This is my most recent public column, written for Indicorps.
When I’m cold, I wallow in self-pity. When I’m hungry, I’m grumpy. And when I’m tired, I’m cantankerous. Cantankerous.
For the last few months, I’ve been cold, hungry, and tired. There seems to be no resolution to my predicament. I never thought I would wish on a Rajasthani summer and those 120°F afternoons, but these cold, unescapable nights are slowly giving over to the devil.
There are times when I’m more down than others. At those moments, I wonder why on earth I decided to spend a year in the middle of a desert. Now that I’m here, it’s an important question. I’m not the only one asking it, either.
“How did you end up here?”
“I’m here to do service.”
Why? I’ve no idea. Why am I sleeping on a stone floor in a tiny room with a direct line to the Arctic? Because I agreed to take part in the Indicorps Fellowship. I’m dodging the question.
When you’re most down, most exhausted, most frustrated, that’s when you really start to dig deep for answers. I like to think I’m here because I want to make a difference. It’s cheesy, I know. I’ve worked for non-profits in the past and my impact seemed more rewarding – probably because it came with a salary. It’s difficult to derive meaning from grassroots service because for every success, you’re knocked back by a dozen failures. Small victories aren’t so apparent when you’re in the thick of it, and I’m cogniscent that I may be making no headway at all. So am I doing it to make a difference? I don’t know. Do I want to make a difference?
If I wanted to make a difference, I could have picked easier ways. There’s something attractive in the idea of commiting yourself to a year of solitary, austere development work. But then you place your feet on a plane taking you to the middle of one of the poorest communities on earth. And then you’re in the community. If I’d wanted to make a difference, I could have picked somewhere with water and electricity, where people speak English, with a nicer climate, where meat is not forbidden, and somewhere where even my moisturizer wouldn’t make me an outsider (although closer to home, my father does deride me for it). There are hundreds of jobs for the do-gooder in developed countries. I didn’t need to come to India to impersonate Gandhi.
My feet are tired, but my soul is rested. That’s a good Gandhi quote that gets a lot of air time. Five months into this adventure, it’s not applicable. I’m under no illusion that I’m Gandhi, so feel perfectly vindicated to identify with the edited version, My feet are mangled, and my soul moonlights as third gear in a Challenger Battle Tank. Sounds more realistic. There’s clarity in my newfangled sobriety, but my body is shattered and my brain is on overdrive. Did I come here to find my limits, to find what I’m capable of? That’s what I told myself in August. Right now I’m asking myself why I thought that was a good idea.
It’s not a job, but it’s work. My schedule is entirely mine to manage. If I wanted, I could spend my days in Ajmer eating Chinese food and wearing jeans and trainers, traveling back to Chachiyawas in a taxi instead of the crowded government bus. But that’s definitely not what I’m here for. Just being here, living in this community, I can’t help but feel motivated to work. Everywhere I look there’s something that needs fixing, an attitude that could be changed for the better. It’s like a blank canvas, but the canvas is a football pitch and my paint brush is a frayed straw. I’m clumsy, and I can’t apply myself well. And I can’t get sacked.
When I wake up and spend a few hours heating water by the choolaa for the thirty-five children I live with, it’s the start of a long day of tasks. I once shared a dream with my younger brother, living in a village, living off the land. The reality is a little more stark, but it’s life. And stark is good, the sheer lack of everything means that perhaps my work is more apparent than it would be with the distractions of the latest iGadget or days thrown away waiting for the weekend. So I definitely wanted to experience this, but now that I’m done, can I go home? It’s all too clear that my often positive outlook is buoyed by my Air India open-return, something the community I live with will never even dream of. As a British citizen with a family that can support me, I have securities that prevent me from living like a member of my community. Securities that would be inconceivable to their families and friends.
If I really came here to help, I know my wallet would yield far more tangible results than my botched, time-consuming attempt to solve the employment problems of Lokesh, a mute, 15 year old orphan in Beawar. He has a cancerous growth on the side of his face. He can’t get it removed because he can’t afford it. I’m startled by anything less than free health care. Yet if I pay to have the tumour removed, who’s going to pay when the cancer spreads to another part of his body? That’s something I hadn’t even considered before I landed in Ahmedabad, how can I make my work sustainable? If I leave my wallet in my pocket, am I choosing to be pursue sustainability over hard practical solutions? Or am I touting experiments in my own personal development at the expense of those I could really help?
Sometimes, I feel that my well-intended attempt at sustainable, leadership orientated development is arrogant and impractical; that I’d be better off working in London and sending invaluable British Pounds to the families I’m now working with. But then I wouldn’t be getting that invaluable experience that’s going to help me in the future, the kind that makes my resume glow among a pile of unpaid intern desperados. Of course, if wanted to go into development work as much as I did a year ago, I’d be happy with my decision to come here. But now, after the frustrations and the efforts of the last five months – I’m no closer to figuring out why I came here, or what I came here for – I’m not sure that I do.