An Exercise in Operating Outside Development Practice

by | Sep 11, 2018

Having studied development and after working in the sector for a while, I could have never thought that probing people in a community would not be an option. But some life decisions push boundaries. And here I was, going for a village visit without any purpose. On a regular non-India fellow day, I would have thought of this to be a ridiculous exercise. Frankly, even on a regular ‘India fellow’ day, the thought was equally strange!

But as the famous French philosopher Albert Camus once said, “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning”, a new journey awaited this experience.

Though easier said than done, the first step in the village throttled a stream of questions in my blood. The crisis of holding back a conversation at a government school or not asking, “how many students study here?” seemed severe. Anxiety gushed through my veins. It felt nerve-wrecking. In restlessness, I spilled the first question to a teacher, “Where do the children in the school come from?”. She immediately answered, “From Thoor and other nearby villages, since this is the best government school in the vicinity”.

The calmness in her voice churned the repeated instruction we were given in the morning – to not question. Somehow, I managed to talk less and listen more for the rest of the conversation. Interestingly, I noticed a teacher interacting with my co-fellow (someone who joined India Fellow with me) from Maharashtra. The teacher started narrating his stories from when he visited Maharashtra and reminisced over. Oblivious to the conversation, I moved around to check out the new smart classroom (thanks to the development practitioner in me!).

A couple of hours later, we came across a resort. At the entrance, a contractor heartily welcomed us to explore the place. The warm welcome incited a sense of nostalgia. It took me back to my previous rural immersion experience in Odisha. With improved attentiveness, I heard him say, “I am from Udaipur, but I used to work in Bombay in 1981, at an MNC and lived in Malad area. That city is beautiful”. He closed the conversation with laughter, commenting that none of us would have been born back then. I felt that I had a heard a similar story somewhere, though, I couldn’t recall where.

A walk towards one of the many fields in village, led us to meet a family which was probably ploughing to prepare for monsoon. With some inquisitiveness, we asked them if we could help them with the work. There came a heart-warming yes from them. The same series of introductions started as we ploughed the field together. The moment I uttered that I am from Lucknow, one of the men talked about his experience of the city. This immediately struck some chords in my head. For the rest of the day, I felt uneasy about listening narratives without questioning.

A deeper dive into the incidents, made me realize the ignorance in a familiar set up. The beauty of staying shut or asking minimum questions, specially on a rural visit, had never appealed to me but this experience made me realize its importance. It was overwhelming. Whether the people talked out of regional affiliation or if it was just a coincidence is something hard to explain but the stories tied some strings for me somewhere. It made me question my understanding of the natural story-telling aspect of human behavior. The no-probing phobia seamlessly seemed to vanish into the thin air. After all, a story doesn’t necessarily need a question to unfurl itself!

PS: This post was written during the induction training of India Fellow Program in Udaipur, where we were asked to visit a village. The only task was to bring back stories just by observing and not asking any questions.

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