The Back Story- I met her way back in September 2012 in the wedding reception of my friend in Modinagar near Delhi. It was a unique reception since my desi Friend Chandni Mittal had recently married an Austrian Abi. You can follow fun updates from Chandni on instagram here. I am friends with Chandni’s mother Punam aunty, a school principal. Young at heart, she is friends with many young people. Sanjana was one of the ‘friends’ and student of Punam aunty who was invited to the reception.
Sanjana was carefree, innocent, happy go lucky and was like any other girl her age. I had not met her in all these years. Circa October 2016. I see a matured girl, poised, balanced, still innocent but not really acting like the girls of her age. A Mohan Bhargav (Swades) like composure and focus characterized her face.
I am moved by her story and that’s why I decided to extend my Press Trip to Madhya Pradesh and make a detour to the dusty village Sehore. I was jealous of her because I always wanted to do the work she is doing but was afraid to leave my comfort zone (Metro City life) for a long time. It takes guts to do the work she is doing.
Here is why she left her cool life in Modinagar and Delhi to find meaning in torn cots, organic food cooked in earthen ovens and the many underprivileged school kids who run to greet her every time she visits the school.
1) Tell us something about your background. Where were you raised and what did you study?
I hail from the small town Modinagar, in Ghaziabad District, U.P. My schooling started in a fancy school but later I was shifted to a modest one due to economical reasons. Due to a cash crunch at home, I have missed out on many co-curricular activities at school. Never mind, my parents did their best and never put any pressure on me to chase money. Later, I did BSc from Delhi University but found it meaningless. Disillusioned, I joined NSS (National Social Service Scheme). It gave me the opportunities to volunteer in many organisations. I used to bunk classes to attend the seminars and classes of 3HS (Social Leadership Forum) initiated by my mentor Mr. Gopikrishna Bali Sir in my third year of college. It was then when I realized my true calling in life. I understood that I am not going to continue in Sciences, but I have to start something in social sector. Without any prior experience, Social sector is the toughest sector to get into.
2) Tell us about the work you are doing in Sehore. What is your routine?
I joined the NGO Samarthan as a ‘fellow’ from ‘India Fellow Social Leadership Programme’. I work in a project which is “School Education and Sanitation”. This project has components like Health, Sanitation and Education. I work here with the child cabinet and SHGs (Self Help Groups) in 10 villages. Strengthening of the bodies like child cabinet and SMC (School Management Committee) is to ensure the other activities in the school development activities apart from the school annual curriculum. I live in one of my field area named “Uljhawan” in Sehore District. It is located around 7 kms away from the highway to bigger cities. It is 20-25 kms away from Bhopal in MP.
I usually get up in the morning by 6 am. Daily chores keep me busy and by 7:30 – 8 am. Then I go for the ‘morning follow up’ where team Samarthan educates the locals why they should not defecate in the open fields. It is one of the missions of Samarthan to make Sehore an ODF, viz. Open Defecation Free zone.
Then, I go out in the village to conduct some meetings with the SHGs (as women will be available at that time or in the evenings after 6pm). After that I visit the government school to monitor the activities done by my students in child cabinet along with the other students in village. Frequently we organized awareness rally and various other activities like training and completions with the child cabinet. The objectives is to make each child cabinet self sufficient and capable of running various activities for their school development and make them an independent body. Child Cabinet is an interesting concept where a team of school kids is formed and individual child is assigned a cabinet such as Health/Sports/Sanitation. It is much like the national cabinets. This concept in rural areas of India helps kids gain confidence and a civic sense.
3) Why did you decide to leave your comfortable life and move to a village? Did you have any doubts before doing it?
What defines comfort? I had a comfortable material world but my mind was not settled. I was doing things which I never wanted to do. Here I am comfortable because that’s what I like to do. Here I travel the roads less travelled, meet the people who are unseen and are unknown to the mainstream world. I get the chance to understand my country India on a deeper level. Working at the grass roots level has helped me understand the real problems of India. Before coming here I was mentally prepared about the work I will have to do here. It was tough in the initial days to adjust to a village life but I love this life now. The life of an engineer is uncomfortable for me, as I can’t sit throughout a day in front of computers for coding. Never mind, to each his/her own. I chose this life and I stand by my decision.
5) What are the personal and professional challenges that you faced while working in Sehore?
Personally you have to be positive in every aspect of the field. Ignoring small obstacles will help you reach your final goal. Blame the lack of human resource in this sector, one ends up multi tasking. Laziness is not even an option here. One needs to keep a tabs on many activities at a time.
Focus is really important, if you don’t understand the concept clearly, I would recommend you not to poke your nose in it. It will only cause more trouble to the community. Proper mentorship is a must before you get into this field. This message is especially for those urban people who have romantic delusions about rural life. It’s not hunky dory here. One needs to be ready to face the challenges of a village life.
6) Tell us some interesting anecdotes from your experience in Sehore. Maybe, something related to your relationship with school kids.
The great bond I share with the students of the schools, is like one of my dreams turning into reality. Every single time, I arrive at the school, students run to me and greet me with a hug. There are many students who share a personal bond with me, they always stay around me. There is a girl named Swati Vishwakarma, who makes lemon tea for me every time I visit her. I casually told her once that I like to drink lemon tea and I don’t get it anywhere in village. She learnt it from somewhere and now religiously makes it for me. Then there is the unconditional love I receive from the people of the village. I celebrated Diwali with a local in her hut.
It was one of my best Diwali celebrated with simplicity and love. When not working, I also love to cook with the local girls. I share a deep bond with the elderly women of the village. They are fondly called bau by the locals. In my free time, I spend hours chatting with them sipping tea in their huts. They also make delicious food for me. At other times, I decorate my room, roam around in fields with the kids and attend keertan and sangeet (Devotional music) events of village. I know I am changing as a person!
7) What do you miss about the city life?
One thing I miss about Delhi specifically is the accessibility to the lively places like Connaught Place in night. Sometimes, I miss the night life of Delhi in the sleepy villages. The day ends here by 8 pm and you can’t even sit with the girls in village just to chit chat because that is not a part of the culture.
8) How do you focus on your work when you know all your friends are busy partying and pubbing in city? Do you feel like quitting?
No I never felt like quitting, I am very positive and excited about what I am doing! I know I am not earning that much money which my friends will start earning once they will complete their masters. I am not against partying but my happiness is focused on the work I have dedicated my life to. I find my work to be more meaningful and satisfying than partying. For me the idea of wasting an evening in a pub is less exciting. The satisfaction I get here is something which I will cherish throughout my life and that will change me as a human being. The positive changes within me have already started.
9) What are your future plans? What next after this?
I will continue working in this field, enriching myself with more experience. Eventually, I would like to gravitate towards the field of Education. My aim is to impart my knowledge to the future generation and help build a better India and a better world. My ultimate goal is to expose the youth of India to different career options at the school level. I want to help the young minds to find the true calling of their life and make informed choices. They should not be bound to lead a life which they are not meant for.
10) Any message to the youth of your age?
I have a simple message: “Don’t let yourself down under any circumstance of life and follow you heart. Despite the initial struggles, if you persevere through the odds, it will give you the happiness you always chased. It will take time but the results will be the ones which you will always cherish. All the pain and efforts you made to achieve that happiness will one day be worth it.
Sanjana has indeed grown faster than her contemporaries. I am proud to visit her and know about her experiences. It was a humbling experience. Rural India needs the brains from Urban India for sustainable development. I wish I could do the work she is doing but I am still not mentally prepared to live in a village for long term. Hopefully, one day I will muster the courage. A sequel to this blog will be up soon. In those blogs I will write about how Samarthan is helping in making clean toilets in Sehore, how it is affecting the attendance in village schools and how the locals of Sehore won my heart in the few hours I spent there.
All the pictures are by Sanjana and Samarthan.
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