Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The times I hate myself

I was standing by that golden car ready to head back to Patna when she came up the road. A vaccination worker, Anita had walked from the bus stop on the main road carrying her cooler of vaccines and assorted notebooks. She stopped to chat with the stranger in her town, and I covertly observed her while talking with her.

That foggy morning, she was clad in one of those synthetic shawls that are sold so cheaply on the streets in India-the ones that try to make up in glitter what they lack in warmth. I was doubly warm in a hand-woven wool shawl rich with woolen embroidery and a drab but highly effective fleece (one stolen from sis, and the other stolen from husband. But how was she to know that?). Next to her, I looked rich and pampered. Next to her, I was.

Perhaps this is what prompted her line of questioning. 'What department do you work in?' she asked. 'I don't work for a government department, actually.' I replied 'I work for a magazine that writes about water and publishes on the internet'
'What do they pay you?'
I named a figure that was roughly one-half of what I do earn, knowing even this to be more than her salary.
'This is yours?' she asked, pointing to that eyesore of a car.
No! I don't have a car, I hastened to explain. And then I went into how my office pays for travel, but how its mostly public transport, and how this was for lack of time and too many places to go, all with the excessive detail born of guilt.
'Get me a job in your organization' she said.

Now I field these requests all the time. And usually saying something like, we are a small team, no plans of growth, so sorry, is enough. But this time, it stung.
See, the question is not just one of an English education. Even if her daughter was studying in an English medium school, I think its unlikely that she would get a job where I work. A first generation English scholar from a school in rural Bihar will not have the fluency, the exposure to literature that the job requires. She will not have the 'water contacts' that make obtaining content possible. She will not have the deep enough pockets that serve as my Plan B in case travel goes awry. Accumulating all this requires generations of educated and relatively affluent people.

My job stinks of privilege- it is something I've inherited rather than earned. And I enjoy it, revel in the experiences it offers me, and would not exchange it for Anita's.

Times like these, I don't like myself very much

Monday, January 13, 2014

The times I hate my job

When I began working in the 'NGO sector', my then boss VP gave me a single bit of advice.'NGO wallahs should be like fakirs' he said 'You go to a place empty handed, stay there for a few years, and leave empty handed. And somehow, leave the place better for your being there.' I don't think he realised how it would stick to me. In all the years that followed, that was the parameter by which I judged a job.

And now I am in this one. I go to a place, escorted by the people working there. I see the work they show me, speak with the people they introduce me to. And while I speak with them, I am looking for stories, looking to create some heroes, to add drama to my article. All this I do within the span of a day or two. My job is speed-dating.

The only consolation is that as far as possible I use public transport. Sometimes I see more and converse more during my trips to and fro than during the visit itself.

Until this time. I was visiting North Bihar and the organisation I called up flatly refused to let me go gadding about by train, bus or tempo. It is not safe, not in winter, not during the fog. We don't want you stranded at some junction. If you come, they said, we will hire a car for you that we know and send a colleague along. I agreed.

When the car came, I recoiled in shock. It was a gleaming metallic beige tavera- about as discreet as a set of gold incisors. And in that huge, flamboyant vehicle sat I as we slowly rolled down impossibly narrow village lanes, brushing thatched roofs, scaring goats, crowding children. I got down, I spoke with some people, I got in, I drove off. Ugh. What a pompous, self-serving visit.
I hate speed dating. I hate this style of insulated interaction. And here I am expected to do both.

I need to defend the people I was with though..The little I interacted with them made me respect them immensely. And no, they don't do the car thing. They do local train and tempo. But they were understandably nervous of my being stuck at a junction in the middle of the night.