A Many Splendoured Thing

I believe I and indeed all human beings are work-in-progress. We are programmed undoubtedly by what we inherit, what has marked the first years of our life, but at some point, we start to make choices – what do I want, what do others expect of me, how much do I want to go with that, where do I want to go and what makes me happy. It is equally about what we don’t want- the life that I don’t want to live, the people I don’t want to associate with, the work that doesn’t excite me , the place I don’t want to live in. Though there are no water-tight formulae but mostly we know what to pick up, what to shed and how much and when. If this mechanism is in working order, then really there is no need to worry about one’s own life or that of others who one is connected to and concerned about.

Four years is a fair chunk of life of an adult whether it be in the personal or professional sphere. I have spent this in NC first as a consultant then as a full time employee. I am now moving on, rather moving back to an organisation that has nurtured me, that stands for a space, a platform for the voices of marginalised sections to be reflected through the mainstream media to the policy makers to take note and yes, to take action. A daunting task but deeply needed in our and any society or polity.

Let me begin with what I am taking away as I bid adieu to New Concept to return to my Alma Mater… let me see, the first thing that comes to my mind is Energy, an indefatigable yet exuberant kind of Energy. No matter what there is, what there isn’t, no matter what needs to be achieved, how far one is from it, how high the mountain is or how deep the ocean can be, the NC fellow plunges in, headlong. Others join in, sometimes even without waiting to be asked! Come what may, you swim ashore, despite unreasonable clients, crazy work schedules, tight timelines, impossible deadlines. Probably one of the scariest scenarios is when you don’t know a fig about the subject, or the region or the activity you are about to get into and expected to come out with flying colours. More often than not, you do rise to the expectations.

What can be the reason for this, I wonder, I really do. If I can put one word to it, I think it is Trust. You get it from your peers, your supervisors, your managers, your directors. It’s saying, I picked you, I like you, and I believe in you and think you have potential. So just go out there and do it. And what is unsaid is, “….and God Help You if you don’t, Amen”. In such a situation, actually not even God can help you. So you learn to slog your way through, slug it out, hang in there and ultimately prevail… and what a feeling that is!

There is also a tacit trust by those who hold the highest charge in NC. This is a subtle one, and you can miss it completely, if you get caught in the hurly-burly and we know there’s a lot of that here, all the time. I’d say you have to be still to feel it, to reflect on it. And sure they don’t make it obvious –they don’t have halos and they mingle like common mortals. You may be fooled into thinking that you are like them – but you have to remember that this is so because they’ve decided to be nice about it. Let me share with you a yardstick that applies to me, perhaps it may apply to you as well. If I can imbibe one hundredth and this is a very conservative estimate I’m setting, one hundredth of what drives them, what forms their vison, their values, the breadth and depth of their experience and insights –then I’d consider myself fortunate and my time here well worth it. But that will unfold by and by in my life….

What is comforting is that that even though it is you doing all the acrobatics, you know there is a watchful eye, helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, to reach out to, a sympathetic ear and most important a party waiting to happen all the time! This is the ultimate stress –buster dissolving all tension, bickering, mind-blocks, body-blocks, everything. Shared work is a great leveler and work done, well… there is no high quite like it!

Joining the NC Documentation team after years in grassroots media was like a world turned turtle. Used to an unfettered way of working, spontaneous linking with people on the ground and slightly more careful cultivation of media contacts- the work came together in an unstructured fashion, infect its strength lay in that. At NC, documentation was all about following a Structure. Much like the Russian Doll that had many small and smaller still dolls in its belly, the Structure gave way to the Approach, and then the Strategy, Process and final – the Takeaways, Recommendations and just when you think you’ve wrapped it up, -out pops Sustainability. I found that Case Studies and Verbatims- were more for sprinkling on this main course whereas in my earlier avataar, writing was based solely on what people said, felt, what you imbibed, the feel of the situation – which formed the main body- and the other stuff – data, policy info, national regional trends etc. formed the outer framework. It was like seeing an inverse image and the shift from spontaneity to structure was a difficult one for me….

But this is exactly what made me move out of my comfort zone and hit a hard road, that I then decided to stay on and see where it takes me. Gradually I saw that I was picking up, assimilating things which otherwise would not have been part of my consciousness. And began to enjoy the different perspective I now had. Before NC, I had no clue of what analytical documentation was about – to delve deep deeper still into social issues, development projects- what makes them tick – how have the planners planned it, strategists strategised it and implementers, how they are carrying it forward.

All this was strange to me and the strangest of all were the Checklists. Meticulous, detailed questions, queries of what to ask, whom and sometimes in different ways, all duly noted down. I was used to field work with five basic questions and weave the interaction around it. In my first tryst with these Checklists I didn’t know whether to make eye contact with the NGO head I was interviewing or with the checklists – it felt like the Checklists were trying to vie for my eye-contact space! Enough I decided, then for the next round, crammed the Checklists the previous night and just shot off the questions at the NGO head next day. It worked like a charm!

Then there was Workshop Documentation. As a documenter you are privy to some of the most stimulating dialogues and debates in the development sector, hear the words of luminaries from different fields of social activism, the government, academia et al. Discourses on gender, social inclusion, financial inclusion and status of women, it was a vast rich area. Only you had to pinch yourself and remember not to get swayed by the discussion, listen in awe and forget to write. But you also had to understand or how then can you expand on your hurried notings later? So it’s a bit like a juggler – you listen, write, understand, assimilate all together in whichever mix you want. But yes it can be a riveting experience.

I must say it was the strangeness of the world that drew me in. But I came to realise that it is the same pool of information, of words, of experiences that you can use to create myriad forms of documentation- depending on what the focus is, what the client wants, who the audience is and what its main message is. I had to remind myself that what you write needs to be filtered through a lens that reflects the document’s objective, of why it needs to exist in the first place.

Coming back to what I am taking away. Well firstly it’s that human beings count and that they can be counted upon. It’s not as if NC is a land of milk and honey, everything, every bit of it has been put together with literally blood, sweat and tears, not sparing oneself, and not sparing others, dogged effort day after day, year after year and now into decades. So everything has a value, but above it all is the value for each human being, be it the founder of the organisation or the intern who joined yesterday. Be it the mighty or the meek. It is remarkable that such a world has been created, has withstood and will surely forge ahead.

Secondly it tells you to be happy. It says to you, we have a small pool resource, but want to share what we have, and we want you to be happy. Not to say don’t aspire, please do, but also take others along with you. It’s not about you alone, your achievement, your rewards but that of everyone around you, each of whom has probably played a part in what you think is your achievement alone. This is humbling and not very comfortable for those who like to hog the limelight, corner the acclaim and grab the goodies, as it were. Yes that is one thing that NC teaches you and for those who have already learned, reinforces it, in fact quite drills it into you – Be humble and for those who still resist, there are countless ways to skin the cat! Suffice to say all the ways are friendly, not fierce…. okay maybe friendly-ly fierce or perhaps fiercely friendly, whatever but more often than not, the recalcitrant fellow comes around. In fact I don’t think there’s been anyone who has not succumbed to the collective charms (read onslaught) of the team!

Well that’s quite a lot. Now for my own journey that brought me here, made me stay and now is taking me elsewhere. Let me try and share where I come from. In a nutshell, I’d say that my background is quite eclectic. I don’t see myself as coming from a typical kind of family, having a particular kind of upbringing, mixing with one kind or few kinds of people, this kind of study or that kind of career or a set sort of goal. There has always been room for many view-points, differing life-styles, priorities, preferences, loyalties, beliefs that were reflected in the diverse mix of human beings and influences that my life seems to be made up of.

Although my immediate family held and committed themselves to very clear social and political goals, there was no imposition of these on me or anyone else who became part of my wide circle. One was free to pick, discard, question or adopt to the extent and according to the time that suited the person. The sense of belonging to one particular group, cultural, social, regional, educational or professional eludes me, still. Yet I inherit a larger sense of the family, a world view in which many possibilities and alternatives can co-exist and in which no one is less than the other. If I subscribe to anything at all it is to this humanistic vision. This is my virasat.

Translated into inter-personal relationships, I find it futile to cast people, situations, events into slots, to pass a judgement that reinforces any pre-dated, pre-conceived mind-set that I may have held onto till then. On the contrary, with every interaction, every experience, I find that I change, expand, become a slightly different person and revisit the mould ever so often.
For this, NC has given me ample scope to not only observe, and imbibe everything all around me, but to discover myself. Too many things perhaps but one of the bigger things I’ve learned is that every person has a particular capability/ies. It is unique to that person. What makes it go is to allow the person to recognise it, draw it out, polish it…. on and on and on till it shines. This is good not only for his/her sense of worth, confidence and creativity but for the organisation as well. By building individual strengths, the organisational strength get built and in diverse ways.

Another learning is to look the person in the eye and state in clear uncertain terms what is required to be done, when it is required and what is acceptable. The tables can be turned as often they are and it is you who is being looked at straight in the eye and told all those things. Then of course there is the charm of the Gentle Reminder, the pat on the back, and just to lighten the atmosphere an old joke which you have heard a million times, a pun that has been doing the rounds ever since you have, the compliment on how ravishing you look and the disarming smile that can throw you off the track completely. The final question, often gently asked, even murmured, “By When” is when all your alarm bells should start ringing, sound the bugle, bring up the draw-bridge, and get into war-zone. Or burn the midnight oil, sing, take a cold shower, go for a run, meditate, do yoga, whatever but Complete the Task! Perform or Perish!

My perception of time has also changed. I have been used to committing time, energy, resources based on what the other person or the situation or event demands. This was a dictum in my personal sphere and all the professional spheres I’d been associated with. This seemed to work well. All efforts and energies would dove-tail within what one set out as a reasonable time-frame and that is why one is still around and has not been written off!

Not at NC though. Here time acquired a different dimension-broken down into many man-days or man-hours allotted to this or that task, It went totally against my grain, but I struggled to understand it and even align with it. What I have learned in the process though is not so much the mechanics of time-management but the principles behind it. I learned that Time is at a Premium here, but so is human effort, expertise, specialised skills et al. Of course we know we should respect all of these resources but what I also learned is to Optimise and Conserve. This is, I believe, something that the world badly needs today in any human, social, ecological, developmental endeavour. So in that sense if we practice it in our lives, homes, workplaces, we are actually aligning and perhaps even contributing to the larger principle.

Another learning is the Magic of Food- sweet, salty, savories, drippy, fried, baked, fresh, fruity, marinated, chilly, cold, tossed, gourmet, pongal anything, everything, anytime, everytime. The mantra for success, happiness, camaraderie, peace is –food, food and more food! It gives you a new start, fresh energy, but that is only after you get over your slumber of eating too many things too fast and sometimes even forgetting to even breathe in your desire to down all at once! It is strange though that the Food Festival always, but always starts off, on a very civilised note, proper table, cutlery, napkins even, till the food actually comes, everyone drools and then it is mayhem. All voices of dissent or complaint are downed in the din of “Hey, I want more” or “Is it already finished” or “Did you NOT try that sweet dish” and if you have not then, “It was to die for, next time maybe”, followed by an impish grin or if one is feeling particularly catty, then a shrug of the shoulder. This scene marks all occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, joining days, leaving days et al.

Although not quite in the same way, the mayhem marks the arrival of the team member from the field, all of whom under strict orders by self-styled foodie managers to bring local goodies from whichever part of the country they go for training, pre-testing, documentation, client meetings, holiday anything that takes you out of Delhi. This means mithai, mixture, kachoris, biscuits, khakra, home-made litti chokhas grace the work tables ever so often. There is another variation, one which burns a hole in the pockets of all. Saturdays is when all logic of good health, calorie counting, cholesterol, diabetes, heart, liver, kidney, blood, good skin, everything is suspended. The focus is to order junk, unhealthy food from a large number of outlets for whom NC provides probably a fourth of their monthly profits. A glazed look comes into the eyes of even the most seasoned professional as soon as the clock strikes one. Then frenzied furtive glances at each other, waiting breathlessly for the phone to ring from the reception, the growls in the stomach and throat getting more and more audible, and everything else going into soft-focus…. till that magical tinkle of the phone, grabbed by one and listened to by all. Sounds like sweet music, that dry, unemotional voice of the uninvolved non-foodie at the other end, “Khana Aaa Gaya”. The Saturday ritual is a conversation stopper, possibly the glue that makes the team stick together through rough times.

On a more serious note, what do I take away at this juncture when I have opted for the smaller, more insecure, challenging (in a different way) place that has everything to do with what excluded, marginalised communities are saying to policy makers, through channels of communication that are not in place but have to be constantly found, nurtured and even wooed to cater to people or issues that otherwise would fall off the map.

I think it is a belief that honesty, transparency, grit and hard work will ultimately prevail, it will open up a chink that can lead to a flow, a stream even a gushing river. It’s also that human beings no matter what need to believe in themselves, stick together, be joyous and invest their energies, affection and creativity into other people with whom they share space and a chunk of their lives. This is what I guess is truly meant by a biradari, not necessarily based on blood ties, family bonds or societal set-ups but one based on a shared dream, a common commitment, of walking the path together and arriving together.

There is a concept in the Vedic scriptures, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam that says “Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.” I believe NC is trying to live by this concept in our modern, materialistic technology-crazed, dehumanised and divisive world. Between making profits and ensuring that human beings are cared for– is a tight-rope walk, undoubtedly. I believe NC is making a valiant attempt to do that. I have no illusions that it will ever cease to be a tight-rope walk. It may veer sometimes to this side, at times to the other, but in the main, I hope NC will stay the course, in fact I am sure it will. I believe this is what makes this organisation unique and worthy in more ways than one. I think this is what I carry with me as I say goodbye.

By Sujata Raghavan

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