In the book titled ‘Blink‘ by Malcolm Gladwell, there is an intriguing concept of priming, which says that reading of a bunch of similar words can create a subconscious change in your attitude and hence your behaviour. When I first read this, I did not understand what its implications could be. In fact, at that time, I might have even dismissed this completely. But as I reflect back now, I realize its immense power.
Bihar? Will you be able to manage? I am worried about your safety. Alone? Are you sure?
These were some of the reactions I got when I told my family about my ten-day trip across Bihar. They were quite genuine in their concerned reactions but their idea of Bihar stemmed from years of conditioning formed through stories shared by media (in context of BIMARU). This conditioning was something even I myself had to read my way out, during my time at the Young India Fellowship. When my family shared their worries with me, I casually dismissed it but they played a much bigger role than just an innocuous comment. Like in Blink, those words subconsciously changed the way I approached the trip. I became more aware of my regional identity of a Tamilian in Bihar, leading to my first interaction in Patna during which I was constantly thinking if the auto-driver was trying to fleece me.
This frame of mind continued on the journey from Patna to Jamui, where I held on to my bag on my lap for the entire four-hour travel, out of fear of safety. These might be small instances which seem innocent and normal. But when we act out of these subconscious perceptions about a set of people, we start to look only for behaviours that match our perception. In most cases, we are tuned to look for what’s wrong or worst in people. While this was and still is an essential tool that ensures our survival through tough times, in a world which is increasingly reacting out of paranoia, fear and insecurities, our instinct to look for the worst closes a lot of doors for us as a society. This journey through Bihar challenged me to think in a different way.
My first stop was Jamui, where I was visiting Aditi, an India Fellow; she works with i-Saksham, an organization that seeks to empower youth to take up and work in the education space. It was here that I met Mamta, a young woman in her 20s, running a community learning centre in her village. Her centre, in one sight, broke down most stereotypes about home learning centres (also known as tuition centres). It was decorated colourfully, with a lot of contributions from students. Her teaching methods were child friendly, played well with the context, and learning was at the centre of everything. These are some qualities that teachers across the country try really hard to have in their classrooms. Post her session, she talked to me about her passion for education. She also talked about what it meant for her and her ambition of doing Masters in Education from Azim Premji University (APU). The effort Mamta put into understanding education and why children should be the main focus of it, left me inspired and with a lot of hope.
From Jamui, I travelled to Thakurganj, a block in Kishanganj district in north eastern part of Bihar. It is also known as the land where anything can grow. Here, I visited Azad India Foundation and got to know one of their programs Badhtey Kadam closely. It is a community learning project for kids at Grade 1, 2 and 3 levels. Noor Afsar ji and Lohit ji took me around the community centres in the block. They candidly shared about their successes and failures with the community. But more than that, what stood out for me was their thirst to improve themselves and not be satisfied by where they are. This need for self-improvement stemmed from their belief that the children of Thakurganj deserve better. During my stay there, I observed that the sense of responsibility shown by the community was embodied by the team of Badhtey Kadam.
My journey around the state took me back to Patna and then to Dalsinghsarai in Samastipur. It was here that I met Amarnath ji, who works with Innovators in Health (IIH). IIH has hosted our fellows Tushar, Dyuti and Uttara in the past. He had taken time out to talk to me and explain the entire program operations of IIH. During our conversation, he said “we work with patients who the villagers know will die, because they need to die knowing that there was someone for them”. This moved me. His need to ensure dignity for those dying was very strong. Amarnath ji has worked in this manner for almost a decade in an unwavering way, even in the face of death and loss.
In “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell also talks about the IAT (Implicit Associative Test). He gives an example of how we are inherently quicker to associate an African American with a negative image than positive. IAT tells you how strong these connections are, and usually this association of ideas never changes, except when once a researcher took the IAT after watching the Olympics where African Americans were doing their nation proud. During that test, his association between African American and good, was stronger. When he was exposed to African Americans who were excelling, subconsciously his associations with them changed.
People are conditioned to believe that the normal or ordinary people of Bihar behave in an unfriendly way, that they are not ambitious, that they are okay with life as it is. This harmful stereotype of BIMARU makes it easy for us to associate Bihar with such qualities. But as I traveled through the state and met various people, my idea of Bihar changed. People from all walks of life pushed my thinking in many ways. I felt warmth and happiness and a sense of aspiration in them …