“We are all a family here,” my colleague Shiney* tells me as we eat dinner. I was asking him if he could help me deal with some particularly persistent rats in the flat I had recently started renting in Jamui, Bihar. “We are family” is to say, of course, I will be there. Immediately, my mind flashed back to mid-September this year, when I heard these same words, albeit across a crackly phone line. I had just found out that as an India Fellow, I would be placed with i-Saksham Learning and Education Foundation, which works in four districts in Bihar. I would be in Jamui, the co-founder, Ravi Dhanuka, told me in my interaction with him.
Nobody in my family had ever heard of Jamui. All they’d ever heard about Bihar was guns, gangs and violence. To abate their fears, I asked Dhanuka if I could speak to someone – a woman on the Jamui team. He connected me to Samyukta*, who is the content manager. I didn’t really know what to ask or how to ask it – the possibility of this placement was too new in my mind and I barely had any understanding of what the organisation did. But she was gentle. “This is a great organisation, we are all like a family.”
Little did I know how much weight that sentiment carries. A big part of i-Saksham’s team – people like Samyukta, have been working even before the organisation formally existed. All three of the organisation’s co-founders were Prime Minister Rural Development Fellows (PMRDF) in Bihar. Shravan Kumar Jha and Aditya Tyagi, two of the co-founders were in Jamui in 2013, and began to teach young BA students in the polytechnic college here because their professors would not regularly show up. Samyukta says that most of the people who attended these tuitions had no great aspirations of community service as such, but found themselves drawn in by the world views that their ‘teachers’ brought to the table.
Unlike most other educators they had met in their lives, Jha and Tyagi prioritised their personal growth, helped them understand their own aspirations and encouraged them to pursue them. This group of students became ardent supporters and tireless volunteers when Jha, Tyagi and Dhanuka decided to start holding small scale computer training sessions in nearby villages. They would lug CPUs and monitors on their backs to teach interested youth in the villages of Jamui.
As the organisation grew in vision and mission, formalising its work by registering itself as i-Saksham, many of these ex-students joined the team. Several other members of the organisation were recruited, over time, after they completed the fellowship that i-Saksham runs for rural youth. It is more than six years old now, but it continues to champion many of the same values that the three founders practised from the beginning. And the refrain – “we are a family” – is one I’ve heard frequently since I joined.
Today, each employee has a development manager who checks in with them regularly to set goals aligned with their long-term aspirations, encourages them to set self-learning goals and provides any support they may need for their growth. If one wants to practice conversational English, someone volunteers to do a weekly call with them in which they talk in English. A ‘student’ from the early days and a volunteer of i-Saksham now regularly sends further education opportunities with available financial aid on team’s WhatsApp groups, helping people navigate complicated admission forms if they are struggling.
The organisation has specific study leaves you can take if you are preparing for any exam. Jha said that the organisation realises that, for many team members, this is the first professional work experience they will ever have in their lives. And he hopes, through this emphasis on self-learning and self-growth, that their dreams will be able to take shape and that through regular coaching, they will become realities. i-Saksham dedicates time, resources and effort in coaching, capacity-building and the leadership development of a team they know may have to fly the nest soon. Like a family, it cares for and nurtures.
Also like a family is the laughter, camaraderie, and celebration of every individual’s achievements. The organisation has a gratitude wall, where, against the photos of everybody in the extended i-Saksham family (mentors and core volunteers included), you can write gratitude to a particular member on a post-it.
Every day, when we sit down for lunch in a big circle, nobody sits with an individual plate. Instead, over friendly debates, village gossip, promises of parties and a lot of laughter, tiffins are shared because someone is always carrying extra roti for every person that didn’t have time to prepare food in the morning. In meetings, if we appreciate someone’s insights, the team snaps their fingers in support. Often, as work bleeds post office hours, Jha (who works primarily from the Jamui field office) breaks up the team of people sitting hunched over their laptops. Instead, we walk to the market to eat gup chup (aka pani puri) or any other snack.
On Saturdays, he tries to get together with other civil society actors in Jamui (other fellows or members of NGOs) and hosts a dinner. Akbar* bhai (whose day job involves a lot of fieldwork for a micro-finance firm) makes the most delectable chicken biryani over the course of a couple of hours, and others make smaller eats because we’re all too impatient to wait in hunger for the biryani. We exchange field stories while chopping kilos of onions and peeling endless cloves of garlic. Sometimes we pull out a box of Pictionary or play some dumb charades or even just watch a movie.
In moments of difficulty and loss, you know someone from i-Saksham is only a call away. When a team member’s parents got COVID in an entirely different district in Bihar during the second wave, folks from i-Saksham worked night and day to procure oxygen cylinders, a concentrator, and any other medical help they needed.
The most memorable though, for me, is what happens every late afternoon on a Saturday. Before the younger women in the team begin to head out at 4 pm (before it is dark), the entire team gathers in a hall to just chill together. More often than not, this means that everyone in the room has to take turns singing a song. It doesn’t matter how tone-deaf you are, you just have to start. Four people will enthusiastically join you, while someone plays the tabla on the gaddis, small wooden laptop tables or even plastic water bottles.
The first time I was asked to be a part of this jam session, I wasn’t given any prior warning. One minute I was drafting a document and the next I was asked to sing something. I was immediately worried, as I’ve always been conscious of singing in public. But everyone was so non-judgemental and kind. Not kind enough to let me off the hook, but kind enough to join in quickly and loudly, swaying and emoting every emotion of a Mohammed Rafi song on their faces.
What is a family? A collective that shares your joys and sorrows? That provides for each other? That is nurturing but isn’t afraid to show you the mirror and push you to grow? Something built on respect, accountability and trust? One fundamentally rooted in care? Sitting in that training hall on a Saturday late afternoon, singing Rafi with slightly red cheeks as pale early-winter sunlight streamed in through the window, I could clearly see what everyone was talking about. I hope to find a family in i-Saksham. And I hope I bring something to the table.
*Name changed to protect identity