Lost in Translation

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I got the opportunity to travel to Srikakulam district in coastal Andhra Pradesh for monitoring and re-check during the first survey weekend of ASER 2017 ‘Beyond Basics’. This being my first time on the field for ASER survey, I was excited about travelling to a new place and meeting new people, albeit nervous, as I couldn’t read, speak or understand Telugu. Most of the monitoring & re-check work I was going to do for the next week was all about conversing and reading Telugu! Nonetheless, I showed up, and within the first hour of being in Srikakulam I found myself in a village on the outskirts of the district HQ, with a soft-spoken master trainer who helped us in the training procedure.

Most people I encountered assumed I spoke Telugu and immediately asked what I was doing at their door step? I would attempt to use choice words such as ‘education’ or ‘survey’ or ’14 to 18 age group’ to convey what we were doing but that was pointless. I would just see bemused faces smiling back at me or trying very hard to communicate. Over the course of my week-long stay, I picked up the very handy phrase “Naku Telugu Teliyadu” (I don’t know Telugu), and my MT buddy would jump in and explain “sir from Delhi”, and is here to support the survey.

I was able to visit six villages while I was in Srikakulam, and got to interact with a wide variety of individuals ranging from a CISF jawan who had an interesting take on the status of education in the country, to over eager parents who would regularly offer me something or the other to drink or eat as engaging in conversation was not an option.

The most interesting lot were the kids (or youth) we interacted with. I say “we” because I would be lost without my guide – the master trainer who patiently translated my enthusiasm into simple Telugu.

I met a 14yr old – Pramod (name changed), who was certain that he wanted to become a locomotive engine driver just like his brother-in-law, and Anita (name changed) who enjoyed circuits and wanted to become a software engineer one day.

Every youth I met spoke with confidence when asked what they wanted to become, but most were at a loss when asked how they would get there. I wondered why? I wouldn’t want to generalize as I met only a handful of youth who I completely understood, but most of the time it was quite evident. Almost all of them had no one in their immediate household who could guide them and many a time their elders didn’t share the same enthusiasm that they did regarding their profession of interest.

To get to know the youth better, we asked some general questions such as – what they were studying, what they wanted to do in the future? what sports they played/ liked, or what they do in their spare time? We also asked some hypothetical questions such as – what would they do if they had the opportunity to be Chief Minister for a day? Majority of them said they would want to develop or improve the quality of their own village and tackle the most pressing issues in the village. When asked what they would do if they got lucky and won a huge sum of money, the unanimous response was that they will hand over the money to their parents, or put it in the bank.

Although I didn’t quite get detailed responses to my questions, I do believe the youth I met are quite intimately connected to their village and surroundings, and do think of their own development in line with the development of their village – something that perhaps youth in urban areas, or I myself at their age didn’t quite do.

Another observation that stayed with me was that each youth answered almost immediately to the questions on what they wanted to become. Again, speaking about myself or my friends at that age, most of us were unsure and would not commit to one thing, and used to have very generic responses to questions like these. Perhaps it was because we were aware of the different possibilities in front of us, or had enough guidance we could fall back on when it came to decision making about our career paths. On the other hand, the youth I spoke to seemed pretty sure of what they wanted to do, whether it was to become a school teacher or a bank manager or even a marine engineer. All of them may or may not become what they said, but it was heartening to know they had an opinion about it and had given serious thought to a very important question pertinent to youth of this country.

Although the language barrier was very real for me, ASER ‘Beyond Basics’ gave me the opportunity to get a better understanding of an age group I hadn’t previously given much thought to.