a month.. a subcontinent.. a mission

I have been so immersed in what I am doing that I did not realize it’s been a month since I moved back to India. On 19th August, my sister congratulated me on finishing a month in India and asked me if I am happy in my new job. I didn’t quite know what the reply to that was.  Haven’t really sat down and thought about what life has been like in the last month. I slipped into life in India almost seamlessly. When I was sitting on the plane at Singapore’s Changi airport, I wasn’t sad about leaving the people behind, or leaving my life behind. I had been screaming for change for a while now. I had spent 7 years in a small city-state from which stepping out meant buying a visa and flight tickets. I wanted to expand my horizons (whatever that means). I also know that as long as I love my friends and they love me (something that isn’t changing in the near future), I will always make sure I keep in touch with them. In today’s age, keeping in touch is not really a big deal. What I was scared of most was myself. I was not sure that I was ready to turn my life around – to give up the first-world comforts, the convenience which Singapore provides in everyday life, the freedom that comes with staying by yourself and away from family, the international exposure, etc etc. Once I arrived in Mumbai, all that seemed to vanish into thin air. Less than 48 hours later, I was riding a crowded local train to work, pushing and shoving to make space for myself. I was walking through Mumbai’s heavy downpour to do groceries. I was connecting superbly with my colleagues. I was probably so prepared to embrace a new life, that I let no inconvenience become a complaint. Rather, quite like a foreigner, I let the idiosyncrasies make me laugh, I let the inefficiencies fascinate me. I also laid my judgmental self to rest and opened my mind up to possibilities.

My work requires me to meet at least a hundred different people everyday! Teach For India has a Fellowship program in which the best brains of the country teach in low-income under-resourced schools for 2 years. The rationale behind this is that these talented people from the top colleges and companies will, after the Fellowship, go on to do whatever they want to, but these 2 years of life-changing classroom experience will remain with them wherever they go and they will continue to work for the cause of education in their own capacities (gosh do I sound like a spokesperson or what?!?! :D). My job is to reach out to 200 top colleges and 100 top corporates around the country, make presentations to interested people, forge partnerships with these organizations, work with marketing team to inspire people to apply for the Fellowship. I have been on the move from the time I landed in India. 2 weeks in Bombay, followed by 2 weeks in Kolkata (with visits to Bhubaneshwar and Guwahati), and now 2 weeks in Bangalore. After this, I’ll be going to Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Benaras. Quite a tour! And what better way to reconnect with my country after 7 years than to travel all over and meet the young ambitious dynamic promising future of the nation? And change a few minds to work for the country at that 🙂

This is not an easy thing to do – and I don’t mean the logistical difficulties of managing a nationwide team, being understaffed, continuous travel etc. I mean changing mindsets. In the Indian context, where everyone is thinking of a “safe” degree that will get them a “secure” job, where parents are “devastated” if their children don’t study engineering, where guys don’t get married if they don’t have the name of corporate on their resumes, even the thought of giving up 2 years of one’s prime to “work for the country” is UTTER BULLSHIT. And I am aware of that! Even as I present, sometimes in colleges like the IITs and IIMs, I see the smirks and sniggers. I hear the ridiculousness of what I am asking them to do. I see the heads turning this side and that, looking at watches, staring out of the door. But for every smirk, there’s a genuine smile. For every sound of ridiculousness, there’s a sense of understanding. For every sign of boredom, there are eyes glittering with interest. And these are the people I look at to keep myself grounded in the faith that one day, this entire nation will rise up to do something about itself – does not have to be Teach For India or the Fellowship, but every privileged youngster will feel the compelling need to think about changing the country in his own way, and will work towards it in his own time.

Teach For India received 4,000 applications for the Fellowship last year. To me, that means 4,000 people across the nation were ready to take the plunge. 12,000 people started the online application form. To me, that means 12,000 people had given this option a decent thought. And that’s something, isn’t it? This evening, I met with a group of young professionals who are working with companies like Goldman Sachs, Wipro, Satyam etc. They are our Youth Professional Ambassadors and are helping us coordinate events in companies and in their cities. It was a major shot in the arm to see their passion for this work, and the fact that all of them are going to apply for the Fellowship this year. After every presentation, there are a few who come up to me with specific questions (though I don’t understand why people don’t just ask them in front of the others – maybe it’s a huge flaw in our education system where teachers discourage too much questioning). It is very encouraging to see that the youth of today are far more socially conscious than we were at our time. In my school days, our only deliverable at home and at school were good grades in the exams. But today, almost every institution, be it a school, a college or a university, has some kind of social welfare activity going on. Almost everyone I meet has taught in slums, or has worked with mentally underprivileged kids, or has done fieldwork in villages. Even though all of these lasted only a few weeks, the fact that the Indian educational curriculum today has social service as an essential component is very very heartening to see. I also think that this change has been possible because of the current generation of teachers/professors. We’ve been received with a warm welcome wherever we’ve gone to. The professors are, in fact, ashamed by the fact that not every student will apply for the Fellowship. We tell them – “It’s alright. We know that not everyone will apply. This is not for everyone. And we only selected 7% of the applicants last year,  so we are very particular as well”.

India is changing, and though the only changes that are being talked/written about are the growing technology market, the glamorous film industry, the swanky malls, the skyrocketing property prices, and the increasing salaries, I can feel that so much more has changed in these last 7 years. The youth of today are breaking shackles of social barriers to live life on their terms. They are quitting jobs to become actors, photographers, designers, Teach For India Fellows. They are thinking continuously about changing things around them. They are honest and committed to what they believe in. And that is how this country will flourish. It has to start with the minds of the people, and once the seeds are sown in the right heads, it’s not long before some of them will become industry leaders, some of them will become politicians, some of them will become journalists, some of them will become social activists… and together, they (WE) will transform this country.

Before I end, I’d like to share a couple of experiences over the last one month

– I love talking, and I am making full use of it in India. I talk to everyone – the auto-rickshaw driver, the waiter, the person next to me in the bus, the school-teacher.. whoever, wherever, whenever. I want to know what each and every Indian is thinking, how they perceive their lives with respect to their country. One conversation that stands out in memory was with an auto driver. He is only 33, has been diagnosed with severe diabetes, was sweating profusely while driving me from one place to another. He blamed it on his medicines. He was in bed for a month and that was his first day at work again. He has 3 sons – all of whom go to school. And he verbally ran me through his monthly balance sheet in which he factored in his rent, vehicle maintenance charges and of course, the school fees of his sons! He said he’d rather go without medicines than not send his children to school. I couldn’t help thinking of how we (the privileged) could turn our backs on such parents and NOT ensure that their children get good-quality education.

– My colleague and I were at IISWBM, a fairly well-known business school in Kolkata, and the professor gave us 1 hour out of his own lecture to talk about our movement. He introduced us by saying that if, in his time, he would have had the opportunity of doing the Fellowship, he would’ve grabbed it! The students gave us a standing ovation after our presentation. I’m just a small fry and don’t deserve standing ovations. But I couldn’t help thinking of how much our mission had inspired them, and for them to jump into it is only a little roadblock ahead.

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3 thoughts on “a month.. a subcontinent.. a mission

  1. Karthik says:

    Your passion is inspiring. I could feel your emotions reading it. I am glad you are reconnecting ! Good luck my dear friend.

  2. Aditi says:

    Very nice read. Your point on India moving ahead is indeed true. While we have publicized our country’s progress in the corporate arena, we haven’t done justice to the efforts being made in the sphere of social development.
    Good luck to you!

  3. Pothik says:

    Glad you are enjoying the new job and being back in India! Was great to see you in Kolkata, you were very immersed in your work emails and communications – clearly you’re really into this new job. Good luck.

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