Sunday, 22 December 2013

The virtues of writing simply

'Those who write clearly have readers,
those who write obscurely have commentators.'

Albert Camus
Academic writing can be daunting. I often find that when trying to communicate complex ideas, coherence and clarity tends to get compromised. However, like any other skill, writing can be perfected by practice.

I recently finished reading Orwell's Why I Write, a collection of essays where he discusses his motivations to write among other things. In an essay called Politics and the English Language, he is particularly critical of how modern English has evolved as a means to confuse instead of communicate. He expresses his disgust for the use of 'dying metaphors' (e.g. toe the line, Achilles heel), 'verbal false limbs' (using phrases where a word would do: e.g. make contact with, prove unacceptable, exhibit the tendency to instead of prove, render, serve), 'pretentious or archaic diction' (such as epoch-making or age-old) and 'meaningless words' (that do not convey anything).

Orwell goes on to list some simple rules to help make decisions while writing:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.   
I'd recommend the entire essay for those interested in improving their written communication skills and reading a well-written piece of prose! More resources on writing:
  1. Writers on Writing: A brilliant initiative by Durham University where leading social scientists have written short pieces on the process of writing (My favourites are by Julian Le Grand and Bryan Turner). 
  2. Confronting the anxiety of academic writing by Dr. Rachel Cayley of a great blog called Explorations of Style
  3. Helpful resources by the University Writing Centre at Texas A&M University here.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Modi, secularism, and the future of Indian democracy

Do you, as a voter, feel trapped by the Modi/Rahul Gandhi binary? Are you questioning the future of democracy in India?  And what does Modi's rise say for the nation's secularism?

These were some of the questions discussed in a session organised by The South Asian Studies School at Oxford and King's India Institute last week (which predictably, began late; 'we the Indians'). A few points from that were particularly interesting for me:

  • Dr. Matthew McCartney, ('political-economy macro-economist' at Oxford) invoked the idea of 'the developmental State' (see Öniş, 1991) and drew comparisons between India's growth trajectory and that of the Asian tigers, in particular Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. He  noted that while the civil services in these countries were largely meritocratic and elitist (as he suggested was the case in India too), the wider population was ready to sacrifice short-term goals to achieve the 'vision of development' as espoused by their leaders (which is where India is different). For example, McCartney noted, South Korea was exporting colour TVs long before its own citizens were allowed to buy them. Such sacrifices were seen to be in the greater good and the idea of 'development' was constructed as the only option to counter the spread of communism. Under this notion of 'develop or die', the Asian tigers grew.

  • Dr. Maya Tudor drew on how constructions of national identity fed into the practice of democracy in newly decolonised, multi-ethnic, and culturally heterogenous Asian countries: in Pakistan national identity is closely linked to being a Muslim and non-Muslims and Shia or Ahmediyas are second class citizens; in Malaysia, ethnic Malays are 'true Malaysians' while other ethnic minorities are marginalised; in India, a clear choice was made to tie nationalism with secularism. Tudor argued that the rise of Modi (perceived as a strongly Hindu nationalist figure), does not bode well for democracy in a country that is built on the idea of secularism. This is because nationalism then gets tied with 'who's a good Hindu' rather than 'who's a good Indian citizen'. She said that the clear impotence of the current government had made first-time voters (a segment that is young, aspirationally impatient, and has only seen a >6% growth rate) envision Modi as a promising replacement to the Gandhian/Nehruvian narrative. 

  • Dr. George Kunnath, anthropologist and expert on the Maoist movement in central India, voiced his
    Cartoon from The Hindu
    fears about further marginalisation of disadvantaged communities were Modi to come to power. He argued that Modi had hopped onto 'a fast-moving train that was going in the right direction' and thus Gujarat's growth story had been scripted even before Modi came to power. Citing statistics, Kunnath went on to illustrate that Gujarat's growth wasn't as impressive if compared to growth in other states. He crucially touched upon the difficult questions about what does development and democracy mean? Does development as seen in Gujarat, where marginal farmers are robbed of their livelihoods while large landholders growing water-intensive cash crops benefit, the growth we want in India? To Kunnath, democracy should aim towards equality and morality. I found that a critical insight at a time when corruption and what I call disengaged development, are plaguing the country. 

  • Finally Dr. Nikita Sud, who has followed Gujarat's growth story over the last decade, critiqued the 'personalisation of power' and construction of Brand Modi as a son-of-the-soil cum humble tea seller versus the idea of Rahul Gandhi as a shehzaada born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Sud questioned how a man from an inherently undemocratic organisation such as the RSS, could possibly be seen as a product and preserver of democracy. She was scathing in her verdict of Modi running his government in a dictatorial manner with 'dubious, self-affirming, and questionable characters' surrounding him. 

The Q&A round afterwards was thought-provoking and insightful. Some of the interesting ones were:
  • Has secularism as an idea been hollowed by Indian politics? Yes and no, replied all the panelists. (A recent debate on this here.) 
  • Has ideology been replaced by identity (similar to personalities been pitted against each other as one sees in the US Presidential race)? No, replied Matthew McCartney, Modi in fact comes from a powerful ideology of Hindu nationalism and capitalist growth. 
  • An IAS officer questioned why Modi's rise was considered undemocratic, since he had been voted to power thrice. Wasn't that a win for democracy? Maya Tudor pointed out that while the electoral process was a crucial pillar of democracy, once in power, an elected candidate must uphold the constitutional protection of citizen rights. It is here that Modi, either through the Godhra riots, or through the favouring of industrial growth at the cost of rural livelihoods, fails as a truly democratic leader. 
  • Hasn't Gujarat's growth shown Modi can be a successful leader? To this George Kunnath, pertinently responded, 'Yes, Gujarat has shown growth but for whom?' 
  • Why are we bashing Modi? Isn't he a product of India's politics which is inherently undemocratic to begin with? McCartney cited the example of the highly publicised Narmada Dam Movement and compared it to the silence around the Three Gorges Dam in China, saying that while Indian democracy was certainly far from perfect, it wasn't a complete failure

The session ended on Sud convinced Modi would not come to power, and Kunnath emphasising the need for further discourse on what we mean by development and how can it be inclusive. The most positive part was of course, an announcement of lunch afterwards. Students and free food have an uncanny bond that is hard to define. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Book Review: Research for Development, A Practical Guide

Research for Development is a comprehensive guide to commissioning, managing and undertaking research in development work.  It is useful for students of development research and teachers looking for a robust and engaging teaching tool. Read my review here.

Sage Publications, 440 pp.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Link Pack #1: Debates on Poverty, Development and Resilience

Nothing like a good debate to wake one up! What I've been reading this week:
  • Going Against Duflo: Raj Patel critiques the Abhijit Banerji-Esther Duflo duo for focussing on 'what works' when tackling poverty, and ignoring critical contextual issues. [Key points: they ignore larger contextual issues, assume 'what works' in one place will work in other contexts, ignore ethical issues around randomised controlled trials]  
  • On Measuring Resilience: A new paper from IDS on possible directions towards 'measuring' resilience. Resilience has become the new 'sustainable development' and by that I mean it is being championed as the new goal to aspire to and has found a dedicated following amongst development academicians and practitioners. [Key points: resilience indicators must be multi-scale, multi-dimension, objective as well as subjective, scalable/generic, and built independent of factors affecting resilience]. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Discipline hopping: what does depression have to do with vulnerability science?

You often hear of the virtues of thinking 'out of the box', developing interdisciplinary reading habits, opening our minds to different influences and ideas. In spite of this, interdisciplinarity is a difficult monster to tame, and one commonly falls back on familiar authors, known reading lists, well-worn and oft-searched keywords. Skirting the peripheries of one's own discipline seems revolutionary enough, exploring a new discipline appears just too time-consuming and uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Professor Glen Wilson on 'The Black Dog: Causes and Cures for Depression'. Falling within psychology, the subject was many disciplines away from my research on farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change in India. So what exactly was I doing in that hall? First, two people very dear to me suffer from some form of 'the black dog' and attending a lecture on it seemed like a way to understand their situation better. Secondly, exhausted with writing and rewriting chapters in my own thesis, I was itching to engage with something different. A free lecture and spending a sunny day in London? Why not?

Prof. Glen Wilson talked through recent developments in neurology and psychology in understanding depression. He discussed the different approaches to treating depression and their (rather alarming) side effects. And then came on a slide that made me sit up: 'Adaptive Value?' it questioned. Here, Wilson explored whether depression had an adaptive value and thus had not been eliminated through evolutionary processes. Drawing linkages between gender and depression (women are twice as susceptible to depression as men) Wilson noted that perhaps this susceptibility is the price women pay for being more 'emotionally sensitive'. Like an orchid, in enriching conditions, women function well because of their emotion sensitivity. In unsupportive conditions, they wilt because of their depression proneness. Men, on the other hand, were likened to the resilient dandelion, that is able to weather tough conditions and thrive almost anywhere, thus making less sensitive to depression. In this sense, Wilson said, that perhaps this trait that we see as vulnerability in females, may actually be a form of plasticity through which women were able to function better in supportive environments.

This last thought made my mind race. What if resource-constrained, rain-dependent, smallholder farmers traditionally considered exceptionally vulnerable to climatic changes, are not all that vulnerable? What if in spite of being sensitive to external stressors, they respond better than more privileged farmers when exposed to supportive environments? There is already empirical evidence to suggest that poorer farmers use a wide range of response strategies when faced with external stressors as compared to richer counterparts. Perhaps Wilson's discussion of viewing vulnerability as plasticity has implications for understanding and incentivising farmer response behaviour (especially in the context of climate change)? While I have to develop this line of thought further, the excitement of findings from one field influencing my research ideas was inspiring and gave me a glimpse into what other possibilities there may be.

So, while it is great to engage with discussions, workshops and talks within your subject, why not go for something totally out of your comfort zone, something completely unrelated and see where that leads to?

  1. The transcript of Prof Glen Wilson's lecture and presentation slides are available here.  
  2. If in or around London, free lectures are available on various subjects at LSE, SOAS, Gresham College and Oxford

Monday, 12 August 2013

Book Review | Boundaries Undermined (The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border)

What do Bangladesh-India geopolitics, an 8 feet tall fence, cross-border coal mining, eunuchs, and neoliberalism have in common? To find the answer to that, read my review at the LSE Review of Books of Delwar Hussain's thought-provoking and brilliantly researched book Boundaries Undermined, The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border.

Hurst Publishers, 256 pp.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The African Farmer Game

This post was written in collaboration with Ankit Kumar, a PhD researcher at Durham University. You can follow him @ideatingenergy. It is based on our experiences and ideas, generated while playing the African Farmer Game during the STEPS Centre Summer School. Developed by the STEPS Centre and Future Agricultures Consortium, the game will be released soon as a free software.

The Mombonga household in Rural Africa consists of an adult man, two adult women, two young girls aged 12 and 13 and a young boy aged 13. In terms of assets they have 50 units of currency and two parcels of land. A modest household with many mouths to feed, the Mombongas await the beginning of the new plantation season. This is the beginning of another year for them. The Mombongas have a few options at hand. They could invest the money in crops and horticulture to feed their family or invest partly in commercial crops like cotton to earn some extra cash. They could also invest some money in long term planning by sending their children to school. However, with limited resources at hand, some tough choices must be made.

Participants of the summer school getting the hang of the 'game'
(Photo: Nathan Oxley, STEPS Centre)
Cut to reality. We are the heads of the Mombonga household. We are the decision makers. The description that we gave you is of our family which is a part of a computer simulation called the 'African Farmer Game'. We are supposed to put our feet in the Mombongas' shoes and run their lives. Surely being educated, urban elite who are doing PhDs in the area of development, we had a more 'informed' idea of the factors that would improve the Mombongas' lives. It is assumed that we could make better decisions and steer the household towards development. Does this notion sound familiar? Yes, this happens world over. Educated elites sitting in offices make decisions about policies to transform lives of the Mombongas. This based on the idea that these elites (like me) understand what must be prioritised to change the lives of households like the Mombongas. But whose priorities are these? Are these the Mombongas' priorities or are these our perceptions of their priorities? Let’s see.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

UEA/IDS Mixed Methods Workshop (July, 2013)

The University of East Anglia (UEA) and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) recently organised a two-day workshop on mixed methods research in poverty and vulnerability (1-2 July 2013). The event brought together 40 researchers, practitioners and students working in development-related issues to discuss different ways mixed research methods could be used to capture the dynamics of poverty and vulnerability. Over the course of two days, 22 speakers presented studies that use quantitative and qualitative methods creatively. A few highlights below:

Exploring public perceptions of the 'necessities of life' in the UK, Eldin Fahmy from the University of Bristol stressed the need to move away from using mixed methods for triangulation alone, i.e. combining methods to enhance validity of inferences from data. This combination of methods assumes that data can be 'integrated'  and tends to glaze over the contrasting strengths and weaknesses of both data types (which have different epistemologies). Instead, he said complementarity should drive the use different research methods, i.e combining approaches to add breadth and depth of analysis.

Edna Bautista and Maria Torres from the Universidad de los Andes presented an interesting study on measuring multidimensional poverty in Colombia. They used the multidimensional poverty index (MPI) followed by in-depth case studies to understand drivers of poverty at the household level. By using mixed methods, the study identified new dimensions of poverty and the qualitative data helped give insights into intra-household dynamics (e.g. teenage pregnancy was found to be a coping mechanism to get away from domestic violence. This was completely missed in the MPI). Personally, I was encouraged to see that the findings of the study were presented to the mayor of their municipality who appreciated the MPI because it was something familiar to him (Colombia uses it on a national level) and welcomed the qualitative case studies which presented detailed storylines to explore the hidden dimensions of poverty.

The second day was focussed on impact evaluation and poverty dynamics. Keetie Roelen from IDS discuss using mixed methods to evaluate social protection programmes. Taking case studies from Ethiopia and Burundi, she detailed moving away from using quantitative techniques and experimental methods alone to evaluate project impacts towards using participatory and qualitative methods to understand project dynamics and impacts. She highlighted how programme processes, social dynamics and feedback loops (from project evaluation back to project design) are essential to make evaluation frameworks more robust.

Anthropologist Janet Seeley from UEA, presented a poignant narrative of how the dynamics of poverty play out through a person's life. Looking at elderly AIDS positive patients in Uganda, she used longitudinal case histories to present storylines and I think her skilful storytelling brought to life the rich depth that qualitative research methods are capable of.

For me, the most interesting talk was by Lucrezia Tincani, who presented a study on rural household resilience from Burkina Faso. She explored household food security using the systems-based resilience theory, and highlighted how quantitative methods helped her see how much resilience varied between households and over time, while qualitative techniques helped her explore why these variations were occurring.

The workshop ended with a stimulating discussion on the continuing challenges of operating in the grey area between quantitative and qualitative research methods. No clear answers, but lots of food for thought!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Decision making for climate change adaptation

In a recent talk at the Walker Institute, climate change adaptation specialist Suraje Dessai stressed the need to move away from the linear model of  'predict and provide' which believes that more science = better decisions = successful adaptation, towards an understanding of the limits of what science can provide. Talking in the context of decision making for climate change adaptation in the UK, he emphasised the need to make climate science more useful (matches user needs), usable (user-friendly) and valuable (salient and applicable). 

A smallholder farmer in Rajasthan, India. He decides how much wheat to
grow in the winter based on residual soil moisture from the rains, amount
of seed he has, and family's food requirements.  
This led me to think of similar issues in a very different context. That of rainfed agriculture in semi-arid regions of India. In this landscape, smallholder farmers are highly dependent on agriculture for income and sustenance, making them vulnerable to an increasingly erratic monsoon. In addition to environmental stressors of erratic precipitation (both amount and timing) and fluctuating temperatures (e.g. unusually hot winters), farmers are exposed to market dynamics and changes in the larger institutional landscape (e.g. land tenure reforms or amended public welfare schemes). These factors create a picture of farmers operating in highly uncertain environments, where decision making at the household level is not necessarily driven by profit maximisation. Dennis Wichelns, former IWMI Deputy Director General, explains the levels of uncertainty smallholder farmers deal with:
"farmers dependent on rainfall don't know when its going to rain for sure."..."There is so much uncertainty and risk in rainfed farming that many farmers, particularly at the small scale, have to spend quite a bit of effort managing that risk and uncertainty; often because they have very little freeboard by which to absorb great reductions in yield or sudden shortfalls in output or revenue."
In an attempt to facilitate local adaptation to climate change, policy makers look to science to 'provide answers' to this situation. This points to the belief that 'enough' science will lead to 'appropriate' solutions. A belief that the answers are 'waiting to be found'. Thus, there has been a push for higher resolution models, more accurate rainfall forecasting, as a way to allow for robust decision making. However, while important in its own right, this approach has to be questioned. Why an emphasis on better climate information (and not better market information, welfare schemes information, credit availability information)? Is the climate information given to farmers useful, usable and/or valuable? Are there adequate channels to deliver this information? And finally (perhaps most importantly), will this information help farmers make more robust decisions in their contexts of high uncertainty?

Further resources on the topic:
  1. Dennis Wichelns's video which questions the efficacy of water productivity as a tool to evaluate sustainable strategies of water use.  
  2. Providing climate services that make sense to farmers, a video and blog by CCAFS (CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) documenting their initiatives in trying to find solutions to making climate services more farmer-appropriate. 
  3. Experiences of dealing with uncertainties in practice, a presentation by Suraje Dessai

Sunday, 2 June 2013

National Food Bill: A short review of the critiques

Picture from Forbes India
What? The National Food Security Bill aims to  provide food to 67% of India's 1.2 billion people by distributing heavily subsidized food grain (5kg of grain @ Rs.1/kg). First introduced in 2011, the bill has invited heated debate, caused parliamentary disruptions and is yet to be passed. 

Why the criticism?  
  • Where will the money to finance the scheme come from? Gurcharan Das argues that the key problem is "70% of the people will get food at 10% of the cost when only 1% should be targeted. The rest is a waste." The government plans to source some money for grain by reducing fertiliser subsidy but this will have implications for agricultural productivity and farmer input costs. Scheme touted as well-intentioned but fiscally irresponsible.
  • Targeting vs universalisation: Who do we target? The statistics are contradictory and one must be careful when defining and counting people who are 'hungry' vs 'malnourished' vs 'starving'. Regarding identifying beneficiaries, is is more prudent to identify the rich and exclude? Or identify the poor and include. Experts say the former may be easier because it is highly onerous for the poor to prove through paperwork that they are 'poor enough' to be eligible for benefits.
  • Only focuses on carbohydrates (through grain), what of malnutrition, chiefly due to protein deficiency? This is particularly alarming when considering the argument that  food security is necessary but not sufficient for nutrition security. NGOs have also flagged the issue of child malnutrition not being adequately addressed by the bill.
  • What of the system? How does one plug leakages and avoid bypasses (hoarding, black markets). Surjit Bhalla quotes statistics to show the PDS is "a massively corrupt, wasteful system" and argues against propagating a similar system without addressing systemic problems. 
  • Repercussions on food production: Will cause significant decrease in food production because a farmer who can buy grain at Rs. 1 per kg will have no incentive to grow grain it.  Also, will this result in India's forced integration into global agricultural markets because of increases in agricultural  imports?
  • The government hopes to reduce intermediaries and sources of leakages by  cash-for-food transfers into bank accounts, routing the transfers through Aadhaar numbers. However, the Aadhaar card is still a voluntary biometric social identity system. 

Way forward? Can the Chattisgarh model be upscaled? Chattisgarh  enacted the Chhattisgarh Food Security Act (CFSA) which has universal coverage. It's strengths are based on (a) full computerisation of PDS, (b) ensuring greater transparency by allowing for public scrutiny of all records, and (c) creating accountability by giving Gram Panchayats (local governance institutions) priority in running ration outlets strengthening accountability. One needs to question. How do we want to alleviate poverty? Is it by just giving food or empowering people to be able to grow/buy their own food and thereby enhancing capabilities? Gurcharan Das maintains that by giving virtually free assets, the state undermines its social contract with the public and "reinforces the present malaise over poor governance and corruption, and widens the gap between people’s aspirations and government’s performance". MNREGA has spawned a similar public expectation of right to work without strengthening livelihood securitySwaminathan Aiyer says that growth will lead to a food secure nation, not bills that distribute food to the poor.

References are linked within the text. Further reading:
  1. Khera, Ritika, 2012. The Revival of the PDS the National Food Security Bill and the Question of Cash Transfers [Video
  2. India-Seminar, June 2012 issue (#634) on 'Ending Hunger: a symposium on the proposed national food security bill' [Link]

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Water in the Anthropocene

The "Water in the Anthropocene" conference (21-24 May 2013) opened in Bonn, Germany today. The conference explores governance and scientific challenges in understanding the indicators, thresholds and uncertainties of the global water system. I was selected to present a paper on "Farmer Perceptions of Water scarcity" using a case study from north-west India but couldn't go because of an interesting Summer School at the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex!

Below is an introductory video about water in the age of the anthropocene. The anthropocene is conceptualised as an epoch where human beings are seen as the chief agent of change in the planet. It is not a formally recognised geological epoch, but is a useful term to describe the unprecedented change brought about by human agents.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Oxford Global Food Security Conference, 2013

An interdisciplinary conference dealing with issues of food security and uncertainty around the world was held at Oxford University on April 27, 2013. Although not directly related to my current research on rural livelihood vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change, the conference was an interesting collection of diverse approaches to understanding, quantifying, and addressing food insecurity around the world. Across three panels, there were nine speakers with interesting and thought-provoking presentations. I'll just talk about some of the highlights:

The first panel dealt with Food Security and Environmental Change. Of particular interest to me was a talk by Dr. Joost Vervoort who explained the CCAFS's findings in Eastern Africa on future food security scenarios. Using different demographic, economic, political and environmental trajectories, the work comes up with an innovative typology of what food security in Africa may look like. Pertinently, Dr. Vervoort explained how these scenarios were used in workshops with different stakeholders across six African countries to 'back-plan', i.e. work backwards from their desired goals to understand how present challenges need to be tackled.

The second panel on Food Politics and Policies dealt with food security issues at global and regional scales. Rebecca Farnum, a masters student at UEA, gave insights on how the discourse on food security and political unrest were framed differently in the Middle East and North Africa on one hand, and sub-Saharan Africa on the other. She questioned this discourse dichotomy and explored the role of western media in constructing and shaping such narratives. I liked that she ended with a call for everyone to recognise and question their own dichotomies and understand its impacts.

The third panel explored diverse methodological  approaches to capture and understand food security issues from ethnography to econometrics. Serena Stein, a PhD student from Princeton University, gave a presentation on the application of Amartya Sen's Capability Approach in understanding food security, taking the case of Mozambique. Her narrative, coupled with a slideshow of photographs, was an innovative and evocative exploration on differences food access and utilization at the intra-household level.

Particularly interesting for me were some voices from the audience, mostly elderly academics who questioned, "We have been facing the same issues over the decades. We have repeatedly arrived at the same roadblocks and tried similar solutions. What are we  doing wrong?" In spite of the spirited conversations around food security, I feel their questions remained unanswered. The conference ended with a stimulating keynote address by Doug Gollin who spoke of the spatial nature of food security, elaborating on how transport facilities play a crucial role in farmer livelihoods. His, talk both lively and profound, tried to alleviate some of the gloom in the room and ended, as best things do, with a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:  

PS: A conference that ends with wine and cheese? Yes please!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Newbie in Nuker: The fears and joys of field work

The majestic Himalayas in Lahaul and one of the many ivory-thread streams.
I am flustered. I am going to hold my first village meeting, talking to women from a self-help group (SHG) and I am terribly anxious. I look around the circle of women sitting with me, they are honest-faced and clear-eyed. I give them a watery smile. The President of the group smiles back at me, her nose pin twinkling in the summer sun.  

I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I am in Nuker, a tiny village in Lahaul. When one looks beyond the Kullu-Manalis and Shimlas, Himachal Pradesh morphs into a collage of striking beauty, from Kinnaur in the east which is India’s apple-basket, to Spiti in the north, a cold desert akin to Ladakh. In the upper reaches of Himachal, nestled against Spiti, lies Lahaul. Himachal Pradesh is also one of the stars in the unfortunately dark tapestry that is the Indian countryside. Replete with extraordinary natural beauty and warm kind-hearted people, it holds a special place among my travels.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

My journey so far

Retrospective narrations of one’s journey can be misleading. Its linear format is inherently deceptive because an ordered layout assumes clarity and purpose, when life itself is often a jumbled back and forth of trial and error. And though it is slightly disconcerting to ‘review’ one’s life at the age of 26, I will try.

The background

Although brought up in the metropolitan bustle that is New Delhi, I have always had a strong connection with my maternal ancestral home of Rasmai (a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India). Frequent visits to my village nurtured within me a love for nature and my attraction towards a simpler, less materialistic life. In Rasmai there was no TV or telephone, electricity came for a few hours, if at all. In Rasmai we had no restaurants or ice cream vendors, no shops and certainly no Coca Cola. But we did have walls lined with bookshelves, we did have endless paths to take walks on, we did have a spirited canal where we’d fish (unsuccessfully) and we did have a tube well where we’d jump in for a quick bath.

Rasmai, my ancestral village
My childhood was aglow with long walks with my grandfather, a retired forest officer, who passed his wisdom on things ranging from the call of a partridge to how to graft mango saplings. Ever-youthful, and a pioneer in his own right, he indulgently allowed me to shadow him as he experimented; one year it was drip irrigation in the lime orchard, another summer it was wine making, a few winters we kept bees and another year we had a bumper harvest of lettuce, a crop unheard of in rural India at that time. From him I learnt to not shy away from dirtying my hands, ‘from dust unto dust’, he’d demonstrate, plucking out weeds from the fields and allowing them to decompose into manure. I learned how a farmer’s fortunes are dictated by the vagaries of the weather. I learned that to be a woman in rural India is a constant struggle. And I learned that there is wisdom to be found if one is ready to observe and listen.