Conversations on the Overnight Train to Kota
Last night while on an overnight train from Mumbai to Kota I had a long conversation with an ex-army man and professional polo player.
Our conversation sparked when I was about to fall asleep and the gentleman curiously asked about the Hindi dictionary I was reading.
Naturally as we talked late into the night our conversation turned to the project I was currently on route to visit- the foundation’s malnutrition program in Baran District, Rajasthan.
He asked about every detail of the program. I described to him everything about the community, the local tribal groups, the wealthy migrants, the political issues, the corruption, the poverty levels, the domestic violence, the alcohol and drug abuse, child mortality rates, specific failed case studies, and various recent causes of children’s deaths. I even told him about difficulties my program was having working with the government.
After listening to all of this the gentleman asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I gave my normal response- something about loving living in India and “learning”- but he was not satisfied with my answer. After listening to my entire program’s implementation issues and political setbacks he felt it was simply illogical.
Then he gave me a metaphor (he was filled with metaphors). He told me, “It sounds like you have a flooding room but you can’t turn the faucet off.” He continued, “You’re in a big room getting filled with water but you’re just standing in the corner with a small cup trying to bail it all out the window. Really what you need to focus on is turning off the faucet. Otherwise the water will keep rushing at you too quickly and none of your small-small cups will help.”
The faucet he was referring to, as he explained, represented everything I felt we (my malnutrition team) couldn’t do. This included changing many of the government’s issues with implementation and addressing political tensions surrounding alcoholism, domestic violence, and women’s rights. More specifically the faucet represented the men in Baran, who generally, within this community, are the central patriarchal figures that make decisions. These men had to be held responsible for their actions or else we wouldn’t be able to influence the community’s mothers. We were bailing out a sinking ship with the wrong tools (brighter posters, more food rations, better training workshops) when we really needed a crane (perhaps full social upheaval).
When I explained that some of the issues could not directly be addressed because our NGOs were getting threatened and the government (with whom we have signed an MoU) could not approve politically fragile activism, he was not satisfied. He wanted full excavation of these issues or nothing at all.
Finally at around 2am I dozed off, but our conversation really got me thinking. What were we doing working on this project, particularly in this manner? When I had asked my programme manager and project coordinator these questions in the past they usually answered them with unsettling remarks or maybe a few sighs of disbelief. Yet, day-by-day month-by-month I could see our staff pushing forward, toiling over every detail, looking for a way to somehow fix every problem no matter how covert or complex the solution may be.
But still that man on the train (whose name I never learned) made me question our work. Was he correct? Was all of this a waste of time? We had set our goals very low. We expected a best-case-scenario 5% improvement in reducing child mortality by the end of the year and perhaps a 20% increase in enrollment in the government Aanganwadi system by the end of three years. But these numbers wouldn’t matter if these overwhelmingly patriarchal family structures would eventually overpower the knowledge we gave the mothers and children affected by our work. This was unsettling.
Night in Shahabad
By 9am today I was in the field. My project for the day, with my project coordinator Pradeep, was to hire a local theatre group to help develop a play on malnutrition for our community health meetings. However, during our meeting with a local theatre group the image of the flooding room came back to me. “A play? Seems like a pretty small bucket, Katie,” I thought to myself. The play, no matter how socially and politically enthused, was not going to turn off the faucet. I was a little discouraged.
However, after the meeting was over I got to hang out with our NGO more intimately than I have in the past. We sat around outside the ICDS office and chatted about the program. I noticed their dedication was completely unwavering.
Why should mine be otherwise?
It began to get dark as the sun set behind one of Shahabad Fort’s tall central domes creating a beautiful silhouette of the majestic structure that surrounds the village. I realized that I had never been in Shahabad at night. Nighttime in Shahabad was a place I associated purely with violence- the alcoholism, the domestic violence and the child negligence I read about in my research. The sources that killed the babies we were trying to “save.”
But in reality the village at night was quiet, beautiful even, and filled with crumbling but exquisite architecture and enclosed by nature- trees, grasses, hills, and a creek. As darkness took over the village small snack shops’ lights began to shine and soon the bright blue and pink paint of the shops’ walls glowed like Christmas lights. Directly outside the ICDS office a bright light glowed from a small white temple lighting the bumpy road.
After finishing our discussion we went to the training coordinator’s house where a few other NGO staff were cooking dinner together and making chai and laughing. I was given a chair to sit to observe this happy active scene. Then on the way out of Shahabad from my car window I could see small children playing on the street with a little puppy and a group of men huddled quietly around a fire to shake off the cold.
A Flat Tire Amongst Mustard Seeds and Stars
On the hour-long ride out of Shahabad with Pradeep I slowly translated questions into Hindi to ask him about everything I had seen that day. We chatted casually and I began to settle comfortably into my seat…
Then…… POP! We had a flat tire in complete darkness “in the middle of nowhere.”
Pradeep pulled over, assessed the situation, and got his tools out from the trunk. I jumped out of the car into the cold night air and held out my tiny Nokia phone flashlight. Pradeep patiently changed the tire and quietly spoke to me in Hindi about what to do next.
While standing in the dark I felt vulnerable. A short story from “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin about a man getting mugged on a rural highway in Pakistan replayed in my mind. I was nervous about being in such an unfamiliar setting so late at night.
Then I heard footsteps behind us. I completely froze, terrified.
Two seconds later I realized the sound of the footsteps was actually a cow approaching from the field. I couldn’t help but smile. We were completely safe.
After this realization I loosened up and got engaged in the task of helping Pradeep change his tire. I became quite calm. Working on this universal task- something so physical and precise- requiring both strength and focus was such a nice change for my meandering confused brain.
After we finished I got a better look at our surroundings because my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Surrounding Pradeep and I for as far as we could see were only dark silent fields of mustard seed and above us was a beautiful open night sky filled with stars.
I never could have expected during this fellowship that I would learn how to change a car tire (this important life lesson) with my project coordinator in Hindi. I also never could have expected I would learn how to change a car tire in the middle of a vast expanse of a bumpy two-lane cow-ridden Rajasthani highway.  But this tire taught me that fixing larger issues involves simply fixing challenges precisely as they come- one large explosion at a time.
This wonderfully unexpected moment revealed the key ingredient I had been looking for in my “field” work: raw human experience. I had simply been looking in the wrong type of field. In that moment I was forced (or rather gifted the opportunity) to really experience what was around me, not just think about things I had read or naturally presumed. This was the side of rural Rajasthan I hadn’t experienced at all.
I believe that is why I am on this fellowship. If nothing else I will stretch my capacity for human understanding. It will allow myself to experience and connect to people and places I have never known.
 Yes, indeed, sometimes I read the dictionary.
 These are issues we are trying to address but often cannot address directly because of politically fragile situations within the community.
 The ICDS is the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the government scheme we are working to strengthen in this program.
 Well actually upon reflection maybe I should have expected to get a bumpy tire on that crazy road. Funnily enough this was not the most exciting drive I had on that highway during my two day field visit. The next day while on the 2 hour drive between Baran and Kota’s train station the (roughly) 14-16 year old boy driving me in a dilapidated jeep hit two pigeons simultaneously while passing dangerously close between two trucks. There were bird feathers everywhere like a cloud of smoke. RIP. I made it to the station with 20 minutes to spare even though I had left 30 minutes late. That little boy drove fast.