Uttar Yatra – Reminiscences from a journey within…

Mohita Jaiswal, Big Data Associate, Cognizant

22 MAY, 2017

Uttar Yatra
Cultural Immersion

Empathy Connects wherever you go, and as the wind gushes past the open windows, and the mountains peek silently across bidding farewell, it is the last ray of the dawn that catches me in my reverie. I am suddenly aware of the happy chatter in the bus, and stumble upon the simple truth of these words. Found is in serendipity and received in gratitude.  We are returning back to our concrete jungles from the lands of Uttarkashi, having witnessed the stupendous work of Goonj in uplifting the spirit of the people of Uttarakhand along with a beautiful team of 25 empathy sparks that I feel inspired and deeply humbled, with a greater belief invoked in the courage and spirit of human empathy and will.

Back to Gurgaon now, as I allow myself to comfortably slip in with this thought, to live back a magnificent journey of connections, discovery and empathy I am reminded of a few lines of Nida Fazli, spoken by one of group members during yatra…


कहीं नहीं कोई सूरज, धुआँ धुआँ है फ़िज़ा ,

ख़ुद अपने आप से बाहर निकल सको तो चलो

सफ़र में धूप तो होगी जो चल सको तो चलो…..

DAY 1 | 19th May 2017 | New Delhi, Goonj Center

— To wonderful Beginnings

6’o clock in the evening and hall bubbles with wonder filled appreciation. Dedicated women creatively transforming discard to mounds of colorful hopes and aspirations. Office kits, marriage kits, anganwadi kits, books, and other unutilized discarded material and cloth, are being transformed magically after careful sorting, washing and processing to be sent to far off villages and schools with love. While cotton stands tall championing to break myths and taboos of menstruation, reinvented as cotton cloth pads in an initiative called Not Just A Piece of Cloth (NJPC), serving both its name and purpose. Our guide, one of Goonj’s team member told us how these 700 women working at Delhi’s center of Goonj were ‘self-made’ designers churning out unimaginable creative products, upcycling old cassette tape reels, unused paper, torn jeans in creating a wonderful model of dignified income generation as we couldn’t cease our awe and admiration over the exhaustive and creative utilization of resources. These kits given in appreciation of positive behavioral changes observed in school kids and to people engaging in developmental work for their own community were not only fulfilling need based gaps but also serving as catalysts for positive change.

The work talked across the vision of the founder Mr. Anshu Gupta who ardently believes that it is the takers who are doing us service in accepting our discard rather than the donors; while valuing dignity of work over charity, and also empowering people bottom up. We got an opportunity to listen to the cloth man closely as he vividly narrated his moment of eureka, when a street beggar declared his Eid on receiving a piece of cloth. The realization of how inextricably cloth was linked to dignity and happiness,  how this motivated him to turn the underutilized material of the city to be transformed to a precious resource for rural development or highlighting issues of pertinence, his has been a journey long and interspersed with moments of deep fulfillment. As the night draws to a close he inspires us and implores us to choose our battles wisely, to discover what bothers us most and to most importantly find the gap areas with a lens that can understand different perspectives. To walk on slowly yet steadily, for our pace would be the pace of change, and real change as he believed, always takes time.

In a round of dinner, interacting and connecting over chutney and golgappa, I found diverse people sharing and coming together, having met a few hours back. Brought together by a team of EmpathyConnects, we as Yatris were welcomed with a round of energy throwing balls, energized to discuss over our expectations from the trip, the meaning of empathy and connection, and of how this journey could actually let us find its meaning discovered and assimilated in essence. Thumbs up to none of us being as smart as all of us. Bubbled up, we slowly dragged our suitcases to our traveler, excited and ready to offload our weights into a journey of bonding and rejuvenation.

DAY 2 | 20th May 2017 | Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, In the lands of God

— Musafir hun yaaron…

As the night journey passed away in peaceful excitement (occasionally broken by mafia stopovers) and the city drowsed to sleep under a watchful god, the morning greeted us with the majestic mountains of Rishikesh. The air abuzz with sharing over chai and aalu poori, our caravan reached Goonj’s center at Rishikesh. Goonj had established a basecamp at Rishikesh to be able to carry out relief work during Uttarakhand floods of 2013 of the 4 centers established here. And as the sweet pahadi women prepared cloth kits, and we rested upon their cloth stitched sujnis (Used both as bedsheet and chadar), the center manager briefed us about their experiences in reaching need based immediate materials systematically and how their work continues relentlessly in the rehabilitation of the disaster hit areas. As he narrated about that time of 2013, their work of continuous loading/unloading material, I was humbled by the simplicity and conviction of these people working in such tough terrains.

Thinking about what we would find in Uttarkashi villages, we trailed off to the Ram Jhula and the Lakshman Jhula, and the boat rides which were next on our bucket lists. A unique way was quickly found to celebrate Shivani di’s birthday with collective dip in in the holy waters of Ganga. To add on to the fun, lined across the ghats the colourful lanes sprawled with toys and food and immersed in the sounds of chants and pujaris. The eventful afternoon in Rishikesh made a spectacular getaway. The remaining journey to Uttarkashi flew away in melodious songs, picturesque views and a mood of shayari on love and life, pain and veer ras, all bhaavs cumulated in one, making us caught in nostalgic memory lanes, as we carried on our upward ascent.

At Goonj’s center at Uttarkashi, our night stay was illuminated by a sky strewn by big bear/orion and other star clusters while the music of the Bhagirathi (after having a sumptuous dinner) gave us our sweetest lullaby.

DAY 3 | 21st May 2017 | Trek to Syaba Village

— In the beloved arms of creation, I found both love and magic                                                                                                               

A fulfilling breakfast of Paranthas at Uttarkashi, morning called our destination for the day to trek 7 km to a village called SYABA enclosed high up in the mountains of Bhatwari tehsil, inhabiting 400 people. Of the 700 villages to which Goonj had been reaching its work, Syaba was one where Goonj had been carrying out cloth for work; a wonderful community mobilization initiative that inspired people to collect and work together (shramdan) to solve community challenges; like building roads, bridges, clearing drains etc. I vividly remember our first milestone to the journey, as we frantically pulled the hand driven trolley rope to cross the gushing river (Since bridges could not sustain rains in the region) both in awe and anticipation, helped across by the fortuitous Goonj team members, Mohit sir, Shivji and Naresh Saklani Ji Once safe on the other side, Mohit ji pointed to the migrated laborers working beneath across river banks, breaking stones to get the material to make roads, highlighting how many villages here (including Syaba), lacked access to roads and the apathy and shortsightedness of government policies (like giving 12000 uniformly to make toilets) ignorant of challenges and costs borne in transportation. Brimming with experiences and anecdotes, their insights and knowledge of the local terrain and people were amazing as they made us see how interdependent were the village people on forests, from using the pine husk to make mats, to selling medicinal plants or collecting wood, fruits and vegetables and myriads of other things they found essential were used for local consumption and creating livelihood. Also the tales of how the local people’s myths and superstitions came from the forests; made us hush ourselves to avoid the fancy of evil spirit companions. And as we stopped in intervals to drink water from natural springs, all tired in a few kilometers of the trail, I astonishingly admired the strength and hard work of the people moving daily, down and up, to make a living here.

.As the village drew to a close, and we indulged in a case study, it was great to stop and reflect on our purpose of the visit. It not only gave us clarity, as we thought over what we could we ask/hear/share and observe in the village. It brought us to thinking together to change our identities from going as problem solvers to rather as perceivers, experiencing and sharing in an exchange to learn and build connections.

Syaba seemed a natural paradise. An artist’s dream adobe, a tiny hamlet of colourful houses on terraced slopes. With balconies perched by people enjoying the sun, a few taking out rajma seeds from crops, shaggy haired dogs chased by little children, running with glowing red cheeks circumscribed by the gigantic Himalayas, this village was a peaceful and blissful surprise.

Our host for the afternoon were humble farmers who served us thalis full of rajma, bhaat(rice), lengda curry( a local vegetable) and awesome pudina ki chutney and raita. Filling our stomach’s with home grown food cooked on chulha , we filled our appetites listening to his passionate tete-a-tete about his village being self sustainable in terms of their food, their local shilkul fair where they did a worship of the local gods (ishtdev) celebrated with much fanfare, the little school they had for kids till class 8 and the aspirations of their young people migrating for studies, or joining in defense while their parents continued work as farmers or laborers, near the village. When we collected to meet the villagers near the school community point we were utterly taken aback by the sudden gesture of all children rushing forwards to touch our feet. Whereas their parents, in an interactive session were open to share both happy experiences and woes.

A deep trust based relationship of the GOONJ team with the villagers was visible due to their proactive efforts in the village and we were happy to find a close knit community with a belief in respect, harmony and equality accentuated with Mahila Mangal Dal/ Navyug Mangal Dal/ Asha/ Aanganwadi workers working well to promote their well being. However the villagers were concerned of their farm produce being damaged and eaten by animals like bear, monkeys or pigs since they did not have resources to protect their crops by creating a strong fencing, and wished their village would also be adopted like Sohra was adopted by Reliance. Also since Syaba did not have connecting roads to the village, trolley becoming dangerous during rains as the ropes became heavy to pull, making travelling risky and problematic during medical emergencies (We crossed a wretched lady who was carrying her ill child down for medical aid) and when children had to go too far off schools, after class 8. As our teams discussed over how Maths and English learning could be made easier, through ideas of collective learning, empowering through technology, and accessing rights, it is in the act of simple sharing, in hopes and common aspirations that we formed a subtle bond with them.

And despite of all hostile and adverse day today challenges faced by the villagers, we were humbled by their hospitality and love. I was touched by a woman forcing me to take her sweater along to protect me from the upcoming rain, she, even insisting us to stay back. But with a quick group picture to freeze the beautiful moment in memories, we reluctantly took adieu to make a retreat into our rainward valley. It was slippery in the descent and since the sun was setting quick and it was not safe to climb down in the dark due to the presence of wild animals, with the danger of wax blackened trees falling off amidst all kind of vagaries to cross the river safely, we yet moved down enchanted and full of our stories, songs and silence. The rain had bought Bhagirathi to be in its full swing and the air fresh with pure life bumbling, as we sipped tea, feeling both tired and refreshed at the same time, the night fell quickly. My mind clouded with thoughts questions and wonders of the day, it’s the night sky that gave me company in its vastness, in its profound emptiness.

DAY 4 | 22nd May 2017 | Sangamchatti, Uttarkashi

— In the depth of winter, I finally learnt that within me lay an invincible summer                                                                                                    

The bus takes turn into a rugged terrain, Naresh Saklani ji informs us that we enter the Cherapunji of Uttarkashi, a place dangerous to come to after 3 pm and an area which is closed 6-7 months due to heavy rain falls. It’s one of those eerie sights where life seems to come to standstill, bought to its knees by the fury of nature and yet you could not help being surprised noticing some labour working on building a bridge nearby. Sangamchatti a place where Bhagirathi distributes into Assi Ganga, had been a marketplace and a hustling center point for 5 villages until the 2012 flash floods. It was just 2 days before the inauguration of an NTPC Dam before life was altered here completely. Two shops an isolated site and facts of lives lost gave testimony of the disaster. Mohit sir recounts how Goonj made bridges and helped reestablish connection of the 5 villages to the outer world by helping men and women to make pagdandi, removing heavy stones and clearing moss grass to avoid slipping, along with supplying all necessities. Not all villagers were receptive and open to all work yet this has been an experience of excellent community mobilization. ‘Need to be practical and firm in adverse conditions’ he says and proudly mentions how no village was left where Rahat did not reach. There is a spirit of togetherness in work with no caste differentiation; and we smile as he mentions ‘What caste, we go and break heights’.

As we all sat by in the remnants of a nearby school compound with a single signboard left to demonstrate its identity, we discuss and reflect upon the journey; perspectives and reality, what development and empowerment could actually mean, people sharing, admiration in feeling of a deep sense of gratitude. Everyone carried back with them something, some insights, few questions, a feeling of transformation within, to looking at the world afresh to gratitude and sensitivity to care and share, as people. I also carried back my wonder of the glory of nature, of the spirit of people and my own living presence, along with the feeling of how we could all find ourselves in each other. This feeling, this very, travelled with me through the rest of the journey, was there with me in the rice bowl at the dhaba, in the songs and poems, jumping and looping across purple jacaranda trees, nazms of Nida Fazli, capturing in the stillshots of our wonderful photographers, becoming the man in Gunaho Ka Devta upanyas, savoring the winds of Roorkee, and expressing itself in magic of smiles of all Yatris. This feeling of our world being such a beautiful shared experience, yet fractured by individual perspectives.

Imagining if we could all feel understood.

If we could all find ourselves in each other.