02 May Jalebis and the Two Worlds
“Humanity’s greatest advantages are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity”
Historically, small events have had a major impact on humanity. Very basic manifestations (natural or manmade, just or unjust) have helped move mountains. Like an apple falling from a tree and laying a foundation for the “Laws of Motion”. A person taking a bath in a bathtub and saying “Eureka”. A person being thrown out of a train and giving the world its strongest weapon “Peace”. The story that follows might not be as powerful or life changing for the world. If it sensitizes even a single soul to start observing and asking why, it’s a dent already made.
It was my first visit to Mankhurd and Shivajinagar: two low-income communities in Mumbai inhabited by majorly migrant population. Saathealth: our project on creating a digitally-inclusive ecosystem for effecting healthcare behavior change would be pre-piloted here. The project is directed towards improving nutrition and development of kids between 0-6 years of age. The purpose of our visit was to initiate immersion in community and to try and picture the arena of operations.
To recap that day’s experience: families of 4-8 staying in 150 square feet rooms, drainage flowing at the doorsteps, poor sanitation, average (unsecured and irregular) dispensable income of INR 12000-20000 per month, dump yard 100 meters away from home, poor healthcare infrastructure, less education were some of the observations. On returning to the office I was asked a question, “So what do you think, which one is the real world? The one where you live in or the one you just saw”. I did not have an answer to it then.
We initiated work and tried to set foot in the community. We surveyed 1200 families to find answers regarding economic status, family sizes, cultural sensibilities, and gauged mobile literacy levels. We talked about intended work in the months to follow. Two months later, we conducted a deworming camp for children in Mankhurd (to initiate community mobilization) and the question came back to me again manifesting itself through Jalebis (a traditional Indian sweet dish consumed to celebrate occasions of joy, in my case cravings for sweet).
Jalebis, whose origins trace back to the 10th century in Iran, was brought to India by Persian speaking Turkish invaders in the 15th century. They are twisted in shape and form and in concept too. This dish with such a rich history was distributed to the poor during Ramadan. No one has ever tried to make a perfectly linear, round, square or oval jalebi. They have deep-rooted associations with positivity but are sometimes used to highlight negatives in a person as well. Jalebis transcend borders. Jalebis unite. The base is common, toppings decide class. To me, they represent the ways of this world.
Coming back to our story, on the day of the camp, jalebis were served at two locations. One at the campsite in Mankhurd where a community worker came back to the campsite ecstatic after the completion of the camp. She presented the jalebis in a beautiful way, as per her financial capabilities, resource availability, understanding and her sense of food presentation. Around 150 km away, at Saathealth’s technology development center in Pune, a coworker ordered and served jalebis too. The occasion was “Friyay”. The Pune office was swankier in comparison to the campsite in Mankhurd. My coworker was much more educated, had a sense of food presentation and hygiene. The joy and directly proportional sugar content were the same in both settings, the only things that varied were the seasonings, complementary dishes and aesthetic sense of course.
Traditional “click before you eat rites” were performed and the photographs were shared on the various office WhatsApp groups. (Photographs: No points for guessing the locations)
On seeing the two pictures, I sensed inequity surfacing itself in its glorious brevity. Inequity in terms of awareness, information, knowledge, finances and the subsequent impact on the quality of life.
So what? What changed then? I always knew that there is inequity, I have always known that there is a need for a systemic and collaborative approach for the alleviation of a lot of social issues. The only thing that changed is personal resolution and contribution. I see my work today as an initiative and a great opportunity to contribute, albeit in a small way, to inequity reduction in terms of healthcare seeking behaviors and knowledge. I have an answer to the all-important question: which is the real world? To me, the real world is where the majority stays.
The past year has been humbling and gratifying. I was a passerby earlier who would simply stop and comment “oh, this is a problem” and move on. Now, I am a person who sees the problem, thinks about why it exists and how we can solve it. Now, I am a part of the solution. My solution lies in building healthier childhoods to power a billion dreams for a better tomorrow.
Most importantly, the sweet lover in me wants the jalebis to look beautiful everywhere!