"Tum ho kahaan ki? (Where are you from?)", he asked. I was puzzled. Should I say Patna or Delhi or Mumbai?
Misty mornings in Muzaffarpur
I was in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, speaking with three NGOs on a late January afternoon. Beside us, a team from the NGO were sifting through reams of paper. I learnt later that a social audit of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was underway. Everybody needs data and it's all about reporting your activities and results these days.
All the while I was aware I owed him an answer, so I replied "Mumbai". Mumbai - because that's where it began.
Restless feet syndrome
Once upon a time I used to be a regular normal person, a Mumbaikar. I did what most people did - worked from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday and chilled over weekends. Then things changed. My travel bug grew tentacles and got the better of me. I wanted to travel and write. I realised that not only was there an India out there waiting to be explored, but there were experiences that needed to be narrated.
So I took leave of my senses and eventually left my job. Sooner or later I'd either find my feet on the ground or I'd learn from the experience and know better. With that frame of mind, I began snooping around for opportunities I could explore exploit. For weeks my Chrome history comprised Google search pages related to 'travel+quit job+opportunities'.
Too ideal to be found?
I was looking for something at the convergence of my academic and work background within the development sector, along with travel and travel writing. The Google search was in vain until the day I opened up The Better India's newsletter that I'd been subscribing to. I was scrolling through an article on the power of play (the use of sport to provide children and young adults with life skills) when two words -- 'travel' and 'internship' -- on the extreme right of that post tickled my curiosity. I clicked on a link that introduced me to the six month Himsagar Fellowship by SocialCops. That's when I first heard of this start-up company. For the uninitiated, SocialCops is a technology social enterprise that revolutionises the way data is collected, monitored and analysed at the grassroots level
Right there in front of me was an opportunity to not only travel across India but to travel with a purpose; the purpose would be to take technology to the grassroots. In that instant I'd stumbled upon what seemed to be a part of a preordained plan; what I was looking for didn't seem too ideal to be true.
Pack and go! But where?
A couple of conversations ensued with the team and before I knew it I was packing my bags for Delhi. A new beginning in the new year. Of course, I hadn't upended my life to merely move from one metro to another. On my first day at SocialCops I was let in on a little secret -- the first state I'd been assigned to was Bihar. Nobody I knew had ever gone to Bihar. Nor wanted to go there! Bihar's reputation of being 'dangerous' and 'backward' (amongst other adjectives) precedes it.
What did that mean for me?
Over the course of two weeks I'd begin identifying, reaching out to and meeting NGOs across Bihar with a two-fold intent: (a) to learn about the work they'd been doing and (b) to share with them the role they could essay in the movement towards data-driven-decisions.
Patna is no different from any other Indian city
I'm still in Bihar as I pen this post and I have to add that I haven't an answer for why the state has such a tarnished reputation! I've been moving around on my own and have been impressed (by the locals) and inspired (by the NGOs). Now how often do you hear a local apologise to you because they couldn't help you with directions?
The Ganges from the Gandhi Setu enroute from Madhubani
On Jan 30, 2015 I met the founder of Prayas Bharti Trust. After my short conversation with her, taking her through our tools for data collection - she looked me in the eye and said, "I have 10 years before I retire. With technology like yours I may be able to do 40 years' worth of work in that time span." And at that moment, I knew that I was doing exactly with my life what most people only dream of, but where only a few end up. I was trying to make a real difference.
It is through such partnerships at the grassroots that SocialCops empowers NGOs through technology to propel real-time decisions backed by their own data.
While I'm figuring out the most accurate answer to the question "Where are you from?" I'd urge you to look no further because if "being the change" meets 'wanderlust' for you too, then carpe diem!
P.S: Be assured and prepared to be changed in return
SocialCops is accepting applications for the next cohorts of its Himsagar Fellowship starting May and July. If travelling far and wide to meet local organisations in remote parts of the country and creating a voice for communities that have never been heard before sounds like something you'd be interested in - application details are here.