When I applied for the AIF (American India Foundation) fellowship this year, I arrived with a long list of personal milestones that I hoped to accomplish in my year of living and working alone. While the orientation week adequately prepped us through the training, workshops and conversations with the fellows and Fellowship team, ultimately as someone wise once said, you cannot learn to swim without entering the water. Settling down in Shahdol was an education in itself.
Much of my initial month had been spent in a frenzy of feverish anticipation. Ever since I began the attempt of living on my own, I have been on a constant watch to track any kind of anxiety, sorrow or loneliness that quietly seep in. Hoping to catch it early so it doesn’t become unmanageable later; Perhaps not just feelings of anxiety, but every emotion that had flitted through my mind and appeared on my face in those weeks had gone through a series of filters and checks.
Before I had set out to a new city, my friends and family had made sure that I was armed with enough wisdom to take on challenges of any kind. The downside of this otherwise protective love was that I had hundreds of voices jostling inside my head for attention every time I made a new acquaintance. Every conversation left me re-examining bits of information that I had shared, always wondering, how much was appropriate and whether I crossed the line that presented me as naïve or inexperienced. Even though being inside my head proved to be perplexing enough, this process was the very reason I am where I am.
Moving to a remote city and working with a new community is an adventure in itself. The first month taught me three important lessons: learning to ask for help, fitting in and making room for mistakes.
Contrary to my firmly held beliefs, it dawned on me in the first week itself that I can’t girl-boss my way through the move. No matter how tough, independent or smart my ideal self wanted to appear, asking for help and choosing to trust are essential skills to build a home in a strange place. I did not have the luxury of time or space to evaluate people and build trust. I had to make a conscious choice on whom to place my trust in and have enough faith in the goodwill of humanity to see me through any consequences that this brings.
When I found the courage to ask for help, I found friends and family even in the unlikeliest places. Friendships that were built in a few hours over shared love for a movie or place, seemed more valuable than ever before. This was helpful in hunting down a house, the best bargains and even the more trivial things.
Along with learning to ask for help, also came the task of knowing how to fit in with the existing hierarchies and patterns. At my workspace, learning whom to address as ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’, and managing different lines of communication were seemingly easy things that took me a while to grasp. My accented Hindi somehow opened more doors for me in the office and the community as most people were simply happy to see me trying so hard. The workspace was arena 1. Settling into a new neighbourhood was the next one. Perhaps the lessons learned from the orientation week around preparing for cultural adjustments were the most valuable here. Asking and learning about every new thing I observed became part of the routine. Discovering and cooking new vegetables, and teaching everyone the right way to pronounce my name (which after weeks of trying has been shortened to Siva) were all moments I enjoyed every bit. Gradually, I became just another presence in their everyday lives.
This blind faith and trust that I had in a series of friendly strangers have been the building blocks of my life in Shahdol. Everything in my house, from the bulb to the bed, was chosen and brought by several people’s guidance. In the process of learning to seek help, one also discovers myriad shades of oneself that were never brought forth. For me, it brought about the ability to be compassionate about any mistakes I made.
Half the fun of starting afresh is carefully curating a new lifestyle and carrying over a few things from your old life to make the place a little more like home. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will always make the right choice. On days that my brain had worked overtime, it had convinced me that a coffee frother was an absolute necessity while a pair of scissors was conveniently forgotten. Another time, filled with over-confidence and enthusiasm for embarking on a new journey, I had decided to build a cloth almirah, assured by the reviews that it was an easy process. 4 rant breaks, 3 hours and a couple of band-aids later, I had done a decent enough job to walk around feeling like Bob the Builder for the rest of the day. The fact that 2 of those racks come undone every other day can be easily sidelined for what was otherwise a reasonably successful endeavour.
The first month in Shahdol was teaching me many things about Madhya Pradesh and Public health. Through the process, it was also changing my definition of home. What I had been searching for the entire month in the faces and gestures of every stranger was a kindness that helped me feel more secure in this new city. I was graced by an abundance of this. This has reinstated my belief in the learning value of the process. Small wins had made my life infinitely easier and warmer.
At the end of all of this, through the chaos and the calm, I have a home that has been built on my decision to trust others and myself. Sure, my almirah might have a few broken arms, and the coffee frother is probably going to gather dust in the corner of my kitchen, however, all of them, necessary and unnecessary, are providing a great setting for this journey to unfold. Through it all, I hope I am awarded the same sense of wonder, beauty and anticipation in every new step.
About the Author:
Sivakami Prasanna is a social science graduate who aspires to understand how gender intersects with different socio-cultural and economic inequities, aiming to work at the intersection of academia, action research and policy making. She completed her Bachelors in Social Sciences from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and later pursued a Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Arts from Ashoka University as a Young India Fellow.
The writings of Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in advocating for participatory models for development that focus on the reflective participation and agency of people resonate deeply with her. Her engagement with communities while working in rural Maharashtra and Kerala awoke her to the large gap between policymaking, academia and ground reality. To further explore this, she interned with the Centre for Public Policy Research to understand the nuances of policymaking and its implications while also working with women from rural Ernakulam through Goonj and with migrant labourers through Let’s Reach Out Kerala. A firm believer in the might of the pen, she has published articles on the Rights Collective blog, Café Dissensus, Countercurrents, Feminism in India and the CPPR blog on several issues relating to identity, culture and social justice.