The legendary film-maker Jean-Luc Godard had famously said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”.
Another guy called Quentin Tarantino, took it a bit too seriously. He picked a bunch of characters, a set of downright creepy as well as weird events and threw them all in a laundry machine. What came out of it was a philosophical-crime-drama with a distorted timeline like never before seen in motion pictures. You have hitmen (people who kill for money, duh) who recite biblical verses and talk about leaving the trade before and after killing individuals. There’s a mob boss who gives a lot of money to a boxer to lose a fight. The boxer double crosses him and flees. Then he loses his shit about a golden watch. The wife of the mob boss overdoses on drugs and is saved by one of the hitmen. The boxer helps the mob boss out of a sticky situation. There’s a Mexican standoff that happens somewhere. People are killed left, right and center. There’s a lot of talk about cleaning a car and dumping bodies. There’s also a twist competition thrown in the middle of 50’s themed restaurant. Legendary stuff, really. Oh and there’s coarse language. So, keep the kids away.
Pulp Fiction makes sense to a lot of people. It doesn’t, to even more. I was awed by how you couldn’t predict anything about this work of freaking art. And you discover something new everytime you watch it. This time, I figured, I could relate bits and pieces of the India Fellow journey to the ‘profound’ dialogues used in the film. I asked a few of the co-fellows and not so surprisingly, they could as well. So here’s a set of commandments.
1. “Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.” It really doesn’t. Shed that last inch of pride-fat before you finish saying N-G-O. Although pride can be empowering, it is a slippery slope and could easily turn destructive. If you can’t trust yourself, choose humility. Recommend pride for others. Things as basic as getting water (lifting it out of a well) will differ from your average life and please remember electricity is not your birthright. And complaining doesn’t help. So swallow that bitter dry down your throat because this ride ain’t gonna be smooth.
2. “This profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine.” Where do we start? Pardon the French, but too many people complaining about everything, all the time. People who want change being too rigid themselves and refusing to change and evaluate themselves.
“Aree sab teacher ka galti hai – padana hi nahi chahta hai, koi risk toh hai nahi, paisa toh milna hi hai. Isilye araam se jindagi beeta rahe hai”. The dangerous void of hope. People who thought they would be earning a lot of money. People who thought they would get a shining star for their efforts. People who wanted fame through sympathy. People who wanted to be the eccentric ones. Everyone realizes it sooner or later and its not everyone’s cup of tea. It doesn’t have to be.
3. “If my answers frighten you then you should cease asking scary questions.” You’d thank the stars for the sheltered life you’ve lived till date. Don’t worry if you’re overwhelmed and spend a few uncomfortable nights. The mystery of being a food-surplus nation at the time when India tops the hunger list with 194 million undernourished people is a puzzling piece. So is seeing students in government schools giving exams with the help of senior students as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. We all found something that doesn’t sit well with our conscience this year. Asking questions is a bold act because you position yourself as vulnerable and possibly as someone who is inferior. Scary questions lead to real answers, which is more than I can say for my Instagram Feed.
4. “A dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.” People all around the world would agree that dogs have great personality. So if a dog likes to hang around with you, you have an effing great personality. If you suck with dogs, I can’t help you. But beware that dog will bite. More than anything else in the world, your personality will attract or repel the people around you. It’s the reason people behave with you the way they do. You’ll find some of the greatest ones during all the India Fellow training. Stick with them. Ask questions. Be awed. It helps.
5. “Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” The fellowship will tell you that it is really important that you listen. And oh listen you will. So much so that your brain will filter the unnecessary before you even realize it. You will crave silence. You might become comfortable in it. Well at least till the vague words start arranging themselves to create incoherent sentences and you realize that the potato you’re eating is filled with pesticides. That is what’s being discussed over lunch.
6. “Besides, isn’t it more exciting when you don’t have permission?” “Aree chalo na chalte hain, office ka scooty lekar shaam ko, phir rakh denge baad mein.” This is probably debatable territory but here’s our few cents. It’s always more exciting when you don’t have permission. Though in the long run, it is often the right and more convenient thing to do. It’s important to develop the skill to discern between the stuff for which you should wait for permission and the stuff which you should do regardless of permission. There definitely are stuff for which you shouldn’t require anyone’s permission. And it’s okay to go for it.
7. “Did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits that he’s wrong, he is immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings?” Oh, good luck getting someone to admit that she/he is wrong. But humility is a game-changer. The moment you put yourself at the backseat, the moment you acknowledge your mistake, the world changes around you. I once ranted for 20 minutes straight to my mentor complaining that the organization was not doing enough to make a difference. I pointed things out and I was really aggressive. You know what he did? He listened. Like the headmaster Kobayashi from Totto Chan. He listened till I had nothing left to say. Oh and did I say he has been working for the past 25 years?
He said, “Did you see my reaction change at any point?“
Me: You already know all of these.
Mentor: (Smiles) You’re on the right track. That’s humility. You think you know stuff? You know nothing, (insert name)!
8. “Play with matches, you get burned.” “Itna dhoop me aaiega toh chehra toh murjha hi jaega na. Kya shakal hua hai.” You will be out in the sun. You will get burnt. You will forget your sunscreen when you do a cost-benefit analysis of having breakfast vs applying sunscreen. More importantly, every subject you talk about is lit with controversies. And boy, do people have strong opinions. Over the course of the year you will definitely find one instance where you should have kept your babbling mouth shut.
9. “It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just — it’s just there it’s a little different.” The patterns of people’s problems are similar. The stories that we as fellows share amongst us are relatable because they have some basic things in common. They relate to inequalities of power, of access, of knowledge. These larger issues are translated locally in unique ways. This is important to note because this sector is rife with one-size-fits-all policies and interventions. If you see girls being discriminated by being sent to government schools and boys to private schools for ‘better’ education, do you still focus on giving out free bicycles? The little things matter a lot.
10. “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.” – The Wolf
And boy oh boy you’ll meet characters. It’s like one big cartoon strip on your Sunday newspaper which is a garbled mix of Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes and Chacha Chaudhury published by Marvel Indrajaal Comics Universe or whatever. With some luck you’ll find characters who stand as strong and pure in face of the strangest of obstacles like Dr. Strange. And you’ll surely meet the ones with hidden agendas. The funny thing is you get to choose who you want to be, sans judgement. Because “NGO waale to sirf paise khaate hai.” Actions are more powerful and long-lasting than words. So if you’re a doer, you will be remembered. But then, you’ll also meet characters like this economics professor in Kanpur who would assure you that humanitarianism and this ‘noble discipline’ don’t go hand in hand. That humanity is too unpredictable and economics would do well to leave out its vagaries.
11. “Any time of the day is a good time for pie.” – Fabienne
Or samosas. Or litti. Or jalebi. Or chai. Basically we all found our coping mechanisms in food and sought for comfort where it didn’t disappoint. Nobody said it was easy but man did we underestimate what would be the hard part. If a Bengali can survive without fish for a year, you can do anything. Any-thing.
12. “Yeah, well the days of me forgetting are over, and the days of me remembering have just begun.” – Pumpkin
People (Fellows across cohorts) will say that you can’t really forget this journey. You are exposed to way too much and you will absorb it, process it, filter it, apply it. You will make a mistake. Maybe 10. You will learn that learning is very different from memorizing. You will learn from doing. Every day will be a bit different. And you will remember this as a year of ‘firsts’. Maybe a year of ’lasts’ as well.
The task of development is an uphill battle; The stakeholders are too many; The perspectives are all valid. The truth is ephemeral and keeps shifting slightly thanks to the newest shiny stalwart of social sector we meet. One year seemed too long – one year seems to have flown by too fast now.
P.S. A huge shout-out to co-fellows Pritha, Rashmi and Jaiti for their inputs in writing this. Guys, thanks for taking the time to help and build all the different perspectives.