Ever since I got to know about the activities of Ekal Abhiyan from my grandmother, I wanted to participate in them. Ekal Abhiyan volunteers travel to remote rural and tribal communities across India, working closely with villagers to empower them towards a healthier, prosperous and progressive life. I loved their concept of helping villagers become aware of their rights and providing access to education and techniques for sustainable development to help them become economically independent. And I wanted to see how it actually happened and help villagers too.
They also have a volunteer program for students. However, so far they had always taken undergrad, grad or doctoral students. It took me almost three weeks of persistent emails and phone calls to convince them even though I was fifteen, I could take care of myself and participate and contribute. And even then, they agreed for a week-long volunteer program instead of the 6 weeks I wanted.
It was decided that I would spend a week in the district of Khatima near Nanakmatta in Uttarakhand. My grandmother had some work in a nearby town and it was agreed she would drop me off at Khatima. As the car neared Khatima, I found myself wondering, what I had gotten into. I would be staying with the family of an ex-Air force officer who was the district head for EkalAbhiyan and would be my local guardian, me not being an “adult”. I had never met them before. How would the villagers react to me, an outsider? I didn’t speak the local dialect, how would we communicate?
And so there I stood, at the door step, clutching my material belongings and a bunch of apprehensions.And I was enveloped in a warm embrace and welcomed by people who had never seen me before, who had no connection to me.
I was introduced to Sri Arvind Kumar and Ms.SumanDigari, in-charge of rural development initiatives and education initiatives respectively who were waiting for me and who would chart out all my activities over the week.As they spoke to me and drew me into the conversation, I felt I was with my elder siblings. On the surface, we could not have been more different from each other, and yet there was this inexplicable bond that had sprung up between us all.
Uncle would make sure I had breakfast before I left every day and aunty always waited for me to come back and share my experience of the day over dinner.
Each day I set out with Arvindbhaiya or Sumandidi on their bikes as they travelled across different villages. Over the course of the week, I visited 11 villages. I sat through the class at one-teacher schools and understood how a single teacher “acharya” handled 30 to 40 children across different age groups. I found managing the toddlers (3 to 5 year olds) was really tough. I would engage them through videos on tablets and after sometime they would all over me and asking the most imaginative questions possible! It was fun working with the senior students (typically children in grades 4 to 6) – they had such beautiful hand-writing. They were so quick in solving math problems in their heads! They also came up with a nickname for me –”Guitar wale Bhaiya”!
I learnt how villagers could produce organic manure as well as organic pest repellents through locally available materials. Cleanliness was a big focus area, and in some villages I helped Arvindbhaiya and Ekal volunteers build soak-pits so that water, filtered through naturally available filters like gravel and clay could seep back into the earth and the remaining sewage material safely disposed of. We would have villagers standing around, asking questions, keeping a steady chatter around us that sounded musical and so lively. I realized the deep emotional connect between the land and the people. The effort that goes into growing crops makes them truly invaluable. Everything around seemed to be in some kind of beautiful harmony. People had no fancy gadgets or electronics, no fancy foods, no branded clothes and the houses were not huge or luxurious. But they had something invaluable – they were so happy and they had such big hearts. Every day, I was welcomed warmly in the village I went to; some family would adopt me for the day and make sure I had my meal. It was so inspiring and such a big learning for me that one needed so little to be happy.
I was amazed at the their bonds of love, affection, sharing and caring when the entire village came together for the music concert I wanted to organize. Children got together to perform local folk dances without any rehearsal, acharyas chipped in to sing, a young boy maybe a few year older than me came up with his drum, and some elders pulled together logistics so that lights, mikes and speakers were installed. It was as they were all part of some large, organic family and now I was in their midst too. I played my acoustic percussive pieces and they loved it. I loved their folk dance, folk songs and drum rolls. And together, in a remote corner of Uttarakhand, we created an amazing blend of music!Whether it was playing games or playing my guitar to them, climbing trees to pluck jamuns and mangoes, sitting down in their kitchens and eating food straight as it came off the stove, spending hot summer afternoons digging compost pits – it was an incredible experience for me. I had read and heard the phrase “atithidevobhavo”. And it was there, in the smiles and the songs, the games and spicy fried greens, the love and affection, and the way they made me feel I belonged, that I realized what it actually means.