I’ve tried to reflect on what I value the most from this fellowship experience. There have been moments of elation, and there have been deep lows. However, all these vignettes seem perfectly obfuscated right now. It’s funny how clarity eludes me when I require it the most, not a great trait for someone considering a career in policy.
On September 19th 2016, I made my way to Orakhan Village, a metropolis of 7 shops nestled in the Kumaon Valley of Uttarakhand. I was to spend the next 10 months as an AIF Clinton Fellow at Gene Campaign. What I have learnt in this fellowship is beyond what any 23 year old could ask for in terms of unadulterated and realistic experience of development in rural India. I’ve also had the added privilege of experiencing the specific logistical challenges that are par for the course in the mountainous regions, or any region of adverse geographies. I have learnt the value of cooperation and goodwill when it comes to implementing a model, or simply just to ensure you have enough supplies during a particularly rough storm. I’ve made friendships here that I probably wouldn’t have been able to in Bangalore.
In this blog post, I’d like to talk about some of the people I’ve been lucky enough to get to know during my time here.
Pawan Dhaila (or Pawan da, as I call him) has been working with Gene Campaign for five years now. He was my only colleague for a good 6 months of the fellowship. It was sometime after midpoint that we had scheduled a field visit to Okalkhanda village to train women farmers on how to produce and package millet namkeen from scratch. The village was around 70 Kms away and it was storm season in Kumaon. As development professionals sometime have to, Pawan da and I decided to take our chances with the weather and hopped on his motorbike, bags of flour and equipment hanging by the sides, and set off to Okalkhanda. The perks of working in the Himalayan Mountains are often merely visual. The bike ride that lasted 2 or 3 hours offered a moment of respite for me, the pillion, with my ears plugged to Frank Ocean and Neil Young (I’m a pretty inclusive music enthusiast).
We got to Okalkhanda and the first day of fieldwork went extremely well with great response from the women farmers. In fact, one of the women borrowed our namkeen press to try her hand at namkeen making that very evening. The next day, however, the petulant Kumaoni winds decided to upstage us by sending unearthly storms our way. This is when I witnessed Pawan da rise to action. Not only did he insist we do the second round of fieldwork in the next village, he ensured all the attendees were safe in the school kitchen when the storms got particularly unruly. After it subsided, he decided that we would make the 2 or 3 hour long journey back to Orakhan, and we did. The resilience and perseverance that I learnt from Pawan da, and his unflinching optimism is something that I hope to imbibe in my own personal and professional life.
Anandi Ama entered my life at a very crucial moment. Three months into my fellowship, the family that was entrusted to provide me with food and water had decided to leave overnight, with no notice of when they would return. The infrastructure available to me limited possibilities of making hot meals. Anandi Ama lived a few hundred meters away from my mud hut. A single call to her made by my mentor (who was at that time in Delhi) resulted in daily visits to my house to ensure I was alive and well. She gave me food when I needed it the most and was growing quite desperate. This was poignant for me because of the very work I was doing. Food security is often taken for granted by the privileged, and one begins to appreciate it more when all one has had to consume for a week is bananas and ragi. In my last week at my host site, Anandi Ama brought me bags of apricot every single evening, so much so that I had to give some to the monkeys as I couldn’t finish it all. The very last day, she shed a tear for me. She reminded me of my grandmother who passed 9 years ago. I hope to visit Anandi Ama in the future, I am sure I’ll be greeted with the same warmth and smiles.
It had been two weeks into work and I was feeling restless. When you put a city mouse in a village of less than hundred households, it’s natural for said mouse to scuttle around till food and company is found. I ventured out to Nathuakhan village; I had heard tales about this village and all the bounty it held. Eggs and bun, masala chai, momos, chowmein… I had to see this for myself.
I went to the first shop that looked welcoming. What made that shop welcoming was Shub Shub uncle’s beaming face, the proprietor of that enterprise. I have never seen him wear a grimace. His crisp white Nehru Topi is etched in my memory. I spent many afternoons and evenings in his tea shop, eating bun and eggs – he always gave me a fork and knife, an opulence he didn’t extend to his other patrons. I felt rather special. There are some vignettes that come back to people several years after they have occurred, sitting in that shop, drinking tea and reading Graham Greene while Shub Shub uncle tended to a pot of bubbling milk is one that shall come back to me.
I have saved the best for last. Prior to setting off to my mountain home in September, I couldn’t have fathomed how deeply gratifying the relationships I made in this cohort would be. From Madanapalle to Bombay, Kotagiri to Sawai Madhopur, Hyderabad to Bhubaneswar, I have made friends for life in my co-fellows. Adil’s poems gave me comfort in my darker days, in Sarala I found family, and in Sumedha I found corroboration to the singular support and love that constitute strong female friendships.
I want to extend my gratitude and love to all those who made my fellowship beautiful, especially to the Clinton Fellowship Team who not only managed a social development initiative of this scale, but also helped foster lifelong friendships and memories.
My journey has been wrought with highs and lows, it has been one of the most challenging and transformative experiences of my adult life. The partnerships I have made here will remain with me well into my twilight years. By which time I hope millet would have made it into the Public Distribution System in all the Indian States.
And I’ll leave you with this: