By Anvi Mehta:
If we go by the dictionary, an underprivileged person is someone without education, money, opportunities and the possessions that an average person has. When I was mature enough to understand the theoretical meaning of the word ‘underprivileged’, I had an inner urge to help the unfortunate.
I joined the SBI Youth for India fellowship thinking that I would be helping a community. By the end of the fellowship, I realised that I wasn’t bringing about any change. Instead, I was transforming as a person. Such is the beauty of this journey – it will always start with misconceptions and end by showing you the realities.
My project was located in a small cluster in the Champawat district of Uttarakhand, a relatively underdeveloped region. I started visiting the villages with the help of the local staff of my partner NGO, BAIF. Most of the villagers here lived in old, broken-down houses where there were no toilets and women struggled to cook amidst the chullah smoke. The women did most of the farming and dairy-related chores. The men often did odd jobs. Most of the hard-earned money in these families went into gambling, alcohol and drugs. Due to the lack of education facilities, the youth remained directionless. I wondered why the people continued to live there.
After a few weeks, I went to a village with my co-fellow. We wanted to know the dynamics of how the community functioned, but we did not know how to communicate with the villagers. A little further from the main road was an old-looking house, probably constructed a few decades ago. Made up of large stones, deodar wood and mud, the house was painted white and blue. Though it was in a dilapidated condition, it had a charm that, in my opinion, could have even attracted heritage lovers.
Three families lived in the house – a set of two-rooms for each. This fine ‘division of property’ was done by the 80-year-old grandmother (amma in Kumaoni) in the house. She invited us into the house. There were a bunch of kids playing in the fields outside the house. For a moment, I was sad to see the children playing without any toys. However, after watching them play for a little longer, I realised that they did not need a toy or a video game – they were having a much better time playing recklessly in the open fields.
One of amma’s daughters-in-law came out with two glasses of water. She was thin, fair and dressed in old rags. We sat with amma who asked us about our backgrounds. It surprised her when we explained that we had come from far-away cities to help the community solve their problems. Soon, while speaking in Hindi and Kumaoni, she started complaining about her sons’ addiction to alcohol and gambling.
We also discussed the changes in the hill community over the time, her grand-kids (who kept playing pranks), the young girls in the community (who apparently couldn’t beat her at bringing firewood and fodder from the forest) and so on. Then, her daughter-in-law got us a katki chai (tea without sugar, often offered with a small piece of jaggery or misri). She also made us mundhwa (ragi) roti and bhang ki chutney (an integral part of Kumaoni cuisine).
“Chalo amma, we shall go to the city. We have everything there,” I offered to take her along.
She laughed and sipped her tea.
“Nah” – her one-word answer surprised me. Why would she say no to an offer that may set her free from all her struggles?
“Why amma, do you think I am joking?”
“Nah babu, the city doesn’t have what I need.”
“And what is that? You have no money, your sons are addicted and your grandchildren have no opportunities. So many people have left – why don’t you want to leave?”
“I am satisfied here. I will always want more if I move to a city. Instead of sending my children to the city, I wish to make the village a better place for them to live in.”
“Where else do you get to breathe such clean air and sip tea while watching the Panchachula – the place where the Pandavas had their last meal?” amma concluded.
I smiled. I was thinking of the last time any old person from the city had inspired me so much. All I remember of them are the words of encouragement to run in the rat-race and lead it. For the first time in life, I stopped thinking of the future and sat with amma, sipping tea and watching the snow-clad mountains.
After we went back to our cluster, I shared the incident with a few staff members. They knew the amma I was talking about and they told me about their poor living conditions. Their sons hardly earned any money by working. Instead, they spent most of whatever they earned on their addiction. The family had so less money that their kids relied on the school’s mid-day meal for nutritious food, most of the time.
Despite the severe lack of resources, they had offered me whatever they could. I was there to help them because they were, by definition, ‘underprivileged’. As it turned out, even though they lacked every one of those basic amenities that made me privileged, I was the one who had learnt a lesson from the family, especially the amma.
Such incidents changed my perspective of looking at the fellowship. My work was transforming my life more than impacting the community itself. Each and every incident throughout these 13 months of the SBI Youth for India fellowship helped me look at life holistically. A few months into the fellowship, I knew that I was there as a part of their family – and to contribute as a member of their family.
It wasn’t social work after all – it was an experience where I learnt more than I shared. The biggest achievement of this initiative was not in reporting large numbers but in making the village ‘my home’, where I lived with ‘my community’.
This article is taken from the fellowship diaries of the author.
The author was a part of the SBI Youth for India Fellow, 2016-17 batch.