My first glimpse of the puzzle

By Viraj Bharambe, Flexi Fellow 2014-15

Standing on a bridge over fast-flowing sewage, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I looked up at the gates in front of me. They shone bright-white and although the pungent stench tried to distract my attention, I read the sign through squinted eyes:

“Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action”.

I’m sure the juxtaposition is not lost on you and it was patently obvious to me.

The gates were locked and I turned away to look back down at the open sewer. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I would one day like to find out why the collective effluence of human civilization always seems to have a greenish-blue (almost mystical) hue. And why does it shimmer like that?

This didn’t change how much I was looking forward to the following morning though. I had been excited about starting my flexi-fellowship for many months and the sewage was a minor detail for now. I’d ruminate on it over the next few weeks, but my mood was that mixture of apprehension and excitement that precedes any new endeavour. Pleasant.

I walked through the gates the next morning and was greeted by a timid but welcoming Maria at the reception desk. She furnished me with a wad of booklets and papers to read which I carried over to the nearest seat. I’d barely bent my knees on my way to sitting and I was greeted by a beaming Mr Kumar. He shook my hand firmly and ushered me towards a table where we sat and unravelled our life stories to each other. Stories, I would soon discover, were going to be the itinerary for the week.

And I had no problems with that whatsoever. After all, my arrival here was part of a story that started some years before in a private clinic in Maharashtra and had come via a 3600 kilometre cycle ride through 12 states of India. I love stories.

I still didn’t really get it though, the point of this organisation, but the stories were starting to give me some context. I’d meet almost the entire SOCHARA team over the next 72hours and each of them had more to add to the tapestry. People from all walks of life shared this physical and mental space. Their stories started in monasteries, rural villages, medical schools and refugee camps. They traversed paths as varied as their origins and somehow converged on this nexus.

There was a common thread to this tapestry of tales. All their journeys brought them to the notion that economic ‘growth’ in India had decoupled from social development. Here, at this nexus, their goal is to redress this. In their own niches they go about tackling some of the biggest issues facing India today; rural health inequity, sanitation, environment and health, tobacco control, health systems and their governance, health of migrant workers, communicable disease and the list goes on.

For what is quantitatively a small group of researchers and activists, their network and sphere of influence is formidable. That first week at SOCHARA may have been one of the most inspiring of my life so far; inspiring in a way that gives you boundless energy and a drive to do everything, everywhere, now. I read and conversed voraciously. The more I read and conversed the more I wanted to know. The more I found out the more I would revisit the same conclusion.

It’s so bloody complicated!! Every little thing is inextricably linked to every other thing. Most of these things you have no control over and are so ingrained into society that you would need to instigate multiple cultural revolutions to achieve anything tangible. More than once in the last few weeks I have thought the only true solution would be to initiate a military coup and autocratically sort this whole bloody mess out. Only fleeting thoughts, promise.

And of course, all the other pilgrims at this nexus have had these thoughts too. It’s as if that torrent of sewage that runs between these two buildings is a symbol of how much work there is to do, but this doesn’t deter them. There is a mantra they taught me which I find myself chanting with an almost religious fervour during my troughs of pessimism:

‘You can’t do everything, everywhere. But you can do something, somewhere.’

So I picked a thing to focus on, started work on it and tried to assimilate community health as I understood it. At this early stage, I can say I understand what community health is supposed to be. Learning how to apply it, practice it, live it and promote it will be a journey of its own. A tale that perhaps one day I will pass on to some young, impressionable pilgrim in the hope that they might continue the cycle.

To read more about Viraj’s cycle tour through India with his friend go to: www.virajandrobertdoindia.wordpress.com

To get a sense of how much work there is to be done in the experiment we call India please use: www.socialprogressimperative.org