Awakin Talks » Meenakshi Gupta and Anshu Gupta » Transcript

Meenakshi Gupta and Anshu Gupta: Give, Receive and Dance

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Conversation Transcript

Jignasha: Welcome again to our fortnightly Awakin Talks, in conversation with Meenakshi and Anshu Gupta.

Our moderator today is Gopal Garg, who is a Servicespace volunteer, and is currently the director of ecosystems at Ashoka. He was also the co-founder of ‘youth for jobs’ foundation, one of India's leading non-profit organizations in the field of skills-training for people with disabilities, and creating inclusive spaces. After nearly two decades of untiring work in this space, he decided to follow his heart’s beat, which he has always done, but this time again his heart took him on a six month long walking pilgrimage with his wife and daughter. It's an honor, Gopal, to have you today as our moderator. And I will now invite Gopal to introduce our guest speakers today, Meenakshi and Anshu Gupta, and get the ball rolling.

Gopal: Thanks, Jignasha. Thank you Meenakshi and Anshu, for joining us today. It's really a joy to have you here.

Meenakshi is the co-founder of Goonj and has been in the field of communication for more than 15 years which includes working with BBC South Asia as the head of news publicity. Later in 2005 she joined Goonj full-time. From the beginning, she has been a part of Goonj’s journey, be it communication strategy or co-authoring hundred stories of change, or focusing on women and menstrual hygiene issues, or strengthening its foundational values. She has really been a backbone (to Goonj). She is well travelled, a trained dance movement facilitator and learns from people when she travels to deep interior parts of India.

Anshu is the founder and current director of Goonj. He holds a Master's degree in Economics and a double major in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Brought up as the eldest child of a middle class family from Dehradoon, as a graduate student, he traveled to Uttarkashi in North India in 1991 for relief work that I guess planted some seeds to start ‘Goonj’. Anshu is popularly known as India's clothing man, and embodies an instinctive empathy and connection with people, moving the focus from the conventional giver’s pride to the unconventional receiver’s dignity. Also, he is the Ramon Magsaysay awardee for 2015, conferred to him for “his creative vision in transforming the culture of giving in India”. I think he has taught me and many of us in India, and globally, what giving and receiving means.

Anshu has been an enterprising leader, in treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor, and in reminding the world that true giving always respects and preserves human dignity. Goonj redistributes over 5,000 tons of used clothes annually, and Goonj’s flagship programs are ‘cloth for work’, and ‘not just a piece of cloth’.

And we'll hear more from them how this (external) work leads to inner-transformation for them and in return transform the world around. Incidentally, Urvi, their daughter was born in the same year as Goonj. So if I may call Goonj either their first or second child. So that's how they have two children! And with that I would also say that Goonj has also been their parent.

Gopal: So with that, we are really excited to have you Anshu and Meenakshi today for a conversation. I am aware a lot has been happening in the last eight months. I think the whole world is in some kind of a transformative stage (during Covid times). For some people it is a shock and for some it is time for self-introspection. I'm sure for Goonj this has been a journey of big transformation like other organizations in India. And, I believe personally for you, it must have been an overwhelming experience. We’d love to hear from you how it has been for you guys, and how did you live these eight months? And what is emerging for you here on?

Anshu: Hmm ...

I would say interesting and a complicated journey. Interesting in a sense that, fortunately, I love challenges, for sure. I mean obviously we never knew that challenges will happen in this particular way. And then to this extent, but, because you are ultimately looking after an institution which is now 1000 plus people, literally the formal and informal team where everyone’s livelihood depends on the organisation. You are running an institution where 70 - 80% people come from that so called strata (daily wage earners) of the society or in the income group of people who are literally walking on the roads (migrant workers), they are both exactly at the same above level in terms of incomes and the insecurities in life. And so good to see that at least none of our people were walking on the roads in those tough days. We were standing together as a family. We were doing our job, which was very complicated. And, I often joke with people that, you know we are in the era where even if you bring half a kg potato, or onion from the market, you keep washing that for half an hour, and when you peel it, even then you are worried that the virus is there. And here you are, who, you know, as an institution, where it is a moral responsibility and because we are meant for this, where we have dealt with almost 4.1 million kilos of ration (groceries) itself in the last seven - eight months. And that way every package had a virus, I mean, if we start worrying about that ... (cannot work)

There are two things, I would say- one it is a hugely- hugely learning phase, second a lot of somewhere, I would say satisfaction. Because as you know Gopal, that in the last seven to eight months ... we often, call ourselves a COVID family, which is not a good or bad term, but that's what the reality is that I went through COVID. And after that COVID journey, I was hospitalized twice. Mini (Meenakshi) has gone through COVID other family members have gone through COVID.

And as a so-called founder, what makes you happy is breaking that entire myth in the world with a lot of people – where I remember people use to say that Goonj is equal to Anshu and Anshu is equal to Goonj. And I'm pretty sure that now that myth (is broken) ...

We always knew that this is not the case, right? We were always very confident about the system, process team, beautiful people around us, but people had this myth unfortunately. I think that myth has broken. The way this beautiful team has really taken up the entire thing!

(Because) Otherwise, a very simple thing that if the head of the family goes through some complicated tough phase one way to deal with it is that all of us are (become) afraid of it and say – Oh! No!, if it can happen to him, it can happen to me also. So why should I go to office, why should I do this, for me life is more important then packing some material or reaching out to people. But I think none of the team person really went in that mode of depressing thought process. We all fought it!

And the other important part is that it's not easy to break your own systems and processes, which you create in the last two decades and suddenly as a team, you don't even sit physically because zoom has become God. So you'll suddenly sit on zoom. And then decide that whole lot of systems and processes, which we have created, we need to revisit every single system and process. We needed to find new systems so that we can respond to this huge crisis. I mean, an institution which is known for dealing with clothes, utensils, footwear, all of the other material has also done 200,000 kilos of fresh vegetable purchases from the last farmer.

So figures wise this might be small or big, but as an institution this is a team that has not even bought 100 kilos of bhindi or potato in one go is (now) buying in quintals and buying on fair prices and reaching out to the farmers and making sure that the dignity is maintained, making sure that there is no distress buying. I think all of this is a learning.

And the last point is – till date we used to imagine village as a village. And so when we use to go for this dignity for work exercise, which is called ‘cloth for work’, where we make roads, dig wells and all those hardcore infrastructure. Just like last financial year, we have made or repaired about 500 kilometers of road.

I mean, one aspect of Goonj is to work with people which hardly know about us. (They hardly know) what are we doing with this material (we collect like cloth, bags, shoes etc), the barter system with it. I think that work really went on, the dignity was maintained despite lockdown, despite all kind of fear. So we literally devised those systems and I feel happy about it that, somehow there was a mandate to us because we chose this life and somehow whatever little work in the entire volume work the people, the volunteers and the team were at it. I think that's something which is important for us.

Meenakshi: I think in the larger context and when we look back at the last eight months of a personal journey, organization journey and what the world is going through we are still in the midst of a disaster. I think that reality is true for all of us. We have been working on natural disasters for the last 20 years. I think we have seen that the kind of resilience from the people who have very little and then when a disaster comes home to a personal thing, when four or five people in the family almost simultaneously have COVID and you have to be the caregiver and be the patient and all of that, that it is overwhelming. It is truly overwhelming and it is the time to actually pull all the strengths that you have together to be able to make sense of how do you respond to this? How do you respond to a personal disaster? How do you respond to an organizational level? How do you respond to the world? I think at many levels, one has to make sense of it.

We had to make sense of it for ourselves, as an individual, we had to make sense of it as an organization and to make sense of it as a world. And, I think, the fact that many of us have to look at things all over again, like a clean slate, let's start all over again. I think that thankfully what Anshu was talking about, in a nutshell, for me, it is about the ability to adapt, the ability to say that, okay, we are ready to let go of the things that we built and sort of come to this reality and respond to it. I think that on many levels, that's how we've tried to live it.

Gopal: Wonderful, I think I should really say, kudos to the Goonj team, I think who could really reach so far. And I understand being a frontline service provider, you have to go through many things.

I can see like the world is getting devastated or there's lot of things happening outside, a lot of things happening to you, at a physical level, you both have gone through such difficult phases. What do you think, has been giving you inner strength to do the work outside?

Meenakshi: Like I was saying that we had been working in disasters, natural disasters, as you rightly said as a front line organization. I think the teams get that strength from people. Not just in COVID, but for the last 20 years, I think our biggest strength, learning ground and our sense of hope comes from people. You see people coming out of huge natural disasters with nothing left -- no home, no jobs, loss of family members. And then you still get up. You want to live. You want to do something. Having been standing with that for the last 20 years, the teams have been phenomenal. When this whole thing started, all of us had fear. That is one constant that we are all working with. It's like a background that is always there. But how each of us came through and responded to that fear is what the teams have really worked on beautifully.

Anshu: I think there are a lot of things. The fact that you have adjusted that for the last eight months! You have not gone out to have 'golgappas' (indian snack) and you're looking forward to going back to the 'thela' (road side stall selling snacks). That might be my aspiration to go on. Why not? Because that's what I love. And at the end of the day, in the middle of all this big jargon, big work, big data - what makes you happy is one nice thin 'jalebi' (indian sweet) and a few 'golgappas' and you live on! I am very upfront about it. That's why I remember Nipun Bhai's 'Namak (salt) of Wednesday' in San Francisco more than your Awakin circles and everything, which I also love a lot! (laughs ...)

The other thing, I think, God or whatever you call it gives you a chance in your life, to do something much better than what you're doing already. So let's take it as a chance. A chance not to give back, but to pay back. Because we are in 'karza' (debt). I owe every single person who has made a house for me or who has been feeding me. When I say 'me', I represent millions of people. We still dare to, in a distorted thought process, call the farmer a 'beneficiary'. Despite the fact that we are benefited by the farmers.

And then the privileges which we have. I will share my personal journey when I went through COVID. I had a separate room and a washroom. When Mini (Meenakshi) went through it, she also had the same thing. And that is true for hundreds and thousands of people like us. If nothing else, we had connections in the hospitals. We had the best possible medicines available. We even had connections with some pharma company to reach out to for the medicine. But when I see 70-80% of my own team, I'm not even talking about the larger world, I know that they are living in one single room with a family of five to six. They do not have access to all the 'Chavanprash' and all those things which we think are very beneficial. There is no scientific proof. But we will eat whatever we think will protect us from this disease.

So we have those privileges. When you live this life, you have to count on those privileges for sure. I mean, we are a sum total of that. Goonj or whatever we do beyond Goonj, is not what I am doing or what Mini is doing or what a couple of us are doing. It is a sum total of those hundreds and thousands of people who are taking much bigger risks. I have the privilege to go to my office and take a proper Detol and Savlon bath everyday to protect myself from the virus. But Goonj is made up of those thousands of people who do not have those privileges when they are going to the public toilets. I we have to remember all of that.

My COVID was not public. And why should you make it public? There is a saying "Dukh baantne se halka ho jata hai" (share your suffering and it will become lighter). However, my mother believed "Dukh baantne se halka nahin ho jata hai. Tumhare liye halka ho jata hai. Jisse tum baantte ho, usko to bhaari pad jata hai" (Suffering doesn't become lighter by sharing. It may lighten your mind but becomes a burden for the other). (Laughs ...)

A close friend of mine called after I had recovered from COVID. She was angry that I didn't tell her I was going through this. I reassured her that I had recovered. I told her that in other situations you would have been able to visit me, bringing along two kilos of Mosambi (sweet lime). But there was no chance of that this time. And this was during the end of May. There were no medicines either. So what matters for a whole lot of us, more than the 'dawa' (medicine) is the 'dua' (blessings).

If we are on the right path – by which I mean, just doing whatever we should do, not harming people intentionally - we have earned those blessings. I think many of us are confident that even if we ever harmed people with our doings, none of that was intentional. So if nothing else, we have earned those blessings. And I'm pretty sure that in our life, those blessings play a major role. If you get up in the morning and someone wishes you good, tells you that they have offered prayers for you, asked mannat (a wish to God) for you -- it gives you such a huge strength. It reassures you that while you are visiting the doctor and taking the medicines, there are also people who are praying for you. What more do you need? We are not related by blood. We were not born from the same mother or father. And still, there they are!

This is what I have been telling people. When you call it the zero year, this year is basically meant for understanding the value of relationships. Standing with each other. Because all our five year projections, ten year projections, the fanciest airports have ultimately failed. They are all shut. All the projections have become meaningless. What mattered ultimately is my next door neighbour, my brother or sister - who I was not valuing in my life. The Public Health Centers (PHCs) which were never valued in this country, the Asha worker to whom we don't even pay the salary of a house help. I think that is what we all need to learn. And that's what we've learned in the last six-eight months.

Gopal: That's an important perspective, Meenakshi and Anshu. The world outside is really changing and different people are taking it in different ways. And as you also rightly pointed out, we have started valuing who we were not valuing earlier. People are scared in this pandemic. The scariest thing is, as you said, your friends cannot even come and give you the two dozens of sweet limes when you are not well. But in all these conditions, you are standing tall and strong. Your team is standing tall and strong. What are some practices you have been doing at an individual and an organisational level?

Anshu: I can share a couple of things and then, maybe, Mini share a lot. One, for sure, is that it's not an organization. It's a family. This is a world where we value software and machines and laptops and buildings. And half of those remain closed. It is very simple. And they will remain closed even in the time to come. Because there is nothing like "post-COVID". It is "with-COVID". That's what the world really needs to understand. That "with COVID" will remain. The world cannot afford the simple basic immunization for so many other diseases. If we have this idea that the anti-COVID medicine will happen in the next six months or one year, these are all fancy launch dates. These are not the dates when every single person will get it. Right?

Second, a lot of youngsters with whom I work, are obviously worried about their institution and their family and a whole lot of things. I've been telling them one single thing, that sustenance will happen only when you survive. So, can we imagine that this is a survival mode? As the head of the organization, my instruction or my advice to my team was very clear. And I'm using the word 'my'. I normally don't use the "I" word in my conversations. But this is a time when you had to play that "I" role as well. Because someone has to lead from the front.

Someone has to give that courage. Someone has to bring more risk-taking abilities in the team. And I remember saying this to everyone, and I am saying that till today - “It's not that we have got a lot of money.” And a lot of money was needed. A lot of money has gone to the government funds, to other firms, to hospitals and all that. But I made it very clear to the team that even if we finish off every single penny which we have got for COVID relief in three months, I'm absolutely fine. Because for us, it was most important that people can get 'dal chawal' or 'khichdi' right now. Because they need to survive. If they survive, they will figure out something in their own life. The way millions of people have been figuring out in the last so many decades. It is not that each one is affected by us or each one is impacted by us. All that looks very fancy - 'One million lives changed'. But we all know that this is fudged data. In a world where you can't change your own life in a lifetime, how do you claim millions have changed? So all that is data! Right?

The third thing is that we reached out to even the people who were remote daily wagers with us. Like those who would come occasionally when the truck has to be loaded or unloaded. We actually reached out to each one of them making sure that their food is secured. I think one thing which the world needs to understand now is that the world is actually divided in just two parts. We can talk about Hindus, Muslims, Christians etc. The politicians will keep doing that for their entire lifetime. But otherwise for people like you and me, the world is divided into two parts. One – are people who have food and the other – people who do not have food. Every single person who had food, remained inside the home. Every single person who didn't have food was forced to go out on the road. It's a very simple thing!

So we just had to be careful about two things. One, for every single person around us, can we make sure that their food is secure? And then you go to the larger world and see what you can do. And how you keep the dignity of people intact? How you make sure that when you're giving a sanitary pad to someone you're not clicking their picture. Because that person never came to you asking for a sanitary pad. It was in a desperate situation like now that she wanted a sanitary pad.

If we didn't have a safe space or food, a whole lot of us would have been on the road. A couple of my team members have shared this so beautifully in the team meetings that we have on zoom now. They have said that if we were not there with them as an institution or as people - they would also have been on the road. Because at the end of the day, you need food. You need a little bit of rent for that. So, my sadness somewhere is that this country, the middle-class, should have done much more. Which does not mean that I'm not valuing what people have done. A large number of institutions and people have done a lot that's why, huge amount of hunger deaths and all didn't happen. But we, as a country, we as a group of people who can afford so much of time on zoom, listening to people like us, can certainly do much more. And this is a time to do more. And this is exactly what we're doing.

And, or one more thing in the team part, because you're asking on 17th March, we told people - 'go home'. If you're from Assam, operate from Assam, if you're from Tamil Nadu, book your ticket, go home. Because the most important part right now is - where do you feel safe? Where do you feel secure? Where do you feel loved? I mean, my question is that these millions of people who were walking on the road, what were they looking for? Why so many people actually said that we want to go home because if nothing else, we will die there. At least "hum apne logon ke saath mein marenge" (we will die with our own people) that was the sentiment.

Then there were people who were comfortably sitting at home and they were saying wrong things about them (migrant workers walking home). And, then why was the police beating them - they were not asking for anything, they were not stealing, they were just walking home. How can you beat someone who is going home? How can you beat that person! So that made us very sad, that made us very unhappy.

But yes, as a team, we were very clear that we are not worried about our resources. We will take as many precautions as possible. We cannot keep our offices closed. We cannot take leave right now. We cannot say that we will only work for eight hours. This is the time when we have to respond. And it's so beautiful to see that the NGO sector in this country, apart from the common human beings have really done a commendable job. Whether they are valued or not those are political issues. But they (NGO sector) have done a tremendous job and we are just one of them. We are not like saying that we have done something great. We are just one of those beautiful institutions who took risk, who also had the equal risk of the virus who didn't know anything about it. Their families were also at stake. Their health was also at stake and these hundreds and thousands of institutions did a good job, whatever they could with limited resources

Meenakshi: If I was to assimilate what Anshu was trying to say is even before COVID as an organization which has been working on some of the so called non issues, for us always, the people and the processes are more important. It's always the people. Processes are meant for people within the organization, people outside, the people for whom we are working. So I think in COVID, those boundaries completely fell off. The fact that we are talking about team in a different way, or we are talking about the people who are affected, because everyone is affected by the disaster, including ourselves.

So then the word empathy really takes a whole different meaning. You embody it, you live it, you think about it. It just goes back to the thing that we were taught as children, ‘do unto others, what you would like to be done to yourself’. It really gets down to the fundamentals of how you imagine when Anshu talks about the team being a family, you know. In a family when you're in a crisis, which all of us are, you trust your family members. You think of what they're going through. You think of not just the professional, but also the personal. You have to then function from a different space altogether. And if it is something that you've been doing before COVID, and that's how we've been looking at it, because we personally feel the biggest asset of Goonj is the people it has. They've made it possible to reach out to the remotest areas. They made it possible to work in this COVID pandemic, still go out and reach material to people, to still go out and deal with their own fears. So how do people do that? When you trust them, when you allow them, when you sort of put your entire faith in them that - whatever you do we will stand with you, that's it!

Anshu : And a guilt, although I am not a person who normally repents or has guilt and all that kind of things. I've kept myself a little bit away from that, because otherwise anyway, there are a lot of bad things we keep doing. But this time I will have my little bit of guilt for sure, because at the end of the day, apart from doing all other things, I'm also supposed to handle the institution and the group of people, not only as a motivator or as an inspiration, but also as an administrator. And administration is not a good job, it does make people unhappy sometimes. And not only me, some of us had to take those decisions also, because how do you really move people out of that fear and say boss it has to happen. It is easy to say, but there are a thousand people and thousand people operate in a thousand different ways. Right? But you have to bring that synergy to respond to something so big which has never happened in our life, and we are just hoping that it'll never happen in our life again. So, those administrative decisions like marking your attendance on time, otherwise it will be considered as leave, not giving a 30 day leave for marriage etc. All those decisions which otherwise I never took, there was a larger team doing that, came to me. All those complicated and smaller things also come back to you, which is fine. Because when you are revisiting your institution, when you are redoing a lot of stuff in the new era, there are some of those small nut & bolts, and you have to be a part of it. And, and there is no harm in it. It does not mean that you have not left it to people, it's still with people.

Gopal: I think what I clearly see, is that Goonj is really an embodiment of service, which we all know. But more than that I'm also realizing and learning from you on how you have built resilience, agility. I have been working with organisations for the past 20 years and we talk about being a family, but I really see that happen here. Standing together, believing, and Meenakshi, what you actually talked about trust, I think that takes the whole lead.

I think it's about 21 years since Goonj started, reaching out to so many people and you're really redefining a lot of things. But wanted to know what has changed in the Anshu then and the Anshu now after 21 years and same with you Meenakshi? Maybe you you can talk about each other, I mean, Meenakshi what do you see changing in Anshu, apart from him growing older? I'm sure he doesn't look old .. (Laugh...)

Meenakshi : Oh you can't talk to him about growing old. That’s one very taboo subject in our house. (Laughter)

Let me see, oh my God, we haven't really, I haven't really gone into prep for this one. I think in some way, the journey of being a leader, I think has really sort of made him look at his own thought process about things. Some of the things haven't changed like his belief in people hasn't changed. Like he was saying as an administrator running an organization of 1000 people, there are a lot of ups and downs. You put something out there and it doesn't work and all of that, but his faith in people has been so steadfast and it makes you wonder how does he go on with that? I tend to sort of get pulled down a little bit.

I think what has changed is, I think something which is, probably not so nice is that he seems to be more angry. With his anger, he is becoming more direct and pulling his punches. (Laughs ...) He's not pulling his punches, he's not willing to sugar-coat what he's trying to say to the world or to his team, he's becoming more and more direct and more -- probably because this COVID has also brought in this sense of urgency. If you don't do it now, then you know, this is the only, the one opportunity to actually address the issues, which needed to be addressed even before COVID!

So I think in that sense, he's becoming, we call him the angry young man in the house .. (Laughs ...)

So I guess the more he's getting exposed to the realities, the more he is going to disasters and dealing with things, he's becoming more articulate with those concerns.

I think COVID has made him much more sad. He works tougher to create those moments of joy for himself, for us in the family and for the organization. As a wife, I think I can go on and on, but I'll stop here. (laughs...)

Anshu: (When) I think about, about myself to be honest, to start with, is that, yeah, I think I'm in the constant phase of learning and also want to do something much more, much bigger. Because I always feel that now that you have learned or you know whatever little in the last two decades, it needs to be used for much bigger things, and the world needs that. That is one journey on which I am personally right now.

As far as Mini is concerned. I know that Mini has much more intellect, but unfortunately many times you are pushed into a certain kind of administration work, which she doesn't like, which she is not meant for that at all. Sometimes she doesn't even like when an email is marked to her it could be salary(related), leave (issues), or material management etc.

In the last two decades, one of the thing which Mini has done very beautifully is that a lot of people join the organization because of me, but they remain in the organization because of her. After a certain point I take the Dracula role also. If I talk about myself so for a large number of people I am 'Anshu bhaiyya' as I am known, or for many people, I'm 'Anshu sir', but Mini has remained Mini di. So there must be something, you know where you can go and talk to her and even have a decent cup of tea with her. And, she will give you more personal space to the team, which is not a team, which is a family where you can really discuss a lot.

In the life of Goonj and in the life of family, Mini's role has been the role of a backbone. And, an important role in my life especially in the last few years. When you get these standing ovations you don't know when the arrogance really goes here (pointing to the head) when your language starts changing, right?

And many times people in the team might not tell you in those many straight words, although in Goonj people have that liberty and people are very upfront in telling you that this is what it is. However, I think that is a very beautiful role, which Mini has played in this entire journey to make sure that we all remain grounded and our language does not change.

We treat people and ourselves in the same way. So it doesn't matter whether you get this award, that award. I remember someone telling me a few years back that "Anshu you have become very arrogant" and I objected and I said, "Listen, you are absolutely wrong. I have not become arrogant, I am arrogant." Now, because if so, whether arrogant is right or wrong, its a different issue, but you are your perception and what you're perceiving and what you're telling me, you are telling on the basis of that someone has got a little bit of recognition, organisation has grown, that's why that person has become arrogant. But if you do not know me for the last 10 years, and you only know me for the last few years, how can you say I have become arrogant. Tell me that I am arrogant, and I am happy to listen to that. You know, whether I'm proud or not, I'll decide later, but I'm happy to listen, but don't make those perceptions. I don't want those preconceived notions about us.

Meenakshi: I just wanted to add one thing, I think for both of us, I mean, taking the liberty of speaking on your (Anshu's) behalf. One of the things which has changed over the few years, maybe it's age I don't know what it is, but I think the awareness that we have limited time, I mean, we have a life, there is a finite time available going forward and what we do with that time. That awareness is very, like it's over above everything. So every time, every day, when you make a choice of doing something, engaging with something, you are acutely aware that this time is there and what do you do with it? So that awareness, I think for me, certainly I can speak for myself, that awareness is there that okay, there are these finite years of life left, what do you do with that?

Anshu: Maybe I want to convert that into speed.

Meenakshi: The sense of urgency, I guess that's where it comes through.

Gopal: Yeah, no beautiful. I can see synergy build up. I see there are two parts and they come togather, especially when you say Anshu, yes, people come (to the organisation) with your charisma, but they remain, because of that comfort or that space is given by Meenakshi. How does all of this get reflected on your daughter, how does it come up in your parenting? How do you see her growing up in all this?

Anshu: Very beautifully overall, for sure. She is one girl who doesn't have anything to do with the house we have or the car we have or whatever. And, she doesn't think that she has the right to have it in future. That is just one part of it. She has a much deeper understanding of a lot of things. She is a person who questions a lot. I can tell you a simple story about her driving license. I must've shared this story two or three times for sure, because it's a very inspirational story for us as parents. I remember how her driving license was made, She went through all the cycles of getting a license. A known friend was helping her with that. And then later on, we realized that friend had actually paid 5,000 rupees (bribe) for getting her that license. This was a very huge shock for all of us. We have never looked for shortcuts in our life and how come this friend took that liberty. But that is the norm in this country.

I mean, "rishwat" (bribe) is such a common thing that you don't even question. You will not believe, Gopal she has not touched that license, till date. It has been almost two years. She has not been able to drive, and it's becoming very complicated for us how do we really cancel that license and get a new license made.

But as parents, we know that until and unless she has a new license, with her hundred percent effort without any ritual, she will not drive the car. So I think that is something we feel good, that value system is gone in her just because she's grown, with the team, who have never treated her like a kid or with this value system or these conversations.

And, all these have also come at a very heavy cost. I am pretty sure that she has a lot of pressure on herself. We are very sure that she has to go out for a year or two, to literally zero year time, which cannot be called zero years, which are the learning years. And she has to do a lot of unlearning because of what she has learned here is not the only truth of the world. This is just a very small fraction of the truth, which two of us, or this ecosystem of Goonj which her family can give. She is experimenting, during the pandemic last six to eight months she has become a beautiful cook who can even treat you to Thai dishes. So please come home and you will find something, beyond khichdi and pulav, she can feed that too. That's how she is growing.

I certainly have a little bit of regret, because I use to travel 15 to 20 days a month. I don't know why. Now you obviously revisit your life and say, why was I travelling although its so important, but may be must be, so that's where one fine day you suddenly realize that, Oh! she's grown, she's in college. She's in the fourth year of college. Now she's doing her bachelor's in education. But, I'm thankful that in the last two years, and most importantly this pandemic, this virus has brought us much closer. Two of us loved each other and had a lot of respect for each other, but maybe we were not spending time. When you don't spend time with each other you are not aware of what is there. So I think this virus has given us a chance to spend more time together and at least see each other.

Three of us are still operating from three different rooms because now life is all about zoom and webinars. However, you can still eat together and be together. This is a luxury since it was not happening in our life for years. I think at least that has become a routine. That's so beautiful. I really cherish that.

Meenakshi: Certainly Anshu's found his time and has been able to spend enough time for the last eight months, that way, a gift. There is a silver lining even to COVID. She's one person is aware and very conscious of her privileges in life. And, for a 20 year old, I think that's a very important thing. And, like Anshu said, she has that thing of questioning. The fact that she's able to reflect upon that is an important thing. I think that, we all should do that often as often as possible, at any stage in life to reflect about our lives and to sort of see what happened and what we learned. Beyond that, I think we are happy to say that we've raised a good human being - an empathetic, compassionate human being. I think if, as parents we've done that, I think rest is really just her own choices she makes. She is aware and reflective so she'll make a good choice. So I think in that aspect our work is done.

Anshu: We have been able to tell the larger youth that social sector does not mean, "ki aapki shaadi nahi hoti" (you will not get married). There are a lot of these misconceptions. You can have a family and you can have some time togather.

That is a different issue that earlier we use to spend time only when I or Mini were going for some lectures and that’s when we three would travel together. Sometimes we would get a day for us or a couple of dinners or lunches which has certainly improved.

Gopal: That is well said, Anshu. Hats off to the values you have given Urvi. Seeing malpractices and corruption outside, the youth get confused what path to choose. And I think when they make the right choices, they're also making the next world beautiful. Epecially being a father to a 10 year old daughter who is much younger to your daughter, I can resonate with what you're talking about.

So you highlighted that we have so many privileges, despite that when you have been going through so many hardships, which makes me wonder that we all have so many privileges, so many gifts, but a common issue, which comes is we fail to see it.

Many of us seem to have many resources, but this feeling of gratitude is missing. And perhaps that's where the role of inner transformation comes in our life. In your life experience what do you think has helped you in cultivating these eyes of privilege to the gifts in life?

Anshu: I can answer for myself for sure, because I have a clear answer on this, because that's the life reality, This is 1998 and I'm leaving my Escorts job, and a small calculation happens (in my mind). I studied in one of the best Institutions of India, Indian Institute of mass communication and the fees used to be a few thousand rupees right. And the calculation was that if this fees was anywhere between fifty thousand to one lakh rupees then was it possible for my parents to pay? And because I know, my absolutely honest middle-class family, where my father was transferred so often to the remotest possible place being a government officer and you know why he was getting transferred. There are only two kinds of people who are transferred, one extremely corrupt, other extremely, honest. And so, I mean, obviously he comes in that (extremely honest) category and by the time I did my ten plus two, I had already changed seven schools.

So you look back and you say that, was it possible for them to pay that kind of fees and the answer that came was No!. That was a day I realized that I am the biggest product of subsidy of this country. A large number of people who pay taxes in this country. I mean, all these notions that only these many people pay taxes is actually absolutely wrong narrative in this country. Because the Ambani's of the world, the Guptas or the Anshu’s or the Meenakshi’s of the world or the farmers of the world are paying exactly the same tax on a soap, right? So at the end of the day, this country is so funny and so tricky that the poorest, financially, the poorest people are actually paying much more taxes. And still they're said to be not paying taxes, right? That is the truth.

With all those people's money, I studied. That was my subsidy. All the farmers who are not even getting daily wages, with their subsidized food, I am alive. So I also realize that every single person who has ever gone to a government school where I also went, government college, Delhi university, IIT, IIM, has eaten up the subsidy of this country in a big way. And at what cost? Even the people who have gone to the fanciest private schools have eaten up the subsidy because, as I always say, land was given to them at an absolute throwaway price.

And I'm not saying we do not have any right on subsidy. As a normal citizen of the country, we also have some right, for sure. But then it is also a duty, then, it is also a responsibility that we take it as a ‘karza’(debt). So it's not giving back, it’s paying back. If I can sit inside my home and do this webinar, and that labourer remains outside, who made this house for me, if I can sit in this webinar and have a cup of coffee and also eat idli, that rice or coffee was grown by the farmer and it's time for us to pay back.

I'm not saying that we should not have privileges. But if I have a right to have a swimming pool in my institution, every single village school also has a right to have a toilet, if nothing else, and a blackboard and a teacher. And because we have never believed in this equality, and because many of us think that just by paying taxes, whatever way our CA does the calculation, on the basis of that, we feel that it is absolutely fine, we have done our duty. And maybe that is the reason we have come to this particular level. If a boy was stopped when he was whistling at a girl, if that boy was stopped at that time, it was a hundred percent sure that he would not have done a rape, but we didn't take care of those things and we found a solution for ourselves. If the water is flowing away as waste outside somewhere, it doesn’t matter, let me fix up an RO (plant) because I am privileged! And that is why the large part of the society remained without water, because I am privileged. I can buy a bottle of water for 80 rupees, but those people cannot.

Meenakshi: And just to add to answer this point on a very personal level when I think of my journey in the last 21 years, it's been a huge privilege also to have all the love, that we've got from people.

I remember many years ago, almost in the beginning, when we had gone to a village in Bihar and, there were people who were, coming and touching my feet and we felt like, why are they doing that? We haven't done anything like that. And then we realized that it was chhath puja time, just after Diwali, one of the biggest festivals in Bihar. Coincidentally it had happened that they had received these cloth packets from Goonj at that time. And they were very, very grateful for that. They were so grateful and we had no idea why they were, it was just a pair of clothes and that too, like old clothes. Then we realized that for them, buying a piece of cloth as a mark of a festival was such a huge thing that it would often put many of them in debt. And so therefore they were so grateful for the fact that they had a new pair of clothes and to say that it was a festival.

Those small things and the kind of love and affection they were giving us as a result of that, it makes you really aware. of where, how much (privilege we have)… Just because I'm born in a family in Delhi to parents who were educated, they've given me an education. That's the only difference between me and them. You know, it really makes you aware, the more you go out into the world, the more you're open and engaging with the world, the more you realize it.

“Oh, I'm really good”. What are you saying? The privilege of having a gated community, and then walking into a world where none of that is available to anyone, just that, just awareness is something. I think awareness about your privilege is good, first point. And then everyone responds to that differently.

Anshu: Somewhere in the last few years, I am also extremely hurt, because of the social media. We all take advantage of social media, but it feels so bad when, people in the name of motivating others, expose anyone on this earth, by giving khichdi or by giving sanitary pad and clicking those pictures. We're also struggling because we also work with a few hundred partner organizations across the country. There is a condition put by funders, by the money giver that they need this picture, you have to put your name there. There are distorted people who came to us, sending their name plate telling us that when you give this sanitary pad to this woman, ask her to hold this (name plate).

Can you ever imagine, I mean, do you do this to your wife or sister or mother? What is the difference between that lady and me? The only difference is that I am born privileged. I was not born in one of the remotest possible tribal belt of India. Or I was not born in a place where people do manual scavenging. I was not born there, I didn't have any control. It was decided by someone who are going to be my parents. So, I'm born privileged and I want to play with life and take away the dignity of people, who are not born privileged. That too, when I have decided what is the definition of privilege! That is also very selective. No one is complaining out there. They're happy. They're eating once a day. They're not coming to you and asking for something.

I think that mindset somewhere needs to shift, to feel this society as a much better space. Once we feel that everyone has equal rights, it doesn't matter if someone is wearing so called dirty clothes or someone is wearing clean clothes because these are our parameters. Let's talk about the heart.

How we can celebrate if a girl who does not have eyes is singing very nicely. Why do we celebrate that? What do you have to do with the eyes and singing? Anyone can become a very beautiful singer. So that girl is a singer! Do not talk about her so called disability before appreciating her beautiful voice.

Gopal: Meenakshi, you talked about love somewhere and Anshu you talked about the heart. Do you see some magic thing in this, when you talk about dignity and love, or do you see these as two different subjects or somewhere there's are a combination of the two?

Meenakshi: Dignity is a value. From my understanding and for all of us, I think it's a sense of seeing the value in yourself and the other person. To be honest, dignity is not something that you can possibly give to anyone, we're all born with that. It’s best for you to recognize that, to say that I am a witness to that dignity, to acknowledge that, respect that dignity.

We all know Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You know, just they way food, clothing, shelter are one of the most basic physical needs that we have. Sense of value, and a sense of purpose, and a sense of being valued in the world that we live in is a very important need.

And that's why we've changed the name in our work and called the initiative ‘Dignity For Work’.

When you value somebody, when you value what they bring to the world, magical things happen. People come up on their potential, like nothing else. I mean, we have seen that happen. People who are called unskilled, poor, and uneducated, all have made bridges. They've built wells. They have done amazing things without any outside intervention, without any technical consultants or experts going in.

The last 22 years of journey has brought in a sense of awe for what can be achieved, or what people respond to once you value them, once you respect their dignity.

Anshu: And, something, which I don't like happening to me ... why do I do it to someone else? I mean, if I don't want to be clicked (photographed) while receiving food, or if I do not want to become a victim of charity myself, why do I make other people a victim of charity?

Because charity takes away your dignity.

Charity needed instantly is fine but it should not sustain. Charity might be a very beautiful subject of the doer with all good intentions. And I'm, again, not doubting the intention of people. You're trying to do something with all the good intentions. I'm not doubting that, but am I really careful about the person who is receiving it?

Why did we see in this entire food distribution during this disaster that a large number of people, were, especially the women, were trying to cover their face?

They have never asked for food. Rather, they used to come to our homes and make food for us! They are the food givers! They're the food makers, but this entire disaster forced them to ask for food. But they never wanted to be seen. Hunger was forcing them to ask for something momentarily.

And the day they start cooking on their own. That day, they are able to earn even 300 rupees on the way, they will not even come and receive food. They will not. Always.

Meenakshi: That we have seen in the villages a lot. People give away their lives for dignity. People are not saying that they would want a lot, but respect.

Anshu: In the middle of the flood, when you are in a boat (doing rescue work), in that house, someone will invite you for a cup of tea.

Meenakshi: Yeah, they're inviting you! for a cup of tea.

Anshu: Hundreds of people we've seen. And the food, which they have received in relief, they want to share it. And they are also somewhere, a little bit shy, because the plate is not clean, or there is no water to clean. But they're still trying to share that food with you.

This is the beauty of this world. This is the beauty of this country. It is people like us who have distorted lenses.

And, just by what people are wearing, and the way people are talking, and if they're not speaking...a couple of languages, we start deciding (judging) - who are these people. But that is not the reality. Those people are, or we are, exactly the same. It is the lenses which are distorted.

Gopal: When you design your work in Goonj the centre of it seems to be dignity. So, a follow-up to the previous question, how would you design for love. Because when you look in villages, you see service and love as the center. How do you see that combination of love and dignity? Any experiences or thoughts around that?

Meenakshi: I think the love really comes from a sense of connection.

If you understand that we are all connected to each other and, not only connected, we are interdependent, like we are there for each other.

I've lived most of my childhood and school and college days in a city like Delhi. So I was never exposed to villages before I started in the work that we do. So, for me, it was overwhelming when I went to a village for the first time and I was offered love without me having done anything to deserve it.

And that was such a new thing for me, because, in a city like Delhi and any big metros, sometimes the neighbours don't know, don’t talk to each other.

So for me, it was a new thing to understand that people can love you without you doing anything!

And to understand that my life depends on them. I mean, they are the ones who are growing the food which I put on my table!

So that is the kind of connection. If you're aware of that. And it's there. We don't get to see it, but it's right there.

Anshu: I saw it, also. Apart from all the chivda, dahi, litti chokha (Food) you get. That's the love. What else do you need? (Laughs ...)

Meenakshi: His love is so centered around food, somehow, you must have noticed. (Laughs ...)

Anshu: And I remember too well, in one of the villages somewhere around Madhubani, at night, we were roaming around. There was this family who made dahi (curd) for us in a clay pot. They were very hesitant in offering, because you go in a big car at the end of the day.

So they offered...and, me being me, I said “aur chahiye” "I need more!", because it was so lovely.

You should have seen the gesture!…

Meenakshi: And the joy!

Anshu: And the love! What you're talking about.

And I don't know how many servings of curd I had, coming from all across, from all the houses! To an unknown person who has never done anything to them. We didn't have any connections. On our way, we just stopped, and we were just talking, and all that kind of thing. So, that love, that joy, that mohabbat is there in the air. It is a part of the culture.

Meenakshi: I think in some ways the villages of India have been able to still keep that love and connection going. And I think we, in the cities, we need to go back to that, and find that fundamental richness that we have in our world. It's there. We just need to tap into it.

Anshu: And, very cleverly people of the city defamed the villages on the basis of caste community and all. Although we have a much deeper divide. Because our divides are not only limited to caste and communities, but otherwise a whole lot of other status also.

How many times have we seen in the villages where a lady is suffering and she has to give birth to someone and the entire village, or, women from other communities are not coming and helping her? Very rare!

I mean, we have spent so much of time in the villages of India.

When I say "we" I am talking of this huge team, then hundreds of beautiful NGOs who are working there.

So it's there in the air, and it matters a lot.

And, and now within a COVID world, I think it has much more importance. People just want that someone listens, nothing else. I mean, a whole lot of us are not looking for anything. They just, they just need a phone call. And say: "It's fine. We're there."

I mean, I remember you were talking about a team. We created WhatsApp groups of our teams. So, operation team already had a WhatsApp group, but the processing team never had those kind of very active WhatsApp groups. So, all across the country we created WhatsApp groups, of these few hundred women, and that worked so well.

Because if nothing else, a small fun video will go, some education will go, someone will share something, someone is singing something... and suddenly you are exploring a new talent. And if nothing else, because of a WhatsApp group, they were still feeling that they are a part of a family.

Just a simple WhatsApp group....

Which otherwise, is a nuisance in our life in any case, but that was such a beautiful thing in this case.

Meenakshi: I think they all want to be acknowledged in this world. We all want to be seen. And I think that’s what love is. To me, that is what love is. When I see you, and give you the total attention that you deserve. That's what love is.

Gopal: I completely resonate with that. I've worked in Bihar myself and such a lovely place. On one hot summer day I was offered buttermilk with sattu and onion. They told me “drink this, it will help you through the summer heat”. And I was really moved by that. And it did really help me to keep my body cool.

With that I wanted to ask you, are there moments when you felt like giving up, as sometimes it does not make sense, especially political interference. What has been your mantra for facing challenges?

Anshu: My favourite dialogue is ‘lage raho’ (keep going). And, honestly in last 22 years we have not had a single thought that we should close or not do this. Yes, there have been extremely tough times, frustrating times, there has been bad political situation during the disaster times. And, as an institution we have not only dealt with disasters outside our institution but also inside. In 2005-6 our Mumbai office was flooded because of rains, our Wayanad office was flooded twice, our Cochin office was flooded. In 2016 we had fire in a 4000 sq ft area at about six in the evening which went uptil two in the morning. In the fire, we lost everything during that time. It happened on the day of Diwali and non of us really celebrated Diwali did any puja. We were just looking at how all of it was burning the whole night.

In all of this I just need to say one thing. I remember when the fire was happening, next morning six o’clock all of us were back with buckets to see if we could still find something, but we did not find anything. A whole lot of people were worried including the daily wagers who thought that now there will be no job, because there no more material and it is such a big loss.

So, on Diwali we make tons and tons of gulab jamun (Indian sweet) for our team instead of buying it from the marker. Sorry I am talking of food again (Laughs ...). By 5.30 – 6.00 in the morning, I walked and stood on a pile of rubble. I was standing there, whole lot of people were crying and all kinds of stuff was happening. And, I said “woh gulab jamun kahaan hai, where are those gulab jamuns” and then suddenly everyone were surprised, even onlookers from other roofs were surprised. And, then a lot of gulab jamuns came and were distributed and we ate a huge lot of gulab jamuns in the middle of that rubble. And, in this case, we had not celebrated Diwali.

It was not about gulab jamuns, but the commitment as an institution, where we said that from today there will be two teams – one team will clean this entire stuff because we will have to make this place operational again. The second team will go to other stores and find out what we have. All of us will work for three days and on the fourth day the truck has to move out. And, one truck which means 9 ton of material which almost has 400 huge gunny bags. And, you will not believe – obviously, there were cheers, there were a lot more gulab jamuns in the air; and on the fourth day, the truck left.

Gopal: Wow!

Anshu: And that is the story. And, that’s how we keep ourselves motivated. Come what may we just have to go on. And, disasters are not limited to people outside our organisation, disaster will happen in our life also. These days in the shape of COVID or displacement, or fire or flood or so on and we just have to go on and find solutions for that. And, at some point we also have to increase our pace because we have to recover all that we have lost.

And, I remember some people started this campaign let’s rebuild Goonj. There were 6000 shares of one such post. Even Huffington post picked it up. I had to write back to all those people, that there is nothing like rebuilding Goonj. Goonj stands as it is, there is some mishap that happened and we all will ... Do not send us money right now, because we do not have to create a building for ourselves at this moment. As of now No! Once we need it we will let you know. But do not go in the public and say let’s rebuild Goonj. We do not want any sympathy. Stand with us, let’s do it together. Let’s collect more material so that we can fight it out, because this is the peak of winters (when most people need this material).

Meenakshi: I would say that there is so much work to do in our country. We are in a time in our history where we are in a collective crises, a collective disaster. I think everyone has to do something. I think people who thought that right now I am 30 – 35 years and I will do something for the country when I will be 60 years of age, that moment may not arrive. And, that realisation (has to sink in) that if we do not do it, who will do it? Because those people who are in the villages of India are even struggling to survive. We are the ones who have food on the table and whose stomachs are full, and it is for all of us to do. I do not think we have a choice.

Gopal: Huge respect for both Meenakshi, you and Anshu, and the entire team. You all really the torch bearers in many ways. Thank you for showing us the way!

I just want to read one comment from Radha from California. She writes, “Dear Anshu and Meenakshi, I'm thankful for all the work you do and with so much love. You really are embodying Swami Vivekananda’s statement – Let the giver kneel down and offer, and the receiver stand up and receive. It is a privilege that you are able to serve. Much love to you both. Radha, from Bay area, California."

Meenakshi: Lot of gratitude, a lot of gratitude!

Gopal: Yeah! And, also with that, we would like to offer -- Do you think there is anything that Service Space, as a community, we can do, to Goonj, to you, anything which comes to your mind, please do tell us. If not now, later, also, we are really open. And if anything comes to your mind right now, do share with us before I hand over to Jignasha.

Anshu: Yeah. We are not only the silent admirers of ServiceSpace, we are the admirers of ServiceSpace and the way this beautiful space is coming up. As I said, right now, you need more space just to listen, just to have some calm, talk... And for a person like me, these are very important spaces because otherwise I'm like always (makes taut gesture) and in all that so-called anger kind of stuff. So this gives a lot of peace to a lot of people.

And the goodness has to spread. And, we need to say that fine, this is just a phase. It will get over. And then any phase which gets over, takes away certain things and gives you some things. But if we just take the positive of the virus phase, which is inevitable, it had to happen, it is happening. We have a lot to take! And ServiceSpace kind of place is such a beautiful forum to spread those messages. I think that's the beauty of (this space), and the way you guys take it up, to speak, to spread, I think that's what the need of the hour is.

Gopal: Thank you. Thank you, once again, Anshu and Meenakshi. It was really a privilege for me to listen to all this and I’m really feeling delighted about it. And, thanks to entire Goonj team -- I'm sure most of you are watching this. So thank you for all the good work you do and really kudos. So with that, over to you, Jignasha!

Jignasha: Thank you. Thank you so much. It has been one of the most beautiful Sunday mornings for me personally, and I'm sure for the whole team, to be holding space with all of you and, to really listen to this wisdom, which is coming straight, directly from the heart. And I'm so grateful because it's rare to see so much vulnerability, humility, and strength coming out at the same time, and so much love.

You spoke of dignity, but I could feel so much love, just so much presence, so much honesty. You know, I have been just writing notes and just taking the pearls of wisdom from what you shared. But to be very honest, it's the presence, it's the honesty, it's the life, it's the service that you bring to all of us. And I think that is what has created this collective space for us. And it's actually the wisdom of the collective, which is coming together.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Meenakshi, and thank you so much, Anshu, for spending this time with us. And we would really, as ServiceSpace, as Gopal mentioned, do let us know as to how can we serve Goonj? How can we serve you? And we would really be happy to come back and see what we can do in our limited capacities. And, with that, we'll close this call with a minute of silence. Thank you so much!

***

Thank you for listening to a recording of Awakin calls. To access archives, visit us at www.awakin.org and to get more involved, volunteer at www.servicespace.org.



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