By Jenny Rivett
Women. Gender rights. Equality. Liberation. The men will sit on chairs and the women on the floor and you, my friend, will have to bite your sexually liberated 3rd wave feminist tongue.
A house with two brothers. A few days before I was to leave the Malinda household, up on a quiet rooftop, I recounted my first thoughts when I heard that short description of my future host home; two brothers hmm, I suppose I will be ignored, there will be no eye contact, no discussion, there will be a lock on my door after everything they’ve warned us about, always a dupatta, maybe I’ll have to do the cleaning and the cooking, but all in all it’s going to be hard, the coldness from the male members of the family will be hard. Why on earth have they put us in a house with brothers? This admission came with interruptions of incredulous laughter from both me and my host brother, who in turn described his first reaction to seeing me and my counterpart on this very rooftop; he wanted to run away as quickly, and as far as possible. Was the apprehension I felt a product of my own pessimism, or of the warnings and teachings I had been given by not just the programme, but by the media, and its power to influence my ignorance of Indian culture? I remember my angst and disappointment over the initial lack of information on the projects, was there a gender-based project? And my presumptions that I wouldn’t feel motivated by anything other than a gender-based project.
I have always been stumped by the ‘problem’ of being drawn to, inspired, and intrigued by too many things, stopping me from being able to identify my one passion, the one thing that drives me, the one thing I can dedicate my brain and my energies to, where my determination to not take no for an answer could be put to proper use. A few months ago, I thought I was closing in on that drive; gender rights, I thought I had met the woman whose job I wanted, the head of Women’s Aid, I thought that I would go and work for three months on a grassroots project where I could learn and try out my skills and knowledge on women’s rights, I thought that I would come back adamant that I had found my drive.
Instead, I chose the pension project. I chose the pension project before ever having met my host family, before I ever knew that due to their father’s recent death my host mother was entitled to the government pension, before I ever knew that they were the exact people who were suffering from the same ineffective pension scheme I had just written my name down to investigate for the next three months. While it is easy to romanticise life, there is undeniably a sense of meant-to-be at work here. I applied to Pravah ICS for work experience, for a shock to the system, and for a confirmation of something, of my own abilities. I thought I would be motivated by the work at hand, by the goals I wanted to achieve, the problems I wanted to solve, in quite a logical way. Within a week, maybe ten days, in Paner, my motivation, my inspiration,and my complete curiosity for knowledge had been claimed, I had been bowled over like a marble boulder to the head, by the Malinda family. I don’t think that I have ever felt so much respect and admiration for anyone, an insight into the strength, and an insight into the heart – wrenching sorrow of a family whose genuine kindness and happiness made me feel more at home than I’ve ever felt.
From my perspective, we were not in Paner to (as a fellow volunteer once put it) ‘fight poverty’, from my perspective, we were in Paner to identify the problems, identify people with the potential to fix the problems, and to give them a kick through the door. I came to this realisation a few weeks into the project, and already my objectives for applying to ICS had flipped and mutated, a somewhat different set of skills from what I anticipated developing had emerged; facilitating, delegating, and empowering. More than anything, because I needed their help and their knowledge, it happened quite naturally that an exchange of involvement and responsibility took place, whether the other volunteers were aware of it or not, my host brother became a core part of the pension project, while I became a core part of the family, mutual opening-up built a trust and a friendship that I did not see coming from one of those brothers I had so much apprehension about. Discussions from child marriage, to menstruation, to marital rape, to LGBTQ rights, to arranged marriage with my host brother taught me, and I think him, more about the complexity of gender and discrimination and culture than any Masters in Gender Studies ever could. The exchange of the questions ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ were a constant, and the answers never failed to surprise.
It is difficult to state clearly the numerous changes I have experienced in the last three months, things that I have realised about myself, things that I have confirmed about myself, things that I thought I wanted and now don’t, but maybe in regards to my search for that thing that drives me, I feel I have for the first time been truly inspired by a person, by a family, and have felt the full power of that, in whichever direction it drives me; to work harder to communicate with fellow volunteers, to demand to be heard by government officials, to rediscover old hobbies and skills long forgotten, or to quite simply be kinder and more open.
So, kya hua? Well, I’m not completely sure, but I think the reverberations of it will shake me into action for many years to come.
(Jenny Rivett volunteered with Pravah ICS from September – December 2015 and was placed with partner organisation Manthan in district Ajmer.)