Reminiscence

By Harsh Prabha Singh

Ever since I got back from Rajasthan, I’d been wanting to write about my Pravah ICS journey! And now that I’ve procrastinated more than enough, let’s start with what exactly is Pravah ICS and what does it aim to do?

International Citizen Service (ICS) is a three-month volunteering programme led by VSO run in partnership with Pravah; and funded by the UK Government.

Pravah ICS aims to bring about the personal development of the volunteers, and inspire active citizenship through working on and contributing to impactful projects in rural communities.

Every photo in this album has a story behind it, and if you are going through it, I’d really like you to use both your mind and eyes.

Most of the photos in this album are taken by our very talented Musthujab Makkolath!

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After our four-day in-country orientation in New Delhi, we were all set for Rajasthan!
I remember taking this photo on our very first day of in-community orientation in Kotri.
Manthan Kotri is a non-governmental organisation that grew out of Barefoot College. It works mainly in Ajmer district of Rajasthan; primarily on issues related to water, education, solar energy, gender and caste.
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And. This. My. Friends. Is. Paner. Team.
Manthan batch-5 had a total of 19 volunteers. We were, however, placed in three different, though nearby, villages- Paner, Bhadoon and Kotri. Fortunately, the programme design enabled us to get together once a week for Active Citizenship Days (ACDs), where discussions around crucial developmental issues were facilitated by the volunteers.
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This one here is again from initial days. I quite like this picture. Everyone has a gentle smile on their faces. The kind of smile that reflects the willingness to adapt to a new setting, befriend counterparts who come from contrasting cultures and work towards the goals that we set for ourselves and the team.
Although I have to say, our host-sister, Dilshad doesn’t look very happy there! I don’t blame her; not a lot of kids would like a bunch of strange people on their roof! However, I assure you, over the time, she ended up liking us.
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The golden sunset isn’t the only reason why this is an extraordinary photo. The artwork we all are so intently looking at was a gift from Sameer, the young boy sitting next to me. It’s a “Happy Diwali” greeting. He didn’t miss any of our names in the card. Diwali is predominantly a Hindu festival.
Sameer comes from a Muslim family. The Hindu-Muslim divide might not be blatantly visible in the village, but it prevails at a level that doesn’t allow Hindu kids to call Muslim kids their “friends”, and vice versa, even if they spend evenings playing games together. The greeting coming from Sameer said so much more than just ‘Happy Diwali’. It expressed his willingness to avoid the ‘unspoken social rules’, if only in a subtle way. And what better way to do that than through art?
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For me, Diwali has always been a day off from school or college, a day I get an excuse to wear traditional clothes and a day to be unnecessarily happy! And of course, good food and fairy lights.
It was pretty much the same in the community except it was the first Diwali where I was a part of the religious rituals, and it was quite…absorbing!
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Wonderful woman on my right flaunting the polka dot sari is Sampat Ji, boys’ host mum. What you might not be able to tell from looking at this photo is that she is the most fun, lively, and energetic person I have ever met! I swear, she seemed to have the energy to work 24 hours a day, do Simon and Ally’s dance impressions and be genuinely happy whenever you see her!
Then there is her daughter, Sundar and son, Kishan. Sundar is one of the very few girls in the community who study at university level. She shared it wasn’t easy convincing her family to let her go to Kishangarh, 12 km from Paner, where the nearest college is, and pursue further education. But her diligence made all the difference and set her apart from the majority of the village girls who are pressured to stay home as soon as they finish school.
Kishan is 13 but he can kick your ass anytime of the day. He is sharp, funny, and has a knack for making you laugh through his language skills!
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I love how everyone in this photo is offering a bite to someone else. But not Ally. Apparently, he’d rather feed himself. LOL!
Diwali was stomach full of sweets and a lot more sweets and even more on top of that! Thinking of it makes me full. Let’s move on from this sweet picture with all the extra-sweet people in it. Aaaa!

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This was the proudest moment for us from the Govt. Schemes Camp! Shakir and Banwari, two most reliable and engaged youth from the community, gave us a hand in filling out labour card forms for the community. Not only did they voluntarily take the responsibility of filling out forms, but they also did it with utmost precision and diligence! This was a glimpse of what we as a team wished to accomplish during our time in the community- sustainable development.
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Our CAD had three stages:
1) Interviewing as many people over as much part of the village as possible, about their views on education for girls.
2) Parading across the village advocating the same through banners and shout-outs supporting education for all.
3) Organising a play featuring a young girl who dared to confront the two major barriers to her education- Society and Family.
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It was extremely challenging to gather women for meetings, as they were almost always busy working at NREGA, farms or doing household chores. However, with the help of our amazing mentor, Suraj ji, we managed to hold meetings. Mostly everyone we interacted with seemed to believe awareness about government schemes is of great importance. We wanted women to feel empowered and independent with regards to taking advantage of the schemes, which could assist them in leading a slightly better lifestyle. But we learnt to manage our expectations after realizing that the community was heavily lacking in literacy and resources like Internet. Though, they agreed that taking responsibility and becoming more knowledgeable would help them become less dependent on others.
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Tonnes of memories, experiences and learnings later, it was time to say goodbyes…
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I love the smiles on the girls’ faces. This is pre-life skills session photo. The first mixed gendered session ever to be held in Paner. Ally and I were trying to make the girls feel comfortable, so they don’t disappear as soon as the boys make their entry. Unfortunately, that happened nevertheless. However, a few of these girls stayed, and that made all the positive difference.
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We conducted weekly youth meetings to discuss issues around water, education and Govt. schemes. Apart from attaining the project related objectives, the aim was also to empower youth by inspiring them to take an active role in the local affairs of the community. To some extent, we were able to achieve that when a few young men started addressing the matters that concerned them and the community!

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“Shiksha ka mor – peacock of education”. Now this mural stands proudly in the main crossroad of Bhadoon showcasing what the residents of Bhadoon think about the importance of education.
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The team deserved a colorful celebratory dance after Bhadoon’s impactful CAD wherein, to quote Atul, “1,2,3 …300+ people attended the event of empowerment where we played 6 videos of “Invincible Indians” who have taken the most important role of – citizen of India.”
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It’s no joke. There are parts of the world where water is a luxury, where women have to walk miles under the scorching heat to fetch water for the entire family and keep making rounds for it. So, honestly, if you are someone who can’t close the tap properly or can’t get that water leakage repaired or think you can afford to waste even a drop of water, do humanity a favour and kill yourself. If you can’t do that, then change your attitude and realise how precious water truly is.
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Discussing the value of parents-teacher dialogue at private primary school.

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Precisely what we looked like after a successful govt. schemes camp.
Here’s what Ally had to say about the camp:
“The camp aligned with the overall objectives of the government schemes project – increasing awareness around different government schemes available and the process to access them, and increased understanding of the system and process of various government schemes amongst the youth and other members of the community. We completed approximately 100 labour card forms and helped lodge 10 pension grievances on the Rajasthan government portal. We estimate the overall outreach would extend far beyond this through the impact of word-of-mouth from the attendees of the camp.”

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I have a thing for sunsets. And Paner sunsets are some of the best I’ve seen.
Don’t even get me started on the number of shooting stars I saw. I swear, I lost count after 45.
How I wish the cities weren’t shit polluted as they are.
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am quoting Ally‘s diction from one of Musthu’s earlier posts regarding this particular life-skills session.
“We are all very satisfied today because of the active participation of youth from the Paner village for our second ‘life-skill’ session. We formed the inaugural ‘Yuva Sabha’ in Paner last week – they elected leaders from boys and girls through voting. A #pravahics 5th space co-designed and co-owned by the youth for the youth. The significance of the meetings was that they were mixed gender meetings – a huge step for the community. Our mentors from the local NGO, Manthan, informed us it is the first time Pravah ICS volunteers have conducted mixed gender meetings.
The youth are starting to realise the role they can play in the development of their community. All the time eroding gender barriers. Really hope they can continue what they have started.”
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In Rajasthani land where no one cared about Christmas, Kotri team and Manthan arranged for such beautiful Christmas ambience!
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Madina bhabhi and kids!

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Here are our two Manthan Kotri heroes!
Suraj ji and Pusaram ji. They were our go-to-guys for any kind of advice ranging from how to engage with the community members to what’s the best way to pursue our objectives. They have been working with Manthan for over 11 years and are best familiar with most aspects of the villages.
Suraj ji is also known for cracking awkward jokes at the most awkward moments. And we loved him for that!
Pusaram ji is known for the sweeeeetest way of interacting with everyone!

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Some heavy thinking is going on here for the CAD.
Organizing and executing the Community Action Day (CAD) was an all-consuming experience for us as a team. From day one of our planning, we invested ourselves in the idea of making the CAD successful. But what did success mean to us? How did we wish to measure it and in what terms? We wanted to measure success in terms of optimal utilisation of the resources at hand, to compel as many members of the community as possible to think about the importance of education for every child. Irrespective of social barriers of gender, caste or religion. It required lots of brainstorming, discussions and negotiations with the community as well as within the team. Initially, we came up with vague ideas, following which we strived and defined those ideas into the final structured plan.
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In the picture here, I am trying my best to inspire Sundar to do the part of the protagonist girl in our CAD play. Her mom, Sampat ji, sitting beside her is listening to the script. After hearing the script Sampat ji looked a little worried and said “Sundar can’t say all this in front of the entire village.”
To a lot of us, the lines may not strike anywhere near controversial, but in the context of the community, it gave way to fear of rejection. The lines expressed the idea that the girl should be free to make choices for herself when it comes to education, work and marriage.
PS- Love that everyone is enjoying a tea break. WE LOVE CHAI!
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I’d like to draw your attention to the class taking place in the background.
Discussing the value of parents-teacher dialogue at private secondary school with teachers, Sundar and Shakir.
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Good old Big tree…It can’t be less than 300 years old.
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We faced the dilemma of choosing between editing few lines to placate the potential negative reaction and going with the original lines to challenge the patriarchal views of the community. After a discourse with the teammates, mentors and program supervisor, we changed the lines but in a way that ensured the community were still being challenged.
In this photo, our mentors, Pusaram ji and Suraj ji, are going through the script, a day before the CAD.
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In today’s life-skill session, we asked boys and girls to put themselves in each others’ shoes and think if they were girls instead of boys, and vice versa, would they still want to follow the same dreams. The twelve year old Mehar, sitting next to me in the photo, replied, “if I was born a boy, I’d still want to be a doctor”. On being asked whether or not she feels it’s more difficult to achieve her dream because of her gender, she replied “if I ever find it difficult to achieve my dream, it’ll be only because of lack of hard work on my part”. I couldn’t believe her!
Thanks @musthujab for capturing the beautiful moment wherein I was inspired by Mehar, the wisest twelve year old I’ve ever met.
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