Monday, November 12, 2007

Chotton Ki Asha

Service is one of those things that changes your perspective and fills you with a sense of purpose. In our daily jobs, most of us sit in front of a computer, evaluate scenarios, develop spreadsheets, write programs, etc. Physical labor is virtually non-existent. The only work-related physical labor we do get comes when we move the mouse or type!

Yes, thinking is our greatest asset and it's what separates us from other life forms. But from early times humans hunted, farmed, built houses, etc. We need to work with our hands and break a sweat. Why do I say that? Because on those rare occasions when we do this - exercise, gardening, sports, or even hands-on service work, we feel good afterwards. Of course, the 'good feeling' of service comes from more than just working with our hands. It comes from seeing the results of our work, and helping people less fortunate than ourselves.

We should realize that when the cards of life were being dealt, we got the high cards - the Aces (good families), the Kings (financial security), the Queens (good education), and the Jacks (safe locations). Whatever low cards we were dealt, we traded for higher cards. Our good fortune, then, comes from inheriting 'a good situation' with all the conditions ripe for success, and making a few tweaks here and there to create a great situation from a good situation.

But there are many people in the world who are disadvantaged from the start. The boys, girls, students, and women who attend the Chotton Ki Asha community center in Sonya Vihar, Delhi, are by no means the most despairing lot in the world - that infamy would have to go to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, or any other war torn country, where making it through the day alive is a miracle in itself. Here in Sonya Vihar, the people are on the 'border'. By lower class standards, they are living average lives. Things could be better and things could be much worse. A place like Chotton Ki Asha is there to tip the balance in favor of a positive life. With some encouragement, mentorship, access to technology, and hope, a better future is within their reach. A better future includes things like a college education, basic health awareness, and a decent job. And, of course, the gems amongst the lot will have an opportunity to discover and cultivate their talents and maybe they will go on to lead highly successful lives.

A lot of planning went into the day of service. Getting 70 people to even fit inside the center was a challenge! The Center consisted of the following rooms that needed work: 2 classrooms, a doctor's office, and a beauty parlor. The classrooms needed to be beautified while the medicinal supplies in the doctor's office needed to be organized. Another group of volunteers left for the Ashram orphanage about 20 minutes away from the Center to distribute toys to the kids. My job, after doing general cleaning with the rest of the group, was to work on beautifying the classroom. The work actually began the previous day, with the cutting of shapes in the office. We even hired a professional painter. Our theme was animal-based. The highlight of our room was the splendid mushroom, which the painter painted to perfection.

At the end of the day, the teachers and students were ecstatic with the results. We were equally happy with the results. But, to be honest, the Center was already in decent shape when we arrived there. We were told to be prepared for 'slum' conditions, but most of us agreed that Sonya Vihar was more like a simple village than a slum.

And seeing the USAID logo made me feel a few things. First, pride. People need to recognize that the US is a good country that does good things. No, we are not perfect, but our heart is in the right place. Second, this was one of those experiences (like seeing the oxen, or people running across the highway, or more recently, the smell of certain fragrant leaves on the road to Viyapar Kendra) that made me feel that I was really, really far away from the US. When you're in the US, you see things on TV about the work people are doing abroad to improve lives. And now, to finally be in one of those places, is a pretty amazing experience. It made me wish that instead of joining a standard i-banking job after college, I wish that I had joined the Peace Corps and lived the ultimate adventure. Here, I still have 2 Blackberrys, email, etc. I'm still too connected to the West. But in the Peace Corps, I would have been dropped in the middle of nowhere, in a village, left to do whatever I could to improve life in a rural area however I could. 2 years and 3 months later, I would come back to the US a new person, with a new perspective, and having left my adopted village a better place than what it was when I came there. That's the kind of full immersion I really want. In a shrinking world, I think it's good to maintain distances. These days, we are too dependent on IM, email, cell phones, etc. What ever happened to going abroad - and really going abroad and severing all but essential contact with home? You can't have 1 foot in each location if you are to truly get the most out of where you are. Full immersion is the only choice. That's when you can do the most good.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! I can understand why you have regrets about not joining the Peace Corps right out of college -- but I think that your maturity level is different now as compared to back then. I wonder if you would have been able to fully appreciate going on the "ultimate adventure" at that time. Who knows! Nevertheless you can always take advantage of opportunities to do development work at any stage in life!


Ravi Ragahvan said...

That's true. I only considered the Peace Corps after I left banking, when all options were on the table. I may take a break mid-career to do the Peace Corps...

Vishnu said...

That was an interesting entry and I'm glad you are getting to do some charity work.

I take issue with the claim that the "US is a good country". A few choice example of the US (and the west) doing good doesn't make up for a bunch instances where we have just plain messed up the world. Programs like these don't make up for Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam, South America., etc. When all is said and done, the net result of our actions are overwhelmingly negative.

And programs like the peace corp also have issues as well. There is something to be said about throwing a 22 year old college student into a village in the third world and telling them to fix it. In one case I know of, a kid with no farming and agriculture experience was told to teach a tribe how to grow a certain crop. To me, that marks the height of conceit. Most peace corp programs follow this model of mantaining appearances and not really actually accompolishing anything. It has historically been a way of getting yourself a backdoor into a cushy state department job.

I think what you are doing is great, and I hope you get more opportunities to do work like that.

Peace out,

Ravi Ragahvan said...

Vishnu - thanks for your comment. Here are my responses:

1) "US is a good country": If we are talking about this politically, then it's hard to say whether the US is good or bad. The US, like most countries, will do what is best for itself - that might mean supporting dictators, launching wars, etc. That's the current doctrine in the US anyways. Now, I stand by my statement that the US is a good country from an aid perspective - we have generally been generous with aid, and have intervened more than most other countries in places that need our help. Our support of Chotton Ki Asha is one such (small)example.

2) Peace Corps - The Peace Corps is flexible. I don't know all the details of your friend's case about agriculture, but if he didn't feel qualified to do this task, he could have refused the assignment and waited for another one. Maybe there was some error in the matching process. Or, he could have gone to the village and said "I'll help in another way" - maybe it could have been teaching elementary school, helping on infrastructure projects, etc. You don't have to stick to your assignment. The Peace Corps does scope out projects, but they tell you in the very beginning that what you think you will do and what you actually do could be very different. You have to be prepared for anything. The point is to help however you can - not necessarily to fix every problem in the village, but to do whatever you are capable to do to help. There are some less succesful Peace Corps success stories, and some very successful ones too - when I come back I'll show you a book of the successful ones. In the end it's up to the individual to make something of the experience.

Vishnu said...

"The US, like most countries, will do what is best for itself - that might mean supporting dictators, launching wars, etc."

Isn't this the very definition of bad? Choosing self interested goals while encouraging murderers. In addition, while the US does give aid, it's per capita giving is pretty low in comparison to the rest of developed world:

I'll take your word for the peace corp. I have heard more of the otherside from people who have done foreign service. At school, many of my classmates did work in foreign countries through various programs before going to law school. I get the vibe that there are a lot of programs to choose from.