It has been more than 10 months since I, along with 21 others, set out on a journey to learn about and understand India at the grassroots. In all honesty, this has been one mixed bag of a year. Some expectations I harbored remained unmet while some hopes I never knew I had, were fulfilled. Most of my illusions about the world, a result of my sheltered upbringing, were shattered. Simultaneously, some of the ideals that I had never dared to believe in were reinforced. This has undoubtedly been one of the most intense and difficult experiences of my life. At the same time, I also feel that the kind of learning I had this year, I wouldn’t have been able to have anywhere else. This final blog is dedicated to those tangible and intangible lessons that have invariably changed my perspective on life.
1. Humility does not come easy
I had always thought of myself as a pretty down-to-earth humble person but the fellowship year was truly what one would call a ‘humbling’ experience. What I had mistaken for humility was actually a deep-rooted insecurity that I’d never be as skilled or talented as those around me. That led me to constantly downplay my achievements and chalk them up to luck or circumstances. At the same time, I would take failure as a sign of personal inadequacy. This mind-set could be a result of the competitive environments I was exposed to, both in school and college. In school, we were in a constant race to learn more, be smarter and be perfect ‘ladies’, as our convent upbringing demanded. Long story short, we would do anything to avoid being relegated to the ranks of the ‘average’. No doubt, we didn’t always succeed and it was a blow to our self-esteem, no matter how hard we tried to ignore it.
In college, the atmosphere was different and far more open. However, although I didn’t realise it until I was about to graduate, here too, we were always running a race, trying to impress this person or that or attempting to achieve perfectionism. There was this gnawing insecurity, even among the best students, that they weren’t good enough. Apparently, this phenomenon is so ubiquitous among university students that it’s been given the name of Imposter Syndrome. Ultimately, through both these experiences, I realized that the system takes its toll on you, whether you choose to be a part of it or not.
During this year though, I encountered people and came to know of cultures that exist outside this system. For them, it did not matter what my accomplishments were or how much I had scored in the last exam. They accepted me just as I was, gave advice freely and also learnt from me without hesitation. I met people who embodied the idea of humility, who were constantly learning from others around them and inspired me to do the same. Circumstances were also an effective, but less kind, teacher. I was working for the first time, that too in a sector which had an indirect link to my previous education.
I realized that each day would only be fruitful if I approached it with an attitude to learn. I had to let go of some deep hidden pride (something I was unaware of) and had to gear myself towards working on tasks that I may not have always succeeded at.
Learning a new language was also an intensely humbling experience. A language gives us access to a place and people, like no other skill or knowledge, and not knowing it makes one feel helpless. It took me a long time to get over the initial frustration of not being able to understand or take part in conversations to progress to a stage where I tried my best to listen and learn. Now, I’m glad to say that I can follow Marathi and can converse a bit too. Over the past 10 months, I feel as though I’m free from several pressures that used to define my life before. Although working in a large organisation like Mann Deshi comes with its own kind of stress, I’ve learnt to pick my battles and filter out the rest. True humility does not mean complacency. It means that you decide to set your own benchmark and try to become a better version of yourself every day.
2. Privilege is a tricky thing
Realising my own privilege has been a long-drawn and a painful process. While earlier I had only theoretically grasped my status in our society, now I was forced to grapple with its real economic, social and cultural ramifications. Learning about caste and cultural capital was one thing in classroom sessions but observing the effects these barriers had on the way people lived their lives was something else altogether.
I’d often try, in a naïve way, to interact with people without letting the facts of my urban, upper caste upbringing impinge on the conversation. But, inevitably, it always did. I couldn’t hide the circumstances of my privilege, no matter how hard I tried.
I was often asked about my caste, what kind of work my parents did, how much they earned, etc. Avoidance was not a useful strategy and so, I’d end up telling the truth, although it made me deeply uncomfortable. At the same time, there were instances where I unconsciously brought my privilege into the picture. In talking about my home, friends and family, I wouldn’t realize how distant my reality was from others. Then there were people like Chetna Ma’am, who are not originally from the community, but can connect with rural women effortlessly, while subtly bringing in her personal experiences and opinions on various issues. Of course, this kind of poise and spontaneity is something that can only be cultivated over time, rather counter intuitively. I did learn that however good my intentions may be, it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to learn to build genuine connections with people you may have little in common with.
3. Work culture at an NGO
When I joined India Fellow, I had a single story in my mind of how NGOs were supposed to function. I had envisioned small, run down offices, broken furniture, shoestring budget and an intimate work culture. In retrospect, it seems that I had been imagining a Communist Party office in West Bengal rather than an NGO, at least in terms of the dilapidation. The work culture at Mann Deshi turned out to be drastically different. When I joined, the organisation had recently moved into a swanky new office, easily the most noticeable structure for miles around. It was spacious, well organised and sanitised. A different area was allocated for staff from each department. CCTV cameras monitored the ongoings for security purposes. The organisation had already begun to expand beyond the trusted circle of people it had started out with, and hence there was a need of constant surveillance; this was the only explanation that made sense to me.
Before the move into the new office, the Mann Deshi Bank, Foundation and Community Radio were situated in the heart of Mhaswad town, occupying only one floor of a small building. It must have been cramped but I haven’t met any long time employee who does not recall those days in the old office with much fondness and warmth. The shift to the new place was certainly necessitated by the rapid expansion of the organisation, in terms of the number of donors, projects and employees. Scaling of any organisation allows it to multiply its impact and Mann Deshi is not an exception.
However, in my opinion, the change in space also brought about a transition in the way people interacted with each other. There was a certain degree of decorum and discipline to be maintained, and people were always conscious of the CCTVs, regardless of whether they were being monitored at all. Glass cabins produced differentiators and hierarchies where none might have been visible before. Targets and deadlines were slowly becoming the new metrics of success. Employees complained but few left the job as it was still one of the most prestigious organizations one could work with in Mhaswad. Another problematic aspect of the work culture was that people did not feel motivated to take ownership of their work. What I realised in my own case was that compartmentalisation of work responsibilities may be an efficient technique when it comes to manufacturing or production but when it comes to service, it precluded employee investment in any particular project. If I did not feel a sense of ownership over the work, I realised I couldn’t give it my 100%.
Having had no experience of a social sector organisation before, or even just any work experience at all, I felt that I was not in a position to judge or discredit the good work that the organisation was doing by calling out its work culture. After all, every workplace has power dynamics and the accompanying politics. It affects rapidly expanding organisations across all sectors. However, unlike in corporate companies, where the matter has been getting a lot of attention lately, the conversation on work culture and employee rights and responsibilities is still at a nascent stage in the social sector. Due to several reasons, the conversation will have to be very different in rural areas as compared to urban ones, where people are used to a certain idea of freedom. However, this makes it even more necessary for such a conversation to be started.
Of course, these weren’t the only lessons I learnt in this year. I could write more about the importance of having boundaries, the havoc that an undue sense of ownership can cause, and the pressures as well as benefits of a small town life. This year was definitely rich in life experiences, and gave me a window into an India that I had little exposure to. At times, it was difficult, so difficult that I thought of giving up. But ultimately, I’m glad I stayed the course; because this year irrevocably changed me as a person.
P.S. – I would like to add that this blog is written from my own perspective, formed through various interactions with my colleagues and my own notions of workplace norms as I have seen them in urban academic and corporate environments. It is possible that there are viewpoints and sources that have been under represented in this piece.