Letter from Sagar Atre

Bridging the gap of live experience:

If there was one thing which I missed during the days of my education, it was the excitement of doing something original, and learning from it. I am a child of a mother who is always restless in life, and hence, she sees to it that her kids too, are as restless as she is! However, down the years, I’ve really learnt the importance of seeing life as it is on the outside of a classroom, rather than within it.

My gap year, and the events leading to that decision happened in quick succession. In June 2008, I attended the Nirman series of camps conducted by a organization named the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH), Gadchiroli, run by well-known public health experts Dr Abhay and Rani Bang. The mission behind Nirman was simple, involve and encourage the youth of today to challenge social problems and work on them. In a session, Dr Abhay Bang, while speaking on working for the people, said, “What you need to do today is to get into the fray. Spend some time out of your comfort zone, work and be with people you usually are not with. I would like to call this approach, arm-wrestling with life. Go out and learn how life is lived. Learning from life has innumerable lessons to give you, it will teach you things which will enrich not only your intellect, but your soul as well. Moreover, it will give what you do as a profession, a sense of purpose, it will define why you do something.” Nirman also offered a year-long or two-year long fellowship for its students. Through this, the candidate would live in a community, work with a host organization and tackle one well-defined social problem as a part of his fellowship.

I was in the final year of my bachelors in Pharmacy, and frankly, I was still searching for what I really wanted to do. Hearing about the Nirman Fellowship, I immediately began toying with the idea of going to Gadchiroli and working on a problem. The reason why I decided to take this fellowship was both personal, and also because I wanted to define the role I could play in society. I wanted to take on a real challenge, and I hence decided to join the fellowship at SEARCH, Gadchiroli for a year on June 23, 2009.

SEARCH was a place where I challenged all my weaknesses. I had decided to do it, and I had a hard time doing it. My first and foremost weakness was my shyness. I still remember the time when I stepped into a village all by myself, and tried to talk to a villager over some issues. India’s villagers are the best! Not only did I have engaging conversations, but the sheer purity of their hearts was something which surprised me. Seldom was I turned away without a cup of hot, (extremely!) sweet tea. As I began talking to the people, my inhibitions slowly melted away. I worked as a pharmacist at the SEARCH pharmacy, and I counseled people about the usage of medicines. During that time, I was stunned to know the callousness by which government hospitals dealt with situations. Tuberculosis doses were often left incomplete; people had to go to Primary health centers to get their medicines. Every time they went to a health center, treatment and proper attention was not guaranteed. Those counseling sessions in the SEARCH hospital were times when I revised all my lessons from my education, and if today, I remember a great deal of information about some medicines and don’t about others, it’s because my knowledge had undergone a need-based update!

I then decided to work on a social business (no-profit, no loss) business model to take simple medicines to villages where they did not reach them. I attempted to sell them through a youngster who sold jewelry in villages, through a young lad I trained and accompanied to a lot of villages, and ultimately, to know what was going wrong with tries of selling medicines this way, I sold medicines in villages myself. For eight days, I roamed door-to-door in villages, trying to sell simple medications to people who were ill. It was a revealing, sometimes quite humiliating and unforgettable experience. Many-a-times, I was literally driven away by people for disturbing them. Sometimes, people treated me with respect, while sometimes, they were happy to receive medicines on their doorstep. In the times when I was driven away, it crushed my ego, and I would frequently feel terrible after something like that happened. However, I later learnt to take it in my stride. Those eight days and the experiences they gave me made me a better human at all levels. My ego was cut down to size, I had learnt to do some kind of business, and I knew what problems villagers in those regions faced most frequently.

Apart from work, SEARCH was a rather lively place, full of youth from different backgrounds and bearing different dreams. I made lifelong friends, and I worked and enjoyed with them like never before. Some friends and I worked on an intervention program for hypertension, and we held night meetings in villages where again, we interacted with people as equals. Life in India’s villages is nothing like the exotic videos tourists capture in their cameras. We had a few unruly scenes and arguments with villagers, but the experience was enough to teach us how tough it was to bring change anywhere. It’s a long process, and its based on your relationships with people. When we became frequent visitors and the people gained our trust, we were heartened to see people listening to us. Due to some unfortunate events however, the program had to be terminated.

When I look back at the gap year, I feel that many lessons that year taught me are still seeping into me, slowly and steadily. However, if there was some immediate takeaway which I learnt, it was that life is never as narrow as you see around you. As humans, we are bound to be caught up with the happenings and situations in surroundings around us. We can never fathom what happens outside our field of vision without actually seeing and experiencing new places and people. Romain Rolland, in a talk, once said, “Man should see suffering around him. But that experience should not be like a titillation which stirs the soul for a moment and ends with no action. Man must experience suffering until the tears in his eyes dry up, and are replaced with a resoluteness that drives him to action.” Unfortunately, most of our lives are still bound by a rigid system where we are trained to focus on ourselves. This system refuses to let us step out of it and do something different. It will revere those who disregard it and become successful, but that reverence is tinged with a feeling of relief; a sense of relief that says ‘I don’t need to do this, I don’t need to step out and suffer and bring about change; other people will take care of society’s problems’. My year outside the system destroyed a lot of my preconceptions and narrow- mindedness. It emptied my cup which was full of my own ideas, and it gave me the ability that I would empty it again when the time arises. The world is too big a place for anyone to grasp fully, and it will be foolish for anyone to claim otherwise. However, what frightens me is that without this gap year, my life would have gone on without giving me a sense of how big and phenomenal this world is.

This year will always remain most special to me, because it broadened the definition of life as nothing had done before. If I live a more fruitful, more giving life in the future, it will always be because of what that year gave and taught me. To all those who wonder about ‘wasting’ a year in doing what you like and finding out what you want to do, I will push them to go for it! You will never repent doing what you love, you will add many years to your life, and not waste one, profitable mathematics, I think! My time as a social businessman seems to be paying off!

– Sagar Atre

Worked at SEARCH, Gadchiroli from June 2009-July 2010. Currently studying as a Master’s
student in Journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, Athens,
Ohio, USA.

E-mail: sratre@gmail.com

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