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.





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