By Nandita Banerjee
For the last two years I have been managing the ASER survey in the southern states. The experience of working in states with languages I have no knowledge of, has been thrilling and challenging in equal measure.The nature of the job allows for extensive travel to the remotest of places, and if you allow yourself, it can teach you a ton about the diversity of this country. In these two years, I have made friends, shared meals and had intimate and long conversations with many strangers. I hope my stories highlight the innumerable volunteers and people who were kind to a stranger.
Here are a few memorable ones.
Rajnikanth to my rescue: A few months ago, I was in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu and had to catch a midnight train to Karnataka. I had reached the Coimbatore bus stand by evening from the village and had a few hours to kill before boarding my train. I had read about a Rajnikanth-themed restaurant and decided to go there for a meal. After dinner, I decided to take a taxi to the railway station. However, six drivers cancelled and didn’t turn up. My poor knowledge of Tamil didn’t help matters either. Taking an auto-rickshaw to the train station proved impossible too. My usually ‘adventurous’ self was not feeling so confident now. Perplexed, I approached the restaurant manager for help. The restaurant manager swung into action and helped me book another taxi and made sure he arrived as told. He gave me his visiting card and asked me to call him once I had reached the station. Thanks to him, I made it in time and called the restaurant manager.
Women know the way: While on my way from one district in Kerala to another by bus, I requested the bus conductor to tell me where to get off. I was sitting in one of the ‘women only’ seats at the front surrounded by women of all ages. They heard the exchange and started asking me questions in Malayalam. When I indicated my inability to communicate in Malayalam, one lady got up and came to me and asked, “Kahaan jana hai?” I gave her the address. Within seconds, a bunch of women started discussing the best possible route to reach the destination. They did not agree with the bus conductor’s suggested disembarkation point. Finally, the lady who spoke to me in Hindi said, “We will make sure you reach your destination”. I was then guided to get down at the right stop. Waving to my co-passengers, I thanked them and managed to find my way to the destination.
Dilli se aaya mera dost: One of the ways I make myself useful during an ongoing survey in a village is by distracting or diverting the attention of parents and neighbours while the child is tested. This helps the surveyor assess the child without any distractions. On one such occasion, a concerned mother who was hovering around her daughter trying to figure out how she was doing in answering the questions asked, had to be distracted. I went up to her and tried to strike up a conversation with the few words of Kannada I had learnt. Interpreting her gestures and facial expressions, I replied that I had come from Delhi. To this her face lit up and she said, “Aap Dilli se aaya hai??”
Now I was taken aback. She had lived in Delhi for five years when her father worked in an Udupi restaurant. Even though it had been years since she had been in Delhi or spoken Hindi, she remembered bits and parts of the language. We chatted and she took me around to meet her friends and introduced me to everyone as her ‘friend’ from Delhi. A lot of what we wanted to ask or tell each other got lost in translation, but there was laughter and coffee.
Chechi: The kindest gesture I received was from a volunteer in Kerala last year. I met Retnamma chechi at a bus stop in Ernakulam district and both of us proceeded together to a panchayat where chechi would survey along with another volunteer. Chechi’s English was as good as my Malayalam, but with her open smile, cheerful disposition and my chatterbox nature, we found our own language to communicate (read sign language). We spent a full day together surveying the village on a hot and humid day. A few days later, for a second meeting, chechi returned with a bag. She handed me the bag, I peered in and spotted steel containers. I opened the contents to discover homemade kappa (steamed tapioca cake), meen curry (coconut flavoured fish) and chamandi (coconut chilly paste), all painstakingly prepared by chechi that very morning. She had prepared this meal especially for me because during our “conversations”, she understood that I had never eaten these dishes before. Overwhelmed and excited, we went to the canteen downstairs and together devoured this lovingly prepared meal.
My travels have rarely been easy, and I have found myself questioning my decision to work in places where my linguistic skills are severely limited. But at the end of the day, having stuck to the plan, it gave me the opportunity to learn many languages, about places and the above all, experience the kindness that exists within every corner of this diverse country.