A Silver Lining to Gold
Updated: Feb 26, 2019
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.
By Zoya Chadha, Winter 2014 Volunteer
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.
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.
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.
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.