Re-exploring the ‘Familiar’

It was in the narrow by-lanes of Baiganwadi slum in Govandi that Sheeba Khan grew up. The old uncles and aunties, vegetable vendors and kirana shop owners had always been familiar.

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Rearing to go: PUKAR alumna Sheeba Khan

But it was probably for the first time in 2010- at the age of 24- Sheeba re-explored this all too familiar neighbourhood with a new lens and a new fix as a PUKAR Barefoot Researcher.

It was in the tapered alleyways of the slum that communal conflicts perpetrated domestic violence. An alarming number of young girls dropped out of schools after their parents didn’t want them to “study too much”.

“I really wanted to do something for my community; for the women in particular. I belong to a very large family, and it was quite a challenge for me to pursue my academics,” says Sheeba, who completed two Fellowship cycles with PUKAR from 2010 to 2012.

Going from lane-to-lane, household-to-household, and family-to-family, Sheeba along with her friends set out to document the various gender-based practices of discrimination in the realm of schooling and education. The reasons were way too many including the overarching notions of bias towards the sons, the fear of not being able to find suitable grooms for daughters, lack of safety besides other infrastructural problems such as absence of sanitation facilities in the school premises. “Even though it has been a few years since we documented our study, our findings and interviews continue to be as relevant. Even today, the young girls continue to fight these everyday battles,” adds Sheeba.

In the Advanced Fellowship Cycle, Sheeba decided to explore the challenges faced by community women, who were a part of an inter-religious marriage.  “For such women, the challenges have always been one too many. Right from convincing their parents to adapting to an all new culture, deciding the identity of their children to fighting orthodoxy and outdated rituals, it has never been easy,” says Sheeba.

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The Early Days of Change: Sheeba (centre) with her group from the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Programme 

Crossing one barrier at a time, Sheeba has come a long way through her two fellowship cycles. The skills she honed and the confidence she gained have enabled her to script her own life’s story. She currently works as a supervisor at Niramaya Health Foundation, engaged closely with the anaemia project. “As a catalyst during my fellowship days, my friends’ parents used to send them to the PUKAR office in my name. It took me weeks to convince them,” says Sheeba, adding, “This ability to engage with communities at the ground level has helped me grow into a more confident person.”

As she packs her bag, ready to go back home after a long day at work, she says, “The Fellowship taught me that if you set your mind on doing something, nobody can stop you…”

“…Change will automatically follow,” she adds with a smile.

When the Camera becomes mightier than the Sword

From the poor working conditions in dumping grounds, challenges in obtaining ration cards and the plight of not having a health centre in the neighbourhood- video volunteer Maya Khodve’s camera has helped document people’s voices, experiences and struggles.

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PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers met with video volunteer Maya Khodve (standing fourth from left). The session was peppered with insightful discussions, experience sharing and learning.

 
In a space where the mainstream media has yet to set foot and bring the voices of marginalized locals to the fore, Maya’s effort has helped in pushing the envelope, one video at a time. “The camera is small in size, but is an extremely powerful instrument,” said Maya, while interacting with PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers. The fellows, who are researching the relationship between caste and occupation through the lens of members of the Valmiki community, met Maya at her residence in Nashik. Her life, the youth fellows said, was a textbook.

“She has overcome so many struggles. Right from getting married at a very young age, having to take up a job after her husband suffered from an accident, and then, combating societal threats, Mayaji has never given up,” said Animesh, a second year student of Botany and Zoology at GN Khalsa College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Matunga. “In fact, these experiences only motivated her to continue the onward journey,” added Neha.

Animesh and Neha are a part of the year-long fellowship programme facilitated by PUKAR in conjunction with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation and GN Khalsa College.

In a city like Mumbai, where the mentions of ‘caste’ are rarely heard or where textbooks theorise the existence of caste into four paragraphs without talking about its presence in our everyday lives, the experience of traveling to Nashik and meeting with Maya, the fellows said has been that of both, learning and unlearning.

“When we watched the videos shot by Mayaji, we realized the deep rooted existence of caste in even deciding one’s own occupation. There is only a certain community, which is engaged in manual scavenging,” said Ragini, adding, “Of course, it is not always a choice. There is a larger institution at play.” Of course, it will take several years and collective efforts to put an end to these forms of social exclusion, but Maya’s efforts of documenting and voicing these stories, the fellows believe is a big drop in the larger ocean.

The interaction with Maya also brought with it lessons for the group to work together as a team. The fellows recounted Maya’s experiences of dealing with the more powerful men in her society, who kept objecting to her work. They called her names, threatened her, and did their every bit to make her stop her work. “It would have been really easy for Mayaji to secure a better paying job or work in a bigger city. But even after all these years, she has remained rooted and dealt with every oppressor,” said Sakshi. “This was an important learning for us as a group. Mayaji never made herself a victim of circumstances,” said Reshma, adding, “She was a survivor.”

 

Links to Maya Khodve’s video volunteering work:

 

 

Opening the Little Window

As she stood on Platform Number One at Grant Road Station, little did Anjali Patel know that she would be coming face-to-face with one of her biggest fears.  As a part of the data collection process, Anjali
along with her group members from PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers Fellowship programme were on the lookout for fearless respondents.

It was their search for self-identified transgenders, which brought them to a neighbourhood that they had been told, time and again, to steer clear from:

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“Since I was a little girl, my parents had warned me about the red light area and how unsafe it was,” says the 19-year-old, adding, “Prostitution was a bad word that none of us had the courage to even
utter.”

Accompanied by members from the ‘Sunshine’ group, Anjali walked around the streets, conducted interviews in the neighbourhood and documented interviews that she deemed as “bold”.  It was towards the end of the day that the youth fellows from GN Khalsa College, Matunga even found their own little pockets of ‘safety’. “I didn’t tell my parents that I was in Kamathipura, fearing that they would order me to walk out of the fellowship. But this experience was a revelation at so many levels. I felt safe and free,” says Poojarani Pandey, 19, another group member.

For the two Microbiology students, the real challenge did not lie in speaking up in front of an audience at a conference, a meeting or a workshop. It was in fact, much closer to their own realities- their own drawing rooms. “We had previously never initiated any discussions on homosexuality and transgenders. Some of these subjects were even considered taboo by our family,” says Poojarani. “Our questions were answered by our friends,” added Anjali.

However, armed with a research topic on family acceptance of transgenders, the fellows engaged with literature and first-hand experiences of community members. This knowledge gained soon became the little window that they opened even in their own homes. “My father was very uncomfortable when I told him about the selection of the topic. However, with every passing week, he realised that I was becoming more socially aware,” says Poojarani, adding, “…I am less embarrassed to speak about the ideas of sex and gender with my brothers now.”

For Anjali and Poojarani, who refer to themselves as “best friends”, the process was far from simple. But they found their own ways to negotiate their locations. “All our learning through the process of this fellowship was based on a great level of understanding of the subject and the topic. Thus, even when we were discussing the transgenders’ community, we broke it down to sub-communities, and dug deeper to refine our own understanding,” says Poojarani.

In fact, it was this very simplified and sensitive approach that they adopted during the fellowship, which enabled them to involve their family members as well. “Words such as ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are very big and complex words. In order to involve my family, I had to explain these terms as experiences and not just words,” says Anjali. And it is this process, she adds, which has also strengthened her relationship with her mother. Recounting one such experience, Anjali mentions how she pursuaded her mother to watch the play ‘Ek Madhav Baug’, which is based on the relationship between a mother and her son, when she becomes aware of his alternate sexuality. “We had never discussed homosexuality at home for 18 years of my life. It was a different feeling to actually have my mother seated next to me, learning and unlearning with me,” says Anjali.

Her smile speaks louder than her words.

On Board ‘Change Express’

At an impressionable age of 10, Pavan Mishra set foot in Mumbai- the large metropolis, the dream machine. Accompanied by his family, Pavan moved in from Aruha city in Allahabad with bag, baggage, fears and aspirations in tow.

“It was a new life. Back then, I didn’t even have the confidence to freely speak with girls,” says Pavan, 21, who recently completed the PUKAR Youth Leaders as Changemakers Fellowship Programme. His group, comprising students of GN Khalsa College, Matunga studied the challenges faced by single parents in Mumbai. The research as well as his year-long experience of the fellowship facilitated by PUKAR in collaboration with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation, Pavan says, were even challenging for him from the word go.

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“When I got to know about the fellowship, I actually thought that it was a job,” says Pavan, flashing his dimples. “It was the first interview that I gave and cracked. I was very happy and excited,” he adds. Over the next few weeks, Pavan attended a range of workshops in the office, engaged in discussions and made contributions to ongoing debates. “In the beginning, I used to be very timid and kept to myself. However, as discussions on gender and identity got tabled in the workshop, I started expressing my opinions and experiences,” says the third year Chemistry student.

For someone, who has been born and brought up within a rather patriarchal setting, Pavan says, it has not been easy to replace some of these rituals with his learning from the eight months spent on the field and in PUKAR. For instance, during the course of his fieldwork, Pavan interviewed women, who had been widowed or had divorced their husbands. “Their stories moved me. I was aware of the difficulties faced by single parents,” says Pavan, adding, “However, I was not aware of the gravity of these problems.” He explains how some of the women had to endure taunts of family members and the society, while they were already grappling to get their finances in place.

The biggest learning however, Pavan says, has been the changes in his own interpretations of gender and gender norms. “I come from a society where women are not allowed to work outside the confines of their home. However, I am very certain that the woman I marry will be allowed to study, find a job and remain economically self-sufficient,” says Pavan.

Clearly, for Pavan, the journey on board this Change Express has just begun. “I take tuitions for school-going children in my free time. I have begun to spread the word among them,” says Pavan, adding, “We will make this society one day,” he signs off.

Food for Thought

At a time when conversations on “religious intolerance” and
“Islamophobia” are doing the rounds at varying decibel levels, and the
word ‘beef’ has been beeped out of public debate, a platform to merely
engage in conversation has become the need of the hour. A platform to
evenly tolerate both, similarities and differences.

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A few weeks ago, youth fellows from PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as
Changemakers Fellowship Programme were provided with one such
platform. With the budding researchers hailing from diverse
backgrounds and communities, the platform served as an effective space
to listen to experiences and insights from different worlds. The topic
chosen to anchor this discussion was ‘Communal Harmony’. Professor
Hubnath Pandey, a Hindi language professor at the University of
Mumbai, facilitated this day-long discussion. “There is no mention of
religion and rituals in the early history of mankind,” said Professor
Pandey, adding, “…it is a man-made creation with the aim to create
fear.” His statements witnessed several raised hands with youth
fellows wanting to voice their thoughts and insights.

“But religion has become like an army,” asserted Preet, a budding
researcher. “Whether it is choosing one’s friends or even one’s life
partner, religion plays a central role,” added another.

These voices were those of the fresh cohort of youth fellows, who were
welcomed to PUKAR in August this year to engage with their realities
through the researcher’s lens. For the second year in a row, PUKAR set
out on another journey driven by enthusiasm, learning and unlearning.
After its first successful endeavour in 2014-15, PUKAR collaborated
with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation once again
to facilitate a year-long research fellowship with students of GN
Khalsa College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Matunga.

On this Sunday morning, there was a whiff of conflict in the air.
Conflict, emerging from popular perceptions of ‘religion’ and
‘communal harmony’ vis-a-vis lived experiences and historical
conception of religion.

“The notions of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ and who had more rights than the
other, based solely on one’s own religious backgrounds, were all
created as a way of asserting one’s power. It has been used
effectively by politicians to create vote banks,” said Professor
Pandey.

The discussion soon steered towards the much dreaded four letter word-
BEEF. The youth fellows used this platform to engage with the subject
through an academic and historical lens. Recounting the
communally-charged incident in Dadri, where a man was lynched to death
by locals for allegedly possessing beef in his house, Khushboo pointed
out the massive role that religion plays in defining our identities
and relationships. “Innocent human lives are traded for the
reassertion of religion and rituals. He was killed only because there
were rumours about him possessing beef at home. Was his life so cheap
that it could be cut short to further religious aspirations?” asked
Khushboo.

“All right, let us for a moment accept that cows are to be worshipped
as the ‘Holy Goddess’ and our ‘mother’,” explained Professor Pandey,
adding, “…in that case, why is it that in most parts of our country,
this very Goddess is left in cattle sheds- abandoned, hurt and
starving?” Unrest gave way to thoughtful silence.

Bubbly Aur Bunty

While stark silence was the only audible sound inside the hospital room moments after Satish’s older sisters were born, the situation was very different when he was welcomed into the family.

Celebrations went on for days together, and relatives and friends kept pouring in to visit the first male child in the family.

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“I was very disturbed when my mother narrated this incident to me. When my older sisters were born, even my father didn’t want to visit my mother in the hospital,” recalled Satish, who recently completed a research study on ‘Discrimination between Boys and Girls in their homes’ as part of PUKAR’s Barefoot Research for Better Communities Fellowship Programme. “Even today, I strongly feel that I enjoy many more privileges than my sisters only because I am a male child. My sisters were not allowed to wear jeans and tops, while there was no debate when I chose my own clothes,” he added.

Satish along with other undergraduate students of GN Khalsa College, Matunga took part in a year-long fellowship programme. “Every time I wish to make a point and add to an existing discussion, I am asked to tone down my volume. I am constantly reminded that I am a girl and cannot be too loud,” rued Radhasuman, who finds it ironical that even as she is called the ‘Ghar ki Lakshmi’ (Goddess), her voice is often muffled during conversations.

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The group of college goers researched the form and nature of discrimination meted out on male and female children by parents within the four walls of their homes. They conducted 66 surveys and eight interviews of college-going students. Based on the data collected, they analysed the biases on the basis of the choice of clothing, healthcare, career, friendship and the freedom of expression.

“Some of our findings were startling. We found that in certain cases, the female children were not provided healthcare even when they were ill. Moreover, relatives and friends taunted the mothers for not bearing male children,” said Sayli, who claimed that under the garb of ‘personal safety’, a lot of rights of the women were curbed.

For the group, there were several points during the research that they felt that their own notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘discrimination’ were put to test. “While we as a group collectively feel that it was not fair for women to stay home and have the male members make decisions for them, many girls and women we spoke with said that it was normal,” said Sanika. “It was institutionalised in the family unit and thus, nobody thought that there was anything inappropriate about it,” she added.

As a starting point, the group has been working towards revisiting existing gender roles in their own homes. “I am aware that it is not possible to change these beliefs and practices overnight. However, it all begins with a conversation,” said Neelkanti.

“Yes, right! I recently asked my mother why my brother couldn’t help us in the kitchen. She was surprised, but didn’t ask me to shut up,” added Radhasuman. “…one step at a time.”

The group nodded in agreement.

Rhyme takes on Research

Their words need no language. Poetry stitches together their differences. 

Barefoot Researchers from the World Of Women (WOW) group have spent the past few months in understanding the challenges and liberties of students hailing from non-English medium institutions in the English-medium Dr BMN College of Home Science, Matunga. As part of the year-long PUKAR Barefoot Researchers for Better Communities programme, the fellows delved into the politics of identity and language through the framework of the batch system in the college. 

Here, they tie together their research journey through the medium they know best- Poetry.

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Brimming with creativity, the Barefoot Researchers created colourful and animated puppet versions of themselves.

“इंग्लिश बोलना है ड्यूटी,

मातृभाशा है ब्यूटी,

फिर भी इसकी किस्मत है फूटी|

क्योंकी हर किसी की बन गई है भाषा identity.

अंग्रेजी में कोई बोले तोह कहते है ओह! WOW,

मातृभाषा में वार्तालाभ करे तोह कहते है मत पकाओ!

नॉन-English माध्यम से आते है,

सबसे से मिलने में हिचकिचाते है,

बात करने से शर्माते है.

कैसे भी हो competitions लेकिन भाग लेने से घबराते है.

यही वजेह है की वोह सबसे पीछे ही रह जाते है.

हमारे कॉलेज के बैच सिस्टम के लिए हमारी थी नेगेटिव थिंकिंग,

जहा नॉन-इंलिश माध्यम वालो को अलग करते है देने के लिए इंग्लिस की कोचिंग,

जब जानना चाह हमने ‘How much this idea approaching’?

फिर जो मिला डाटा हमें था बोहत ही shocking.

क्योंकि कुछ बच्चो ने कहा ‘this idea is really Working’

अंग्रेजी की उस क्लास में रहता है अलग सा atmosphere,

जहा नहीं रहता किसी के तानो का fear.

अब थोड़ी सी मेहनत है सबको करनी,

चाहे हो स्टूडेंट या हो वाणी,

सब की नज़रों में है Equality लानी.

इंग्लिश उन्नति के पेड़ को आसमान तक पोह्चाएगी,

लेकिन मातृभाषा उसकी जेड मजबूत बनाएगी!!