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Shodh yatra report compressed copy


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Personal Travel Log of my 3rd Shodh Yatra in Wardha, Maharashtra in May 2013

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Shodh yatra report compressed copy

  1. 1. Despite millions being spent on women welfare and development, the knowledge and creativity of India’s women remain unearthed and often ignored in India’s hinterland. A group of thirty people has set out to find those creative women during SRISTI’s 31st Shodh Yatra in Wardha, Maharashtra from 5th to 12th May, 2013. A Personal Journey Log by Marianne Esders THE SWELLING ROAR OF SILENT TIGERS
  2. 2. ShodhYatra is a journey for the search of knowledge, creativity and innovation at grassroots. ShodhYatra is an attempt to reach out to the remotest parts of the country with a firm belief that hardship and challenges of natural surroundings are the prime motivators of creativity and innovation. 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
  3. 3. Plastic bags pop up and down the river’s surface. The flowers of puja chains float here and there between bottles, trash and dirt. Closeby, the steps of a temple scale the embankment and further down, some bores appease their thirst. Quickly we approach the blue painted walls of the Ashram on the other side of the river. We are running behind. I am told in the Ashram lives a lady of 85, who has spent many years of her life walking. Walking through the states of India to share Gandhi Ji’s thoughts. Upon arrival, we learn that she has fallen ill. Only very few of us may visit her. But first we are asked to sit and listen to the welcoming words of another elderly woman. Some of us buy the Ashram’s letters. I also give some money but do not take the paper. I want to travel light and would not be able to read the Indian script, which is still completely alien to me. After a few minutes, a second elderly woman approaches, and soon a third. Their hair is cut short and one of them has shaved her head. Though we don’t know much about him, we pay our tribute to the grave of the Ashram’s founder and listen to the words of the ladies. Finally, a small woman joins us. It seems the sight of a group of walking shodh yatris makes her feel stronger. Some illnesses need a cure for the soul. She shares Gandhi Ji’s message and the Professor translates into English for me. Except for the yatris I don’t see any men or younger people around. Is nobody interested in Gandhi Ji’s ideas any longer? The women are strong in their preaching. The atmosphere reminds me of that created by the nuns in the catholic girl school that I attended when I was younger. Something sacred floating in the air, little flower beds here and there, discipline, chastity and something sublime that I can’t easily nail down in words. Maybe some form of passion soaked with years of life. When I get up from my knees I discover Jesus nailed on a cross hanging above a small hindu shrine. I refrain myself from taking a picture. It is all the same, I think and wonder about the meaning of life. A few steps further, a naked godess stretches out on the walls of a temple room. It is time for us to leave and the women ask me to take the other yatris with me to the Ashram’s gate. I smile at how naturally they approach me to lead out the group. So different from the patriarchal India that I have experienced in many other places. On the way back over the river, I hear the Professor speak about what friendship is not. But what is friendship? He says, it is making another person become better. I think it is also accepting another person exactly the way he or she is or would that be love. A RESOLUTION FOR DAILY MEDITATION The yatra begins with a day at Sewagram Ashram nearby Wardha and the resolution for daily meditation. Reflecting on it now, I kind of followed this resolution, though not always by sitting in silence. For some yatris it feels as if Gandhi Ji’s spirit is still strongly present in the Sewagram compound. I cannot sense it. But the place is quiet and calming. I leave my signature in the Visitors Book before we slowly start our walk. Around 100 kilometres ahead. The coming days we will walk over fields and through forests. I’ll see some Nilgai in a dried riverbed and a little lake not far off the road will invite me to wade right into it, without hesitation and fully dressed. The water will cool my body, thoughts and sun-burnt skin. Every day, I will walk myself stronger and at one point feel the wish to walk a million miles more. It is pure joy to be outside, far away from the office desk, though the temperatures are unbelievably high, around 48 degree Celsius. During the walk, I don’t speak much and try to stick mostly to those who are silent, say little or do not speak my language. For some reason discussing about this or that gets to my nerves and is somehting that I would rather avoid than spilling out a never ending flow of words. I don’t feel like explaining why I am in India, where I come from, what my plans are, and where I will go. To be honest, I do not know, and time has taught me that too tightly planned paths are illusionary; there are always unforseen twists. I just walk and see, take a right turn here, a left turn there, and sometimes, I take rest or walk a little back when I realise the path leads to a place where I do not want to go.
  4. 4. 1 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
  5. 5. THE HARDSHIPS OF LIFE In the early morning light, a mother kneels over her archaic brick making tools to earn the money she needs to send her children to school. Everything worth its effort must emerge from the hardships of life. But must it be this hard? Why do the brick makers we meet on our journey not use more advanced machinery? The dusty air and muddy clay have turned the woman’s clothes and hands into the same colour as the earth under her muddy feet. Her face is veiled, her eyes wide awake. I come closer to see what is going on but only understand fractions since my Hindi is still very bad. Later someone tells me that her daughter studies at medical college. The woman is not shy. She is on Facebook, she says, and the Professor is thrilled. I wonder why she would not be, mobile technology is everywhere. What does she think about 30 shodh yatris walking by? What do I think about 30 shodh yatris walking by? I take a picture of her with son. He spends his summer holidays working with his mother. I think about the project for the elimination of child labour1 that we carry out at SRISTI. But before I am able to ask questions, the group has started walking again.   One thing I told myself before going on this walk was not to fall behind. Nothing makes it harder to keep the spirits high than falling behind a group that marches ahead. In the early morning hours the heat is still bearable but throughout the day the sun will turn into a burning fireball, the asphalt will eat the bottom of my shoes. 2 1 Woman working at a brick making site in Wardha, Maharashtra 2 Time for a little rest and chat with those who labour hard every day My shoes have served me well in the two preceding shodh yatras. Probably this time they will fall apart. I know that the heat of Wardha will get to my brain, drain more water out of my body than one can take in. But so far, acidity has not set in and I am doing my best to prevent it. Wardha is the region in India where many farmers have committed suicide to bring their families out of debt. In the morning light it looks peaceful and like any other part of the country. Some water buffaloes pass by in a stoic trot. 1  www.  h&p://­‐to-­‐find-­‐innova-ve-­‐idea-­‐for-­‐eliminate-­‐child-­‐labour
  6. 6. After two days we find our rhythm, start early and take rest when the midst of the day brings too much heat. Before noon, we hold three village meetings, after noon another three or four. I am almost never hungry. The food is cooked very spicy and it is just too hot for me to eat much. Sleeping outside is better than under a roof. With so many stars, I quickly fall asleep in the cooling night air. When waking up on the second morning, I feel all my muscles and bones. The third day, I feel my sunburnt shoulder and my left hip. The fourth day, I feel no more pain. The fear that I won’t make it declines with every step and I become more confident in the belief that I can do it, that my body can take it, the walk, the food, unfiltered water, and the incredible heat. No need to sit in a car or to visit a doctor as I had to in the preceding shodh yatras. With every passing day, I walk better in the heat of Maharashtra.Walking over dry fields in Wardha, Maharashtra 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
  7. 7. PAINTED COTTON FLOWERS Dusk is approaching when we reach Khairi. It is situated on a hill and its entrance is framed by a beautiful tree. I wished we could spend the entire night under this tree. We stay some time with the villagers and visit the house of a deaf and mute girl. She has decorated her room with dried and colourfully painted cotton flowers. The girl’s eyes and smile are warm and welcoming and I realise that her expressive way of communication makes it easier for me to understand her signs than the foreign languages that surround me every day. Besides the girl’s efforts to bring beauty to her room, we have not come across many signs of creativity in the region. Her door steps are ornated with bangles. Nitin calls them half-broken and the professor rebukes him for his choice of words. Women don’t like the word broken - they are partitioned bangles, he points out. After visiting her house, we sally quickly. Though it is dark by now, we have one more village to reach. The path meanders downhill. We are at the edge of a wildlife reservoir. It is the first time the yatris start speaking about tigers. We try to stay close together and torches come in handy now. This night we spend in the huge schoolyard of Saldhara. While the men wash off the walk’s heat at the yard’s water tap, the villagers listen to our nightly presentation. As a woman, I have to find some hoarding at the far end of the school building behind which I can hide in the dark to wash my face and feet. Right now I would not mind taking a bath in the open as the men do. But I should not forget that I am in India and I do not want to cause a riot. I do not like this schoolyard. Maybe it is better than the crossroad on which we spent the other night where those sleeping at the outer edges were scared to lose their lives to cars rolling over their heads – a fence of white plastic chairs could only serve as slight protection. But tonight’s schoolyard is situated a little far off the village and I feel it could be any schoolyard anywhere in the world. How will we learn more about the people of this region if we stay outside their village? Should we not meet, eat and sleep closer to their homes? Throughout the shodh yatra we enter many schools, some of them lifeless, others beautifully decorated, but how many visits do we pay to the people living here, how many houses do we see from inside? How close do we really get to the people’s lives, worries and hopes?   Jahangir Shaikh is the hero of our yatra and a “hit” with all villagers. In Belgav he shows his modified scooter which was featured in the Bollywood movie “Three Idiots” to the local kids.
  8. 8. The following morning I start a hungry walk. I have grown sick of the waste we leave behind. We make use of plastic cups and plates layered with aluminium foil though we have brought our own reusable cups and plates. I am sick of throwing waste into nature. But my plate is somewhere in my bag under many other bags at the bottom of the truck. I remain hungry. RECIPE COMPETITIONS Some village meetings take place without women, though we have called them for recipe competitions. It is not always easy to convince the women to join and many times, they remain in their houses. But in Parsodi, the presence of women is overwhelmingly strong. The Panchayat is a woman herself and has mobilised the others from five surrounding villages. I wished this would happen more often. They have cooked a vast variety of dishes from local plants and traditional recipes. This time, we taste a lot, learn a lot more and have many awards to give During this yatra only few of us think about reusing their own plates and cups and many just throw the trash into the fields without thinking twice. Wind blows the foil into all directions. I think about how it soon will affect the cattle and birds. It takes more than double our lifetime until a piece of plastic is decomposed. Burning it does not make it better. “How long have you been that green”, one yatri asks. “I am not that green”, I respond, “just, I was raised not to throw trash into nature.” One of the boys asks the locals for a bag and silently collects what the others have dropped carelessly. Nobody thanks him for it. But I see in his face that he feels better about himself. 1 Local dish winning the 1st Prize in a recipe competition 2 Women presenting their dish varieties made from local plants 2 1 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
  9. 9. out to the women. In another village, however, I cannot find a single girl child. Neither at the meeting nor while walking through the streets. I remember a village girl speaking up on the second day of our walk in Belgav. She wanted girl child abortions to be persecuted. After her speech, a boy got up and added that girls should be allowed to sit on the back of a boy’s bicycle without being teased by others. Another boy told us that he would like to see a system in place that prevents parents from taking away their children’s scholarships without having On another day, two people from France join us for a few hours. The sun burns their skin and before I find out why they have come, they have already left and taken two yatris with them. Sometimes people decide to drop by for a while or to drop out. Maybe they could not bear the heat. In almost every village, children welcome us with overwhelming smiles, curiosity and creative ideas. They always have questions, many times too difficult for us to answer. to consult them first. We award these kids for their outspoken sense of fairness. Maybe the future generation has already internalised what many others are still struggling to understand. In Khervada, we are received with tribal music. Villagers play goat drums and flutes and the sounds animate a local boy to perform a dance for us. After lunch, we visit a cheerful centenarian. She is almost deaf but her mind is sharp and humorous. In Parsodi, we find a living knowledge register, a healer who has extensive knowledge about the local plants. And then, unexpectedly, a man approaches us holding a pamphlet of the Honey Bee Network in his hands that he had collected nine years before our visit. He says, he always wanted to come to Ahmedabad but never made the long journey. We are touched and happy to meet him. Kinhala reveals a beautiful but neglected villa speaking of times that were more prosperous. Along with a few others, I am invited to enter and in the dusty attic, the professor finds a few tattered looking diaries containing poetry and scribbled philosophical reflections. It feels as if we have found a real treasure. The attic’s doors hold beautifully stained glass engraved with flowers. Many of the windows have already shattered and instead potatoe bags flutter in the warm desert wind. But some of the colours have remained to rejoice our hearts. Centenarian     lady
  10. 10. 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
  11. 11. FAIRY TALES AND TIGERS What worth is the taste of water without a desert on the tongue. A white jungle tree embracing a dark door to unknown lands – fairy tales in my mind – the next moment, I think of tigers spurting downhill, catching one of us out of the steep path that we have to take, without escape. We are laughing at the thought of it. I take a picture. Someone takes a picture of me taking a picture. “Hurry, hurry, dusk brings bears, bores and tigers!” On top of the hill heavy breaths, I take a sip and share my water, a little for everyone except for the last who might have needed it most. I do not ask. I only wonder. It seems, nobody else notices it. Another white tree in the midst of darkness. I take a picture and wonder what will I do with it. I don’t even know what kind of tree it is. But it is beautiful. The curly roots spread through the ground, now and then revealing their white skin. Trees without leaves, the ground covered with mazes in decay. I pick up one of the giant leaves and am stunned by the size and beauty of it. Do we ever take time to notice. “Hurry, hurry, we have to hurry!” I throw it back to the ground and speed up my steps.
  12. 12. Are the people I walk with different from those I have walked with before? Some of them I have met on the earlier two walks. In the morning hours, something strange had happened. I had pushed myself into a state of horror by the sight of a tormented cow surrounded by eighty creatures that were barely skin and bones. I could not swallow my food and shared with one of them, a very skinny one, roaming around, trying to eat my shirt. I realised I would not hesitate to kill the half dead cow for the sake of relieving it. Holy cow, left on the street dying in gleaming heat because of a fractured bone. This is customary, I was told. Unquestionable? Isn’t this only a more sadist way of killing without taking responsibility? Some people that we have met on our way have thanked us for coming into this neglected, drought prone area. Others have watched us with sceptical eyes. But then, how far does our responsibility go, towards the people, animals and spirits that we visit? I think 31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra Le/overs,  maybe  of  a  7ger’s  meal  
  13. 13. of the cowshed that we saw at Sewagram Ashram a few days back. Maltiben had given each cow a name and each animal listened to its name when it was called by it. I shed a tear and walk away in sadness and anger. Should I have stayed to sit next to the animal watching it die? “Are you still thinking of it?”, asks someone a kilometre later. Yes. And I am going to dream of it. Because it places me before a huge wall of puzzles that I cannot easily solve. “Well, we tried to help, heave it into the shade of a large tree. Isn’t that enough, did we not do our duty, it seems I am still on the insensitive side.” I did not know there were sides when it comes to compassion. But I am here to discover. Even the different sides of pity. Three monkeys sit on my shoulder, I lower my head and for the time being decide to consort with the group of silent tigers watching us from the forest. In the evening, during a discussion round, I cannot hold back and express my feelings, in tears. Momentarily, I wonder whether I am insane to cry in front of the entire group, but then, it is my true feeling about how we shodh yatris did just walk away from a tormented animal. The night we spend in a fenced schoolyard. Biting bugs wake me from time to time. At one point I find myself at the edge of the group. The others must have shifted their sleeping places further to the middle. But they left their sleeping mats behind. Confused I sit up to observe my surroundings and see the light of a torch flying over the path downhill to the village well. Two nightly shades move on the giant water tank. What are they doing up there? I am so tired, I fall asleep again. Around three, the village dogs start barking firercly. Maybe a tiger is close. How to fight a tiger with bare hands? The schoolyard light is burning. The bugs are still biting. I wonder why I am not really scared before I already fall back asleep. With early dawn, I leave for the train station to catch the train back to Ahmedabad. I have to leave early. Just before those staying behind hear the roaring tiger. Too bad I missed it. Back in Ahmedabad, I come to know that a decision was made. A traditional healer was found. Maltiben, the herder of the Sewagram Ashram met the herder of all those less fortunate cows for each other’s consultation. And maybe even the truck that carried innovative farming utilities from village to village alongside our walk was utilised to transport the dying cow away from certain death in the biting sun. At this point of time, I do not dare to ask further questions. What do I take away from this shodh yatra. Not the sight of beautiful landscape and people I experienced in Manipur. Not the fascination I carried away from Madra Pradesh, when I had just arrived in India and everything was new. Maybe this time I have grown stonger, physically, mentally. There is still a lot to reflect on. Maybe I learnt that our prejudices influence the questions we ask and the answers that we seek, as Anil Gupta wrote in a paper in 1988. Maybe there are too few women participating in shodh yatras to actually come closer to the life and creativity of village women and girls in India. But there is always hope. Marianne Esders, May 2013
  14. 14. All my gratitude and love goes to SRISTI, NIF, the Honey Bee Network and its members, my most wonderful colleagues, who have become my brothers, sisters, advisers, and invaluable helpers in many situations during the three Shodh Yatras that I was allowed to join and throughout my first year in India. Thanks to them, I survived drinking ground water from village wells and many other stressful situations. Maybe I have become a little bit more Indian throughout the process. For sure, I have grown much stronger and for sure I have found some very good friends. Society  for  Research  and  Ini-a-ves  for  Sustainable  Technologies  and  Ins-tu-ons