A series of notes from our writer Anitha Pai as she makes the historic journey through India to discover the spirit of social entrepreneurship.
After living in the heartland of America for most of my life, I moved to Bangalore last year to understand the ground realities of the development sector. I began working for a microfinance company and during my free time I couldn’t get enough of exploring India’s cities and villages.
9600 kms across India, 400 yatris, 18 days:
When I heard about Tata Jagriti Yatra, I jumped at the opportunity to travel the country on a train with 400 others interested in exploring social entrepreneurship in India. I knew it would be a chance to further my personal interests, meet like-minded youth, and see firsthand the innovation taking place in institutions around the country.
In the early hours of the morning, I leave the neighborhoods of South Mumbai to make my way to the induction session of TJY. Looking out of the taxi window, I see men walking dogs which are not theirs and those washing cars which aren’t theirs either. For someone who is usually asleep at this time, I’m surprised to see who all have already begun their work day. The Beginning: Dec 24-25th
I arrive at the meeting hall and immediately notice that I have one of the largest suitcases in the group. As others march in with several small and medium size duffel bags, I roll in the only suitcase that was large enough to hold my essentials for the next 18 days. My suitcase is stuffed with amounts of toilet paper and hand sanitizer that I’m sure others aren’t carrying. I start feeling hesitant about my ability to adapt to the constraints of a makeshift home on wheels, and I wonder if I can learn to rough it, Indian style.
The day moves fast and after meeting so many ‘Yatris’ (a term used to refer to fellow travelers), I’m quickly at a loss for names. We are divided into groups of 20 which will serve as our primary discussion circle for the course of the trip. Over our first conversation, my group covers the topics of healthcare in India, the need for skilled employment and the power of microfinance. I can already see myself learning a lot from the Yatris’ insights and varied perspectives. Group C consists of an environmentalist from Bihar, an American MBA student studying the social entrepreneurship sector, a filmmaker, a development studies student, a journalist and 15 others from urban and rural India.
The inaugural session starts with a presentation by Mr. Manish Tripathi of the Dabbawalas, who gives us a glimpse into the success of the 118 year old Mumbai- based lunch delivery service. In his own charismatic style, he elicits a roaring applause with his punchline – "as long as husbands keep loving their wives and long for homemade food" the Dabbawalas will be in business.
By evening we leave for the Central Mumbai railway station. Unexpected delays keep us waiting and at the midnight hour I find myself singing carols on the station platform, led by a group of fellow travelers from the British contingent. We sing; some huddle together and sleep; and others chat about their interests and share excitement for the journey ahead.
As we wait to board, I overhear a conversation between an autowalla and one of the Yatris. After listening to our Christmas carols, the autowalla looks at our foreign delegates and states that Indian hospitality is too accepting. He comments that Indians who go abroad never receive the same generous welcome that foreigners are given here. I assumed that the Yatri would simply dismiss the man, but instead he responded with a passionate explanation on how the world is taking a fresh look at India. Things are changing, he tells the man, and Indians are appreciated for their contributions. I don’t think the autowalla was convinced, but it was the fighting spirit of the Yatri that made me feel lucky to be living in this country at this very moment in history.
The idea of creating change is a theme we'll be talking about again and again. We’ll say India’s challenges are massive, and that, without a fundamental shift in the status quo there is much to be worried about. But what I hope is that despite the issues that need to be overcome, we’ll keep the spirit of the Yatri who had so much optimism for India’s future.
On the lighter side, a typical introductory conversation on the train:
Me: Hi, my name is Anitha.
Fellow Yatri: Where are you from?
Me: Bangalore [pronounced with an American accent]
Fellow Yatri: Bengal?
Me: No, Bangalore [I attempt an Indian accent.]
Fellow Yatri: I didn’t get you.
Experienced Friend: She means Bangalore. [I find myself slightly jealous of the ease in which she uses her singsong local accent.]
Fellow Yatri: You don’t sound like you’re from Bangalore.
Me: I grew up in the States.
Fellow Yatri: Oh, but you look Indian.
Me: Well yes, my parents are from India. Where are you from? [I attempt to change the subject as to not cause any further confusion.]
Fellow Yatri: But you’re not an Indian? [It doesn’t work.]
Me: [a hesitant pause] I guess I’m American.
Fellow Yatri: But your name is Indian.
Me: [I realize that this is not going well at all. I hope that a reference to a Bollywood actress will save me in a time of distress.] I’m an NRI like Katrina Kaif.
Fellow Yatri: Ohh. [It works! Thank you Katrina!]