Almost every week I receive a call or two from a variety of job aspirants. The conversation ranges from serious to funny to downright outrageous.
“Hello. Is this an NGO?”
“Yeah, this is a social service organisation”
“Yes, yes…I LOVE social work”.
“Glad to know that.”
“ From childhood I am very ‘social minded’. I give blood, give money to beggars, work a lot during the community puja in my neighbourhood.”
“Wow, you do a lot of social service.”
“Yours is a women’s organisation, na?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I love women…err…I mean I love to work for women”.
“Oh, that is good. But how may I help you?”
“Madam, I want to help your organisation.”
“Yeah, sure. But what kind of help do you want to provide?”
“May be some kind of job.”
“Why not! But we work mostly in the rural region – in the remote villages”
(Long pause and a longer sigh!)
“Mmmm…don’t you have any job in the city? I can help in the office work.”
“We do have, but it is very limited.”
“No problem, I can volunteer. By the way, how much do you pay your volunteers?”
“Hello. Is this a women’s organisation?”
“It is. How may I help you?”
“I have done Masters in Social Work.”
“That is fantastic.”
“I want to do social work and I want to join your organisation”.
“That would be great. But ours is a field-based organisation – mostly in rural regions”.
“The rate is different you know. If it is city I take a different rate. For villages my rate is different.”
“Rate, what rate?”
“Means my salary. Being an MSW, I expect a higher rate obviously. And if I stay in villages, the rate goes still higher.”
“Hmmm. Do you have a work experience?”
“Ofcourse. For three years I have been working in a BPO.”
“Yes. It is a social service organisation.”
“How much do you pay currently? “
“I mean what is your salary, perks? Any Provident Fund ? What are your retirement benefits?”
“Excuse me, but who are you and what do you want exactly?”
“I already work for an NGO. But you won’t believe how less they pay. Just imagine, for the TA, they would only pay for the tea. Arrey, what if I want a Samosa with the tea? I can get hungry, na?”
“So, how can we really help you?”
“That is why I am telling you na. If you can give a little bit extra on the salary, TA etc than I am getting here, I can join your organisation.”
“Not really. Because we do not pay for the Samosas with the tea. Not even for the tea actually. We share it!”
The world of the NGOs is really a bit weird. Weird, controversial, challenging……an amalgamation of many contrasts. Though I do have an allergy with the term but in India most social service organisations are known as NGOs – Non Government Organisations. Contrary to what most people believe, especially in the context of current controversies, the work of the NGOs is not doing what the Government cannot do but is to facilitate the work of the government – build a bridge between the people and the government. At times, we are the conscience keepers – letting the government understand the lacunae in implementation of programmes, flaws in policies, loopholes in systems etc.
An NGO worker is essentially an activist. Though in the recent years there indeed are NGOs which do offer salaries, perks and facilities at par with the corporate houses, most social activists are semi-lunatics. Or to put it more correctly, are expected to be semi-lunatics. They are supposed to get paid less than the lowest rung staff of any government department or of any private organisation for that matter; they are expected to put in a ten to twelve hour a day of service and most of their meets and programmes are expected to be on Saturdays and Sundays.
Atleast, that is how I have observed my parents since my childhood. My father was a born social activist and my mother was an adopted one. So, our front room was always the hub of activites – torn papers, half-empty glue bottles, open sketch pens strewn here and there – that is how our front room has always been. Our kitchen has always been a Community Kitchen with a twenty four hours of open service. And I have never seen my parents keep any of their personal bank documents with themselves. One of their colleagues keep their cards and she is the one who knows their ATM pin number! I have seen a Sharing Meet of our field workers being carried out in our back room while my grandma’s coffin was being brought in through the front door.
So, it is but obvious that changing times do pain them. My Dad still does not believe that social work these days is more about profession than about activism. He speaks of his days spent in dense forests or drought-ridden villages with young men who worked with him ‘just for the heck of it’!
It was during one such heart breaking moments for him that he reminded me of the “Fortnight Training”. It was one of those rare trainings of fourteen days duration that changed many lives.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. My father – standing amidst leaping flames – encircling him all around. The titbits of paper of paper around him burnt in all mirth and glory. The fire, just an inch away from his denim. He stood with a calm face. The participants around him stood equally wide-eyed as me, taking many moments to believe what was just happening in front of their eyes. Till one of them almost dived into the fire and pulled my father out. Having woken from a trance, a few others rushed to douse the flames.
Unfazed, my father smiled and spoke out.
“This, my dear friends, is the Sensitivity Test.”
He took a moment’s pause and continued.
“The first and foremost requirement of a Social Activist is this – Sensitivity – towards others and the situation – at the cost of one’s own safety and security.”
It was a fourteen day long training in weirdness – to help a bunch of young people discover the seed of lunaticism in themselves. There was no agenda, no timings. One day the training began in the evening hours and went on till early morning the next day. One day instead of a proper lunch, the participants survived on fruits – that too in very limited quantities. There was no room for inhibitions. At times the participants had to drink water from one single glass, eat from one single plate.
On day three, two of the participants packed their bags and left.
“This is an insane training”, one of them said.
In the evening hours or very early in the morning there would be games – robust games like football(soccer) and the women were expected to play alongside with the men. It is there that I learnt that best way to hit a football was to hit it with the slant of the toe and not the tip of the toe!
During one such game, one of the participants fell down and hurt himself badly. As the rest rushes towards him, my Dad stopped them.
“ I am happy to see the sensitivity in you all but this is a test for him. Social Work is a tough job. And it requires grit and endurance. So, get up!”, he instructed the one injured. Very slowly he got up, much to the anguish of others. He washed his own hands, went to his room alone and waited till a doctor was summoned.
“ Imagine, you are in the remotest of regions. And there you are sick. There is no one, no facilities to reach you and you have to survive….You must learn the art of survival.”, he explained to the bewildered participants.
In another session, he asked the participants to identify any object in the room that they would like to possess. It could be anything.
One of the participants wanted a LP record that was a prized possession. My father handed it over to her.
“Take it. It is yours”.
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. My father repeated. She happily took the record.
“Now”, my father said, “break it into two halves.”
There was a murmur in the room. The participant could once again not believe what she had just heard.
“Do it”, my father commanded.
With shaky fingers she broke it into two.
He then called another participant.
“And which one object would you love to possess?”
“The HMT watch that you are wearing”, he smiled mischievously, knowing well that my father had a soft corner for the watch.
My father held out his left hand. “Take it”.
The participant smiled and took it. There was a look of challenge in his eyes.
“And now, throw it on the floor with all your might!”, my father commanded.
“Excuse me?”, the participant now looked worried.
“I cannot”, he held out the watch back to my father.
“Do it”, my father repeated with a cold voice.
With total disbelief he flung the watch on the ground. The watch broke into three parts.
“A social worker is like a Sanyasi – a hermit. You may have desires but not a clinging obsession to possess any material goods. The moment you let your possessions rule over you, you stop being an activist. An activist is like a nomad”, he explained. There were tears in many eyes.
I was too small to fathom the depth of his words but when I saw participant after participant jumping from a very high platform, letting go of themselves, it did strike me that there was something magical about his words.
“If you are a social worker, you MUST learn to trust – situations, people, co-workers.”, he shouted loud, as one after the other the participants jump down with the belief that their co-workers would rescue them unhurt midway through their fall.
I spent most of the sessions drawing on my own or playing with my dolls; I don’t even remember most of the sessions but all I understand now is that those fourteen days to madness really did help build social workers – ACTIVISTS.Today, all the participants who attended those trainings are established social workers in their own rights. Irrespective of the different challenges of life, not one has wandered away from this madness of activism.
Even today when many of them touch my Dad’s feet and acknowledge that what they are today is because of him, I get goose bumps. Many, many, many times I’ve heard these participants introduce my Dad as their Guru in public forum. And that is an inexplicably special feeling. It brings tears to my mother’s eyes too.
I know that times have changed. I understand that social activism is gradually being replaced by a more disciplined way of working in the social sector- in line with the global requirement. I understand. But my father doesn’t. Holding his inhaler in his hand, with his unkempt hair and near-torn slippers he still waits – waits for that one activist who would risk his life to drag out a fellow-human being from the fire of distress!