[ Author: Mausumi Chetia ]
Taking the 8pm Rajdhani Express:
With every new stride that time takes, there rises a different yet inimitable wave which aids us to seize that invisible ‘something’which all of us are chasing incessantly, the phenomenon which I have come to learn about and call as life. On one sultry, April evening while I was counting myself as one among those numerous students who were at the brink of making a life-molding decision right after the final examination of under-graduation, my mother’s call popped up on my phone’s screen. And there came the news. That I have been one of the chosen ones to adorn this premiere institute of the country called the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay for studying M.A. in Social Work. Only then I realised that yes, I did go to Bombay for an interview at the institute… not with a conviction to study social work but more so with a drive to live the New York of India – Bombay!
As they often say, when you have a mind of your own, there are people around you to confuse you and confuse you well! Hence, with a will, 70% of which belonged to others and 30% to me, as a ‘back-up’ plan I boarded the 8pm Rajdhani Express to Bombay from New Delhi station on May 25th, 2009. Following that journey; needless to say, life never quite remained the same.
And the journey begins:
With the history of being a pioneer of social work education in India, the gates of TISS warmly welcomed and opened up a whole new world to me (that I had been otherwise oblivious to all those years). ‘Studying’ social work in four-walled classrooms discussing ethics and principlesof the subject was one of the foremost dilemmas I faced in my initial period of gestation with the institute and the pedagogy followed here. The other challenge was to pay due attention to the teacher in classes of more than 150 students and few others (of FCs or Foundation Courses) containing the strength of almost 550 students! Those were the classes when carrying a sweatshirt to the chilling Convention Centre (a state-of-the-art Auditorium with an audience- capacity of approximately 650) and catching up on your nap on the topmost rows were the wisest of decisions made! With the coming of the much-awaited Bombay monsoons, the tiny campus turned into a pool of green freshness which brought mornings of new possibilities and dreams! Somewhere the guard within too started melting away and I discovered relationships that added profoundness and meaning to life forever. Mohiniattam, Uttarayan, Pongal did not remain mere words but days of celebration that were cherished like never before. As autumn gave way to the retreating monsoons, the world within the institute grew wider and at most times, learning ensued beyond the four-walls in a much informal yet enriching fashion. Be it the Ramanayana viewed through the lens of feminism, or deconstruction of theories of neo-liberalism, or throwing critical perspectives on Maosim vs. Development, all subjects and issues under the sun were discussed and debated over cups of evening chai in the canteen, jobless nights of activist hearts, birthday treats at Naturals and Sunny’s and so on.
The most credible aspect of the curriculum here is fieldwork. It is the experience of the real world out there as a student. Being placed in the only Observation Home of the district of Bombay and working with Juveniles in Conflict with the Law and close observation of the lives of women inmates in the District Jail of Kalyan along with close association with the three wings of the state demonstrated the harsher shades of the otherwise glittering city. It was a lifetime opportunity to do a tiny bit that was possible within the rigid frameworks of the state’s structural institutions for the most-rejected communities of our society – the prison inmates or alleged criminals. Probably this and many other such small, big experiences in and around the city and the campus never permitted me to bring myself up to calling Bombay as Mumbai. More so also because the latter gives a very superficial identity to the city; where there is place only for a Taj Palace Hotel or a Bollywood Superstar or a Gateway of India but not for a Deonar Dumping Ground (the largest garbage dumping zone of the world) or the street-dwellers in numerous streets of the city for whom the street is synonymous to home! As a part of the academic requirements, writing a dissertation on any topic of one’s choice was an option too that I had opted for. Doing some kind of work related to the grave situation of flood and soil erosion in Assam had always been close to my heart. This option gave me that opportunity. Hence I travelled across the largest, human-inhabited riverine island of Assam, Majuli. An endeavour to get a glimpse of the difficult lives and issues of the Mising community of the island brought me face-to-face with the real life that I had forever witnessed from the months of late April to mid-September in the reels captured by enthusiastic regional journalists and reporters back home. But of course neither the handful challenges faced in quenching my thirst to know about this issue at the ground level nor achievement of a successful academic score in my dissertation brought any change to the lives and miseries faced every morning in the monsoon-season by these people. Sounding selfish enough, it abetted me in opening my eyes to the veracities of life and broadened my perspective of our society, system, state and the life of a commoner within.
To discover myself:
Every coin has two facets to it. It is upon us to choose the one that is beneficial to us. Unlike many of my batch mates, coming to TISS was never a dream for me, rather an accident (which I sincerely believe I am able to say for having the luxury to live that dream!). But when in May 2011, when I was readying myself for the real battle in the outside world; I was leaving the institute and Bombay with a few dreams in my eyes and determination in my heart. TISS gifted and gave me the platform to weave those and discover this me. Beyond doubt, it contributed to my holistic growth as an individual. Having spent a year in Rajasthan working with a grassroots level advocacy organization and interacted with stakeholders at various levels made me realize the amount of professional expectations that this institute brings with itself. Trust me; they can pain that young, passionate and energetic workaholic in you.
As an institute within India and the whole region of the Asian continent that the entire fraternity of social science academicians and practitioners look upto, TISS has a load of expectations and responsibilities on it’s shoulders. These have come not from an external source but from within through it’s past contribution to the society.It has brought out pioneering individuals in various fields, the likes of whom are Jennifer Liang (the Managing and Founding Trustee, of ANT – The Action NorthEast Trust that works directly with communities in villages of Chirang District and indirectly as a resource to organisations in other parts of the Northeast India);Jeroo Billimori (founded several social organizations, including Aflatoun, Child Helpline International, Childline India Foundation, MelJol and the Credibility Alliance. Recognized as a “shining example” of the world’s “leading social entrepreneurs,” Billimoria’s social and humanitarian work has reached the lives of millions of children around the world); Shamim Modi (RTI Activist and expert on Tribal issues working primarily in Madhya Pradesh); Medha Patkar (Founder/Activist of Narmada Banao Andolan);Tarique Mohammad Qureshi (Founder of Koshish, a Field Action Project of TISS working with beggars& the homeless population. He is currently in a team which us penning the first-ever Beggary Law of India in the Planning Commission) and so on.
Carrying forward it’s responsibilities beyond comfortable zones, the Banyan called TISS is spreading it’s branches across the nation ranging from down south in Hyderabad, to up north in Ladakh, and in the east as well including in the state of Jharkhand and in Guwahati, known as the TISS NERC. It is of utmost significance and only essential that the Government of Assam entered into a MoU with TISS to set up one it’s branches in Guwahati with a percentage reservation as high as 60% for students from the eight north-east Indian states. Focused academic curriculum and research studies have been proposed to be taken up by the institute that are in tandem with the context of the region. These range from peace and security, climate change and so on. However, as much progressive as an idea is the establishment of TISS NERC, it should not be forgotten that contextually relevant issues mustcome up from within the people and the region and not from the powers-that-be sitting in the D-cities. As an institute that has substantial access and say at bringing about policy-level changes*, there is necessity for groundwork and much scope for turning those to practically achievable goals in the region; henceforth, also hopes of a million expectant voices in Northeast India which are waiting to be heard through TISS-NERC.
All I can say at this crucial juncture is that, dearest TISS, you have (made) and hopefully you shall always, make me proud!
*The findings of a 2005 TISS report on the socioeconomic conditions of ‘manual scavengers’ in Maharashtra will feed into the State Government’s policies and programmes for the rehabilitation of ‘scavengers’. A similar study has also been conducted for the state of Gujarat.
*The TISS is providing support to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in participatory and sustainable development planning and implementation over a five-year period, from 2005 to 2009.
*The TISS is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a collaborating Centre for Health, Policy Research and Training.
*The Special Cell for Women and Children, a Field Action Project of TISS, which works towards empowering the survivors of domestic violence, is being taken over by the Government of Maharashtra to be replicated in police stations across and beyond Maharashtra, and in other states in the country
The writer is an alumnus of School of Social Work, TISS, Mumbai, batch of 2011. Currently she is working with the Field Action Project of TISS, Mumbai called AAPTI which works with the survivors of 26/11/2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks, 13/7/2011 Serial Bomb Blasts, Mumbai and 9/12/2011 AMRI Firecase, Kolkata as a Research and Documentation Officer.
 Observation Home: A protective Home for children (boys and girls) under the age group of 18years set up under the Juvenile Justice Act, 2006.
 TISS NERC: Tata Institute of Social Sciences NorthEast Regional Campus
 MoU: Memorandum of Understanding