Sita’s Jungle-Jungle Heart

Sita has never been one to brag about herself or her accomplishments She isn’t one to over-dramatize her life, the good or bad of it. She is contemplative, often taking a few seconds to put an answer together in her head before responding to questions. Because of this, I was not surprised with her almost nonchalant answers to Franz and my questions as we prepared to leave for Durgapur, West Bengal last week. Sita was scheduled to give her first ever public speech at an event held by NIT Durgapur, and we were all very excited.

“Sita, will this be your first time visiting West Bengal?”, Franz wanted to know. She nodded her head and smiled as she ate a hurried lunch.

“How many times have you been on a plane?” “Oh, I’ve never been on a plane”, Sita answered quietly. “Ok,” Franz replied, “So how many times have you been outside of Jharkhand?” With a big grin on her face, she told us that this would, in fact, be her first time leaving her home state. Franz and I were surprised and excited to be a part of this adventure with her.

As our auto neared the Ranchi train station, Sita leaned close and told me that she was a little nervous about the train ride. When I asked why, she thought for a moment, as she often does, and told me that in addition to this being her first time out of Jharkhand, it would also be her first time ever riding on a train.

This was going to be a big weekend of firsts for the 18 year old Yuwa team member and student.

I had told Sita to bring a book to pass the time on our 6 hour train ride, and she brought along one of her favorites- I Am Malala. She read maybe 5 pages on the whole ride- the rest of the time she watched in silent awe as the countryside slipped by us: farming villages, valleys, hills, coal mines. All of it new and magical, hinting at a world beyond Sita’s village in rural Jharkhand.

We arrived in Durgapur that night and went straight to our hotel. Sita was excited but increasingly nervous about her speech the next day- would everyone understand her English? Was she pausing for effect enough? Was she moving her hands too much? We practiced her speech once before settling in to watch a few hours of Bollywood movies. Neither of us have a television in our homes, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that we were both really excited about the prospect of channel-flipping late into the night.

The next day we had a chance to walk about Durgapur, a very well planned little city about 2 hours outside of Calcutta. The streets were well paved and met at 90 degree angles, something we are not used to outside of Ranchi. We took a long walk and soaked in the less polluted air and communist street art of the city.

Finally, it was time to head to NIT Durgapur for Sita’s speech. We held hands on the drive over and I tried my best to help her relax. Truth be told, I think I may have been more nervous than she was. She is one of my best students in my older class, and I knew she had practiced her speech more times than anyone else would have, but she was about to be on stage, under bright lights, in front of a few hundred people. Had I helped her prepare enough?

Franz took the stage first to talk a bit about Yuwa and introduce Sita. Sitting next to me, Sita was as cool as a cucumber. She gave my hand (a bit damp with anxious sweat) a squeeze as Franz called her up on stage, and she was off. I felt a mix of anxiety, pride, and pure joy as she took the stage wearing her Yuwa jersey and a big smile.

Sita spoke about her childhood: her alcoholic father who drained the family resources before he died, how he had instructed Sita’s mother to give her away to anyone willing to take her in. She spoke of her mother’s bravery and determination to provide for her 5 children- provide not only food and shelter, but also an opportunity to get the education she never had. Sita told us about how, when her mother became sick and weak from working so hard, her siblings began to work nights and weekends to pay for their mother’s treatment and their educations. Not going to school was never an option for Sita and her siblings. Their mother saw to that even while recovering from her illness.

The crowd at NIT Durgapur was absolutely captivated by Sita’s story, and Sita was a natural on stage. When she began to talk about her time at Yuwa, I felt more pride than I think I’ve ever felt. Sita explained how she hadn’t been a very good student before Yuwa, but after joining an English class there when she was around 14, she became more confident in her abilities as a student. When she scored the highest marks on her 10th board exam, something extraordinary happened to her:

“I felt my heart become less like a garden-garden, and more like a jungle-jungle.”

At this line, the entire crowd at NIT Durgapur erupted in applause and cheers. Sita giggled and continued her speech. She concluded her talk by explaining how she got to that stage- “My mother taught me how to be independent. Yuwa taught me how to dream.”

As she left the stage with a standing ovation, Franz and I looked at each other in awe. We had known she would do a great job, but we were delighted by just how wonderful Sita’s speech was.

After many hugs, high fives, and congratulations, I asked Sita how she felt after giving her first public speech, on her first trip out of Jharkhand. There was the usual contemplative pause, and then, a beautiful smile. “Today, I know that anything is possible, because today I believed in myself, just like you always believed in me.”

And that is when I felt my heart become less like a garden-garden, and more like a jungle-jungle.

Kayalyn has spent the past few years working in the field of reproductive health rights and education in the U.S. and abroad. She is particularly interested in sexual health rights for refugee, internally displaced, and marginalized communities. During her time as an undergraduate student, she studied International Development and Women's Studies. In her senior year, she wrote an honors thesis titled "The Effective Access to Reproductive Health Services Index: A Multidimensional Approach to Measuring Successful Reproductive Health Programs in Peru and Vietnam", in which she constructed an economic index to map how, and how often, women in developing countries access reproductive health services. Kayalyn recently spent six months living in Bangalore, where she worked with INK Talks, an Indian conference and idea-sharing organization.

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