When I first arrived at the office of Mann Deshi Foundation in Mhaswad, Maharashtra, I was genuinely taken aback, mainly because of my idealised notion of NGOs: minimal infrastructure, basic amenities, a committed and close-knit group of employees and a strong grassroots connect. But this one was no different to a corporate office in any major city. It looked as though glass cabins, desktops and modern facilities had made their way into this small town of India. Everything about urban life that I had been trying to run away from, seemed to have found me right here in Mhaswad.
Overcoming my initial disappointment (and frankly relief, to have so many amenities), I decided to do my best in order to navigate my way into the world outside the office. This was easier said than done. While I am not a complete stranger to small towns, I can easily say that I’ve never been more conscious of the politics of gender than in the past month. Although I was an outsider, and therefore accorded far more liberty to explore the area than many women here, there were many activities in which I couldn’t take part or places where I couldn’t go.
One such striking instance was an election rally that took place near the office. I tagged along with a few colleagues, despite their warnings that I might stand out too much. On arriving there, I couldn’t see a single woman in sight except the tea stall owner, to whom I quickly attached myself in the hope of being inconspicuous!
Although going alone was not an altogether successful experience, it took me quite a while to realise that one of the best ways to understand the world around me, was to get to know the people who actually work with Mann Deshi. Most of them are from the local communities and live in neighbouring villages. It was through tea break conversations with them and visits to their houses that I slowly began to understand something of the local culture and politics of Mhaswad, and of Mann Deshi itself.
Mhaswad is located in the extremely drought prone Mann Taluka, which lies in the rain shadow region of the Sahyadris. Water and its availability has always been an issue that comes up in everything from election politics to everyday conversations. People eagerly wait for water to arrive in the bandhara (built by Mann Deshi), which arrives only when the dam at Urmodi is opened. However, even with this water, those living in the narrow by-lanes of Mhaswad still experience water shortage.
Several colleagues told me stories of how they were borrowing water from their neighbours or how they had to minimize their water use as the tanker had been delayed. Although I was aware that water availability is an issue in many parts of India, water had almost always been available for me on the turn of a tap. I had never been exposed to this kind of a reality.
The work I was assigned at Mann Deshi was also not what I had expected. The organisation works primarily on women empowerment. It has a bank, which provides rural women with easy access to finance, a foundation that works on building skills of women and a community radio. My day-to-day work involved a lot of documentation. Corporate donors fund several projects here and periodically demand proof of how their money is being spent. While this may seem perfectly reasonable, it often exerts an implicit pressure on the way projects get implemented, and even conceived. Having had no exposure to the development space or to the corporate sector before, I’m yet to understand its implications on the impact of Mann Deshi’s ground work.
In this mixed bag of experiences, the warmth and generosity I have experienced from my colleagues has honestly been my lifeline. The genuine affection and friendship they share with each other, and now extended to me as well, has helped me survive in a corporate work culture. They have helped me navigate through the problems of language barrier, the rural-urban divide and even work pressure. It has only been a month since I started working at Mann Deshi, but I am surprised by how comfortable I find myself here.
I am at the beginning of my fellowship journey, and have much to learn and experience in this year. The most important, and yet the most difficult task that I’ve encountered so far has been to keep an open mind and try not to let my preconceived notions colour my perspective. I hope to do better at this, and to learn more about Mhaswad life and culture in the coming months.