How would you react when the words you read come alive?
I started working in Nirantar in mid-July and for almost three weeks I spent my days reading and learning. It started with reading official proposals and concept notes, sprinkled with talks with the employees who enlightened me about their work. This was followed with on-field reports, and even though they mentioned the girls and their stories, it was all still…formal-ish. The documents which finally shook me were the letters written by the girls who studied in the PACE centres. Off-beat grammar and a mix of dialects – it was quite nice to finally ‘get in touch’ with them. I could almost imagine them writing these, crouched down on their mats in their PACE classroom trying to apply what they had learnt. There expressions carried a risk of seeming mundane and ‘pretty basic’, but if you knew the context, you’d be proud of their mundane expressions.
However, I started noticing something very soon. After every few mundane letters, came one which would take a while to process. Slowly, their frequency increased. Noting of emotional, verbal and physical abuse increased. Some were very hard to read and even come to terms with the fact that these harsh realities exist even today.
I was also in awe. Their courage, strength and ambitions were no mean feat. Their lives were inspiring. Behind their naivety lay struggles which had been normalized for them. Their letters were humbling and motivating.
So imagine being in the same room with 120 such stories; 120 girls and young women who got the opportunity to not think about their routines and the outside world for two days during PACE Alumni meet.
If you were to ask me to describe it all in one word, I’d say: Chaos.
The good kind, you know. The kind where you are running over to your teachers and area coordinators for endless ‘selfies’- carefully stored in phones never to be shared and ‘liked’ by others; where you ensure your make-up is always on point because these are the only times when you are not bound in restrictions; when always giggling and maybe a little shy because you have never met so many new people at once because mobility is unheard of term in their life; where the lunch had a sweet with it and somehow you did not have to help in preparing it; where you are not the most attentive in class because you were never exposed to such events in school or even exposed to a school.
It was truly a chaos. I reiterate the good kind.
After the event was over, I have tried to reflect on the experience and what I felt about those two days. In a way, it was almost like a typical North Indian wedding with dressed up attendees, ‘shaadi wala khana’, photographers and videographers, laughter and some tears. The tears came rolling down while the girls were recounting their experiences and how telling us how grateful they were to their teachers. Gratitude was abundant in that hall, with the teachers, learners, and all the project members having positively touched each others’ lives. I know I was just a month old addition in this team, but I’d be lying if I said that those emotions did not affect me at all. Goosebumps.
Everyone there had learnt something or the other from each other, directly or indirectly. And no one was ready to put a stop to it. Seeing the event unfold into a learning opportunity with facilitators holding discussions based on audio-visual aid, interactive activities and experience sharing was something I will keep on extracting and treat it as a capacity building session for myself.
When I was asked to write this blog post as a personal experience of the PACE Alumni meet 2019, I had tons of thoughts I wanted to explore and write about. There are multiple strands I could pick from, and hopefully I will get the chance to write about them in the future weaving them with new and nurturing stories I hope to collect, but the thing which really surprised me was trust. Since it was a safe space and that they knew it by the virtue of being associated with PACE, the girls let their guards down and trusted me with their personal stories upon our first meet. I was, for lack of a better word coming to my mind right now, confused. ‘Why? Why is she sharing such a personal, albeit a happy, thing with me? We hardly know each other.’ When I think about it now, I understand how these girls need an outlet and how they might have associated me with this safe space they already treasured. This makes me wonder how much do we do trust strangers, and under what conditions? What would happen if we could and did trust each other more? Would it lead to increased vulnerability or comfort? I’m not sure yet.
Maybe I’ll learn about it as we go on. I’ll try to keep you updated.