Decision-making is never easy. Yet, as a fresh graduate from Chennai in 2012, with all my enthusiasm to ‘do something’, it was an easy choice to not sit for campus placements or study hard to crack numerous entrance exams for a Masters course.
Instead, I joined a social change fellowship, with a lot of expectations – to learn how our country works, and to eventually work at the topmost level of public policy and politics in my career and life, so as to make a large-scale impact.
My first six months of the journey took me to rural Haryana. The project with the organisation, of which I was a part, dealt with women empowerment and fought gender bias and discrimination, against the backdrop of the infamous Khap panchayats.
I was a girl, all of 21, from another India, which was unlike the world of the locals I met. I tread between wheat fields and dusty by-lanes and reached remote villages to talk to women and convince them of the importance of participating in the local governance – the Panchayati Raj institutions. They were shy and hesitant. I was determined and outspoken. Our attitudes and temperament rubbed off on each other, I think. It was not easy – concerns ranged from language barriers to personal safety – but I experienced and learned from it.
What this also did was that it denied my usual urban comforts and the mundane unchallenging routine that was my life; I got a chance to explore a new kind of reality, gain respect for life in rural India and also befriend countless villagers who helped me find a new, more socially conscientious “me”.
Apart from that, partnering with rural NGOs gave me a chance to see the hurdles and triumphs of silent workers who give their whole lives for the upliftment of the weaker sections of the society. In working right at the grassroots level, I had the opportunity to challenge stereotypes, break mindsets (mine as well) and most of all, travel with open arms and empty pockets.
While it looks like one can spend a year roaming rural India and learn, but not contribute much – the lens through which we look at contribution and change itself needs to be cleaned up. My walking into the Haryana panchayats as a girl from another part of the country had, I believe, as empowering an impact on the women folks as they had on me. As I walked among them, talking and sharing thoughts, some women, through their ghoonghat (veil) saw the ‘didi from Chennai’ and something in them shifted. Pretty much like something in me shifted when I met a tribal woman in Odisha who was half my size and doing three times the physical labour that I do on an average day.
Change is fuelled by exposure and interactions and the fellowship year had plenty of that. Also, an exposure to the grassroots brings in qualities like problem-solving, critical-thinking and mindsets like the bottom-up approach and last mile issues. I may not live in those villages anymore, but every future action of mine will be based on the sensitivity I carry ahead from that part of my life and guide me in my eventual dream to bring about change at the policy level, to which I aspire.