Under my byline

Meet the makers

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 11 April 2009

A tandoor, like the one Nazreen usesOVERLEAF 24

How does an NGO know whether its programmes are working, its funders’ money is being well spent? Like other enterprises, it performs an “evaluation”, sifts numbers, tabulates results. But how does it measure “life-shifts” — that is, the positive change that association with them has brought about in their targets’ lives? In this case, by listening to the targets’ stories and briefly sharing their working day.

For Dreams & Journeys: Voices from the City, the NGO Youthreach did just that and, with corporate support, made a book of it. Between June and December 2008, a handful of its employees, youthful themselves, fanned out across Delhi to meet young people who had taken part in one or other of their programmes. In 53 tiny chapters they describe the 53 working worlds they encountered.

It really is the perfect antidote to the sustained gloom of recession talk. It’s true that both subjects and investigators are a self-selected group, and that happy stories were more likely to make it than unhappy ones, and also that without the backbone of hard numbers this remains an impressionistic sampling. Yet the stories and overall message are credible. Two things make it work: the subjects themselves, and the obvious inexperience of the writers. (Full disclosure: one of those writers is an old and dear friend.)

Four Youthreach programmes turned out the men and women featured in this book. One offered help with setting up small businesses, another, service-sector job skills, a third, art and craft apprenticeships, and the last, something nebulous called “life skills”. A number of these youngsters are disabled in one way or another — sight-, speech- or hearing-impaired. Others are orphans. But many simply lacked opportunity.

One of my favourite stories, although it’s fairly typical, is that of 19-year-old Pravesh, a cheerful-looking Domino’s Pizza employee who helps prepare and deliver the food. Most chapters come with two photos, one showing the subject in civvies, the other in uniform or at work, covering either aspect of daily life. Pravesh’s is different because, apart from the portrait, there’s a map of his Domino’s branch delivery area, with arrows to different streets labelled thus: “First late delivery”, “First compliment to customer”, “First scolding”, “Dislikes the area” and so on.

Another is that of Nazreen, who lost her parents as a child and had a difficult time thereafter — until, with Youthreach’s help, she started training in the ITC Maurya hotel’s kitchen. It looks like hot, hard work, but Nazreen wants to start her own restaurant in Saudi Arabia.

Then there’s Shamim, originally from Jharkhand, who apprenticed with sculptor K S Radhakrishnan and puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee. Now setting up his own troupe, he also runs puppetry workshops for city schools. The Youthreach writer caught up with him as he and his group were designing a Unesco-funded animation film. Shamim makes his own puppets.

There are painters, laundry-workers, bakers, waiters, mehndi artists, teachers, computer trainers, beauticians, musicians, tailors — everything but bankers, techies and managers, of whom one hears more than enough. Each one of these young workers appears to be determined and hard-working, yet sounds reasonably happy and confident in their ability to tackle the future.

The Youthreach writers also get a little space at the start of the book to say what this reporting experience meant to them. One writes that at the outset she worried about her skill as a communicator, and her objectivity. It has to be said that no very high standard was achieved on either front, and perhaps that’s why this is such a moving book.

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