By Shunyam Nanda:
I tried to look back from the rear window of the bus which was obstructed by our hefty luggage. To look back at the place which had been my home for 14 days. And then the bus started. We were all ready to go back. Or were we?
Time sure does fly. Those 14 days passed in the blink of an eye. But the blink captured sights and wove memories that would leave indelible impressions on us.
Working for Asmat has been and will always be one of the most beautiful and fulfilling experiences of my life. It was on a lazy midsummer day that I found Asmat embellishing my Facebook feed (who knew random scrolling on Facebook could be so useful), and I knew exactly what I had to do – apply for Asmat’s 2015 Winter Volunteer Programme. All I wanted to know was how a village looked like. Was it the same as I had read in the newspapers or studied in textbooks?
And the next few months were spent in filling the application form, interviews and convincing my parents that I would be able to manage on my own. They had valid concerns since I’ve never been able to make it to the 8:45 class. After a few sleepless exam nights and some hasty and hefty packing, there I was, on the train to Jaipur. 14 days had seemed so long then. And to be honest, some butterflies did come to say hello.
But they were all gone as soon as we reached Soda after a two-hour bus ride from Jaipur. Although I do believe greatly in the power of words, there is something about Soda that words don’t fully do justice to. The pristine skies, the unpolluted air, the yellow fields painted against the blue hues and the stars that dance when the moon blooms; there was an expanse of beauty not only in its picturesque setting but also in the lives that were part of it.
Our days in Soda started with all of us going to different dhanis (hamlets) in the village and surveying the households. The warmth with which Soda’s residents greeted a bunch of uninvited strangers walking freely on their streets was really heartening. They would ask us to stay for food and would often simply serve hot milk or tea.
It was ironic that while I would avoid talking to strangers in the city I spent all my life in, here in the village where I knew almost no one, I would unhesitatingly enter homes and listen to their stories. I realised how small things that we were so indifferent about were a luxury to others living just some miles away.
The women of the village, who often had veils covering their faces, would lay bare their stories in front of us. Whether it was about water shortage or the dreams that they never really got to realise, they would unhesitatingly share their problems with us girls. It was jarring in particular, to see how some women who had faced oppression when they were younger had themselves been hammered by time and custom into patriarchs.
The young girls, though, gave us immense hope with their dreams and ambitions, and spoke of a slow but steady wave of change, refusing to be caged in norms that have often bound women.
The sessions with the children were our absolute favourite! Singing the fruit salad song with them and coming up with our own variations and versions for every new session was probably what we and the kids looked forward to the most! These little chirruping souls would often leave us awestruck with their responses to our sessions. The kids in Srinagar (a dhani in Soda) even assisted us during the governance sessions and remembered minute details about government schemes that even we took some time to recall.
With my fellow volunteers, I shared endless discussions about sessions, never ending games, a Secret Santa Christmas, some memorable days and many magical moments.
My visits to the village, first as a volunteer and as a core team member later, have helped me grow into a better person, someone who is more aware of the realities of our society. It has helped in deciphering the real meaning of the random numbers and percentages that our Economics textbooks talk about.
Over these years, we have conducted numerous sessions with the villagers on a myriad of issues. We have conducted menstruation sessions with women, awareness sessions on government schemes, health and hygiene sessions, financial literacy and anti-tobacco sessions. Last winter, we also conducted a successful medical camp in the village.
There sure are hard days but then there are gratifying moments too that keep Asmat going – the happiness on the faces of women when they wrote their names for the first time, girls using sanitary napkins. We realise that change might be slow, but we are trying to sow seeds that will germinate into a better tomorrow.
The roads that we walk upon slowly and steadily carve our paths and make us what we are. But some of these roads are dearer to us than others. They first create umpteen memories and then take us down those memory lanes. These are the ones that we want to revisit, over and over again. The road to Soda is now one of them. I am glad that I got a chance to walk on that road. And, yes that has made all the difference.
Applications for the Summer Internship Program 2017 are now open.