The whole team at OpASHA

I have struggled for months to put into words how this time in India as an iCats fellow has made me feel, and today, I will try to express what seven months of living in India has felt like.

This is not my first time working in this country of wonder and chaos. When I was a little bit younger, a little bit “greener” and a lot more idealistic, I came to this place to start an initiative that ended up fizzling out, started way before the country, or even I was ready to commit to make sure that it panned out.

When I was that “fresh” and wide-eyed about social entrepreneurship, it was easy to see the beauty through all the chaos that defines this place as the norm. I even went so far as to normalize the chaos in my mind – the ups and downs and trials of living in a developing nation in flux became second nature. I navigated unnamed cow-filled streets, learned to drive a scooter, and bargained down to a “local” price, and blended in in a way that felt like I had accomplished learning enough about this culture to become a part of the community.

when I was younger

A different avatar, post tsunami in South India

This time around, living in Delhi had been a different. No longer wearing the rose-tinted glasses of my early 20s, I knew that this foray back to my “homeland” would be something I was not prepared for entirely.  As an iCats fellow, I expected an experience that was professionally enriching and that gave me the ability to grow into a more strategic role providing support to social enterprises, and even giving me the tools and the boost needed to start my own social venture. I definitely had all of those benefits after coming here, but with some additional life lessons that I’d like to share here.

Firstly, when you go to someplace to make a difference and you realize you are lucky to be able to get to and from work  alive when the following things happening to you, you feel blessed; 1. Getting so much dust in your eye that you look like you went on a 6-day whiskey bender, 2. Knowing that the “runs” does not mean some type of Olympic sport and, 3. Getting jostled and tossled so much in auto rickshaws, getting in and out of the metro, and walking on the roads that you feel like life is a constant earthquake.

Secondly, when you are doing strategy work, it’s not the same as taking to the villages wearing your home-spun cotton “khadi” that Gandhi extolled. This is a different type of service, and one that is not less needed that the on the ground activism. When I thought of all the “good work” going on in India before, my mind would automatically think of grassroots activism, hunger strikes, and rural schools in the middle of the Rann of Kutch desert in Gujarat. I thought of the hundreds of social activists I met and that made me their family the last time I spent time in India.

This time around, I am a cog in a larger operation, one that plans to revolutionize the way tuberculosis is treated around the world. The seed of that work started in India, but the scope and the dream is a far cry from a single village in a sleepy desert location in North India. The world is the stage for Operation Asha, the organization that I am proud to help get to the next level with my work. (www.opasha.org)

Undoubtedly though, the nature of this work, looking at development and changemaking from 30,000 feet, feels like I am out of touch with my former conception of doing good work. After all, I am a grassroots gal at heart, deriving energy from being with people and learning from them and their local wisdom.  In fact, it is easy to forget sometimes, sitting in my air conditioned office, sleeping in my nice fancy bed at night, ordering non-Indian food (aka anything with CHEESE), and having access to the nicer things in Delhi – that the country I am living in is in a state of incredible change and sometime turmoil.

I’ll give you an example: Since coming here in February, my eyes have been opened to exactly just how bad this place can be for women. As a young-ish woman myself, I will sometimes face mild harassment on the street, or have to take extra precautions when meeting friends or returning home at night to stay safe. A system of calling and texting friends when we leave home for the evening, and return home late is an unspoken rule enforced without much protest – it’s necessary for safety. I have dared to wear a dress only once, exposing my knee and my calves, and even in such a modern city such as Delhi, decided I will never do it again for all the ridiculous negative attention it garnered. My relationship with space – especially personal space, is tested every day. As a woman in this country I find that it is easy for every man to play a game of chicken with me when I walk. I am the one expected to move to the side if a man is approaching opposite me, or I am standing somewhere and he wants to be in that space. And often, I find myself making the accommodation, so I don’t have to deal with an argument, additional leers, or an unwanted grope. I come home exhausted from reorienting myself with the world, where I once thought I could walk with pride and felt safe, I now see that I am always trying to make myself smaller to avoid calling attention to myself in a way that puts me in danger. (sad, but true – as this is a far cry from my natural personality)

India ranks lowets for plight of women in all g20 countries

India ranks lowest among all the G 20 countries:
Child marriage, foeticide and infanticide, sexual trafficking, domestic slave labour, domestic violence and high maternal mortality all make India worst of the G20.

Women have been beaten, raped, killed, stalked, and groped since I came here with alarming frequency – some for no other offence than being a woman in a bar.  In the northern town of Guwahati (see the story here: http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_guwahati-molestation-what-really-happened_1714657) a particularly atrocious case was caught on film – a mob of men, pawing at, groping and pushing a young girl in the street with onlookers nearby and NOBODY STEPPING IN TO HELP HER.  And it seems like every day there is a story on the news of on Facebook, reminding me – in this place with its incredible growth story, in this land of a billion people, I am just another woman fighting to maintain my sense of strength and resiliency – just like all the other women in India – outraged by each news story that yet another one of us had succumbed to the callous treatment of women that is still so ingrained in this society.

The things that gave me hope as a young women in my 20s in India – I can no longer see through my airconditioned gaze – the joy of drinking water from a handpump, being followed by hundreds of children asking for me to take their picture during a visit to a small village, going to eye camps to screen people for cataracts – those experiences are not there for me now. Instead, I can only make the connection in my mind, back to the work of organizations here that are scaling solutions to improve the overall human condition, those like Operation Asha – that if they (we) are successful, that this place will be a lot better for people like me, those that feel like they are invisible among  the billions.

Social entrepreneurship is a tool that can give lives meaning and freedom from just existing. I think the biggest lesson that I take from this year in India, is that the world does not always give any of us space to live fulfilled lives; sometimes you have to create that space for yourself and for others. For me, that space was starting a social entrepreneurship meetup in Delhi. For Operation Asha, it was creating hundreds of low-cost centers in disadvantaged locations in India and Cambodia to help serve tuberculosis patients that are the poorest of the poor. Maybe for you, it’s deciding that your life can be lived differently – who knows?

some of the 2012 iCats fellows in Zurich ... brr

Some of the 2012 iCats cohort in Zurich. I miss you guys!

While all of these emotions swirl, it’s easy for me to forget that even being one in a billion is a lucky chance. My hope is that by the end of this experience, I will be able to reconcile my feelings for this country that simultaneously gives me hope, and also exposes the harsh realities of life. At the end of writing all this I came to this conclusion – the space that we have been given to live is a gift. Make it your own, and leave it even better than you found it. And this is exactly what I will spend my life doing.

Onwards and upwards, dosts (friends)!

Avani Parekh-Bhatt is an International Fundraising Strategy Consultant at Operation Asha. She loves to see baby cows in India, and hear the parrots outside her room in the morning. And she’s greatful to whoever invented air conditioning. Watch this, it will make you smile: making friends in the field

LinkedIn: in.linkedin.com/in/avaniparekhbhatt