Retrospective narrations of one’s journey can be misleading. Its linear format is inherently deceptive because an ordered layout assumes clarity and purpose, when life itself is often a jumbled back and forth of trial and error. And though it is slightly disconcerting to “review” one’s life at the age of 26, I have provided some background to put my travel experiences in context.
Raised in the metropolitan bustle that is New Delhi, I have always had a strong connection with my maternal ancestral home of Rasmai (a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India). Frequent visits to my village nurtured a love for nature and my attraction towards a simpler, less materialistic life. In Rasmai there was no TV or telephone, electricity came for a few hours, if at all. In Rasmai we had no restaurants or ice cream vendors, no shops and certainly no Coca Cola. But we did have walls lined with bookshelves, we did have endless paths to take walks on, we did have a spirited canal where we’d fish (unsuccessfully) and we did have a tube well where we’d jump in for a quick bath.
My childhood was aglow with long walks with my grandfather, a retired forest officer, who passed his wisdom on things ranging from the call of a partridge to how to graft a mango sapling. Ever-youthful and a pioneer in his own right, I shadowed his experiments in fascination. One year it was drip irrigation in the lime orchard, another summer it was wine making. A few winters we kept bees and another year we had a bumper harvest of lettuce, a crop unheard of in rural India at that time. From him I learned to not shy away from dirtying my hands, “from dust unto dust,” he’d demonstrate, plucking out weeds from the fields and allowing them to decompose into manure. I learned how a farmer’s fortunes are dictated by the vagaries of the weather. I learned that to be a woman in rural India is a constant struggle. And I learned that there is wisdom to be found if one is ready to observe and listen.
A whole new learning curve
After completing my undergraduate degree in botany, I went on to complete a masters in natural resource management. This phase of my life opened my mind to battles being fought all over India: deforestation vs. mining, shrinking habitats and animal poaching vs. forest rights of indigenous communities, pesticides vs. organic farming. I revelled in this assault on my senses. Yes, I felt uncomfortable, I often felt helpless, but I was stimulated by the discourses swirling around me and this helped me articulate what I wanted to do next.
After my degree, I chose to work with an NGO called Pragya. Pragya works with indigenous communities across the Himalayas (from Jammu and Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east) promoting ecological conservation and sustainable development for these geographically isolated populations.
The projects I worked with aimed at watershed management, medicinal plant cultivation and livelihood diversification and enabled me to spend months in the field, travelling to remote locations, often trekking for hours, and interacting with people who are directly dependent on natural resources. Some villages had no electricity. Others had problems of diminishing water resources. Some places saw youngsters migrating to urban areas in search of jobs. Mountain communities in India are marginalized from mainstream politics and as a result have suffered the consequences of unequal development. They have not benefited from the success story of India’s economic boom. In spite of the vast sums of money being spent by the government on watershed projects and infrastructure development, economically viable and environmentally sustainable development is still a far off goal. I spent nearly two years in this manner. It was an invigorating yet somewhat challenging experience.
Feeling ill-equipped and restricted by my inability to help and contribute in a meaningful manner, I decided to start studying more about inclusive development. This led me to take up a PhD in the UK. Here, my research looks at how farmers in Rajasthan are vulnerable to water scarcity and climate change and what they are doing to cope with it. For this, I recently spent 10 months in southern Rajasthan, interacting with and learning from tribal farmers. Again, I was confronted by the story of a farmer and his constant struggle with the weather to eke out a living. Having travelled extensively across different landscapes in India, what I have learned to be universal is that the rural life is not easy and there is no beauty in poverty. However, for the willing, there are lessons and that is what draws me.
My interactions with the less-privileged have made me value the luxuries I have had—a sound education, not having to be restricted by my gender, being free to choose and live as I wish. These life lessons constantly contribute to my person. This is why I believe travel is as much about learning about the outside world as it is learning about oneself.
Chandni Singh is an environmentalist and poet. She is currently doing her PhD in rural livelihoods. She writes a column on her travels in Helter Skelter and also writes regularly on her personal blog. A firm believer of the power of travel as a transformative learning experience, read about her experiences in rural Rajasthan here.