I was standing alongside a brown stray dog, both of us patiently waiting on one side of the railway track. A train was expected to pass and the tracks had been temporarily shut. Along with the dog and me, there were many more people waiting – a woman on a scooter with her rooster, an uncle on a motorbike talking loudly on his phone, another one chatting in a car. It was evening time and there was an unusual calmness in the atmosphere around. Amidst the constant rush, honks, a busy working day and not a minute to sit and think; waiting for these trains to pass gives me an opportunity to pause and sometimes, to simply reflect.
Apart from being one of my favourite parts of this small town, the comparison in front of my eyes is almost surreal – train gathering speed and rushing, while I am simply standing, quietly, for probably the first time during the day.
I was on my way home after my first full day at work. There was excitement for the upcoming days and weeks, yet slight exhaustion. Those around me were also with their bags. My immediate assumption was that they were also going back home, just like me, after a day at work. Suddenly, to break my chain of thoughts, I heard a phone ringing and a woman received the call. On overhearing her conversation, I got to know that she was on her way to work, stepping out for the first time since morning.
It immediately challenged my assumption and took me back to the several assumptions I had of Bihar. They had fallen flat at the reality I saw when I came here.
A lot of my assumptions had formed on the basis of opinions of people living outside Bihar. It invariably clouded my beliefs about the surroundings I was moving in. That day, standing beside the brown dog and the woman with her rooster, waiting for the train to pass, I contemplated on all the stereotypes and assumptions I had in my mind. They were clearly shifting.
Looking back, I thought of the day when I first spoke to my team at Innovators In Health (the organization I am working with) over a call and my travel to Bihar was confirmed. Overjoyed and excited, I told about it to my family members and friends. Amidst all the support, I received a lot of concern in the form of “Why Bihar?”. Reactions about how unsafe the state is, how there is nothing I will be able to look forward to and how lonely I will end up getting there; were not motivating, to say the least. It also resulted in me building an understanding of Bihar even before experiencing it.
Many of my co-fellows were going to seemingly beautiful locations. They had already made plans to travel around. In complete contrast, I had convinced myself that my only priority is to work and there’s no point in thinking about exploring my surroundings. However, the drive from Patna airport to a village named Keota, where my office is located, completely changed my perception.
Chancing upon the Ganga river was probably the only aspect I had known earlier; the rest presented itself as a pleasant surprise. The greenery on either side of the road, the always eager to help people, water in abundance and the beautiful sky above made me fall in love almost instantly. My first stint with Bihar has been nothing less than absolutely magical.
In my head, I had associated water abundance with prosperity. It was only with further understanding, while talking to my team and people in the local community, I realized that it is flood water and it has been an annual issue in the region as it destroys crops every year.
What looked aesthetic to me, was disrupting lives year on year.
Within a week of my stay here in Dalsinghsarai, a block in Samastipur, I received a message from a close friend extremely worried about my safety, cautioning me with examples of brutality. To be honest, it did scare me quite a bit. However, my lived experience was helping me form a different outlook. Needless to say that any place in India, or the world for that matter, is not entirely safe and Bihar comes within that purview; but to place it as the most unsafe, would be rather unfair.
To give you an example, the other day, I was waiting for my lunch while standing on the road. It was hot and it had been 20 minutes already. I was beginning to get tired and irritated. A shopkeeper noticed me and offered a chair to sit. He said, “Ma’am, aap kaafi der se wait kar rahe hain, baith jayiye” (Ma’am, you have been waiting for quite some time, why don’t you sit down).
What was even more comforting than the gesture itself was the fact that he did not turn around to wait for my response or see if I had accepted his offer, but went his own way and gave me a space to sit without feeling uncomfortable or obligated in any sense.
Another time, I was travelling to my office alone, and while I roughly knew the area in which it is located, I did not have the exact location pin and hence, Google Maps was not of much help. With my experience from Delhi, I was convinced that without a proper address, the auto rickshaw driver would not take me. I explained my dilemma to him to which he assured me to not only help with finding the office but also making me understand the directions and landmarks so that I don’t have any difficulty later on.
My brief stay in Dalsinghsarai cannot lead me to make big claims on safety and security in the region; but it is important to highlight that just like everywhere else, people are willing to help and offer their support. Whether they are my team members or complete strangers, people have gone out of their way to help me and make me feel comfortable.
Standing on the other side of the train track made me reflect on all these instances. When the train had passed; the brown dog, the woman with her rooster and I, slowly crossed the gates. While all the assumptions I’ve highlighted above, will change overtime with the reality that I am facing, there is one that I will have to actively work through – the belief system that my education and past experiences have led me to ascertain. The claims that I have made, on topics like empowerment, child care, education and others.
After my first time in the community, I was quick to comment on their child care ways and got a feedback from the team to realize that my understanding of the concept was stemming simply from theory. While that is not entire incorrect; it is wrong to place your own assumptions on a community that you barely know anything about.
Dalsinghsarai has given me a home, people that I look up to, for inspiration and work that I am slowly and steadily getting immensely passionate about. Along with this, it has presented itself as a place where I get to challenge my assumptions. It has given me time to be wrong, correct my mistakes and motivated me to try everything that I have always wanted to.
It is with this hope that I begin my work in this region; interact with communities that give me so much love and laughter and an organization that has become more than a support system.