Saturday, 31 October 2009

Misadventures in Social Work

We graduated with dreams and tools collected over seventeen years of learning and unlearning ready to plant new seeds, germinate fresh ideas. We took our shiny new tool box and ventured forth confidently to tackle the weeds choking our national landscape. We chose our area of work and were promptly termed “social workers”. We believed a few tugs here and a few pulls there and we’d have cleared some of the mess, at least a small part of it. For we didn’t have illusions of grandeur, we just wanted to do good work. But there were some hidden pests we hadn’t contended for.
First we encountered them in the city of tinsel dreams where an institute produces a fixed quota of social workers annually. But not before subjecting them to intense scrutiny, pre-judging them because of the “fancy colleges” they got their social science degree from and berating them for harboring dreams of working for the UN and other national policy institutes. To think we naively believed that was a noble aspiration. No, social work meant being selfless, working for no ulterior motive, more like becoming a nun or an ascetic. Here we thought it was a profession just like being a doctor or a teacher. So we felt ashamed, so very ashamed.
Then we joined organizations called NGO’s where for no ulterior motive, for we weren’t even getting paid, we picked up our as yet unopened tool box and looked to do some work. But at every step we were rebuked, laughed at for our naivety, and scoffed at for attempting to change things. You think change can happen so fast. No, organizations don’t work that way. There’s a structure, a chain of command, and an authority. We should have known for we’d cleared a paper worth hundred marks on structure and function of ‘Organizations’. So we felt ashamed, so very ashamed.
One day when we had typed a hundred letters and a million pamphlets on how to do this and how to do that, we met an old man, a member of that fast vanishing tribe called the ‘midnight’s children’. He looked at us with our plans and proposals and laughed. ‘This is not social work,’ he said wiping his tears. 'Social work was what we did digging the ‘so and so canal’ as fifteen year olds when Jawaharlal Nehru asked us to’. We quietly walked out of the room before he could quote the ‘ask not what your country’ thing for we were ashamed, so very ashamed.
With deflated spirits and getting heavier to lug around tool box we went for another meeting. The gentleman with graying hair sitting behind a cluttered desk on a swirling chair with a printed towel at the headrest smiled a beguiling smile. He looked at us and said, 'so how much money do you make or will you make or hope to make? For aren’t all NGO’s corrupt? Isn’t everyone in it to make money?' And other such clich├ęs we’d heard many times about almost every profession including the very noble one that the gentleman himself belonged to. But we mumbled something about being a part of society and corruption being endemic to a people not to a particular profession but our voices petered off for we felt ashamed, so very ashamed.
Penniless, devoid of ulterior motive even ambition itself, working for what, to achieve what, we didn’t know but we made one last try. In a premier institute named after the above-mentioned Prime Minister we organized debates and discussion with our fellow kind, on issues that we felt were thought provoking or at least irksome for the generation that would inherit the future. All in the hope that maybe there is hope. But for most part they listened with a barely perceptible semblance of patience. One could almost swear they gave us a fair hearing because of our gender but the cynical questions, the doubts and reservations expressed at the end pointed towards something else. In course of their education they had learned something that we had somehow missed probably because we had been blinded by our enthusiasm. So we felt ashamed, so very ashamed.
We looked at our once shiny tools getting rusted and blunt. We shook our heads. The unfathomable shame, the insurmountable guilt, the sense of inadequacy made apparent by every single person we had met for the last five years made us despondent. Some of us shook it off like a bad dream and took that scholarship from that University in the US, others started making assessment reports for those very businesses that would destroy the very thing they had fought to conserve. While the more sensitive ones among us can be found typing pamphlets and letters while battling their sense of shame. All because we naively thought social work was simply a profession.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Life According to Birds

Chapter 63: Marching to your own beat by The Moorhen

Revisiting Wordsworth

Yes, there is holy pleasure in thine eye!
- The lovely cottage in the guardian nook
Hath stirred thee deeply; with its own dear brook,
Its own small pasture, almost its own sky!

But covet not the abode -O do not sigh
As many do, repining while they look;
Intruders who would tear from Nature's book
This precious leaf with harsh impiety:

(Admonition To A Traveller by William Wordsworth)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

(The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth)

Wordsworth viewed man as a part of nature and not in opposition to it. He reflected at length on how this relationship could be comprehended: Man appears insignificant in the presence of nature. The towering mountains, lakes and forests appear motionless but they are also alive and vivid, when the clouds move, the lake ripples, the branches sway but still nature is always aloof and incomprehensible. Or is it that it is man who through awe and wonder makes nature come alive?

Wordsworth opposed the construction of a trainline from Kendal to Grasmere (the train till today doesn't come to Grasmere). He wanted the Lake District to become some sort of a National Park, which it eventually did.

For as a man who wrote most of his poetry, in the time of the Industrial Revolution, walking along the lakes in the company of nature he very well understood how man's culture of "getting and spending" would disconnect him from nature, making him lose his sense of wonder and eventually lead to dire consequences. In that sense he was a visionary.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

They are back in town

The air feels crisp as you lift the coat collars and tighten the knot on the scarf around your neck. The sunlight has a quality of gold reserved especially for an autumn day. Brilliant yellow, olive green, orange, rust, red and brown are the dominant shades the trees flamboyantly display.

And the sky is filled with black-headed gulls in their winter plumage overpowering the street sounds with their sharp kek, kek as they meet and greet their cousins who have recently moved south from Europe. The solitary gull that patrolled the canal in summer is now a part of a large pack that goes krreearr and dives at the sight of the smallest morsel tossed by a passer by. The gulls are back.

So, begins a new daily ritual. After clearing the breakfast table you stand with a handful of breadcrumbs and play ‘toss and catch’ with them. Till they hover just outside your balcony, squabbling and swooping even before the tiny piece leaves your fingers. Someday maybe they’ll care to come in and join you for a cuppa.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Blog Action Day: Choices

Whenever we are asked to question our habits we run and hide behind that enigmatic word ‘choices’. Choice is a decision to choose a course of action when presented with two or more options. And then our choices go on to produce consequences. That is in fact, one of the most quoted laws of physics.

So we can choose to make our choices, refuse to accept the responsibility of our actions and ignore everything that brings to notice the consequences of our actions. That is indeed one of the options available to a few of us. Not surprisingly, as a consequence they are largely concentrated in certain parts of the globe.

So while a billion of us are obese, a result of the "English malady" whereby they "have ransack'd all the parts of the Globe to bring together its whole Stock of Materials for Riot, Luxury, and to provoke Excess ... Is it any Wonder, then, that the Diseases which proceed from Idleness and Fulness of Bread, should increase in Proportion...?", a billion of us starve "even though food output per person is as high as it has ever been, which suggests that hunger isn't a problem of production so much as one of distribution."

Can one just dismiss it as a choice they make? They just chose the wrong option didn’t they?

And what about the Dongria Kondh? They choose not to let their way of life be destroyed by a mining company. However the real question is do they even have the right to make a choice? And who arbitrates that some choices are more important than the others?

On this blog action day as we debate and discuss climate change maybe we also need to look at the choices we make because for some people in the world the only choice that is left is one between life and death.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

In broad daylight

The blue tits are busy at play. The goldfinches are scurrying in the hedgerows. A blue and yellow dash here and a red and yellow there. The robin sings its ‘wistful’ and ‘melodic’ song while marking territory. The spotted woodpecker has chosen to visit our balcony. The autumn sun filters through the trees catching now a yellow, now a red falling leaf. Anthony hasn’t come today to spend his afternoon following the birds and taking pictures. The feeders hanging in the park are unguarded and empty of all activity.
And then come the squirrels and what follows is the most daring daytime robbery. Ever. In a few minutes the feeders swing lightly emptied of all weight. And the cheeky robbers can be seen fleeing hither and thither while carrying away mouthfuls of bounty to some secret den.
Only a few pictures remain to tell the tale of their audacity.

Monday, 5 October 2009


“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafering heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?”
What would the present generation, and I mean it in a broad sense, as the generation savouring the fruits of technical advancement, be defined as? As the slave of speed, worshiper of instant gratification or as 'a generation of ‘dancers’ that is people wanting to be seen, for whom life is a perpetual show emptied of every intimacy and every joy?'
We decry rampant consumerism, the destruction of our environment, the vulgar display of wealth that is becoming our national culture, books written by foreigners that present a perspective alien to ours and a comment made by a stranger that rankles us. We rant and rage about it all on our blogs, on facebook, on twitter; opening multiple tabs while cursing the slow broadband speed. And the rest of the time we are busy uploading photographs of the sushi we ate last night, the taxi we took to the airport, our cluttered office desk, the holiday we had in Greece, our baby who is a few hours old. In fact, our entire day is consumed by performing a series of quick dance steps flitting from one move to the other while watching our friends, fans and followers performing a similar dance of their own devoid of not just intimacy but also meaning.
Why are we consumed by this need to display every mundane incidence of our lives? And why this hurry, this rush to upload it, tweet it, blog about it? What will the world do once it has heard about every minor detail of our day? What will we do with the hours that we save? Hurry and rush through life some more? What is it that we are hurrying away from?
In his book Slowness, Kundera writes:
There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.
A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.
Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.
Maybe it is time to usher in the cult of slowness. A deliberate, well-thought out act of slowness in this mad rush of show and tell that threatens to obliterate all thought and all memory and all intimacy and all joys.
There is a Czech proverb that describes this easy indolence by a metaphor: “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s window is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.
And in this time and age most likely to be surfing the internet in a futile search.
(All text in Italics from Slowness by Milan Kundera)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Passing by

It can happen at the oddest of places and time. You are crossing the Millennium Bridge contemplating Barcel├│’s art that you glimpsed at in a book at Tate Modern with your hands pulling up the coat collars in a vain attempt to battle the winds that rush across the Thames. Or you are in a Blue Line bus winding its way through Delhi’s summer traffic flipping the pages cyclostyled from a book on Weber’s essay “Politics as a vocation” contemplating the ‘iron cage’ of rational control with one eye looking out for the men and their usual antics in the buses of Delhi. Or with your chin resting in your cupped palms you stand at the balcony of the apartment in Vasant Kunj or Bandra or London on a wet and cloudy day. And then they pop in from nowhere.
Three girls walking briskly and speaking it seems all at once. Describing in less than the time it takes for them to overtake you the splendors that lie beyond the bridge across Thames. They move away even more rapidly than they speak. And you are left listening to their words. The child asks his mother a question. The din of Delhi’s traffic drowns half his words. Two of them “Dekho” and “Papa” stand out, and you look out of the window and see a man on his scooter with two kids, the boy standing in front and the girl sitting. And many years go by but still you wonder. The five of them rush across the street. One of the boys rides a bicycle that he has long since overgrown. Another, when he gets off his, has a slight limp in his right leg. Two of them seem destined to be friends for life. Or maybe in a few months they’ll all drift away. Or maybe you'll meet them again in pictures and articles while browsing the internet.
And so it happens. Frequently enough to not be merely dismissed as a coincidence. In fact, so often that you start to unconsciously look out for them even though you know the encounter will always be unexpected. And more rewarding and long lasting for precisely that reason.