a fixed time to fill up my tank. ( I introduced the tanki in my previous blog) But lately, it’s been once in maybe two days. Maybe more. And at all kinds of odd hours, without any notice. 5 in the morning – yup. 11 at night – yup. Agreed the water table is all messed up this time of the year but releasing water at odd hours just leads to wastage. I have asked around about the panchayat employee responsible for releasing water and I must say there is a good case for asking him if the heat has gone to his head and scrambled the circuitry inside. It has been a cat and mouse game with the water supply being the proverbial mouse. There is a constant question on my lips for my landlords “Nal aaya kya? (Has the water supply come?) “. Hearing yes to this query instantly transforms me, a sensation of happiness running through my body. My mind starts thinking of every single utensil in my house that can be filled with water apart from the tanki – since you never know about the next supply. As mentioned in the beginning, today the motor supplying water to my part of the village broke down. I am not sure when was the last time such a feeling of dread swept over me – thinking about all the runs to the handpump to fetch water for every small need, not to mention the water guzzling cooler. I made the first run today and tried to be all positive telling myself “Excercise ho rahi hai. Good cardio. Sath main weights bhi ho raha hai(“ You are getting some exercise – both cardio and weights). Seems like someone is going to be reaching their fitness goals earlier than expected!
  • Summer has also spurred me to find some good “villagy” drinks to keep hydrated. In this quest, I stumbled upon “sattu”. It’s a powder made by grinding roasted black chickpeas (kala chana)  and is consumed by dissolving in water. It keeps one cool in the summer, from what I have got to know . For a minute I thought, “You guys have protein even in your summer drink? Aren’t summer drinks kind of synonymous with empty calories – an excuse to chug down sugary drinks in the form of colas, lemonades, fruit punches? The healthiest we go is fruit juices and lemon water. Is this legit? “. I must say I have come to admire the drink and a little research tells me it’s quite popular in some parts of India. Wikipedia even mentions Punjab, but I had never heard of it before.
  • The biggest positive about summer here is the abundance of fruits. Watermelon, muskmelon, mango, papaya are all grown here. Back home, my both grandmas are worried about the calcium carbide used to ripen fruits and are wary of the quality of fruits available there. There is no such worry here. People really trust the quality of fruits and vegetables that they consume and I must say, I feel the same too since I know many vendors selling their produce in the weekly market. They all come from the villages around Shahpur and the NGO I work with is working with many of them, so there is a sense of knowing the process. My maternal grandma kind of took that to mean I can tell a naturally ripened mango from a calcium carbide ripened one. I told her that seems like a good superpower to have which I unfortunately don’t have, and promised her I will check with the NGO if it’s possible to distinguish between the two with a naked eye. My paternal grandma goes,”Promise me you will have fruits everyday. Eat mangoes everyday. Go buy fresh ones everyday from that stall at the bus stand”. Sounded like a post apocalyptic scenario where everyone’s doomed but I had somehow found the elixir of life!

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    Showing my Grandma and Bua the mango plantations in Shahpur

To wrap it up, after having enjoyed a day long power cut and having experienced every drop of water in my body turn to sweat, this is a summer like no other. For one, I know for sure all my sweat glands are working fine. They had just never been tested this comprehensively. Second, all those posters and slogans we tote around in school “Water is precious”, “Don’t waste water” , those platitudes mean something. Third, experiencing Shakespeare , ‘To be or not to be’ in context of shorts and mosquito repellent creams. Fourth, you don’t really have to worry about exercising in a village in the summer. The summer takes care of the summer body! Lastly, the hope is to survive the summer and live to tell the tale like the last surviving Sparta in 300.

*Written on 4th June

Further reading : http://www.huffingtonpost.in/luke-coutinho/theres-no-indian-superfood-like-sattu-recipe_a_22066685/

SBI YFI

Ray of hope

I would like to share a little about the work I am doing currently. Let me dive straight into it. I am an SBI YFI fellow working in association with BAIF in Shahpur block, Betul district, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is primarily a forest region populated by Gond and Korku tribes. I am working on a project to impart basic computer education to villagers in two villages – Silpatti and Rathamaati/Khokra.

So, why this project? (The fellowship gives us the freedom of choosing our project based on our interest, the need of the rural community in the place we are posted and also taking into consideration the influence area of the NGO) The government of India (GoI) has provided each panchayat building with a computer system complete with a printer and scanner. But in many panchayats that I have visited in Shahpur block, the computer system is disused or missing. It’s either not in working condition or lying at a panchayat member’s house, most frequently the Sarpanch. In some cases it’s lying disused in some Panch’s house. In one case, the computer was lying disused in the Panchayat house because the Panchayat house had no electricity connection!

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Disused computer in panchayat house with no electricity connection

Let’s look at certain aspects of why I chose to do the above project.

  1. Why are computers provided to the Panchayats?

The Government of India is moving the entire government apparatus online. All the government data (that is not secret) is now available online whether it be land records (Khasra nakal as they call it here) or contact information of various government officials. The form filling for various government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission and subsidies like the one on sprinklers is done online. To facilitate access to all these services and information by every village, computers have been provided by the Government to each Panchayat house. There is also a person who usually is believed to be the one using the computer called the Rozgaar Sahayak (a post created under MGNREGA). But in my observation, they do not really depend on the Panchayat computer to do their work. Either they have smartphones or come to the Janpad office in Shahpur to do their work.

 

  1. Why are computers lying disused?

In almost all the villages that I visited, hardly anyone knew how to use a computer. When I say that , I also include the Panchayat members and the Sachiv( government appointee in Panchayat) in that statement. So what happens is when people don’t know how to use something, it means nothing  to them. It could be there, may not be there, may be at some body’s place – it’s all the same. No one bothers to ask about it or its well-being or its resting place!

 

  1. Why the project on computer training?

There is a huge gap between the government of India’s initiative to go digital and the villagers’ (that I work with) ability to go digital. That gap isn’t the infrastructure gap. It’s the knowledge gap. The tools to go digital have been provided by the GoI, but the knowledge to use them has not been provided. Through my project, I am trying to close that knowledge gap. I am aiming to provide the necessary know-how to fill forms of various government schemes. It will obviously go through the route of computer basics, internet basics and basic knowledge of using a search engine. After the computer education course is completed, the project entails documenting any changes in government schemes availed, increase in general awareness and the villagers’ willingness to take some time out from their daily grind and learn computers.

 

  1. How’s the progress been?

I will say it has had it’s lows and some miniscule highs. But a lot of lows for sure. I started by visiting the Panchayat buildings of Panchayats that  BAIF is active in ( It is working in six panchayats in Shahpur block). The first panchayat I visited – Deshawadi didn’t have any electricity. So no go. The next – Sheetaljiri didn’t have any computer. The computer was lying at some computer repair shop in Shahpur since a long time. The third- Rampurmal also didn’t have a computer. The computer was supposedly lying in a broken state at a Panch’s house. The fourth had a computer and an internet connectivity through connection with Jio 4G on the phone. I must say I was relieved and surprised after all the previous experiences. Even though this panchayat was the farthest off from Shahpur without any bus connectivity, I was just happy that there was some possibility of starting the project. So, then I moved to the next step and talked to the Sarpanch about my project and how I would need the Panchayat house and it’s computer for it. The Sarpanch was a genial lady who agreed. Then I talked to the villagers in the Gram Sabha held on Republic Day-26th January and told them about my project. The response was enthusiastic. I got as many as 12 names for the course. And that’s a lot.

Then when I started going to take classes, no one turned up. I was able to take a solitary class out of the seven scheduled. That too because I saw the three people who eventually attended that class loitering around Panchayat house and convinced them to attend. Not a very encouraging response. I also took a couple of awareness sessions to talk with the villagers about the importance of computer education.

One fine day, I got a call around noon from a youth of this village. I was at my place in Shahpur. He complained that a few of them had been coming to the Panchayat house since two days but  I had not showed up. I was taken by surprise, both pleasantly and unpleasantly. Pleasantly because this was the first time the village youth had actually come for a (albeit non scheduled) class on their own. Unpleasantly because I wasn’t there and no class was scheduled for the day! How did that come about?   A couple of days prior to the above mentioned day, I had called the CRP(community resource person) who works with BAIF to schedule a class the next day. But I had told him explicitly that I had no other mode of transport and he would have to pick me up halfway. The next day, I couldn’t contact him. His phone was switched off. And he didn’t call to ask me about when I am coming etc either.That means the class was off since I had no means to reach. But he didn’t communicate with me or the village youth. The village youth believed the class is rescheduled on their own accord.

To sum up, the travel arrangements to Khokra were not working out, the communication was erratic because of network issues and there was a definite gap in understanding between me and the village youth.

I was feeling hopeless about the direction of the project. Then I decided to follow my mentor’s advice that I should try to take more villages under my project, with connectivity by bus or near enough that I could go on scooty. To be on the safe side, in case the project completely fails in one. I toured three more panchayats – Rathamaati, Baanspur and Silpatti. In Silpatti, things worked out quickly and I held my first class yesterday. I must say it felt good, just to have the first class on the day that the first class was scheduled! After the Khokra fiasco, it was a good start. I feel hopeful. And that’s what my title is all about.

 

  1. What’s the next step?

Making this project a success in atleast one village. Right now I think that might be Silpatti.

When working in the development sector, one has to keep trying and not let failures bog one down. I keep telling myself not to give up. That I am learning so much even in my struggle. And I also try to not waste too much time on an initiative that looks doomed like all the Panchayats I checked out initially.It would have taken a long time to get electricity to the panchayat house or get the computers up and running where they were not there. “Fail fast” is a mantra I have taken to heart. I have limited time in this fellowship-13 months to make a small difference to the lives of people I work for. And more importantly, to document the lacunae in the current scenario and the solution that works and the many that don’t.

 

Further reading   http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-tech-is-undoing-nrega-in-jharkhand/articleshow/57175473.cms

 

 

 

My MMA story

I wanted to headline this article “My obsession with MMA”, but that somehow sounded negative. So how obsessed am I with MMA? Well, I start my day by typing the letters UFC into the Google search engine and checking the latest news (For the uninitiated, MMA is mixed martial arts and UFC stands for “The Ultimate Fighting Championship”- the premier mixed martial arts promotion in the world). After that I open my eyes properly and start getting ready for gym. That’s something. I mean I am already feeling like I can be judged on this statement. In fact on rereading it, I am judging myself. If UFC was a cute boy, it would be downright creepy. You get it.

Let’s talk about the origin of this obsession, how it all began. So in 2015, sometime before her fight with Holly Holm, I heard about Ronda Rousey. She was at the peak of her powers then. I don’t remember where or from whom I heard about her, but I was quickly fascinated. I didn’t know anything about MMA, but a female fighter who was undefeated and was known to finish her opponents in under a minute..I was all ears. And eyes. I started reading about her and it started dawning on me how big a legend she was. She was the reigning bantamweight MMA queen who was quickly becoming Hollywood’s darling. I bought into all the hype around her and was eagerly awaiting her fight with Holly just to know how fast she would be dispatching her. So the morning of her fight (India time it’s morning), I eagerly checked the results of the fight on the internet and was shocked to read that she lost. I was eager for the result to know how fast it finished, not to know who won. That seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

So as you can see, I got introduced to MMA at a very exciting time for women’s division. Ronda got head kicked. Holly became the new champion and there was nonstop coverage of this surprising result. Initially, I just liked reading about the women’s bantamweight division. About the prominent fighters, future opportunities for Holly and the like. Then slowly I also started reading about the strawweight division which had a rapidly rising Joanna Jedrzejczyk as the champion and this new “hot” thing Paige Vanzant. I eagerly followed the news about new fights being set, new challengers emerging and just generally all things women’s MMA.

All this while, I wasn’t interested in men’s MMA. I didn’t know about the divisions, the fighters, the champions of the various divisions. Nothing. It all changed with UFC 196. I was interested in the event because it was Holly Holm’s first title defence. I was looking forward to a dominant win for her. I mean she beat an undefeated beast of a champion so comprehensively; how much better could she get, against a girl who in turn had been defeated just as handsomely, that too twice, by that previously undefeated champion.(I was wrong, but that’s another story) The same card, the other big news was that Nate Diaz submitted Conor Mcgregor. Now I must admit, I had no clue who Nate was or who Conor was by the time the card happened. But the coverage of the fight was just as extensive as that of the Rousey-Holm fight. It made me look at the men’s division and why was this result such a big deal. This result was my entry point into following men’s MMA. Gradually I started following more fighters and then more divisions. And now I can say that I have a working knowledge of all the eight men’s divisions- the champions, the challengers, interesting match ups and the comparatively recent phenomenon of money fights.

I also got an opportunity to follow this new found interest in MMA in my own life. A new MMA gym opened near the flat I lived in, in Bangalore. I was a regular at the gym at that time. I wanted to get my basic fitness up before I joined the MMA gym. I kept the bar of basic fitness as doing pull ups. Let me just say I never achieved that bar before the pull to join the MMA gym became too much. So I went ahead and enrolled in the MMA class. I learnt kickboxing and jiu jitsu at the gym for three months. I liked boxing but I fell truly, deeply, madly in love with jiu jitsu. After I got over the momentary hesitation of learning a close combat sport, I was all in. It made me feel powerful and continuously pushed me to test my boundaries. Against stronger male opponents, no less. I was hesitant at first but my trainers ingrained in me that in jiu jitsu, size did not matter. Unlike boxing. Only skill mattered. You could use an opponent’s weight and power against him if you are skilled enough. My time in the MMA gym is a long story that deserves another article.

I digressed. I will get back. So I have explained the origins of my interest in MMA, women’s MMA followed by men’s MMA. I think it’s incredibly rare for a common man (woman in my case) to just chance upon coverage of women in sports. MMA is one of those rare sports where women command as much limelight as the men. And more. Rousey in her prime was a bigger star than most men. And I find that extremely commendable. I was attracted to this strong female sportswoman who was dominating her sport like no other. And the attention that she drew to the sport led me to explore the sport more and have a deeper relationship with this sport. But it all began with a woman called Ronda Rousey.

*This article was written on 10th February.

beingmira

The single life

The heading is misleading but I really feel that it perfectly embodies what I want to say. So I moved from a city, a metropolitan no less to a village. I also moved from sharing a 2 BHK with three other girls to living in a “three room+ kitchen+ separate toilet-bathroom+ a balcony” flat all by myself (can’t describe it in terms of BHK. It defies that description). Other major changes included not having running water, maid, cook, WiFi. Also no refrigerator, washing machine, hot water geyser, television or any semblance of the comforts I was used to.

The running water was the biggest issue that rankled me in the beginning. I had never thought a kitchen could exist without a sink and running water.

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The kitchen.

It took me a while to get used to taking out the used utensils to the balcony in a tub (I got a couple of tubs for the utensils) , filing a bucket with water from the storage tank and then washing the utensils.

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My lifeline – the tanki,the only source of water in my flat.

But I got the hang of it. I gradually found solutions to the other pressing issues as well.

  1. Jio came with a welcome offer of free 4G and calling. I must admit I was sick of the high internet rates other carriers charged. It also prevented the trouble of getting a WiFi connection, and all free! What else can the heart desire? Free internet is the dream of the 21st century right along with roti, kapda and makaan. Also I could carry the internet with me, unlike with a WiFi system. And that was really handy. I do have to thank my stars that the place I live in has Jio network. Since it’s a tribal, forest area; most places don’t.
  2. As for the maid, I washed the utensils myself for almost three months before finally getting a maid for fear of my mother’s disapproval. She had a visit planned in mid February and I got the maid in the beginning of that month. Just in time for the maid to adjust to my utensils before my mother came. So it would seem to her that all was perfect ,without her having to interfere. Let me narrate the story of how it came to be. The last time I went home in mid December, she made a big fuss about my hands. Right from the moment her eyes fell on my hands, she started complaining that my hands were not the same. Their beauty had dimmed in the village. I didn’t understand and didn’t pay much attention because that’s just the kind of thing that only mothers can worry about. On my third day home, it slipped out of my mouth that I wash the utensils myself and all hell broke loose. My mom blew her head saying “You have not gone to the village to wash utensils and “uglify” your hands. Get a maid. I better not hear about you washing your utensils when you get back!” I must say I wasn’t really bothered or paid any attention to getting a maid..until one fine day when it been an eternity long week in mother time since I had come back from home, my mother complained to my father that she was missing me and wanted to see me. My dad promptly called me that my mother will be visiting and booked tickets for her visit in mid Feb – almost one month since I had come back from home. That’s when I got serious about looking for a maid! But the real challenge lay ahead. Apparently, the entire Shahpur has only two maids. The demand far outweighs the supply. I spent some anxious days thinking if any of them will grant me an interview, since they both had their hands full. Luckily, one of those two maids worked at my landlord’s and my landlords took pity on me and convinced the maid “Bartan zyada nahi honge. Akeli ladki hai. Kar le.” Living alone can sometimes come with unexpected benefits. Now you see, the title of this article is justified!

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    My maid Kamla Bai, who happily posed for a pic for this article. A cheerful presence, I am so grateful she accepted to work at my place and saved me from my mother’s scorn.
  3. I did try to find a cook (finding a cook is just as hard as finding a maid, and more) and found one. But she could only come in the morning at a certain hour. And I wanted her to come in the evening to cook dinner because I didn’t have a fixed time of leaving in the morning. Plus I had made some prior arrangements for breakfast. So that didn’t work out. So the cooking is pretty much done by me and I must say, this is the most control I have had on my diet in a long time. And it’s something that I have come to appreciate. Also one of the few things that my mother appreciates about moving to the village that I learnt to cook. “Good you learnt to cook before getting married!”
  4. Washing clothes? Well, I wasn’t discarding many since it was winter till a while ago and I wore a set of clothes at least twice. I washed most of the clothes on my own once a week. I also found a dhobi whose services I availed if the clothes got too much for me. Just that he probably washes clothes on the river Machna where many proud Shahpurians go to poop in the morning. Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission be damned. So , going to the dhobi is actually my “dirty laundry taking over my house” emergency option.

    Machna River
    The river Machna, where many Shahpurians go to bathe, poop, wash utensils and clothes; animals come to drink water and search out food from the garbage .. Its an all-purpose river !
  5. Since it was winter just a little while ago, I didn’t really need a refrigerator. Things didn’t get spoiled outside. Plus I didn’t do much cooking! So that. Now that I do a lot more cooking and summer’s here too, something good happened. Bhabhi (she is one of my NGO colleague’s wife and is super caring) bought a fridge this summer and she very kindly offered for me to use it to keep vegetables. I did look for a fridge for myself but the mini fridge that I would like to have is not available in Shahpur. And Bhabhi’s fridge pretty much takes care of my basic refrigeration needs. As for cold water, I am not a big fan since my throat goes bad pretty fast. But for the occasional craving of cold water, I am planning to buy a mitti ka ghada ( an earthen pot). When in Shahpur, do as the Shahpurians do !
  6. For hot water during winters, I bought a heating rod. So I had to fill a bucket from the storage tank, carry it till the socket in my kitchen and then once it was hot, carry it back to the bathroom. I can sum it up by saying my back got at least some exercise every day!
  7. I was never a big fan of television but I did miss it occasionally. Hmm. “On momentous occasions” would be a better description. Like Australian Open Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Anyone who knows me will know that I am the biggest fan of Rafa and would absolutely not miss a Rafa-Roger match. But then.. village life. Just saw the live updates on the net and tried to be happy with that. Plus Rafa lost. So I was like its better I didn’t see him lose. Then again, I really wanted to watch the Khabib – Tony Ferguson match up ( an MMA fight of the UFC). I was actually thinking of getting a hotel room with a TV in the nearest city and watching the entire fight card in peace. But it got cancelled! Khabib got ill making weight. So, again probably God keeping me from complaining..alone. At least it’s not just me complaining, but all fans!
  8. I used to be a gym rat before moving here. I didn’t expect to find a gym here in the village. But turns out, right about the time I moved here someone had just recently opened a gym. It doesn’t really compare to state of the art gyms in the city, but it’s everything. I am so grateful.
    beingmira
    The gym, which is housed in an abandoned godown building used to store tendu patta.

    My mom casually declared after visiting the gym, “Your village has a gym. So, it’s a city”. I had to remind her of the “village”ness of my village by giving her an example. I told her that only a solitary rikshaw plies this entire village and I have still not been lucky enough to hitch a ride on it. If one doesn’t have a private vehicle, the only way to travel is by foot. Or a bullock cart, if you have bullocks that is! I skipped the part about how the gym was an abandoned building infested with rats,snakes and many other pests, out of which bats still inhabit the gym and make weird noises that sound like kissing sounds. Initially I thought someone in the gym was trying to harass me, but then when I talked to the gym instructor about it,I got to know about the bats and it was the funniest revelation ever.

I still have to get a desert cooler and get the scooty repaired (I got a scooty from the NGO in a deplorable condition). The struggle I had to do to get an English newspaper in this village is whole another story .

So what has all this taught me? Cooking for one. (Did I just successfully make a pun? ) Despite all the struggle, I feel very blessed to have this opportunity to live alone and to experience life without any constraints. Make my own rules, push myself and seek help when needed. It’s taught me to be resourceful which I believe is visible in the examples above. I got an opportunity to spend a lot of time with myself. To pay attention to my thoughts, to see where I am in my life and cogitate about where I want to go.  All through winter, when I didn’t have field work, I used to sit in the sun with a book and a diary and it was perfect. I used to watch a variety of birds chirping around me; munch on fruits and snacks, read and write. I realized how important it is to just be alone with one’s thoughts.

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The terrace, the sunshine, the books and me!
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Birds on my terrace

On another note, my mom was alarmed “This girl shows no inclination to get married. She is happy alone!” She couldn’t wrap her head around how this came to be. After all I was her daughter. And she wouldn’t stay alone for any enticement in the world.

I don’t know if I would get an opportunity to stay alone in my life again but I am glad that this one happened. In the middle of a jungle, no less.

`

The beginning

CHAPTER 1

So, time for the long story. As I mentioned, I was an IT engineer working in Bangalore before I left it all in search of what Maslow will call Self actualization. Now that may sound self aggrandizing. But that’s how I see it. I mean my measly stipend does cover my expenses for food, shelter (a pretty decent rented accommodation) and clothing. So, I guess that’s that. Then there’s that second step called safety in Mr. Maslow’s hierarchy. I feel pretty safe, considering I know beginner’s martial art skills in boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Knowing how to leg triangle choke someone does kind of lull me into a sense of security. Plus I carry a pocket knife. When it comes to financial security, I admit I am kind of skipping over that part for now to jump right ahead. Let’s say you always hope your parents have a little rainy day fund set aside for you (and in my case, my parents in their infinite wisdom hope that the apple of their eyes gets married to a guy who has the sense of not skipping the financial security part!). Then there’s a step about love and belonging. I have to say it’s been a blessing to have a family that despite their strong desire to handcuff me, gag me and marry me off to one of the gazillion suitable guys in their sight, still support me with all their heart and get all excited about visiting me in the village to see how I am getting by in a jungle (I work in a forest area). They even proudly spread the word along “Our daughter is living in a village and helping people”, notwithstanding their private recrimination “Other people boast that their children are going to the US, Canada yada yada …and look at what we have to say, that our daughter has run off to a remote village in the middle of some jungle”. Then there’s the step about esteem. That’s something I hope to earn here, especially in my own eyes. And finally self actualization.

Let me go a little deeper into this topic. I will reproduce a couple of lines that Wikipedia has very helpfully put together on this topic.” This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.” Hmm.. I am here to be the most that I can be. I strongly believe that my life has a purpose. It’s just that I have not found one yet. But I am going to proudly say I am looking for it. What I do know is what my purpose is not! It’s not debugging code for some behemoth banking client with tentacles spread across the world. Like they say in fairy tales “You have to kiss many frogs before you finally find your prince”. And finally we are here …

To the experience of kissing the IT industry frog! The frog I spent two years with, hoping it would eventually turn into my prince charming. It was an experience, I have to say. I lived in a beautiful city with the best weather in the world (I never knew there was a place on Earth where swimming pools are open 12 months of the year), but choking with crazy traffic and pollution. It was inhabited with people who had one constant thought at the back of their minds “How many days till the weekend”. I was one of them. There was a beautiful period of time where the constant thought was just the opposite “How much more time till Monday” but that had everything to do with personal fulfilment and nothing to do with professional fervour (That’s a long, long story I can fill a tome with). If you sat at some place and observed the IT crowd, you could go “They look like characters from a zombie movie!” People moving around with a blank look, constantly thinking about the proverbial human flesh, be it a deadline of a project, the next promotion, switching companies..you get the drift. If you heard an IT engineer talking without knowing anything about the context , you would get an impression that the entire burden of the world is on the poor man’s shoulders. That’s something that just comes with the job, the feeling of being very important and moving mountains.. mostly some mountains out there in either USA or Europe. Even if your part in moving the mountain could be akin to a drop in the ocean, the self-importance is akin to the ocean.

To be contd.

Toilet chronicles

So, let me give you a little background about myself. I am an engineer by education who has worked in the IT industry for two years. And I have lost my mind as per ..hmm..lets see…everyone I know to take a path which has me having an entire day today revolving around a toilet. Yes, a toilet ! Or to be more precise “The” toilet.

So how and why did I land up here?

 

Chapter 1

That’s a long story for some other day..that will be a mighty digression.

 

Chapter 2 – All about toilets

 

Today, I went for a sanitation drive in Baretha village. I had no idea what it was going to be all about. I imagined some school children taking out a rally about cleanliness holding placards and mouthing slogans. All very innocent and good photo ops for the local paper. And since I had nothing better to do (except perhaps finally moving into my own accommodation after putting up with my fellow fellows since I showed up in this place!!; yes ,yes, that’s some messed up priorities),I decided to tag along with one of my fellow fellows,lets call him Mr. so Zen one could mistake him to be permanently stoned. When we reach our destination, a power point presentation is already underway in a dingy, rickety room in the old, abandoned complex of the Forest Department. Apparently it’s good enough for power point presentations. Being badly lit is a virtue, plus the probability is in favor of the roof not collapsing in an hour-long session. So we take our place at the back of the room. The presentation is being given by an earnest, middle-aged man who looks passionate about what he is speaking. The presentation, which is about the Swachh Bharat Mission started by the government of India, turned out to be quite informative. We, the people of IT industry sitting in fancy offices in Bangalore have probably heard about Modiji waxing eloquent about this flagship project of the current government. But at the same time have no clue about what it entails except having the vague idea that it’s about cleaning the country, epitomized by the image of Modiji with a broom.

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The presentation in progress

Now was the time for me to be exposed to the specifics of this mission. Let me summarize what I got

  1. Rs 12000 will be given to each BPL family and to some categories of APL families such as one headed by a matriarch, a scheduled tribe family, one with a handicapped person etc to build a toilet, for its maintenance and a little arrangement for washing hands.
  2. Each village will be given some amount for solid and liquid waste management (SLWM) depending on the size of the village. For example, a village of 500 will get Rs 7 lakh.
  3. A “Swachhta Doot” will be designated in each village to sensitize people about building toilets and proper disposal of waste. Each such cleanliness messenger will get a sum of Rs 150 for his services, for every toilet built.

I have to say I was impressed that this mission had a roadmap for fulfilling the eponymous mission. Plus it was for a limited period of time, from Oct 2014 till Oct 2019. After that date, people will be fined for open defecation and may have the benefits from various government schemes stopped. Sounds good enough, if followed by proper awareness of the masses. Good thing, that’s one of the things I am here for.

The second part of the presentation was about the technicalities of building a toilet. Again the kind of thing we don’t worry about much except knowing or hoping that there is some magical drainage system carrying our excreta and dumping it somewhere far far away from us. The kind of toilet being built under this mission is the twin soak pit type requiring the building of two soak pits. It was surreal for me on many levels. Watching a PPT presentation in Hindi for one, watching the technicalities of toilet construction being the second and just generally contemplating about my life about what in God’s name led me here!

After this informative section, we had a small break before we headed for the practical session..of toilet building .Of course. This session gave me the confidence that I had learnt something useful that could help my stay in the village be that much more “normal” . Something that’s almost a life skill. I mean now I know what I have to do if I get dropped in a no man’s land without a toilet,which is an apt description of most of my block   ( and also of a significant percentage of this world, though I don’t claim to have the figures on my fingertips right now). I mean software writing skills won’t help. Good old toilet building skills might!  Yeah that’s right…take that ! ..the oh-so-mighty-world-conquering-IT-engineers.

The practical session lasted two days with the completion of the model toilet. The purpose was to train the mistris (the construction guys) in building the best toilet within Rs 12000. I must say I had never been exposed to so much civil engineering before.And the most important thing,  I understood it all. I already can see myself spreading the word about toilet construction, sounding like an expert who people would imagine has spent her college life learning this!

 

 

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The hole dug to construct the soakpit
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Soak pit construction in progress..
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The setting of seat being decided by the expert!

PS: This article was written on 9 Nov’16