When I applied for India Fellow, I was looking forward to work in a rural setup, mainly because of the stories that I had built up in my mind about all the development that’s required only in villages. I don’t know if I was ready for it, but I had mentally prepared myself to go and work in any remote area, as may be required. However, I got placed with an organisation called WISE (Women’s Integrated and Synergistic Empowerment) promoted by Chaitanya, with its head office in Indore. It is a new organisation attempting to replicate the SHG Federation model in other states after Chaitanya’s 25 successful years in Maharashtra. My primary workplace was going to be Indore, for a year, with frequent visits to other places in Madhya Pradesh.
Initially, I didn’t know how I should be feeling about that. Should I be worried that unlike my co-fellows, living in a city would restrict my exposure? Will I be able to understand this sector as much as I could have, if I was placed somewhere in a remote location? Most importantly, how am I to survive in a city on my nominal stipend? These were some of the questions occupying my mind.
Six months into the fellowship, I can confidently say that these were just the result of anxiety playing tricks with me. The exposure into the sector, the learning and survival tactics on a limited stipend are things which ultimately fall in place. More on that later. This blog post is about how after having lived in Mumbai for the last 12 years, it’s hard to find any other city equally good enough.
Yes, I know that Mumbai is crowded, chaotic, not clean, and travelling could be a pain. But there is something about the maya-nagari that never leaves you. There’s nothing that a long walk down Marine drive, a sunset at Worli sea face, a plate of paav bhaji at Juhu, chaat at khaugali or a selfie at bandstand can’t solve!
I have come to realize that no matter wherever I go, I will keep looking for traces of Mumbai because this city has taught me to be brave, independent and especially to keep going in spite of the competition and challenges. The city that never sleeps taught me to never give up.
The day I reached Indore, one of my dad’s friends picked me up from the railway station and was dropping me to the office. After sharing pleasantries, he started talking about the city. I couldn’t help but notice how clean it looked. Indore has been voted as the cleanest city in India twice in a row as a part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. After a Mumbai-Indore-cleanliness-comparison-talk later, he told me that Indore is known as “Mini Mumbai” and I did a secret eye-roll, thinking, “yeah right”. The clip from Kunal Kamra’s show started playing in my head.
For my first two months in Indore, I was travelling to field locations which did not give me much time to explore the city. Although, there were a few heartbreaking instances that I shared with the city in the initial days, I could feel no connection whatsoever. There was no Marine drive or Worli sea face where I could go and stare into the oblivion to sulk and suddenly realize how little I am, as compared to the world. Yes, that’s how Mumbai has healed me over the years!
The combination of that city and the sea is simply brilliant. I have always needed the coast, a water source to calm me down. Being a native of Kerala, having studied in Chennai and then living in Mumbai, I never felt its shortage, ever. But here in Indore, people don’t even know what a sea looks like (excuse the exaggeration).
Here, I was given the responsibility of handling Bank Linkages of Self help groups (SHGs). This meant that I had to meet these groups across the city and visit their respective bank branches on a daily basis in order to get my work done. Even though I had no idea about the geography of the city, I was confident that I will find my way, probably because that’s just how it works in Mumbai. You get an address and half of the times, you only know which station to get down at. The rest is up to you to figure out. How hard could it be here? The city is not as big as Mumbai, anyway!
Once I set out to work with no means of transport of my own, I realized how wrong I was. I had to crack the city’s local transport, in order to go to these widespread areas. “How easy it would have been, if there were local trains here”, I’d think to myself and go back to the everyday chaotic local train commute in Mumbai, in my head. Even though it was messy and crowded, it was convenient.
Here, daily commute included taking the state transport bus, or ‘magic‘ or ‘CNG’ auto-rickshaw, along with long walks of 2 km every day, on an average. I was slowly getting the knack of Indore, and had started telling my colleagues about the interior locations of the city which they were unaware of, began joining conversations about traffic, timings of the buses, recommending apps for easier commute, the famous ‘moonwalking’ traffic police – Ranjeet Singh, new chappan dukaan stalls, sarafa market, restaurants opening up and recommendations on shopping.
I knew Indore had taken over me when I started understanding the local ‘Indori’ dialect and when a sight of Sev Parmal made me happy the way Vada Pav used to.
But, I kept on searching for Mumbai in Indore especially because it’s called “Mini Mumbai”. The uncanny resemblance of Bombay local trains and Tata Magic vans that run in Indore struck me. The way both of them are stuffed, is the same. Ideally, the capacity of Magic is 10 but they run with up to 20 people at once. Some of them even stand in there. They are affordable (like local trains) and allow you to go from one place to another more conveniently than maybe, a bus. You can love or hate them but you simply cannot ignore the Magic vans in Indore, like local trains in Mumbai. Half the time you are arguing with the driver asking him to start the ride already, since no more passengers can fit in. If only they would agree, life would have been a lot easier!
From trying to understand the funny Indori language (bhiyaa, kane, ebla, nani) to their obsession with Sev and Chaat, Indore has started feeling like home. Let me make it clear once more – Nothing can be compared with Mumbai. But, if home is where your heart lies, Indore is not far behind. It is indeed a city that loves to eat to its heart’s content.
From the usual Vada Pav to Sev Parmal, life has changed a lot since India Fellow. Learning to live off a limited stipend in a city, curbing all the shopaholic urges, developing patience to deal with stubborn bank managers and over-enthusiastic Magic van drivers, it’s been exhilarating and tiring. Looking back, it’s been a year since I applied for the fellowship in September 2017. From attending the telephonic interview to anxiously waiting to know my host organization, it’s been an adventure in its own way.
Who would have thought that one year later, I would be standing in front of a Poha stall in Indore, saying, “Bhiyaa sev aur dena…” and somehow making the foodie city my new home!