The Road to Soda

I tried to look back from the rear window of the bus that was all occluded by our hefty luggage.  To look back at the place that had been my home for fourteen days.  And then the bus started. We were all ready to go back. Or were we? Time sure does fly. Those fourteen days passed in blink of any eye. But the blink managed to capture sights and weave memories that would leave indelible impressions on us.

IMG_0471Day one, and there I was, on the train to Jaipur after all that hasty and hefty packing and sleepless exam time nights. All I wanted to know was what a village looked like. Was it the same as I had read about in newspapers or books or as I had watched on the television? Fourteen days had seemed so long back then. And for a person who has never made it to the 8:45 class, plenty of butterflies came to say hi.

But they were all gone as soon as we reached Soda after a two hour bus ride. Although I do believe greatly in the power of words, there is something about Soda which words don’t fully do justice to. The pristine skies, the unpolluted air, the yellow fields painted against the blue hues and the stars that dance when the moon blooms; there was an expanse of beauty not only in its picturesque setting but also in the lives that were part of it.

Our days in Soda started with all of us going to the village and different dhanis and surveying the households. (Actually, they started with Tanishka’s weird alarm tone, Niharika’s vocal alarm, the freezing water and the wait for the heating rods). The Ram- Rams and warmth with which Soda’s denizens greeted the bunch of uninvited strangers walking freely on their streets was so heartening. They would ask us to stay for food and often, unasked simply serve us hot milk or tea. It was ironic that having lived all my life in the same city, I would prefer not to talk to strangers but here, in a village where I knew almost no one, I would unhesitatingly enter their homes and listen to their stories. I realized how small things that we could be so indifferent about were a luxury to others living just some miles away.

The women of the village, who often had veils covering their faces, would lay bare their stories in front of us. Whether it was about water shortage or the dreams that they never really got to realize, they would unhesitatingly share their problems with us girls, some of whom were of their own age. It was jarring in particular, how some of the women who had faced suppression when they were young themselves had been hammered by time and custom into patriarchs. The young girls though, gave us immense hope with their dreams and ambitions, and spoke of a slow but steady wave of change, refusing to be caged in norms that have often bound women.

shunyamThe sessions with the children were doubtlessly our favourite! Singing the fruit salad song with them, and coming up with our own variations and versions for every new session was probably what we and our kids looked forward to the most! These little bouncing and chirruping souls would often leave us awestruck with their response to our sessions. The kids in Srinagar even assisted Charvi and I during the governance sessions, and remembered minute details about government schemes that even our brains took some time to feed in. I remember how little Bablu just wouldn’t go to school and follow Pallavi and I to all the houses we went, and Ved Prakash teaching me how to ride a bicycle (thank you Soda, for yet another first)! The best part? They even remembered my name (oh, how much I love them for this)!

With my fellow volunteers, I shared endless discussions about sessions, never ending game sessions, a Secret Santa Christmas, some memorable days and many magical moments, in that span of fourteen days. Each of us made such amazing memories and friends. We came as strangers and left as bros, and to quote Rohan, we were all ‘khuli kitabs’ when we went back.

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The roads that we walk upon slowly and steadily carve our paths and make us what we are. But some of these roads are dearer to us than others. They first create umpteen memories and then take us down those memory lanes. These are the ones that we want to revisit, over and over again. The road to Soda is now one of them. I am glad that I got a chance to walk on that road. And, yes that has made all the difference.

– Shunyam Nanda, Winter 2015 Volunteer and Core Team Member

The Awakening

A poem written by Tvisha, based on her experience in Soda village.

Picture by Tvisha Nevatia

Picture by Tvisha Nevatia

Isn’t it a beautiful sunrise?
Prefixed by crowing roosters and suffixed by dancing peacocks.

With pots of water upon her head
The effortless gait only less shocking than her broad smile.
It’s a pretty sight but she has chores to complete,
Before her limbs succumb to afternoon’s heat.

The entire village is a playground for the little folks,
Not a level playing field, but full of possibilities nonetheless.
The innocence of childhood is intact,
But some fictitious divides to them are facts.

Sanguine still is sky, for these are rays of hope.
Learning has set in, some unlearning is needed,
The sun has risen, an awakening is needed.

 

-Tvisha Nevatia, Summer 2015 Volunteer and Core Team Advisor

Of Laughter and Changing Perspectives: The Lighter Side of Soda

Magical. I think that’s the word that describes Soda perfectly. It was not long ago, when I was going through the Asmat blog to read previous volunteers’ experiences and gain some insight. Today, here I am, penning down my experiences, of what could easily qualify as one of the best experiences of my life. While reading those articles, I came across a lot of similarities, like – Babloo bhaiya, the reservoir, the shop near the Sarpanch’s house, Bhaskar ji, the naughty kids, etc. I didn’t understand them back then, but they make all the sense in the world to me now.

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Soda impacts each and every volunteer in a massive way, and it’s not like we all go through a moral epiphany or something. No. It’s the subtle things we experience that change us. Subtle, not trivial. It might be a random conversation we strike with one of the villagers, or a game we play with the kids, or even moments spent with the other volunteers. For me, it was all of this that sent me back a different person, and much more. I was honestly so confused and lost when I decided to write this article, because I had so much to tell everyone, and didn’t know what to leave out. So I just think it’ll be easier to enumerate the best moments that Soda gave me. Here goes –

  • Babloo bhaiya’s ‘delicious’ food and lassun ki chatni.
  • Bathroom quarrels that took place every morning, until some of us figured out that bathing in the evening was a better idea.
  • Emptying the close by shop by purchasing all the Mazza, Thumbs up and chips we could lay out hands on. And then later Maggi too, after it got banned.
  • Star gazing after a hard day’s work from the Dharamshala’s roof as Soda had some of the best skies to offer.
  • Building a special bond with your dhani villagers, women and children. Especially the children. The children are always the BEST.
  • Spreeha’s DELICIOUS and out of the world cakes for special occasions.
  • Celebrating Kunal’s birthday with the other volunteers.
  • Playing cards everyday to pass our time (Bluff and Mafia). Also, later we shifted to cricket after procuring a bat.
  • Our one cheat day to Jaipur, where we HOGGED, HOGGED, and did nothing else, but HOGGED.
  • Listening to everyone’s daily reports in the evening and discussing their heart wrenching, but mostly funny experiences.
  • Being constantly questioned by the village women, as to when do we plan on getting married and why haven’t we gotten married yet.
  • Getting emotional on our last day with the children. Some of us even got teary eyed while the others felt choked.
  • Practicing our nukkad natak which we worked really hard for late at night before our final visit to our dhanis.

To a stranger reading this post, it’ll make no sense. But to people who’ve worked in Soda, this is what changed us. And changed us how? Just giving us perspective and making us a little more thankful for whatever we have in life. I still remember leaving for Soda with one suitcase and one handbag. But I came back, with a lot more. Thank you Asmat, for everything.

 

Reetika Raj, Summer 2015 Volunteer

Under the Ethereal Soda Skies

“Look at the sky. Have you ever seen so many stars before?

Is that a constellation?

Oh my, I think is.”

Zoya, Devika and I were walking back to the Dharamshala after an incredibly exhausting day, ranting as usual. It wasn’t too long before I looked up at the inky night sky and suddenly stopped both of them. What ensued was pin drop silence as we stared in absolute amazement at the diamond like stars that dotted every inch of that sky. I shall be clichéd and say that in that moment, I wasn’t bound by time or space or anything, for that matter. I felt infinite.

I’d like to think of Asmat as a divine intervention. I know how utterly ridiculous that sounds but I think it was written in my destiny. It was sometime in October when I received a message on one of the many Whatsapp groups that I am forced to be a part of (For once, I’m grateful for the app’s existence). The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. My parents would not see me lazing around the house aimlessly during the vacations and I would have something meaningful to do. It seemed like a win-win situation to me. So that’s where it all started. After a really grueling interview, I finally made it to Asmat’s winter volunteer program. I was so thrilled to see my name on the Facebook post that I would keep satisfying the narcissist within me by visiting the page each and every day.

Two days before my scheduled departure, I sat next to Maa and asked her if I was being stupid in going. It dawned on me that I didn’t know a single person and that I wasn’t famous for being sociable. I had always been an introvert and took time in adjusting to new people and environments. I obviously began hyperventilating and ran to the one person who makes me see sense in anything. She said only one thing to me, “Anna, you’re going there to make a difference to someone else’s life. As far as you’re concerned, I’m certain that you’ll be absolutely fine”. That did it and the next thing I knew, I was on the rickety bus to Soda. I can still envision the charged atmosphere of that bus ride. There was loud chattering occasionally interrupted by the merry tunes of Rajasthani music blaring on the radio. The roads were dusty but we volunteers had a crystal clear vision of what we had to and wanted to do.

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I can vividly picture the turn we took towards the village. We all heaved a sigh of relief upon seeing the signboard for Soda. The narrow road was flanked by acres of bright mustard fields on both sides. There was the sweet smell of wet mud and winter mist in the air. The sun was just setting and emanating warm colours that splashed across the sky. The whole sight was so mesmerising and welcoming that I finally decided to let my fears rest for once and for all. That evening, we took a walk along the reservoir and watched the sun disappear into nothingness. Everything around us was so still and quiet. This was quite unusual for us since the cities that we live in never sleep, quite literally. I even made a couple of friends and I consider that as a personal achievement. I remember speaking to everyone that day. The conversations never died and I had this warm fuzzy feeling inside me. I felt like I belonged.

Ten days is a long period of time but for once, they actually passed in a jiffy. There was so much energy around me. Never before had I spent so much time with a set of highly motivated individuals. Each and every one of us had the determination and the will to be the change.

Our days would mostly involve conducting surveys in the village and the surrounding hamlets. Each and every household that we visited ended up giving us a place in their hearts. The older women would chat with us about anything under the sun. They were inquisitive and wished to know about our lives in the city. In exchange, we were offered sweet, milky tea in little cups. Many of them would even ask us to stay on for lunch. It was very humbling.

In the evenings, we would play games with the little children and help them expend their energy in art and craft. Towards the end, I lost track of the number of children I ferried across the garden, as each one would demand a ‘piggy-back’ ride. As night fell, we would all sit around the square table and wolf down our dinner, famished because of all the hard work. Bablu bhaiyya’s ‘Lasan ki chutney’ was a staple and we had to coax him to part with the recipe.

Winter 2014

My stay in Soda consisted of umpteen packets of Maggi and Parle-g and endless cups of herbal tea (I brought back 5 bottles with me). We became friends with the local grocer who specially made ‘rabdi’ with relatively less sugar, just for us. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with ‘Ram-Ram’ and folded palms. I got so accustomed to this that I went about repeating this very gesture everywhere. All in all it was extremely grounding.

The only flip side of this whole experience was that I finally came to terms with the existing social realities of our country. There are so many dichotomies between urban and rural India and the gap is just widening. I won’t deny that technological advancement is making the village folk more aware of things. However, as a country, is increasing our GDP more important than the development of the masses? I’m no theorist or a specialist but as a conscientious citizen of this country, I feel that we’re not doing enough for the people in the grassroots.

Living in the city we make ourselves believe that the government is doing enough to support the needs of the people in rural India. Yes, there are government school and hospitals but there are hardly any teachers or doctors. Yes, the villagers have mobile phones and televisions but no concept of hygiene. They have the will to step out and study but they don’t have the adequate avenues. There are so many problems that villages in our country are grappling with. Who is supposed to address these issues? Who has the answers? Where is the accountability?

I came back from Soda as a changed person. My experience there was unparalleled to any other I’ve had in my life. I think the problem lies in the fact that we expect others to begin and are reluctant to be the ones to start. The winter volunteer program changed my life and I’ll always be indebted to it. It ignited a fire in my heart, one that is never going to extinguish. It will only burn brighter and stronger with time.

-Anahitha Sagar, Winter 2014 Volunteer and Core Team Member

A Silver Lining To Gold

There are some memories that one would never want to part with.

The day of our departure, when our shoes were well creased with the dust of Soda, I was struck by something that had been inevitable since day one. It was the revelation that not only were we taking away more than words can describe from the experience, we were leaving parts of ourselves behind as well.

Parts of ourselves, buried in the soil of the golden mustard fields, in the home of an elderly couple, in the magnificent sunset against the village reservoir, in the dregs of the herbal tea, in the smiles of the children and in countless warm crannies of village life- each one of us had broken a chunk of our lifted souls and irretrievably placed it in Soda.

It had begun with an online application and a telephonic interview. For someone who had zero experience with social work, it seemed like an unlikely possibility to actually be accepted as a volunteer for the Asmat Winter Program. A month and a half later, in the early days of December, I was on a bus from Jaipur to the village, forming part of a fourteen member contingent which was brimming with giddy excitement.

The day after our arrival, we kicked off surveys regarding the effectiveness of the pension scheme across the different hamlets. Rows and rows of houses lay for us to delve into, and with each home came a different story. We were shy at first and fumbled slightly, but soon, they let us in, and not just to their houses.

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Stories were shared with us, life stories; human behavior was on naked display in the life-sized peanut of a survey sheet. There was a woman whose dupatta kept slipping off to expose her bare breasts while she shrieked out unintelligible answers to our hesitant questions. We could only avert our eyes, we couldn’t close our ears to her agony, and it was with great restraint that we reduced her tirade into short and concise options on the questionnaire. But what stayed with us for days after was the ache in her voice and not her age, income, or marital status.

There was a man who had water boiling for tea as soon as Devika and I greeted him. We always, always politely declined offers for tea or food, but this gentleman simply would not let us go without. On hearing that we hailed from his beloved Dilli, he honored us by telling us his story as a construction worker at IGI Airport and how, during his tenure, he had been the owner of a 24/7 pass to the airport which had been a privilege that even the President of India could not match.

As we spoke to him, his worn out face never ceased to smile, and the warmth and cheerfulness that radiated from him that warm winter day, in his humble village abode, remains unparalleled.

We worked with the men in the village on governance issues and imparted basic menstrual knowledge to the women, apart from teaching in the schools and entertaining the kids with games and art in the evenings. One short session with young girls in the Ramjipura hamlet revealed to us their hopes, aspirations and fears which spoke volumes of the insecurity and restrictions they faced every single day. It was an intense exchange as we encouraged them to grow up as strong, capable and educated women who could stand on their own two feet.

On our final day, we reveled in satisfying exhaustion as we walked from hamlet to hamlet, performing the street play we’d come up with from scratch. Cutting across fields and walking along the river bank, we watched a jet shoot through the magnificent sky, leaving behind a cloudy trail that reflected in the iridescent water below.

The village reservoir is now a vast, giving structure that was apparently little more than a pond five years ago, before Chhavi Rajawat came into power. It is a stunning sight at all times of the day and at dusk is positively ethereal. How could something founded on so basic a need, look so very beautiful? Maybe that is the silver lining to gold.

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Soda was a place where we pushed ourselves, constantly inspired by the people around us. It was a place where a child showed up at our doorstep with bagful of peanuts simply because word had gotten out that one of us was craving some. It was a place where Ram Ram was uttered to every person we crossed in the street, where chai and food was forced upon us in every hamlet we surveyed, regardless of how much our hosts had for their own needs. It was a place where we saw tangible hope glimmer in the people’s eyes for a better life, where we were witness to the sea change which Sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat has brought upon her ancestral village- which is an entire story in itself.

Days in Soda were productive, and the evenings sublime. One of the moments I cherish the most was the first night our gazes found the sky.

One by one, our lowly anxieties were dispelled, to be replaced by collective awe at the stars above. Now, as I reflect on that moment, I realise that it wasn’t just the stars that were clearer in Soda; so was everything else.

That place taught us how insignificant we really were, and it challenged us to try our best to make our efforts felt. As volunteers in that village, we were single droplets of oil drowning in a sea of fluoride rich water, and we were trying desperately to make our ripple count. Only time will tell if it truly did.

There are some memories that one would never want to part with.

For me, the entirety of Soda Village, 9th December to 20th December 2014, is one of them.

-Zoya Chadha, Winter 2014 Volunteer and Core Team Member

The Dancing Mustard Fields and Other Memories

Flipping through the pages of my memory, I can but recollect my cherished moments from Soda which had seemed at the outset to be another volunteering programme but added an incredible experience to my life.

We finally reached Soda after a 2 hour journey from Jaipur full of dusty roads and haranguing sandstorms. However, the never ending mustard fields visible from the window pane, the gleaming sun, the clear unpolluted sky, half-reaped furrows and gentle wind filled us with contentment as we entered the village. The bright sun bestowed coruscating sunshine at noon inviting the ‘Bindinis’ to work on the farms, only to be paralleled by the beauty of the sunset as it simmers down the chaos of the day.

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I did not imagine during my time in Soda that little moments like Shalu’s naughtiness, Kailash ji’s dislike of eating maggie over her chapatis and Motiyar kaka’s warm gesture of letting me wear his Safa would leave me with uncountable memories worth cherishing for the rest of my life.

Our work comprised conducting a social audit on the pension schemes under the National Social Assistance Program in the village, which envelops those unable to earn a livelihood; the elderly, disabled and widowed. The surveys were unexpectedly eye-opening and staggering which made us ponder again and again.

The village is divided into 8 hamlets where we conducted surveys regarding the functionality of the scheme. We also held interactive sessions on governance & gender issues. Ramjipura was one of those hamlets,  a 5 km walk away. The road framed by boundless dancing mustards without a living soul in sight offered us quite some interesting encounters.We were able to conduct governance session and surveys smoothly due to the perceptive audience. We were privileged to be a part of the grand celebration held on the occasion of birth of a girl child. This hamlet uplifted our hearts and minds.

While we conducted hectic surveys and governance session on the core functions of the Panchayat so as to be authoritative investigators in the day, the evenings were full of the giggles of kids playing in turn reviving our old childhood memories.

We were fortunate enough to meet those children; the amazing souls made cards for the innocent ones who had lost their lives in Peshawar. They filled their dreams’ colours in those 6 inches of paper, managing brilliantly, to convey the message of peace and harmony across the border.

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In Soda, I felt like man has become a mere run-down machine who has no time to acknowledge nature’s beauty and peace. I firmly believe that women are the ones that can surprise you with their intellect and diligence. The women of the village could be found working hard under the scorching sunlight. They were truly surprising in this regard; aware of hygiene and health issues, they demanded schools for their daughters and broke the taboos of menses and chose family planning. Indeed, in the village, I was able to see how each woman is worthy of applaud.

The memory of long walks; admiring the scenic beauty, the peace of village life away from the noise of the capital still refreshens me. Waking up bright and early with the hope of exploring something new, and hitting the sheets with heavy eyes which were due to endless talks with new friends.

One would never like to surrender those fond memories of the 10 days. Merely penning down the experiences of the winter project under Asmat, transported me back to the village where the day began with aroma of herbal tea reviving our senses and pumping in new hopes for the day. The dal bati churma, literally flavoured with utter love acted as a stress buster. The friendly folk with their interesting gossips, lingering on the streets of Jaipur, purchasing the products made by the SHGs, resting on the dewy grass recollecting all day’s work with a strong sense of satisfaction  and happiness.

This was truly a  learning experience where every moment was a celebration .

– Aashi Srivastava, Winter 2014 Volunteer and Core Team Member

Of Cold Feet and Mutual Lessons

It’s rather funny (now) how I look back at the Asmat volunteering program and laugh at how I had cold feet two days before boarding the train to Jaipur, because of numerous reasons whose quantum inhibits their description. So whence we (Sakshi Bansal and yours truly) arrived in Soda dripping in sweat and found Lavanya and Abhilasha seeming a little delusional (because of the heat?) my worst expectations seemed to be confirmed.

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Possibly because I’m a little scared of children (one of the many reasons for cold feet), the evening  session daunted me. We were introduced to the kids, and a session of Hangman , more like Sparta, took place. What struck me was how clever all of them were and competitive. Sadly, what also struck me was how the girls were subdued by the boys whose energy and numbers seemed to be overwhelming the girls.

The next morning, teaching began and was it a tough task for someone who hasn’t taught little kids ever before. Teaching little children, who inherently have the attention span of rabbits who’ve been made to drink Red Bull, really makes you understand incentivising.  Promises of toffees and stars and stickers, invoking their competitive spirit, teaching with blocks and pictures and animal sounds, everything was tried and tested including the teachers themselves. Nothing will ever beat the smile on their faces when they answered questions right and the smile on our faces when we realise they actually grasped what was being taught. What really excited me was passing down what I’d been taught during my schooldays to kids I was meeting for the first time and whose lives were quite different from mine, and yet they felt the same happiness at understanding a mathematical concept or pronouncing a word right that I did too.

It wasn’t solely academics that we wanted to work with them on, we wanted to teach them things that aren’t inculcated in their textbooks. Respect for women to the boys, confidence despite being brought up in a patriarchal society to the girls. A respect for the environment despite the fact that many in India would readily (and justifiably) trade away the grasslands and forests for a good occupation. Teaching them to respect their own village when we, a bunch of outsiders, conducted a cleanliness drive. Teaching them to not be cruel to the animals in their surroundings with the example of our little friend erstwhile Maggi G, (now named Mango and under the care of the Sarpanch.) I could write an essay on the mutual benefits reaped, the way we could see a could change in the kids and the way I could feel a change in my own little city brain.

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(Happy to tell you that the parental unit is also elated at the lessons I seem to have learnt; eating lauki without disgust, travelling by public transport without cribbing and waking up at 7.30 am everyday.)

Working with the village girls was a major chunk of what formed my lessons in Soda. A bunch of quiet, unassuming and clever 15-20 year olds, bonding with them was probably the easiest. We were introduced to them during a session on menstrual education on my first, they were too quiet and we were a little worked up by the one sided interaction. By the end of my eighteen days, their aloofness had been traded for happy banter and warmth and we were literally a part of their group. We discussed many issues with them, the one that remains deeply embedded is a session on career awareness that we had. Many of the girls had resigned themselves to the fact that they possibly couldn’t pursue further studies after school or an undergrad from the nearby big town. But some were resolute, someone had started her own beauty parlour and was also giving the UPSC exams, another was surely becoming a doctor. It’s not going to be easy, possibly improbable, for the former category to get the career they want. But they might be able to get some financial security by learning some skills, for the sole purpose of having this financial independence when they see the others and the planting of the very idea through discussion.

The power of juxtaposition, of understanding the complexities of village life bought about inequalities; simply getting electricity, walking two km a day to get water, not having a profitable market to sell the products you’ve toiled on and patriarchy embedded into the minds of people against ours. Back to the city, it’s kind of horrible here when I miss how long the days in Soda were (why is this a real cliche?) and the simplicity of people and swinging Kuldeep every evening and the long walks around the village. It really won’t be a visit to work in the village from now on, just a trip to meet people we know and carry on the discussions and mutual lessons we began.

– Kavya Saxena, Secretary and Co-Founder

My Eight Days of Infinity

As I boarded an early morning train to Jaipur with Kavya, I realised I would not be allowed a nap by an inquisitive (and quite loud) little fellow passenger. I started reflecting on the journey we had set to begin and the destination we aimed to reach, Soda. I remember being excited about this journey as soon as I knew that I was part of the Asmat Summer Program in Soda. The excitement grew with each passing day until it reached a level where giving Delhi University Semester Examinations could not come across as a slower process. Thus there I was, just 4-5 hours away from Soda, anticipating meeting children as inquisitive as the little one behind me and hoped I would be as witty in my replies as his mother was.

Much more than excited, I felt rather fortunate to be a part of this Program. At a time when a growing proportion wishes to bring about a change in society and is looking for opportunities to do so, my friends were initiating their own NGO, commendable in its own right. By sitting in our comfortable urban spaces we cannot even identify the real challenges faced by rural India, let alone trying to devise solutions to them. Asmat, by aiming to engage at the grassroots level in its pilot summer program, enabled me to take a small yet significant step forward in the path of bringing about impending developments.

I must admit that amidst the excitement and anticipation, I also felt certain pangs of anxiety and fear. This would be my first experience away from home for this long a duration. Adding to it was the fact that we were going to an equally hot place and the temperature was only to soar in the coming days.

However, this anxiety was shortlived. As soon as we reached Soda, the heat was subsided by the warmth with which we were welcomed by the Soda-vaasis. All the children, women and men greeted us with great affection whenever they met us. Maasaa, Bauji (Sarpanch’s parents) and Sarpanch Rajawat herself remained immensely caring and thoughtful of all our needs throughout our stay at their place.

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Our mornings began with teaching the children, who used to come running towards the Sarpanch’s house with their lit-up faces. The number of children, who came to study early in the morning, specially in their summer vacations, was an overwhelming one. Some of them were in Soda on a trip to their cousins’ home, some had to walk a distance to get there- yet nothing could beat their punctuality and enthusiasm which they beamed with everyday. While teaching the primary school students, nothing seems tougher in the world than making a child learn alphabets. And after days of repeating and re-repeating (yes, this word existed in practice) alphabets, when they finally get it, there seems no greater accomplishment. Teaching truely is a noble profession.

Evenings brought with them a different (or the true) face of these apparent disciplined and keen-on-learning children. As soon as they were divided into teams to play Hangman, Dog in the Bone or ANY other game, the tension, heat and mood of our young players escalated quickly, enough to match that of Indian and Pakistani cricketers in the Eighties (even today? Yes!). After some sessions, we were concerned about the girls being easily subdued and spoken to in a condescending tone by the boys. With simultaneous gender sessions, extra teaching sessions for the girls, encouraging girls’ to speak during classes and other planned and unplanned activities, we were able to instil some sense of self-worth and confidence among the young girls of Soda. It gave us a sense of satisfaction to see these girls open up day after day as they turned from being meek and passive to being vocal of their career goals, coaxing us to teach them a dance form and subsequently displaying all their competitiveness in the evening activity sessions.

As I left Soda, I realised I had been there for eight days only. Yet, these numbered days, each one of them, stretched into infinity. Such was the effect of the peaceful surroundings, vast outstretched fields and breathtaking sunsets of Soda that I was actually dumbfounded at the sight of several moving cars on the roads of Jaipur.

As I bid farewell to the rest of the team, hugged a few good wishes and cried a few tears of separation, I never felt so complete and incomplete at the same time. Complete because I had experienced the most incredible eight days of my life at Soda: I had learnt more than I had taught, caught sight of the majestic peacock dancing in its full glory, gazed at the fault-less stars endlessly, slept under them and had been a part of this rising that Asmat stands for. However it felt incomplete, because my eight-day-infinity had come to an end.

– Sakshi Bansal, Summer 2014 Volunteer and Head Team Member

The Initiation of Asmat

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August 13 , 2013 : Kavya and I are sitting at “My Kind of street Cafe” a recluse , off the road, eating joint in Kailash Colony, New Delhi, frequented by girls (women?) studying at Lady Shri Ram College. We, aren’t any different. Our discussion that day however is. It is not often that you find two 19 year olds conversing about bringing together young people to work in a village. It is common though that in such circumstances all variants of the interrogative inhabit one’s mind; how, what, when, where, who et cetera. From that moment on as naturally as we had supposedly indulged in ‘things LSR girls do,’ we let our minds be consumed by questions that have shaken up the state of any man (woman) housing an idea.

27 May, 2014 (Week 1 with Asmat Team Members in Soda): The children are here, before we’ve even woken up. As I make my way downstairs I am mentally preparing an apology speech. As I apologise profusely for being late and suggest that we fix a punishment of sorts if either party is late, my speech is met with giggles. They perhaps aren’t used to a teacher being apologetic for being late in the slightest.

June 1, 2014 (Volunteer Program officially kicks off as we receive the volunteers in Jaipur): I know we make a minuscule proportion of the 1.2 billion population of this country, but even so. After months of planning, laying bare the realities, facing cynicism and appreciation in one breath, we found ourselves in a bus with 14 young and driven individuals, organizing Asmat’s pilot volunteer program in Soda village. Who knew that what would follow would be the two most incredible weeks of my life – mentally and physically, emotionally and intellectually; individually and collectively.

6 June 2014 : Since the past three days I have been teaching Payal, Ankit and Yuvraj the meaning of alphabets, words and sentences. I have used up every way I could think of to teach them the same. If tomorrow they don’t remember it, I don’t know what I will do!

8 June 2014 : As I am struggling to remain calm in the Rajasthan Roadways bus, on my way back to Soda from our day out to Jaipur, in the heat, in the noise I have an epiphany of sorts- a realisation of how chaotic this country of ours is and how far away our usual lives are from this chaos.

15 June 2014 : A lot has been accomplished, a lot of friends have been made, a lot of connections woven, a lot of memories made.

The peacocks dancing, the stars in the night sky, the intolerable heat of the day followed by the anticipation of rain at night, the genuine love showered upon us by the villagers, the people I met – volunteers and villagers alike, the children I taught, the girls I hoped to have given a sense of self – adjectives to describe all that I experienced during my three weeks in Soda elude me. Only a thought keeps coming back, a phrase rather, stemming from a quote that goes, ”What’ and ‘if’ are two words as non-threatening as words come. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: ‘What if?’”

What if that day at My Kind of Street Cafe we hadn’t taken the leap of faith.

– Lavanya Garg, President and Co-Founder

An Idea Whose Time Has come

Summer 2014, end of May to mid-June

Temperatures in Delhi are soaring, peaking at 47 degrees celsius. The obvious solution to this brain-numbing heat wave? Go to Rajasthan, of course! It’s only a little hotter there.There’s always a method to madness, and the reason that 9 college students would traipse across Rajasthan in the middle of Indian summer has just 5 letters: ASMAT. An NGO started by a group of students at Lady Shri Ram College, ASMAT aims to bring about youth involvement at the grassroots level of the country. Since ASMAT’s inception in October 2013, it had been working towards its pilot Volunteer Program in Soda Village, Rajasthan. After months of interaction with Soda’s Sarpanch, the eminent Ms. Chhavi Rajawat, lots of research, field work and choosing from hundreds of volunteer applications, ASMAT began the Volunteer Program in Soda this summer.

ASMAT’s prep team arrived at Soda ten days before the program started to make sure all the arrangements were in place for the volunteers. Work began immediately, and meetings were arranged with the self-help groups, women’s groups (Anganwadi Karyakartas) and the children. It was quite a wake-up call for us the next morning when the children arrived at 6:30am sharp for their session, and at 7:30am, we were still groggy. Hasty apologies and promises of future “punissment!” were meted out, and we began the first of many wonderful morning sessions with the children. The days are incredibly hot, so we would begin work early in the morning, and stay indoors during the day. We looked forward to the evening walks with the girls of the village, and they showed us their homes, the temple and the reservoir.

Summer2014_Girlswomen

We interacted closely with the women and young adolescent girls, and laid the groundwork upon which the volunteers would be working. Sessions with the Self Help Groups producing Spices were conducted, the ‘Spices of Soda’ women who produced hand-made organic red chilli powder, turmeric powder and coriander leaf power. We helped them with the costing of their products, to ensure that they benefited at least marginally from their efforts. In addition to this, we had personal sessions with adolescent girls and women about female hygiene, and with the help of some interactive videos, we provided menstrual awareness and dispelled some myths about menstruation that were prevalent in the village areas. Sessions with women about financial literacy and prudence with money and savings were also conducted, and evening recreational sessions with the children comprised very serious and competitive games of Hangman, Kabaddi, Dog-and-the-bone, Kho-Kho and Ghoda badam chai. Our team members played bravely, but were thwarted by the children, and each step after the games reminded our aching muscles of lack of exercise.

After just a few days spent interacting with everyone in Soda, we were no longer outsiders. We were “didis”, and the children and adults alike treated us like one of their own. The heat of the days were nothing compared to the warmth and hospitality we received from them. At the inauguration of the local Shiv Mandir, we all went to pig out at the “bhog” (communal meal prepared and served by the locals), and we were served by the little boys who we taught each morning, and they were delighted to see us there. Despite being stuffed to bursting, we were asked to visit the homes of the villagers and were served even more food there. Needless to say, we answered nature’s call several times over the night. After the week of “pre-program-prep” concluded, we welcomed the volunteers on the 1st of June, and from that point onwards, the real work began. ASMAT’s pilot volunteer program concluded on the 15th of June, and it was a success. Sarpanch Rajawat truly appreciated the efforts that these young people made; baby steps towards development at the grassroots level.

The most incredible part of the experience at Soda was that every person was open and receptive to learning and change for the better, villagers and volunteers alike. The volunteers arrived as strangers with a common goal, and left as family. Though this program was but a small stepping stone in a vast sea of change, it had impact: It changed a mindset. It gave someone the impetus to study. It gave a household a reason to send their girls to school. It made a child learn about the importance of teamwork. It made a mother realize that her child will have a better future that she did. It planted the small seed of an idea, and nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

-Abhilasha Sinha, Founding Member