Friday, November 10, 2017

I was good at being a rat

I was 17. It was my first time travelling internationally and I was visibly excited! I felt proud because I had earned this trip. I was one of three young people selected to represent India at an international environmental program in South Africa for 10 days. I never imagined that this would turn into such a life changing experience (as clich├ęd as that sounds) and I must admit I never fully realized how much of an influence this experience has had on me until now. I was just another 17 year old, excited to travel abroad for the very first time in my life.

Entabeni, South Africa; 2004
Growing up, I was very nerdy, annoyingly competitive and very much keen on being the fastest rat in the rat race. I was good at being a rat ☺; I excelled at academics, ranked among the top three in almost every examination and did well in extra-curricular activities. Then, at 17 years, I met 50 other 16-18 year olds who helped me discover the meaning of true accomplishment. 51 young people, in the South African wilderness, without gadgets, computers, internet, phones or books for 10 days….. I think it was the first time in my life that I was focused on just getting to know people and reflecting on my own existence (not to mention enjoying the sounds of lions roar and beautiful sunrises by the watering hole)

No… I did not have an epiphany in the wilderness, but it did leave me with the desire to not be a rat anymore. I wanted to be more human. The wonders of the South African wilderness and the company of 50 inspiring young people infused me with a sense of curiosity and left me with an itch that I couldn’t fully identify back then. I spent the next few years of my life experimenting with multiple things, launching a mild rebellion against myself and my idea of accomplishment. I tried my hand at event management, volunteered with some NGOs, set up a small student volunteers run institution with friends on HIV/AIDS awareness, earned an internship in Malaysia to work with young people on environmental issues, learnt some French, did another internship in Mumbai on issues of water management, read as much as I could. Of course, to appear more normal, I appeared for all possible MBA entrance examinations in my final year of university, but never bothered looking at my score twice. I decided to take a year off and spent it experimenting more, reading more. This is a luxury that I am extremely grateful for.

When I was back in South Africa earlier in June this year as part of the VVLead fellowship and heard Alyse Nelson speak to us about our ‘driving force’, I was intrigued and started reading more about it.  I stumbled on an article that said that there are broadly two basic kinds of driving forces – one where you are running away from something and one where you are running towards something. While the former is important, the latter gives your life true meaning.
My experience at 17 in the South African wilderness nudged me and helped me ‘run away’. However, I do not remember the exact moment when I made the transition from ‘running away’ to ‘running towards’ something. Somewhere in between that year off after graduation, I instinctively knew I wanted to work in development. From that moment on, I never ever doubted or regretted this instinct.

With Dana in Pokuase, Ghana; 2010
I studied Development Studies at the London School of Economics on a scholarship for a year and began experimenting again, but this time, with a very clear purpose. I travelled to Mexico on a social fellowship, where I met Dana my ex-boss. Dana infected me with her passion for bottom-up development and introduced me to her impactful, honest work in Ghana. Working in Ghana helped me realize that I really wanted to work in India. I felt more connected to India spiritually and culturally and believed I personally would be more impactful in India. I must admit this wasn’t easy. I applied for jobs in the non-profit sector but was never offered a role that involved working directly with communities. 

When I look back, I realize that the development sector in India is a tough one to break into, especially if you have no prior background and no idea where to begin. I was slowly beginning to get restless and was on the brink of giving up when the ICICI fellowship happened just then in 2010, which assigns young people to rural grassroots organizations for a period of 2 years. This fellowship was perfect for someone like me.  
In rural Rajasthan; 2011

I was very fortunate to have been serendipitously placed in Shram Sarathi, a social business which I currently lead. For the next four years of my life (long after the fellowship was over) I lived and worked among tribal migrant communities in rural Rajasthan. The experience only reinforced my passion for development and really demonstrated how long term engagement and complete immersion in communities are so critical, both for creating social value and personal gain. But now that I think of it, the experience also played a significant role in shaping up my ‘driving force’ in life. My ‘driving force’ is still a work-in-progress, hard to articulate and I will write more about it as I reflect on it and debate with myself.

But for now, all I can say is this – I was good at being a rat, then life gave me the opportunity to be more human. Thank God!


Aplomb-Observer said...

Great story, Rupal! When I met you many years ago, I was amazed to see a London educated young girl having chosen to serve in rural India particularly in my native state Rajasthan. You not only chose to opt out of the corporate rat race but you also left behind the glitter of the affluent West. You impressed me tremendously at that time and I am pleased to see you at the helm of the organisation. It has been an honour to have known and worked with you. Best wishes Anil Jogani

Rupal said...

Thank you for your kind words Anil!