“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.
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.
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