Last year, I hopped across continents, travelled for miles into the hinterlands of India, and discovered life sans any pretension. I constantly shifted gears going from one extreme to another and I can say with certainty it has been an incredible experience! I walked through the corridors of five star hotels in the national capital where big decisions and the future of BRICS was being decided, and lived in wage-seekers’ huts in the remote Telengana tribal belt of Andhra Pradesh; of having choices of cuisines and mineral water to finding myself without any access to potable water and electricity for days; of meeting elites with significant power and listening to their take on development to understanding how it has completely failed for those towards whom it is directed; of listening about people who are quoted as numbers as part of India’s growth story to actually meeting them and realising how we have completely failed them; And still how they have completely left me in awe with their resilience and enterprising spirit.
It was exasperating in the beginning. Things appear black and white to us when we debate them on social media, where everybody talks to nobody and everybody is a ring side critic. Random opinions float on theories and perceived notions of development policies and politics. Ofcourse, we all are entitled to our opinions, except we are not entitled to choose for others and decide what is best for them or how they should or should not be! But for the countless millions living in the hinterlands, that is the reality. Choices are made, decisions are taken and solutions are provided for them. Did they have a say in them? I doubt it. Were these projected as seminal best practices in national and international conferences? Yes. Has anything changed for them? No. I was left bewildered.
I decided to dig deeper, share meals and their lives. I realised it is easy to have opinions, it is way too difficult and overwhelming when one experiences them. I celebrated feminism and gender empowerment with women of Jehanabad village in Bihar, who managed whole work-sites and money by themselves, ensuring their girl child goes to school. I applauded innovative methods of teaching primary school children in Kanker village of Chattisgarh where teachers devoted special time to give wings to children’s imagination. I congratulated bureaucrats who worked tirelessly to ensure scrupulous implementation of policies that affect millions in Bastar village of Chattisgarh. I was humbled by the resilience of sex workers in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh who relentlessly pursued the ‘system’ to demand accountability for their basic citizenship rights. I learnt from enterprising and meticulous ladies of Lohardaga village of Jharkhand working round the clock to develop sustainable livelihoods for their fellow villagers. I worked with aspirational youth of Peddemul village in Andhra Pradesh who are raring to push limits and actually be part of India’s growth story. I experienced camaraderie of hindus-muslims in Ghanpur Village of Warangal sharing coffee and conversations in the evening in their courtyard.
Most of these villages are part of India’s red corridor or Naxal belt, and I was quite circumspect to venture into those terrains. It did not take me time to learn their codes, and navigate but what amazed me more was the progressive outlook of indigenous people, their customs, colourful life and celebrations, much more than I have experienced in metros like Delhi.
I wonder, when we all find happiness and purpose in similar things in lives, how does it become about us and them and who is better and more equipped to choose for the others. I am yet to find the answer. I am yet to understand why the usual discussions miss out on the fine balance of life here – on their resilience, love, aspirations and spirit of enterprise that I have come across. I have received countless invitations to come back and share more meals, tea and coffees and their lives. Here life is without pretension and love is ordinary and overpowering. Come to think of it, they never really lived far from me. I just had to find them…
– Akansha Yadav