Learning by Laughter

“Didi, ye kaisa hoyega? Ye humare se nahi hoga.” Didi, how will this happen, we won’t be able to do this.

Ho jayega Sakina baji, ho jayega.

I laid out straight on the blue floral printed bamboo mat with my head rested on my forearm while my other hand scrolled through various ladooo recipes in Hindi.

 te, short vowel e? no short vowel i, la – thats definitely la 

I examined the words carefully, trying to make out as many letters as possible. Sakina baji sat next to me with her legs crossed, leaned over, trying to fill out the uneven table about the current laddoo inventory I just sketched out for her. 

I could feel the soft cool breeze of a Delhi November through the steel gridded wall of the Zaika-e-Nizamuddin kitchen – a gentle reminder that coolers days and therefore laddoo season was upon us. 

As the scent of freshly pan-fried chicken kebabs filled my nose, I thought about the words that I had just said to Sakina baji.

I had already become comfortable at my host organization. Over the last two months, I had carefully watched my supervisor Swati interact with community members. I paid extra attention to how she worked the delicate balance of empathy and professional accountability.

It was clear it was an art and not a science. Before Swati could make an impact on the community, she had to first introduce any idea or project through dozens of meetings with our Zaika and Insha members. The notes, spreadsheets and proposals she wrote at her desk were always just the first step in the long process of improving and expanding the group. 

This was my first task assigned independently to me. I had to revamp the snack production wing of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin. Originally created to combat child malnutrition, ZeN had been making a full range of ladoos and namkeens since its inception, but snacks fell to the back burner a bit over the last year, as the catering wing of the business grew. 

Sakina baji had just been elected by the group as a second supervisor to help expand the scope of the business.

It was decided that we would work together on the healthy snacks portion of the business together. Our joint job responsibilities would include: updating the costing for all menu items, standardizing recipes, creating an inventory system and maintaining the financials for the kiosk, the main sales outlet. 

 Neither of us really knew what we were doing. 

Sakina baji and her register
Sakina baji working on updating her stock register

Somehow aware that my mind had already jumped on the self-doubt train, Sakina baji chimed in again “didi ye nah hoga, hum dono ko Hindi likhne aur parne nahi aati,” 

this won’t happen, neither of us knows how to read or write in Hindi 

“Sakina baji,” I said, exasperated, with my voice raised. 

I paused.

Shoot, I thought. She’s right. How are we going to do this? I don’t know how to read Hindi, neither does she.  

It was one of the moments where it was most clear to me that I had no idea what I was doing. It’s okay, I thought. I tried to remember how I had handled my classes in college or different jobs. I tried to think about how Swati might handle this.

Its fine, everything’s fine. This quick two-phrase saying had already become my mantra for life in India. 

I just needed to reassure her that we will figure it out.

I opened my mouth. But instead of the motivational pep talk that I had just practiced in my mind, I started laughing hysterically. 

Unfortunately, this was not the first time that my mouth had betrayed me. Truth is that my unexpected giggle had created a litany of awkward moments at networking events, first dates, and job interviews. Laughing was (my very unfortunately) defense mechanism when I did not know what to say or how to act. 

I was instantly relieved that Sakina baji reaction’s was not the usual stare that my unexplained laughter usually got me. 

She started laughing along with me. 

After a several minutes of laughing with each other. I realized that I still had literally no idea how to approach the problem. I just knew that creating a fake sense of confidence was not a helpful approach. 

Chalo kal milete haan, let’s meets tomorrow I said. 

Sakina baji and I continued to have unproductive meetings. We would usually spend time talking about our families and the sounds and sights of the Nizamuddin Basti while we shared tea. Eventually we started making progress on our assigned task. We sat in the kitchen and I pulled up a picture on my phone of the ingredient. We confirmed what that ingredient was called in Hindi, and then I would enter it in to Google translate and we would copy it down in our notebooks.  I started learning the Devanagri letters at home so I could be of more help during our meetings. 

We started with all of the names of the products and just started recording the date, weight, amount, and expiration date for each batch of snacks made. We slowly moved on to developing an inventory chart that kept track of how many laddoos we currently had in the kitchen and where the remaining ones had gone. 

Ab kitna hai? How many do we have? 

Kitne? How many? 

Sakina baji and I would try different headings — often forgetting what we had just decided because we were focused on reading and writing the words correctly. With each new modification, I was relieved that we were finally making progress and eternally grateful for our trusty advisors: Google Translate and India Typing. 

Sakina baji
Sakina Baji smiling at her home

Once we finalized an inventory register, the rest came naturally. We developed a process: Sakina baji would record the production and disburse items to the sales kiosk as needed. On Wednesdays and Saturdays she would collect the sales, then we would count them together and I would cross-check her inventory register. 

Within two months we had both become comfortable in our work and could confidently say that snack wing of the business was back on track! As much as I’d like to say that was the end of our challenges or problems, anyone who has worked in the development context knows that sounds way to good to be true. There are times when Sakina baji has forgotten her register and there is no record for entire batches of laddoos; other times I got busy in other work and we went four weeks without counting the sales money and balancing the books.                                    

Similar to many of the challenges of development in India,  the solution I found was not a concrete product or a policy, it’s a process. A process that is far from perfect, a process that is built with the community members it aims to serve, and a process that is susceptible to human error. For all their flaws, such systems often work. They help you to function as long as you keep working at them, they give you the flexibility to modify, eliminate, and add to them. They serve as a gentle reminders that our jobs in development cannot be packaged neatly in reports, spreadsheets, and presentations. They are ongoing, continuous pursuits that require follow-up and persistence.

Aside from the significance and utility of systems, revamping the snacks portion of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin as the first independent task of my fellowship taught me an important lesson: creating an illusion of confidence would get me nowhere. Throughout my professional life, I had been taught to never give the impression that I did not know how to complete a task or did not have experience for it. The idea was to smile and Google later. Here in India, that would only hold me back. The community members I work with do not care whether I know how or what to do; they care that I keep coming back and learn with them. They are happy to laugh along with me when we’ve been assigned a daunting task. 

My awkward giggle finally found its place. 

Minahil earned her Bachelors of Arts in Advocacy and Argumentation from the University at Buffalo where she was a Prentice Family Foundation Western New York Prosperity Fellow and served as the undergraduate Student Association President. After graduation she served at Buffalo City Hall as an AmeriCorps VISTA and on the campaign team for New York State Senate's 60th legislative district. She most recently served as a Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society Fellow at UC Berkeley. Throughout her professional and academic career, Minahil has been interested in working on issues of equity at the intersection of gender, race, and class. After her time as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Minahil plans to attend the Georgetown University Law Center to earn her JD.

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