The Best of Both Worlds

December 05, 2017

My name “Aalika”, is a combination of the names ‘Aaliya’ and ‘Mallika’. Aaliya means ‘sublime’, while Mallika means ‘Princess’, and clearly choosing between the two was harder than my parents had envisaged. The life they gave me too, was a combination of these two words- that of an ‘Exalted Princess’, in many ways. Having lived a childhood of sheer privilege, insulated from the hardships that a majority of children from our country (perhaps even the world) face, there’s almost little or nothing I could complain about. Perhaps, what I thought were hardships were sluggish wifi, a cold pizza upon delivery or at worst a lost cell phone!

After having recently completed the 2-year Teach for India Fellowship, whereinI taught72 children from less privileged families at an under-resourced municipal school in Goregaon West, Mumbai, I found myself having a lot more to thank God for. I had to revisit and alterthe very definition of the term ‘hardship’ as I had previously known it. I saw mothers wait in queues for hours to fetch water, children attempt to do their homework in the absence of electricity and alcoholic fathersslap their 8 year old daughters for making irregular shaped rotis...

My days were busy and tiring. And to be without electricity, no access to clean toilets, on my feet all day and projecting my voice beyond my limits was not easy, given my otherwise comfortable and sophisticated life. Yet, I was extremely thrilled in my new environment- I gained valuable insights into the lives of people starkly different than myselfand I grappled with difficult situations in the classroom and in the nearby communities. To quote Robert Frost, “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” While the street foods tested my immunity, a handful of students tested my patience regularly. But these life lessons were extremely enriching and will surely hold me in good stead.

At the end of each school day, I longed to get back to the comforts of my Grandmother’s home in South Bombay- her warm presence, delicious non-vegetarian food, beautiful apartment, my bedroom with clean linen and en suite toilet. But after a good night’s rest, I woke up refreshed andexcited to get back to my bubbly bunch of 72, who taught me to live each moment with utmost simplicity, humility and most importantly-maximum contentment.

It was as if I had one foot in the ‘faraway land’ of Cinderella and the other busting it out. I sometimes wondered how long I’d be able to live this paradoxical life and if either world would make me irrelevant and unfit to live in the other. This dual life that I led, surprised many as it sometimes did even raise questions in my mind. But never once did it raise questions in my heart. Every toothless innocent smile, every tinyshiny face and high pitched scream of my students, reaffirmed my choice to join the social sector.

As I boarded the 10:32 am Bhayandar fast local train from Churchgate to Goregaon each morning in my churidar-kurta, I slowly slipped into my “teacher avatar” eagerly waiting to reunite with my kids. And on the 7:16 pm train back to Churchgate, all I could think of was my hot water shower and the delicious hot dinner that awaits. The train rides back and forthtransported me literally and metaphorically from one of my worlds to the other. One ascribed to me bybirth and the other consciously chosen by me. I’m truly blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people in both these spheres- it enables me to beunderstood, relevant and authentic in either context.

While growing up, I’d hear a lot about the charitable and benevolent ways of my grandparents and other elders around me. Their retirement plans would often include “giving back to society” and engaging in community service. It was a noble thought indeed. However, it’s high time now that careers in the development sector become mainstream or even default career options for many, rather than mere retirement plans. There’s so much to be done in terms of improving the education, healthcare, livelihood, sanitation, housing, poverty and hunger situation in our country. This work is largely recession proof, there’s no retirement age and it’s insulated from the ruthless lay offsthat loom large in the corporate space today!! An authentic development professional will really never be out of work- atleast not for a long time to come.

For now however, I’m bracing myself for all the challenges and opportunities that the social sector puts before me. Over the past 4 months at the Indian School of Development Management, I have been exposed to the extent and severity of the various development issues that plague our immediate society and have seen first hand a few of these issues play out in Alwar, Rajasthan earlier this month as part of the ‘Rural Immersion Programme’. Having interacted with practitioners who have been working in the field to better the lot of people in one way or another, I have been deeply moved and inspired to act.My heart burns for justice and yearns for change. And to quote Frost again, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

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