In starting to write this blog, I wasn’t really sure where to begin. In fact, I still don’t really know if this is where I should begin. Truthfully, since coming to Delhi, every bit of my stream of consciousness has lead me somewhere new and much like the beautiful outpour of sensory inputs here, it can be a lot to process sometimes!

A notification just popped up saying: “Taste buds get replaced every 10-15 days”. So, in theory, every two weeks our perception of a specific stimulus changes slightly.

While this conclusion is much more nuanced that I am reducing it to…many parallels can be drawn from this to my experiences, perspectives, and ideas in Delhi. In fact, every day I find myself experiencing something new, and each time I look back, I feel something different about just what it was that I experienced. I came here with the hope that my perspectives would be challenged and shifted, little did I know the extent that this might begin to happen in, let alone how quickly.

So, how are you finding India?”

To be completely honest, I am not entirely sure how to answer this question.
As much as things have felt different- the everyday 41 degree weather accompanied by “dust” on the forecast, the languages, the colours, the spaces- things have also felt very “normal” (whatever that means!), in fact almost surprisingly so.

I know. These are probably not the exciting words that everyone wants to hear when this question is asked. And rest assured, my time here has been far from underwhelming- I love being here, and am so thankful that I have the opportunity to learn alongside others here. Life, since making the temporary move from my little home in Victoria, has been vibrant, challenging, exciting, and each day, I have experienced something new. But what makes each day new hasn’t always been some ground-breaking, earth shattering experience that we’ve come to (often unknowingly) expect from our perceptions of travelling and taking in new cultures.

Sure, it has been the sounds, the colours, the noises, the food, and the smells. But perhaps even more so, it has been the things you experience when navigating any new situation- a new job, a new home, a new friend group.

It has been a period of learning (about different contexts, current situations, historical influences, and stories of lives); unlearning (the expectations that I thought I did not have, the social ideologies that have been engrained in me- both visible and invisible); and, most obviously in my time here so far, relearning (even the basics).

How do I say thank you? Can I wear this? How should I refer to my supervisors? What is the best way to get around? Where is the closest fruit and vegetable market? How do you make friends again? Where is the toaster?! Should I hop on the bus by myself and explore? What is my role in all of this, given my positionality, my privilege, my experiences, or lack thereof? Am I allowed to say this? How do I communicate this?

I guess, as I continue to journey through this experience and my quest for clarity/a better understanding, I have in their place found more questions. As my one-month-a-versary with Delhi draws near, one thing I can say I have learned for certain is that all that I know, all that I believe about the world, and all of my perceptions are so deeply rooted from my specific positionality. I can never fully “know” something the way someone else does; all that I know is that I do not know.

Working and living at PRIA- the Society of Participatory Research in Asia has been amazing, comforting, and challenging all at once. Tucked away on its quiet street of Tughlakabad Institutional Area, PRIA is just steps away from the hustle and bustle of what is the most intricate dance I have laid my eyes on. Waves of weaving autos, busses, cars, motorcycles, people, whirling around one another, with honks and horns which ride on its wake. Cows that stand coolly in the middle. A street adorned with snacks far too close for our own good.

Mango (aam) ice cream breaks at lunch! (Photo: Aislin Lavin)

PRIA takes a participatory approach to research rooted in working with and not for others, one that values all unique backgrounds and experiences, believing that interdisciplinary approaches to finding community-specific solutions begin with exactly this: community. Participatory action is rooted in people- people’s engagement, localities, intersections, and empowerment.

Over the past month I have had the privilege of learning from and with our project team on the “Reforming Local Governance for Responsive and Effective Service Deliveries in Selected Blocks of Rajasthan” or alternatively “Apna Swasthya, Apni Pehel (ASAP)”. While ASAP is concerned with many different areas, essentially, the project focuses on the activation and empowerment of local governance structures, communities, and people, to increase participatory approaches governance and prioritize maternal and child health in village-level government (Gram Panchayat) planning. PRIA has partnered with two blocks, Govindgarh and Banswara, in the state of Rajasthan to mobilize this movement. I feel pretty lucky to have the opportunity to join field sometime this week for a brief period to learn alongside PRIA field officers and the involved communities, and see this project in motion.

“Becoming Free”

Slowly but surely, I am finding my footing here in Delhi. I am learning. I am learning humility and patience with situations, others, and perhaps hardest of all, myself. I am learning my boundaries: physical, relational, structural, and spatial. I am learning to find comfort sitting in discomfort. And I am learning that while individualist societies often preaches this idea of independent being strong (and I do agree that there is strength in this), there is also so much strength in dependence, or rather, the vulnerability that lies within the latter.

On my first day here at PRIA, I had a meeting with my project team of three, including me. After we discussed the context of the research, the challenges it faced, and where the current progress status was, my supervisor looked at me, likely sensing my excitement, nerves, questions of curiosity and doubt (am I asking the right questions? Am I making a good first impression? How is my body language?). Warmly, he turned to me, and told me something that would come to be the theme of many of our future conversations: to “be free”.

When my supervisor told me to “be free”, while reassuring, I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. Though this phrase, at first glance, seems like something we might only find in a yoga class or amongst a field of wildflowers, they have become the theme of many of our conversations. I think the biggest barrier I faced when I came to Delhi was this fear of making a mistake. Navigating positionality, power, privilege, amongst countless other things can be tricky and it’s really easy as an over-thinker to feel, given all these societal barriers upon us, stuck.

But again, I am learning. While it is essential to be rooted in this recognition of our limitations and our positions, it is also important to allow ourselves to “be free”: to learn; to unlearn; to be okay with making mistakes, recognizing this is the root of growth; to be honest about what we don’t know and what we are finding out; to be vulnerable; to be humble; to ask questions; to connect; and to not always understand, but to try.

For, as my supervisor said, “If you are not free, what can you really do at all?”

Thanks for walking alongside me through all my longwinded musings. Until next time :).

Monkey see, monkey do