Natasha Badhwar
Natasha Badhwar

Discover the India within you

We don't necessarily have to travel to the deep interiors of society to address injustice

I had never been hungry in my life before. I was living in a tribal hamlet called Khodamba, which was a day’s travel away from the town of Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh. After a 6-hour bus ride through a dusty landscape of barren brown hills, we would trek for 3 hours through a hilly forest to reach Khodamba. This village of Bhil tribals was a cosy bowl-shaped clearing in the forest, with fields in the centre and homes dotted on the gentle slopes of the bowl.

Some evenings I would watch the setting sun and smoke rising from kitchens in the distance and feel that it looked close to the photos of Switzerland I had seen on calendars in homes. Many afternoons I would go behind a mango tree, hold myself in a hug and cry till I felt lighter.

I was 21 years old and had volunteered to continue a teaching project that had been started by activists in the last few years. My diary entries from those days are desperate, often featuring tears and laced with self-deprecating humour. I was obsessed with my hunger, the heat, the lack of water, the lice in my hair and my struggle to socialize with the people I had come to live and work with.

“Did I fight with my family and come this far to do what I want to do only to discover that I am no good at this," I wrote in my diary. I felt like a complete failure.

A typical day would start at 5am and I would be called for the first meal only by 11am. One large thick roti made of cornflour and a portion of watery dal. My eyes would follow the children who flitted in and out of the kitchen, picking up pieces of leftover rotis. It was mango season but the rains had failed and the trees bore no fruit that year.

“I have never been hungry before I came here." I dreamt of food in vivid colours.

I abandoned the teaching project midway to join a postgraduate course in mass communications in Delhi. It had become the biggest conflict ever between my parents and me. A year later, I went back to Khodamba with a classmate to film my first student project. I realized that I did have a deep relationship with the people I had stayed with.

I internalized a dark sense of failure, of having broken a promise and betrayed a dream. I judged myself severely for many years. Looking back, I realize I had set my expectations too high too soon. I was used to being a high achiever and my stint in the tribal village had revealed my limitations to me.

I carried a burden that overwhelmed me secretly, paralysing me further as I made career and personal choices over the years. I had felt isolated in the village and now I felt isolated inside my mind.

I had believed that the way to live a more just and honest life was to abandon my privilege. I learnt that privilege is impossibly tenacious. The more I try to negate it, the more it grows. I can spend three months in a drought-affected area, living below the poverty line, and tell stories about it for three decades. It earns me easy admiration. It helps me qualify for prestigious courses, jobs and awards. I get to write think pieces in newspapers.

The only way to address this conflict was to embrace it. It has taken me years, even decades, to be able to process it. How can I contribute to the greater good in a sustainable way?

I learnt to look at the privilege of my birth as the well that will never stop giving. Throwing rocks and mud into it and trying to destroy what I can take from it is a fallacious choice. Recognize your power and put it to work. Be good at whatever you do. Infuse your sensitivity in every choice you make. Live more justly, pay more equitably, allow yourself to fail again and again. Your safety nets are too secure.

Put your guilt to work. Give your wallowing self some real targets to achieve. Success is a drug, have the conviction to detox and step back. If your pain is real, it will choose to heal.

My career as a video journalist and documentary film-maker took me back into other people’s homes again and again. We constantly need others to extend themselves to get our work done. It is easy to forget their generous contributions to our work and take all the credit for “my story," “my shots," “my film" and “my breaking news".

We already know how to manipulate narratives. We know when to dip into others’ lives, take what we want and when to disconnect. It is easy to thrust heroism upon ourselves, even more so now that we have social media at our fingertips.

Acknowledge this mindfully to pierce through your own complacency.

Looking back, I realize that again and again I have intuitively chosen experiences that challenge my abilities and often break me temporarily. Every time I travel away from comfort, I come face to face with my own conscience. I realize how little I know and how wrong my assumptions are.

What I look for is a way to know and connect with the India around me. Complex, diverse, energetic India. The India that hurts.

Somewhere this is connected with the desire to belong. To find home. Home isn’t where one is pampered and safe. I feel incomplete and alienated in worlds that are padded with luxury and privilege. I want to know my worth. I want to know what I can affect with my power and presence as an individual.

We don’t necessarily have to travel to the deep interiors of society to address injustice. We do, however, have to travel into the depths of our own consciousness. Each person reading this sentence has the power to change lives, to live more equitably, to participate in the information economy more responsibly.

Travel to the India within yourself. Connect to the India around you, the communities your life intersects with. Our personal lives are deeply political. We participate in perpetuating class, caste and gender inequality every day. Instead of obsessing with what you cannot do, focus on what you can enable.

Amplify what needs attention, smash your fist through paralysing ennui. When I stopped mocking and judging myself, I found the energy to put my strengths to use. I no longer try to simplify the world around me into problems and solutions.

We replenish our own life force when we connect to those of others. We can do no good for anyone else unless we acknowledge the good it does to us.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer, entrepreneur and a Mint Lounge columnist.

Close