Imagine seeing everything perfectly well and going to the eye doctor and hearing you need lenses. That’s exactly how I felt today. I did something today which would risk crashing all the beliefs which define my thinking, all those stereotypes I deny I have and ultimately the million small stories making me, me.
Although I live for new experiences and am always on the lookout for cool things to do, I wouldn’t go to a random village in a different state with just a bottle of water and a 50 rupee note as my only companions, to talk to villagers who probably don’t speak my language, to test the truth of my judgement, in the coming 100 years. I ended up doing just that and understanding myself more than the combined results of the countless personality tests I took…because, well, India Fellow happened. The idea was, I believe, to make us aware of the countless single, incomplete stories we hold between our ears and the many ways they colour our vision.
Planning, even if executed to the t, cannot take us beyond the plan. As I stepped out of the training center with no idea about where to go and how, all the nearby villages lined up as dishes in a buffet. My only problem in both situations : where to start? A lady selling corn, an old uncle and a school boy threw various options – Madar, Bedla and Thur were the top contenders. Like most decisions of my life, I randomly chose Bedla.
I’ve read countless books, definitions and papers on poverty. Yet, a meagre sum of 50 rupees, 5 hours in an unknown place and multiple necessary expenditures on transport and food, taught me the dynamics of poverty never to forget them again. Poverty is not a number or a line, or not even mere depravity, poverty is that feeling of helplessness requiring you to walk away and keep walking because you can’t afford a shared auto. Numbers, somehow seem to numb us to this human aspect of poverty.
On managing to reach Bedla (smiling ear-to-ear, thinking I’m in a cool travel show during the ride) my first 10 minutes were spent walking to and fro in utter confusion, and repeatedly having this conversation in different forms –
Me – “Bhaiya, yeh Bedla gaon kaha hai?”
Bhaiya – “Yahi toh hai!”
Me (astonished) – “Yeh gaon hai?!”
For reasons unknown to me, my brain pictured a village as a group of small, brick houses, opening into agricultural fields. Fun fact : Bedla looks just like the recently emerged suburbs of Pune, barring the open drainage lines and the constant supervision by houseflies. (Unrelated, looking at the 3-storied, pure marble bungalows, I wouldn’t mind getting married to a guy living here!) With that I heard the sound of the shattering of my single story of how villages look.
Having studied economics for 5 years, I had come to believe financial literacy is a powerful weapon to overcome the ‘situation’ most rural poor find themselves stuck in, that financial inclusion is indispensible for being true participants of the economy (although I have my doubts about the Jan Dhan Yojana.) Having prepared and revised and reworked my initial elevator speech after the initial outright rejection and ignorance of 2 women, I went on to meet many women, old men and school children. Interestingly, Bedla has more schools in an area of 2 kilometers than Pune has in 2 wards taken together.
My task was rather simple. Talk to the villagers to understand if they have a bank account, insurance and any loan history. 23 out of 30 women said their husbands looked after the finances and they had no say in the process. For all those who believe women already enjoy equality and hence we don’t need feminism, I wish you’ll could hear the hushed voices and see the alarm in the eyes of the women, constantly looking over their shoulders while talking about their lack of decision-making power for what happens to their own money.
“…hamare jaan ki kisko fikar hai didi ki bima karwayenge?”, “…karza lenge toh humare bacche bhi byas bharte rahenge!”were two interesting dialogues. The name of the speakers don’t matter, for no matter what the name of the character, the dialogue remains the same.
When posed with the same questions, the men looked at me like I was daft. The obviously-I-know-about-all-this look silently revealed much more than words would ever have! Privilege, discrimination or mere working of systems?
After 40 people and 2 villages, my judgement was proved right. The rural poor was not financially literate, atleast in Bedla and Chota Bedla. The usual joy I experience after having been proved right, eluded me. I retrace my steps to return and turn to see the village one last time. Probably, I’ll never return and the smiling faces would eventually become hazy and lost. I would maybe make no difference to the lives of these wonderful people, knowing which, they still gave me one of the few things they own…their stories. I do not know where I’ll be or what I’ll do in a couple of years. One thing I know is the promise I made as I left Bedla, to visit this beautiful hamlet in the outskirts of Udaipur, to meet its people, who may not know about financial instruments, but surely know about life.