Water – a natural resource for all, but is it available for all?

“Most interesting I found was my interaction with my friends,” said Shakir, half laughing. “Few of them used to call and simply ask ‘Aaj paani aaya kya? I had fun listening to them because it provided me a space to have a dialogue around water issue.”

Shakir Husain‘s journey from being a college student to an activist fighting for the Right to Water is quite captivating. As a college student, Shakir was engaged with Apnalaya India as volunteer and that’s when he heard about PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program. He and his five friends came together and formed a group for the fellowship program. After getting selected each member of the group had their own individual ideas for research proposal.

After days and weeks of discussion, debates and dialogue within their group, they decided to work on the issue related to the shortage of water supply as it was the most crucial one. When they discussed it further with program facilitators, they realized that the root of the issue was much deeper than expected and its branches were much wider than seen. They could relate to their everyday challenges which their own families had to face. “The process made me more aware about the underlying issues which were often neglected in the name of the everyday routine.” Said Shakir, “It only came out when I looked at the community from the perspective of the researcher. The program not only provided me with a new lens to look at my community’s issues but also made me confident to articulate and express my thoughts to others.”

Although Shakir’s aim was quite clear, he had to face resistance from his family as they assumed that it was not the job for a common man like him. It took effort to build confidence in the work he was planning to undertake but with his strong will and determination, he succeeded in assuring them and changing their perspective.


The journey of being a fellow was more enriching than Shakir had expected. According to him, PUKAR’s environment was welcoming and he felt he was heard for the first time in his life. This itself initiated the process of building confidence. In an era where everyone would hear the word and assume the impact of water shortage, PUKAR provided his group the space where their problems were heard from their own community. According to him, he learnt more about being responsible during the phase of data collection. Often. the residents of M-East ward where their research was based, felt that the survey would eventually provide them with the solution to water supply. “We had to make extra effort to make them understand our aim of this Research and we strictly restrained from giving false hope”

Attending residential workshops and meeting various resource persons provided Shakir with diverse perspective. This exposure made him more firm to work and advocate Right to Water. Keeping his goal in mind, post fellowship Shakir joined Pani Haq Samiti as Consultant – Community Organizer for the project ‘The effect citizen empowerment and public service provision and Urban governance in eastern suburban. His dedication towards finding a solution for shortage of water supply was far above the job security and therefore, even after the project Shakir volunteered and continued on his journey of advocacy towards right to water for all citizens. His hard work showed colors as many people started noticing his dedication towards the issue regarding shortage of water supply and supported him. In December 2018, Hyderabad Urban Lab invited him and one of his fellow group member to present their research through video presentation. “It was through PUKAR that I and my fellow group member got this opportunity. Initially we were nervous to present our work in front of so many national and international organizations but once the presentation started, everything went in a flow.” On 11 January, Shakir was one of the panelists, representing PUKAR, for Adolescents and Advent of Responsibilities for City Level Youth Symposium, 2019. “This was another platform wherein city wide organizations working on Youth came together and shared dialogues on everyday life issues which impacted their lives”

All this conversation around issues related to Water and Youths, Shakir feels that the journey of transformation has just started on ground and has a long way to go.

“I fight to protect the fundamental right to water as it prerequisite for all other human rights,” said Shakir Shaikh a resident of M-East ward which is also one of the areas in Mumbai where no water supply is available for the residents. “In order to have access to water other things like employment, education, dignity and freedom often get impacted. Students have to skip their schools, people try to stay at home so as to store water and therefore many times have to skip high paying jobs. For authorities, it is just an issue of water supply but for us residents, it is an issue of survival.”

Two years back ‘Youth ki Awaaz’ too covered the story on water issue based on Shakir and his team’s research work.
Link: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/06/severe-water-crisis-in-shanti-nagar-slum-of-mumbai/



Building perspectives, broadening horizons

Like all of us, Paras Naik has dreams and aspirations. He is a soft-spoken young man, but his words exude confidence and maturity. There is a certain calmness with which thoughts are articulated, and a kind generosity in the way he tells his stories – where his friends enjoy the limelight. Or maybe those are the kind of stories he likes to tell. And today, when so much of our daily consumption is overwhelmingly about ‘me, myself and I’, this quality of Paras stands out.

“I enjoy reading books of history and listening to Marathi classical music – it’s called Natya Sangeet. I want to become an IPS officer and attempt to change the mindsets of people who think all cops are corrupt. My dream is to work in areas of conflict where many officers hesitate to be posted because the experience would be life-changing for me.”

A student of Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Paras came on board the ‘Youth Leaders as Change Makers’ project in 2017. When he heard about the fellowship, Paras thought he would be doing research in the field of Science. Because he was studying Humanities, simultaneously pursuing a course of this nature seemed like a good idea to him.

Of course, later on, he understood the scope of the fellowship and its uniqueness that was rooted in the effective use of CBPAR (Community-Based Participatory Action Research) as a tool to study social realities. And this scientific approach of uncovering the truth greatly appealed to him. He reminisces about the residential orientation workshop in Kharghar: “I didn’t know what to expect. But the workshop gave us a taste of the fellowship and a sense of where we were headed. We watched a film called India Untouched that really opened my eyes to the injustices in our country. We live in bubbles and our opinions are formed by very superficial factors – we don’t look at things holistically I believe the film was a very effective and powerful way of bringing closure to our debate of reservation which started at the workshop.”


Throughout the fellowship, there were many such turning points and moments of extensive learning for Paras. His group, Innovations, comprised seven Muslim members and himself, a Hindu. They decided to explore Muslim perspectives on the triple-talaq verdict. “Some of our group members were initially hesitant because the topic was definitely sensitive in nature and studying it would mean doing a deep-dive – what if family members didn’t approve? But we zeroed down on it after several group meetings and discussions with our facilitators. And in hindsight, it was a great decision – it was an education for me in Islam.”

A crucial learning for Paras was also the respect he cultivated for his friends’ religious practices. During Ramadan, he would make it a point to not carry his lunch to the group meetings and eat only when his friends broke their fast in the evenings. And there was no proclamation of ‘religious tolerance’ anywhere. It was all very organic and for that reason, very beautiful. Paras acknowledges PUKAR’s role in this process: “I got this opportunity because I was a part of the Youth Fellowship. I learned about Islam from such close quarters.”

Paras says that the fellowship has taught him to dig beneath the surface. “Our facilitator told us how some messages that are circulated online are fake. And how we can check the veracity of these messages. An important lesson for me has been never to accept a one-dimensional version of an issue. We were always encouraged to listen to multiple perspectives. Through our interactions with Islamic scholars and other experts in the course of our study, we came across aspects of the story that the media may not have covered. At every step, we were forced to think, and as a result, so much new information came to light. Plus I have developed the skills to interact with different entities.”

Finally, when Paras is asked what he likes most about the fellowship, he says: “CBPAR is PUKAR’s strength. PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship should never stop. And I hope many more fellows come out of the program with the capabilities and desire to be good citizens. The problems of the world are far from over but PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship is an attempt to find some answers.”

Paras Naik was a fellow from 2017-2018 as part of ‘Youth Leaders as Change Makers’, a collaboration between PUKAR, Guru Nanak Khalsa College, and Gunvati J. Kapoor Medical Charitable Relief Foundation. He is currently pursuing his B.A from Guru Nanak Khalsa College.

As Within, So Without

In the summer of 2015, Irfan Khan filled out the Youth Fellowship application form. Why? Because all his friends were doing it.

The fellowship began. Irfan and his friends had been selected. Their group decided to study the challenges faced by trans people in accessing public toilets. On their first visit to a community of trans people, Irfan recalls keeping his physical and emotional distance from them. “We, as a society, don’t talk about trans people too much. Mingling with them is considered taboo. I remember they were all sitting in a circle and the other group members were part of it. I, however, sat away from them.”

Irfan, like many other fellows, found the fellowship making some tough demands of him. Asking for proof of qualities he didn’t think he possessed – time-management, teamwork, empathetic listening, to name a few. Answers preceded questions. What did it mean to have an analytical bent of mind? How was his perspective on an issue, not the truth? Why did he have to entertain schools of thought different from his own? If learning was a vast sea, Irfan was walking deeper into it. Drowning may have been a worry, but the fellowship was silently buoying him up.

And one day, Irfan learned to swim. He wanted to dive into the water, become friends with it, explore its hidden wonders. “People spend their entire lives without knowing what lies at their core. And that’s why the fellowship was a life-changing experience for me. Because I was introduced to myself.”


11 months passed. Towards the end of the fellowship, Irfan visited the same community of trans people again. They shared their research findings. Everything was new. The air, the relationships, the research, the fellows. However stark the reality, at that moment, no one was on the margins – neither the trans people nor Irfan. They were one – dancing, celebrating and creating happiness together. For Irfan, that will always remain the most memorable day of the fellowship.

Today, he seems to have found the answers to some of his questions and developed the skill-set to brave troubled waters. “The time-management skills I acquired in PUKAR came handy while preparing for my Civil Services examination last year. My way of thinking has broadened. I know how important it is to be analytical – not only from an academic point of view but also in terms of building healthy relationships. I was used to working alone before joining the fellowship and had become overconfident. I learned that when you work alone, you have a set of limitations, but working in a group helps you transcend those boundaries and achieve more.”

Irfan wants everyone to know about the Youth Fellowship. He believes it is the need of the hour for young people who want to understand themselves better and play an active role in the country’s citizenry. After completing the fellowship, Irfan has come back every single year for PUKAR’s annual exhibition event and graduation ceremony. “I found the desire to learn as a fellow. We researched our topics extensively, and I know others do the same every year. I want to know about their studies, their findings. Because I believe that life is a process of learning and there is something new waiting for us at each bend.” 

Irfan has realised that knowing the right answers is not enough. Sometimes, there are no right answers. Learning is more complex than that. What started out as a casual affair, has turned into one of the biggest romances of his life. A tryst with self-discovery that has helped him understand the outer world: “As within, so without”.

“As within, so without” is an ancient Greek saying. It underscores the strong correlation between deepening self-knowledge and understanding the world. It also perfectly describes Irfan Khan’s most significant takeaway from the Youth Fellowship.  He was a fellow from 2015-2016 as part of ‘Youth Leaders as Change Makers’, a collaboration between PUKAR, Guru Nanak Khalsa College, and Gunvati J. Kapoor Medical Charitable Relief Foundation. Irfan took a gap year after graduation to prepare for his Civil Services examination. He is currently pursuing his M.A. in History from Mumbai University.

Research as a means to truth

“What you seek is seeking you.” – Rumi

Rewind to 2015: I had around 4-5 years of experience in sales and marketing positions. But I was discontent with what I was doing. I was just questioning my role in this entire cycle of consumption, capitalism. Was I just selling a bunch of lies? I felt like I had become part of a cycle of just creating demands. Around the same time, the concept of ‘user-centred’ design was gaining momentum within the design industry and that is what got me curious. As the term suggests, ‘user-centred’ design is basically a concept wherein the end user’s needs, wants and characteristics are kept in mind while designing a product or service. It means we first identify what the user wants or needs through research, rather than creating a product and forcing the user to change their behaviour and use the product. And so, I thought research would be the answer, that it would get me closer to knowing what people actually want or need, in another sense for me it meant that research would bring me closer to the truth of things.

So one fine day, I was just googling for research jobs and I stumbled upon PUKAR’s website where I read about the research fellowship and their Community Based Participatory Action Research approach. I found it very interesting and thought that maybe this platform could help me gain research skills and some hands-on experience. Also, from a philosophical point of view, the community-based approach sounded apt to what I was looking for in terms of building my foundation for being a researcher. So I submitted the application, went for the interview and committed that year’s Sundays to PUKAR.

Photo - Preet

The fellowship started with a residential orientation workshop which gave me a glimpse of the PUKAR style of learning- learning through introspection, learning through experience. I realised how uncomfortable I was with myself because throughout the orientation we had to express ourselves through various activities. I vividly remember during one of the sessions we were told to close our eyes and imagine ‘Humare Mann Ka Hathi’ (the elephant in our imagination). The idea was to be creative and to look at things from another perspective. Tumhare mann ka hathi, hathi bhi ho sakta hai, ya kuch aur bhi. Wo kuch aur kya kya ho sakta hai, ye apne mann mein jhak ke dekhna hai (The elephant in your imagination, can be an elephant, or something else. What else it can be, apart from an elephant, you need to look within to find out). I finally got in touch with Mere Mann ka Hathi- two big eyes filled with curiosity, which was my state of mind at that point. I left the orientation feeling more self-aware, specifically in terms of the judgements I had towards myself, others and my then existing worldviews. 

The research topic our group chose to work on was ‘Smartness’ of a city through the lens of Urban Poor Women in Mumbai. The idea was to choose a topic which affects our life on a day-to-day basis. The Smart Cities Mission was just announced at the time we were deciding on our topic and we thought it would be interesting to study a project that was in the making.   

By the end of the research, the thing that struck me was the realisation that this was not our research, it was the research of the women we had spoken to and it was about their identities. They were not respondents, they were participants. We were merely observing and documenting the knowledge and experiences of these women. Till date, I do my best to ensure that I enter the research field with this mindset in my professional work.

During the fellowship, the capacity-building workshops were something I would eagerly look forward to. Discussing, debating, questioning norms related to gender, religion, etc, through relevant case studies, films, poems, etc. helped me become more critical as a person. The focus of these sessions was more on what we ‘felt’ about the issues/events rather than just a discussion of concepts and their definitions. Unlearning became easier since my views were constantly challenged by the facilitators and my fellow researchers. There was no hierarchy, nobody was a teacher or a student, we were all learners, learning from each other.

After graduating from the Youth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to work as a YF Programme Assistant for a period of two months. I was specifically brought on board to assist in coordinating the Alumni Mentor component. I also mentored a group studying the role of education in a career. This was a totally different experience because as a mentor I struggled to draw the line between assisting the group and knowing when to take a backseat. It was a new learning for me as tried to strike a balance.

Thanks to my facilitators’ suggestions, I had the opportunity of attending workshops conducted by other organisations across India. After the fellowship, I attended a short workshop called Nayi Dishayein – Rethinking Development conducted by Sambhaavnaa Institute, Himachal Pradesh and a month-long course on Gender, Diversity and Social Transformation at Visthar, Bangalore. Both these workshops were immensely helpful in increasing my systematic understanding of capitalism and patriarchy. This is what I love most about the people at PUKAR, if you have the desire to learn, then support is always made available to you. The Youth Fellowship and the other workshops I attended, still make me question my materialistic needs, make me aware of my privileges and help ask more questions.

A big thank you to my facilitators who pushed me to be more confident about myself and helped bring out the leader in me. They motivated our group when we needed it most. Thanks to my group members for making me more patient and persistent. I may be in a different time zone now, but the learning from PUKAR will always be with me, consciously and subconsciously.

Preet Kiran Sandhu is an ex-fellow who completed the Youth Fellowship cycle in 2016. She is currently in Canada pursuing her passion for research and community development.

A life less ordinary

Rows of bookshelves adorn a wall in Spruha’s home. Some of the shelves double up as a display for the numerous awards she’s won over the years. They don’t scream out for attention but it would be hard to miss them. Prizes for essay-writing, poetry, and teaching. If Spruha owned a cap, it would be fitted with not one, but many feathers. Although it might seem at the first glance that Spruha simply chased her dreams to get where she is today, life has been anything but easy.

Childhood was sheltered for Spruha. As the eldest daughter, she had responsibilities but her parents, who were both earning members of the family, made sure she got what she wanted. She says that it was a fairly sheltered upbringing. The upheaval came when Spruha fell in love and got married at the age of 18. Her parents were unaware of this event and withdrew their support when they found out. Today, Spruha admits that it was an impulsive decision and that she had realisations post-marriage that were significantly shocking and damaging. Her partner was much older than he had claimed to be, he had multiple addictions, was ill-tempered and physically abusive towards her.

About two years into the marriage, Spruha had reconciled with her parents but their acceptance meant that she continued to stay in a toxic relationship and put up a facade before them. Spruha recalls, “I had my daughter Mansi when I was 19. She suffered the brunt of her father’s anger as well. I thought I was weak, I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, how to say no. I had no clue about the legal system or its functioning. Until 2010, I did not know anything about the ‘how’ aspect of divorce.”

Spruha was pursuing her D.Ed when she got married and despite the volatility of her marriage, she had managed to complete the course. She took up a job as a teacher when her daughter was 9 months old. For the next few years, life went on, with more troughs than crests. Spruha fought through countless dark episodes, holding on to her child, drawing strength from her, and turning to the power of ink – sometimes as a distraction, and other times as an outlet for self-expression.

In 2010, she participated in a state-level essay writing competition and won the 1st prize. At the felicitation ceremony, she met Yogita Salve, an alumnus of PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship, who advised her to join the next cycle. On enquiring about the fellowship, Spruha found that she would have to form a 15-member group. She managed to get 10 people together but the group was not selected. Spruha felt dejected, wondering why it hadn’t worked out. But a couple of months later, she was informed of the group’s selection.


When the fellowship began, the group faced severe dropout issues, not once but twice in the cycle. Given Spruha’s immense dedication towards the process, she would panic every time something went wrong and each time, her facilitators, Sunil Gangavane and Poonam Yewale would placate her fears, help her find a solution and encourage her to keep going. The exposure to people from diverse backgrounds helped Spruha make new friends and find new confidantes. A workshop on understanding the ‘self’ facilitated by Nitin Paranjape pushed her to seek power from within.

During the fellowship, Spruha experienced an awakening, stemming from years of being subjugated and began the courageous battle to break free from her marriage. It made her realise that her life amounted to so much more than she was made to believe, and that living in constant trauma wasn’t a way to live at all. Sunil and Poonam extended their unhindered emotional support to her and also suggested ways in which she could seek legal help. Spruha says, “I was depressed for sometime. Poonam sent me to counsellors whom I could talk to freely. I started to hear my own voice with clarity. It had been muffled so far. Eventually, I felt confident enough to go to the police station, a place that was dominated and manipulated by the men in uniforms. They wouldn’t register my complaint. I learnt about Right To Information (RTI) Act through a session in the Youth Fellowship and figured out how to file applications to enquire about the status of my complaints and to retrieve other information crucial for my case.”

Knowledge empowers. On one hand, Spruha was learning the importance of evidence-based learning in the fellowship and on the other she was using this knowledge to gather evidence to fight in court. She emerged successful. Independence had not come easy, but it had finally come.

Today, Spruha is an RTI activist who facilitates workshops on understanding the Act as part of the Youth Fellowship project. She helps other women file applications and sticks with them through the process. She participates in poetry and essay writing competitions with gusto and celebrates her victories. She continues teaching at the same school where she started off as a teacher and invests a large portion of her time in this endeavour.

Spruha says that she has come a long way as a teacher. Today, she is part of a breed of educators that cares deeply about what they do. She declares, “I found my strength in PUKAR. I used to be rigid in my methods of teaching and imitate other senior teachers. My teaching was never children-centric but that has changed. I believe I have become confident and innovative in my approach. The children call me by name and say that they love me. I can see how their involvement in class has increased. I believe in using alternative teaching methods and am often invited to conferences to make presentations. I do exercises in class where I teach the children real world skills like conducting interviews and even the importance of research. In this way, I am able to transfer my learning from PUKAR in a classroom environment”.

Spruha also has a son from her marriage and he’s still in school while her daughter is pursuing law. Her day revolves around her son, the kids at school, the court and she even manages to take tuitions in the evenings. The nights however are devoted to writing stories and poems, a passion that illuminates her life. Evidently, Spruha has a packed schedule and she says that there is no other way she would have it. Since 2012, when she came onboard the fellowship, Spruha has been a firm proponent of experiential learning, and engaged in a constant cycle of acquiring knowledge and then applying it – whether it is filing 278 RTI applications to seek truths related to her own life, or using her experiences of interacting with a fellow transgender participant in the fellowship to talk to her class about Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist. So when she says that her story today would read very differently than it did 6 years back, the reason is obvious: it is because she wrote it herself.

Breaking The Silos Of Research

Shreyashi Dasgupta*

     “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress”- Barack Obama

    I often sit and reminisce about my academic journey, and when I do, I deeply acknowledge the role of PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research) and its flagship Youth Fellowship Programme. It all began in Sophia College for Women where my undergraduate degree gave me several opportunities to work on a range of eclectic projects. These years also forged my desire to pursue a career in research. But I was apprehensive about walking down the path of research without an advanced qualification. I had two choices: to invest in a Masters Degree or to take up an internship for the first-hand experience of doing research. I chose the latter.

Considering that I was a first-generation college student, the decision to pursue a career in research was not an easy one; I was the ‘first’ in my family to want an unconventional career. In 2010, when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree, I came across PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme. The fellowship encourages youth in Mumbai to undertake research projects on urban issues in the city. I spoke to the coordinators, formed a group and applied for the fellowship. It was my first step in trying to unravel the process of research. This independent fellowship was designed outside of a typical academic curriculum and introduced me to the ethos of ‘democratising research’. Over the course of time, I was also introduced to the work done by the founder of PUKAR and renowned anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, who till date remains an inspiration.

The year-long PUKAR Youth Fellowship honed my research skills and shaped the road ahead of me. I valued PUKAR’s mentorship process as it gave me the space to explore, learn, and understand both my ‘self’ and the surroundings. Seeds of my love for cities and their complex sociopolitical dynamics were definitely sown during the fellowship. We were encouraged to write our autobiographies and made to reflect the choices of our research topic and its inextricable link to our daily lives. Suddenly, there was a revelation that research is not a detached process but very much embedded in the questions we encounter every day.

Shreyashi Dasgupta

The diverse cohort of fellows made my journey all the more interesting. For the first time, I attached importance to my experiences as a first-generation learner with a distinct socioeconomic background while learning from the stories of the other fellows who came from unique backgrounds themselves. In that sense, the whole process was a fusion of ideas coming from different sources and driven by a common purpose. I learnt skills that are a must for any ethical and committed researcher: formulating succinct questions, doing a review of the literature, interviewing people confidently, documenting the research process in a coherent and uncomplicated manner, engaging with the community and an introspection of the process at every stage.

I am extremely lucky to have found a lifelong mentor in Dr Anita Patil-Deshmukh through this fellowship, along with other fellowship coordinators who encouraged me to aspire and unleash my potential.

Most humanities and social science colleges during my time did not have a thesis component at the Bachelor’s level. The Youth Fellowship filled that void in my formative years and its framework was a building block to learn the process of research and gain analytical skills. PUKAR’s approach to research is tailored as per the needs of the project and their use of unconventional methods such as games, group assignments, photography, videos, reading literary works in more than one language and other modes are helpful for a novice researcher. I so enjoyed my stint as a PUKAR Youth Fellow in 2010 that I applied for the PUKAR Advanced Youth Fellowship in 2011 to further nurture my research skills. That eventually paved way for my application for a Masters degree at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

Over the years, I have valued the skillset I acquired as a youth fellow in PUKAR. It has helped me in imbibing a grounded approach toward my research topics and ideas. After the completion of my Masters Degree, I pursued my passion for research more vigorously and landed with a full scholarship to pursue MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, U.K. My interdisciplinary research training took shape at PUKAR and was later sculpted in TISS, giving me a vantage view of working and living in the Global South. Research at Cambridge has added a Global North dimension to it. Inspired by the barefoot approach, my ongoing PhD broadly engages in conducting comparative urban research in housing in South Asia from an ethnographic standpoint.

Recently, I have also co-founded and co-convened an ongoing initiative titled Cambridge Urbanism in the Global South Working Group. The group has allowed me and my colleagues at Cambridge to pursue a similar quest to bridge the gap between the production of urban scholarship on cities from diverse perspectives, highlight the emerging literature in different languages, methodologies and initiatives by students and professionals working on/from the Global South. Decolonizing urban studies/urban geography movement is now gaining momentum in the Global North. I thank PUKAR for my initiation into this space at an early juncture of my career, using which I have discovered a vast world of untapped knowledge outside the Euro-American context.

(*Shreyashi Dasgupta is the Jawaharlal Nehru Cambridge PhD Scholar at the Centre of Development Studies and Girton College, University of Cambridge, UK. She was a part of the PUKAR’s Youth and Advanced Research Fellowship from 2010 to 2012).

The star of her own story

Zainab Cutlerywala, an ex-fellow, and mentor, pens down the story of her journey with PUKAR, beautifully articulating how she assumed new roles along the way and painting a vivid picture of the transformation in her life and the way she sees it. 

A daydreamer,

A nocturnal worker,

A small-town girl in the magnum opus called Mumbai,

A dietician,

A barefoot researcher,

Or a fellow, who is trying to make democracy work better by assisting the municipal corporator in asking the right questions.

I am Zainab Cutlerywala and I have never had a perfect introduction because it’s always changing.

But the one thing that has remained constant in my life is research, it’s a habit I picked up from my 2 years of formal involvement and years of ongoing informal engagement with PUKAR.

I still remember the time Dr. Mala Pandurang, Vice Principal of Dr. BMN College, my alma mater, pushed me to enrol for PUKAR’s Barefoot Researcher Fellowship Programme. I am so glad I took that leap. This journey has played an instrumental role in who I am today.

If I were an actor, then my journey would be one long play, where my role has changed through the years.

From only a speaker to also a listener

During the youth fellowship program, the most important transformation in me was the improvement of my listening skills. While a good speaker needs to be confident, have a command on the language and good delivery, a good listener must pay attention, be patient and have a sponge-like readiness to absorb what the other person is saying.

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From pure inquisitiveness to a deeper self-exploration

Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”.

Before the fellowship, I had never sat and thought about my life the way I did during my residential orientation programme. Each one of us was made to write our autobiography. I don’t think it had crossed our minds: it was so important to know yourself in order to find out what you wanted to know. Learning about myself informed my curiosity about the world.

There is a fine line between being straightforward and being rude, speaking your mind, and implying what you think is right. I would often get defensive when people didn’t agree with my point of view, but even that has changed. I have learned to accept that I can not always be right and there are multiple ways of looking at every situation. I have now put forth my point of view as exactly that; I always say, “Mujhe aisa lagta hai…” (This is what I think).

From living by a structural method to accepting and valuing an interactive method

When you have completed a research fellowship program, and ‘Research Methodology’ features prominently in your academic syllabus the year after, it makes you realise the value of interactive sessions. A subject as intriguing as research needs an equally interesting method of delivery. Through interactive workshops, we learned the entire process of research. Not only did this polish my skills as a barefoot researcher but it also enhanced my life skills. The fellowship successfully converted skills into habit so that the research came to us naturally, so that ‘critical thinking’ was not just a term we used but a way of life. Budget management, time-management, teamwork, equality, transparency in interactions were all fruitful lessons learned.

Barefoot Researcher to Alumentor

When the alumni-mentor component was formalised, my role changed. I enrolled myself for a totally different role and process, but it still felt similar. Filling forms, being interviewed, it was all so familiar. But I knew that this role would bring an additional layer of responsibilities with it. I could feel the anxiety building: would I be able to fulfil my role? I didn’t my drawbacks to have any kind of influence on the group. In one of the discussions with the other mentors, I realised that we had a tendency to view the journeys of the fellows in the same light as our own even though each journey was unique.

And when my role as a mentor was about to come to an end, I wasn’t sad like I had been towards the end of the fellowship. Because this time I knew that my relationship with PUKAR would sustain the test of time. They would always push me to grab opportunities. Who could have thought that being from a science, non-Marathi speaking background I would get a spot on the Praja Fellowship centred on governance where the first language is Marathi. But like a guardian, PUKAR motivated and supported me through it. Completing the fellowship made me feel pride. The skills I had picked up as fellow and mentor came handy while interacting with the municipal councillor and assisting with research.

I will forever be grateful and indebted to my super cool facilitator, Rohan Chavan, calm advisor Sunil Gangavane, the forever motivational Anita Patil-Deshmukh and PUKAR for bringing out the qualities I didn’t know I had in me, and for pushing me constantly to learn and be better.

For years, PUKAR’s ex-fellows kept returning to the fellowship in informal capacities, generously investing their time and energy in guiding the succeeding batch of fellows. In 2016, these efforts were formalised through an exciting collaboration with the Sinha-Kikeri Foundation, Chicago. The alumni mentor or as it is commonly referred to, Alumentor (alumni as mentors) component in the Youth Fellowship Program officially creates a space for ex-fellows like Zainab to actively engage with current fellows and guide them through their research. It also provides them with a monthly stipend to help manage expenses in relation to the fulfillment of their roles.