Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Last week, prior to my debilitating bout with the plague, I visited Shikshanter in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
I fell for Udaipur before I even got off my overnight train, still soaked by a dirty Delhi rainfall. The Indian things I miss living in modern, planned Chandigarh -- the ancient, arched mosques, walls, and tiered temples on high hills -- were alive in the relaxed "city of lakes". There were still quiet, tree lined streets, but the bustling Old City could make you forget about those with its stalls of hot gulab jamuns and mirrored skirts and bamboo bowls.
I identified Shikshanter by it's Zero Waste board at the gate and the colorful painted wall on the terrace. Within hours of setting down my backpack, it was already working magic on me. My mind, usually wondering, worrying or working on my fellowship project, started to unfurl.
I'm not really sure how to explain Shikshanter. It's not an NGO, or a school, or community center. It's like an un-NGO, a de-school -- a big experiment. People there were using the space, sunny and colorful, as a sort of spiritual, social laboratory. They were making earrings out of sim cards, drinking their urine, grinding local grains by hand, planting coriander in manure in a halved water bottle, solar cooking rice, and editing films.
As I examined the teeming bookshelves, filled with provocative titles about de-colonization and unlearning, I started to think about my own education, both past and future. At what level, I wondered, had I been given choices when learning? What did I actually love to research and find out more about, and what did I just feel like I was supposed to know?
The questions continued to flow, getting to harder stuff about how I was choosing to live my life. I wonder, many times, if I am living as fearlessly and as close to my ideals as I want to. I know the kind of open mind I hope to have, the constant curiosity I want to nurture, but was applying to graduate school or thinking about my next job in line with that? Was taking antibiotics or watching Bollywood movies part of the process?
One of the directors at Shikshanter was open about his opposition to the work I am currently doing. I've started hating labels like development, NGOs, and service, but it was good to be pushed on something that I have been dedicating my time and energy to this year. He mentioned that he thought working within a wrong system, even doing something right, was harmful, especially as an American-abroad. I personally felt that helping children express themselves under any circumstances was progress.Was this a good-intentions-to-hell situation?
During the course of my five days, I made many local foods and raw dishes, learned about urban gardens, painstakingly turned waste into jewelry, climbed to a hilltop temple, danced to Bob Marley, met new friends, and played with some really cute kids. I also didn't sleep for many nights because the questions seemed to get louder, although not faster or more aggressive.
As I saw myself tossing around the ideas of not getting married, not studying more, not moving back to the States yet, wondering what more I could create and learn, I realized that there really was something to be said about a space infused with a strong enough energy. If Shikshanter's goal was to make people think, and to resist, and to act, and to question, it worked.