This is a continuation of my previous post regarding MMES. For those who haven’t please read that post first
I left for Assam within a week of the tragic terror attacks in Mumbai. This naturally got my family and friends jittery as Assam itself did not have a very good reputation for being a safe place. Frankly I was a bit nervous too as I had no idea what the current situation was in the Bodo dominated area of Manas NP. Nonetheless I continued as I knew that outside perception was bound to be obscured, and the reason why I chose to travel to the North East in the first place was to eradicate these perceptions. The journey was a long arduous one, with the last leg from Pathsala to the remote village of Lwkhi Bazaar being the most exciting one. As is the case in any remote part of India the bus was choco block with people carrying paraphernalia of all imaginable type. Everything from vegetables, to livestock, dish antenna to bed were squeezed into the overflowing bus. I was amazed that the rickety bus hadn’t come apart yet. The apathetic condition of the road added more adventure to our journey, especially when the bus was near about to topple forcing everybody to do an emergency evacuation. After four painful hours and a couple of emergency evacuations I reached finally reached Lwkhi Bazzar, my home for the next three months.
The first ten days were truly a testing period for me. Since all the volunteers were busy with their own work I was left to get bored on my own. There were times when I felt that I was simply wasting my time over here and that I should just leave from this place to travel somewhere else. Irregular meal timings, no breakfasts, short days, even the smallest factors became a battle with the self. The only saving grace at this point of time was my inclination towards butterflies. I spent most of my mornings walking in the forest, observing and photographing butterflies. These multi coloured winged beauties simply captivated me. In the evenings at least I had company, as everybody would gather at the office to chat about the happenings of the day. Quite a few of us used to stay together at their guesthouse cum office so it was always lively during night time.
Things picked up steam after my first formal meeting with the cabinet members of the NGO. After a brief introduction from both sides it was decided that I would teach computers to the NGO staff, formalize their accountancy system and initiate the kids at a nearby school to the world of computers, during my stay over here. From the following week I started my nouveau venture of introducing the kids to the wired world. In the initial stages language barrier posed bit of a challenge, but as the classes progressed we understood each other quite well. Once they were comfortable with the mouse, they were absolutely thrilled to be able to draw and play games on the computer, always looking forward to their morning class. It was an enriching experience for me as well as for them. Frankly teaching the NGO staff basic computers proved to be the bigger challenge. I literally had to coax them to sit and learn computers with me, and even towards the end remained unsuccessful at that.
By this time I had broken the ice with the NGO volunteers, winning over their complete trust. Our friendship bonds strengthened daily, making them to treat me like a family member . I found it hard to believe that at one point of time these very people were dreaded insurgents, albeit out of desperate circumstances. Today though you can see a complete transformation in them , having returned back to their cultural way of life. They are such a warm and friendly community that it’ a pity the outside world still has negative perceptions about the Bodos. At about this time I started visiting their protection camps in the national park with my good friend Kalen. This presented me with a great opportunity to travel extensively in the park .The Dewmari camp situated in the lap of the Bhutan hills soon became my favourite one. Whenever there was an opportunity I would go to Dewmari , from where I would trek to the Bhutan hills with one of their guards. One such trip to their western most camp of Kahitema proved to be an adventurous one. While on our way back after picking up some of the conservation guards, a drunkard cyclist was standing in the middle of a narrow bend. Despite seeing us approach he stood planted in the middle as a result our driver had to swerve the Tata Mobile at the very last minute. In slow motion our Tata Mobile toppled to the left side as we helplessly tossed inside. Luckily there were some banana trees on the periphery which broke our fall and not our bones. All of us were lucky enough to come out unscratched. Thirty minutes of pushing and grunting got the Tata Mobile back on all its fours. As though this wasn’t enough the gearbox started giving us some problems , further down the road. At one point we were going to abandon our vehicle, requesting another vehicle to pick us up. But our resourceful driver managed to temporarily fix the issue, albeit the vehicle had to be driven only in the second gear.
Being peak tourist season I often found myself in the company of tourists. It was always an interesting affair to interact with them , exchanging our thoughts and ideas besides a warm log fire. On a few occasions the dance troupe would showcase their cultural dances enthralling the audiences. The welcome dance, the butterfly dance, the warrior dance , each one having it’ own story and significance. Sometimes members of other NGOs who were working in that area would also stay at the Jungle Camp. Most of them became very fast friends and useful contacts for working on other projects in the North East. Forged an especially deep friendship with Dilip, who was doing a commendable job of grooming the youth of Assam to start their own business. He used to have training programs in places from where ULFA were recruiting cadets, so that the youth could channel their energies to more constructive use.
This was the first time I was ever working with a community at a grassroots level. It was a completely different ball game from the maniacal ways of the corporate world. Sometimes working with the communities would mean sitting down and chatting over endless cups of tea. This would not amount to work in the corporate world but is extremely important for bonding and understanding the ways of the community. I soon learnt that planning for work was an exercise in futility causing tons of frustration. When working with them it was necessary to have a more fluid approach to work by dynamically altering the time, quantum and methodology of work. It was pointless to have any expectations either from myself or from them, the only thing that mattered was to work with them. While teaching the kids I continuously had to be innovative as I had to overcome not only the teaching barrier but also the communication barrier. I absolutely loved being in their company and enjoyed teaching them the most. In comparison teaching computers to the NGO staff turned out to be an uphill task, having to expend most of my energy in motivating them.
My three month stint did teach me a lot of things, especially about my own self. It gave me ample opportunity to observe my emotions and feelings, getting to know myself in a better way. This is the type of work I really enjoy doing and will continue to do, never casting a backward glance at the corporate world. I know that this is just the beginning of my relationship with these wonderful people for I will continue coming to Manas to work and live with them.