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.


bythewindowsill said...

I did something like that too.
can understand it. :)

Anvita Lakhera said...

I am sure there are others like us :) That's the sad part about "social work" in India. It seems to engender only disillusionment.

Anonymous said...

yeah... though I am glad others don't give up. or do they become part of the system?? I don't know.
in any case, let me get to doing my bit.
your blog is cool, loved the coot series too via munna on the run.
- the window siller. :D

Anvita Lakhera said...

Thanks a lot for your kind words.
Yes, the world of social work does have it's own complications and contradictions.