Saturday, December 2, 2017

NIRDPR Diaries Part IV : Day Three of Workshop on Research Methodology

Finally, in this post I share my lessons from the third and the final day of the wonderful workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research" which I attended at National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad. The final day had limited sessions and I was excited for that meant more free time to explore and relax in the vastness of NIRDPR :P

Immediately after my daily workout and breakfast I headed towards the conference hall I where the workshop was being held. The first session of the day was on "Ethical Issues in Social Sciences Research" by Prof. T.V.Sekher. Prof. Sekher arrived in the hall before time and was interacting with students, going to them personally and trying to understand where they came from and what they were studying. This gesture from sir taught me something, his personal attempt to talk to us individually spoke volumes about his warm demeanor. Prof. Sekher talked about empathy towards survey/interview respondents and helped us understand the need for treating the respondents with respect and dignity even in face of overt ignorance or negligence. He informed us that respondents have the right to behave in ways they deem fit and just because a researcher wants to have information does not give him the right to haggle the respondent to meet the ends. While acknowledging the tough conversations which often seem to be going nowhere, he stressed onto the fact that protecting the interest of respondent is more important and that we must be mindful of the favor that respondents do to us by helping us garner information. He discussed about the importance of being open to criticism, he talked about maintaining transparency with the respondent about the research objective and its importance. In fact, throughout his address he reiterated the fact that respondent is a resource person who should be respected and treated well and even if he/she does not want to respond, the researcher must not indulge into coercion of any form or manner. He gave a litany of caveats. For instance, it is unethical to use collected blood sample to test for HIV/AIDS when it has been collected to test Diabetes, that no one should be able to make out the identify of the respondent by reading his/her answers or comments and an informed consent is mandatory. Prof. Sekher's session was very enlightening and it did add to my knowledge reservoir on ethics in research and as always, there is a huge scope to learn more. 

The second session of the day was taken by Prof. D.P.Singh on "Quantitative Data Analysis". His session was fun, interspersed with jokes here and there. It was a highly mathematical session and I could sense that some students found it hard to connect. I was distracted by a problem during his session. He had mentioned about normal distribution, z-curves and exactly then, a conceptual confusion arose in my mind about z-curve and I became engrossed in solving it. After that, I paid my full attention to sir. Interestingly, two days after his session during my morning workout on the football field (a change from the gym), I saw him jogging and then doing yoga for one  whole hour starting from 6 am in the morning. I was really very inspired by that moment. It is always  encouraging to see elder people working out, sweating, grinding and exercising; I believe that when people elder to us exercise we can be sure about the immense importance of physical activity. Even now, as I write about the session taken by him, I think about his morning workout that day and it totally adds to the respect I have for him. In fact, more than the session his morning ritual impacted me more, to say in a little humorous tone. 

The third session was taken by Dr. Anil Chandran on "Sampling Techniques". This was an addition to the existing sessions. Initially, this unexpected session caused me an unwarranted itch but gradually as the learning unfolded did I realize   that it was a well-thought of addition. I must admit that I understood very clearly what was so random about random sampling and how to ensure that random sampling is quintessentially random, after his address. Using interesting examples he explained to all of us the concept of random sampling. He talked about multiple ways to create a sample out of the population. An important call from office led me to miss out on some parts of this session, but notwithstanding that, I did take back the importance of spending sometime deliberating on the size of the sample for study. 

The fourth and the last session of the day and of the workshop was taken by Prof. N. Audinarayana on "Writing Thesis and Publication of Research Papers". I believe as a research scholar everyone reads this time and again and especially while preparing a manuscript. Most of the facts were known but important to be reminded. He stressed on the distinction between description and interpretation of the results. He also stated that when it comes to writing, reading plays an important part and that he who aspires to become a better writer of scientific genre must read journals and research papers voraciously. He also talked about handling research correspondences when communicating with the conference or even organizing committee. He mentioned that while inquiring about the paper, we must use the reference number and on receiving rejection letter we must reply back with grace and honor. Little things, he emphasized, go a long way in cementing the etiquette of communication in research circles. 

With this the workshop came to an end and it was followed by certificate distribution to all the participants of the workshop. After the valedictory ceremony, me and four of my friends set out to explore Rural Technology Park (RTP). I must admit that the top peak at RTP has totally bewitched me and even today when I think about it, I am overcome by unfathomable peace and warmth. That particular place has done something to me and that alone warrants a separate blogpost. My readers might think that I begin with knowledge-dispersion and end up invariably talking about nature and its glory. I cannot help it, nature always seems more fascinating and mysterious to me. I do not have any photograph of that peak point, yet its image on my heart is more enduring than any digital image can ever capture. 

The pre-conference workshop was an intellectually stimulating event, I felt like a college going student, only this time I enjoyed the lectures more than ever :P I strongly encourage attending such kind of events outside of our daily jobs and responsibilities, they broaden our horizons, our network increases and it is always great to come out of our silos to participate in knowledge sharing and dissemination. The best part is that you always come back with a lot, and I do mean A LOT , of ideas.

I thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association of Social Sciences and Health) wholeheartedly for coming together and organizing such an event. It did all of us an inestimable good.

NIRDPR Diaries Part III : Day Two of Workshop on Research Methodology

In the previous two posts (NIRDPR Diaries Part I and Part II) I discussed my experience at NIRDPR and the lessons from the first day of the three day workshop on research methodology. In this post, I will elaborate on my lessons from the second day of the workshop. For those, who have not read the previous posts, I wish to provide a little background. I was at NIRDPR(National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj) to attend a conference on Health, Gender and Rural Development; as part of this conference was also a pre-conference workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research". 

Day II of the workshop was engaging and very informative. The first session was by Dr. T. Vijaya Kumar who talked to us about the "Relevance of Policy Research". He talked about the importance of problem definition, agenda setting and gave example of "Mission Antyodaya" to support his assertions. From this session I understood that a good research has some (ought to have) policy implications because that way the work can find its relevance in the society and augur meaningful changes. But this is no news that policy implementation, formulation, evaluation and observation pose a huge challenge. I raised a question on difference between Law and Policy; I somehow had got confused between the two. He made an attempt to make some clarity but the void of explanation was filled by my fellow friends and mentors who explained to me during the tea break the difference in detail. A woman told me that law is something which citizens have to abide by and in case of any breach, there is punishment, whereas in the case of policy no such incumbency exists. This explanation definitely helped me gain some clarity. Actually, I was thinking from the point of view of Marital Rape when I asked the question to demystify the equation between law and policy. Nevertheless, the session was interactive, Dr. Kumar asked questions and we responded to the best of our knowledge. Later on, Dr. Kumar was to introduce me to a women team who were being trained at NIRDPR to improve the cleanliness in schools. I talked to these women and expressed how proud I was of them and their decision to work towards the improvement of health. It was important to let them know that they are not just a cog in this journey of ensuring healthier India. The grassroots workers are often under-appreciated, un-acknowledged and therefore, I always feel that it is important to remind them of the great responsibility they are shouldering and how it is impacting the bigger vision. 

The second session of the day was by Prof. K.N.M. Raju on "Framing Survey Questions and Coding the Data". This was my favorite session of the day because there was a lot of talk around mathematics, statistics and data analysis. He began with a simple question to understand the distinction between "rate and ratio" (I encourage the readers to pay attention to this question, it is really a doorway to a better understanding). He also asked why the infant mortality rate was called as 'rate' and not 'ratio', he further stressed that it should rather be called as a ratio. I tried to reason in his class and this is what I had said, "Sir, it is called rate because when extrapolated to the population of a country, we have to multiply the value of this rate with the population concerned". I believe that rate is the appropriate usage. I have, during the many events that I attend on health and its allied fields,  noticed about me that the nature of my arguments has improved, that I can reason now and actually think objectively on statements I hear in the realm of mathematics, public health or biostatistics (there is still a long way to go). I believe this is a very natural thing that happens when one is passionate about his/her area of interests, very liberating indeed. Prof. K.N.M.Raju stressed on the importance of theoretical understanding to plan the type of questions to be framed for a survey. I believe that all the experienced professors who addressed us, heavily emphasized on the indispensability of theoretical understanding before going to quantitative analysis. I also understand the logic behind such approach. A sound knowledge in theory leads to questions, doubts and potential topics of future research. Overall, he actually talked about the basic fundamentals of quantitative research, independent and dependent variables, etc. I indisputably enjoyed his session and if I have to sum up the nature of his session then I would say that, "Simple things are the most complex to understand". During his session he ensured that we put our minds to work, occasionally he used the whiteboard to make concepts clear. A humble man of erudition in his field, Prof. Raju. 

The next session was by Dr. Ramesh on "Case Study applications: How and what to report". The session reminded me of multiple books that I have come across which have followed the approach of case studies to elucidate the salient points. He mentioned, which I believe is an extremely significant point, that context is of paramount importance in case study based approach to dissemination of results or information. Well, this would seem a no-brainer but we often assume that our readers know background which we are using to prepare our work (calls for some self-assessment and introspection). Imagine coming across a book which suddenly talks about women and their rights without forming a background on why it is important to talk about it. Point taken sir, thank you. He told us about the village names which have been at the focus of some phenomenal work related to social development - Punsari, Anna Hazare's village (Ralegan Siddhi), Mednipur (Midnapore) village, to name a few. I still have to read about these three villages and understand why they are termed as "model villages". The best part of his session? He gave references of books to substantiate his point, the point of writing the best case studies : Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Looking Away, Bio-innovation and Poverty alleviation: Case studies from AsiaUnheard Voices.  I believe it is extremely significant to use reference of books when we address an audience, they must always go back with atleast five books to read and learn from; books, which I feel are the most companionable of companions. Somehow I feel that addition of a reading list adds to the credibility of the speaker and trust in his/her awareness with the topic about which he/she is talking about. Quintessentially, I thoroughly enjoyed this session. It was different than all the sessions which had happened and yet it was clearly noticeable how pertinent it was to the case of social sciences research or any research for that matter. Documentation is certainly an art and a good research work stands the danger of being termed "thoughtless"  if it is not properly documented. It was an intellectually rejuvenating session and I do not think I would have got any other better opportunity to learn the nuances of writing case studies and their relationship with research work than this one at NIRDPR. 

The final session of the day was by Dr. Sucharita Pujari, the linchpin of all activities during this six day research based extravangaza at NIRDPR. The topic was "Qualitative Research Methods". Dr. Pujari talked in detail about the role qualitative research plays in informing the ground realities of a situation at a particular location (by taking example of health programs), the way to conduct conversations with respondents and how to handle their skepticism and distrust. Since, most of the students in the workshop had experiences of field work, they felt very comfortable discussing their ideas and opinions with Dr. Pujari who brings with herself a litany of such experiences. She patiently answered the queries of students and the nods of agreement interspersed with light moments of laughter made the session an informative one without making it too much didactic or pedagogic in nature. I too believe in the utmost importance of qualitative research work but I also feel that that results of such work ought to be quantified(wherever possible) so that they are easier to understand and that way people can be made to understand the implications of the study. After the session, I asked Dr. Pujari about the significance of qualitative role in policy formulation. She enthusiastically stated that qualitative research has a tremendous role to play in policy formulation and remarked that the results of flawed policy making are testimony to the shoddy work done in relation to qualitative research. Intrigued, I ensured to read more about it. (Any suggestions are welcome.)

With this,  the second day of the workshop came to another beautiful end. After the sessions, I spent some time in the library trying to capture every book in the magnificent library at NIRDPR in the brief time I had. Soon it was 6pm and I rushed to badminton court to play with my new friends. 

NIRDPR is the kind of place where I feel everyone must spend some time of their lives. It is really imparting education in the sense which can be translated into real world and to address, if not solve, its challenges. Shefali, who is a student of PGDRDM (Post Graduate Diploma in Rural Development) often shares about her lessons from the class and how her perception has been broadened in a brief time at NIRDPR. When I talk to her, I can see how different my thinking is from her in multiple ways. While she talks from social point of view in relation to multiple problems, I often wonder if these issues need attention at all. It is like learning vicariously from the conversations I have with her. Thank you Shefali, you are patient in answering my queries. 

I would like to thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association for Social Sciences and Health) for organizing such an event and being mindful of the needs of budding scientists and researchers. I cannot admire this step enough, as much corny as it may sound, but I must not flinch from stating categorically that , those days from 12th November till 18th November 2017 are definitely etched in my memory and for long.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Remembering two women of courage on this day

Today is World AIDS day and I want to write about two women with whom I have interacted closely. Both of them HIV+ve , infected from their husbands, husbands who died long back leaving these women in the uber judgemental traditional Indian society to fend for themselves, not only financially but also to preserve their dignity. I met Lekha ( name changed) during my field trips to villages in Jamkhed; she used to accompany me and was there to answer all my queries. While it was summer season, she always wore some sweater and always had a handkerchief ready in case she felt like sneezing or cold. I never paid attention to it until one day during a little break we started chatting and I began to inquire about her family. It was during that conversation that she told me about her family, her husband, his forced sexual intercourse on her despite her excessive attempts to make him understand about the transmission of virus and his subsequent death. She rejoices that her children are not infected and she has dreams for both of them. She also told me that her children know about it and that she made sure that they know about it. I believe this has brought the three of them closer to each other. Lekha helped me understand what happens to immunity when one is infected by HIV. Slowly, as she made me understand I could fathom why she caught cold so easily while no one of us did, why she felt cold all the time and that her wearing sweater was a conscious attempt to keep cold at bay. She had told me that immunity plummets rapidly but she is taking anti-retroviral therapy and that is helpful to her. Lekha is a very lanky woman, but a woman who has seen a lot in her life and that has made her  extremely tough. Day and night, she toils hard to not only ensure literacy to her children but to also make them educated and socially conscious. Humble and polite, Lekha touched my heart and there was not a single tear in her eyes while she was explaining things to me, or should I say,she was successful in not restraining the heart to come in eyes.

The second woman was Bhakti (name changed) whom I met at an organic farm. She was married off to an HIV+ve man, her mother-in-law knew about it and despite that went ahead with her son's marriage. Later on Bhakti discovered on her own about her husband's infection, got herself checked and was diagnosed as HIV positive. Her husband died, she was pregnant, her child was still an infant when she was ostracised from both her and her in-laws family. Left, dejected, hopeless and amidst the worst storm of her life, she became a labor. In lunch hours she used to visit her small house to breastfeed her son, until one day when she discovered that he too had succumbed to the virus. Her life came to a brutal halt and right when it seemed to be ending, she came across a village health worker who asked her to render her service in improving the health of the villagers. Today Bhakti is the head of an organic farm and has adopted a girl who studies in 7th class. Me and my American friend were listening to her life story together, while Shayla had tears in her eyes and was comforting Bhakti by holding her tight and hugging her, I could not but salute the courage in the woman in front of me. Broken, tossed, betrayed, humiliated and yet she has managed to survive and survive with dignity and grace. I know she is the beacon of  power inherent in women. 

I remember these two women today; they are the only HIV+ve people I have met in my life. They live their lives very normally; obviously they had to cope up with a lot of resistance from the society and their fellow workers when they began to arrange the pieces of their shattered lives. Knowledge from the leaders and guides in the public health journey has helped in elimination and now total absence of any such prejudice. Both of them are an apostle of something much more than courage. To be in India and live life as a single woman infected with a disease which has such high amount of stigma attached to it is nothing short of a nightmare. But I also know that these women understand the meaning of life much better than anyone of us, who live as if we are immortals. In fact, Bhakti had told me that she lives her days happily because she wants to spend whatever time she has remaining with gratitude and laughter. It is difficult to understand this because only she is living the reality and no amount of my imagination can help me put self into her shoes. The closest I have been to death so far has been a scooty accident which made me unconscious for 30 minutes, even today I remember nothing. And I sulk all the time at injuries, being a sportsperson injuries are my allies yet I always find it tough to behave sanely in those times. On the other hand, here are these two women who have chosen to look beyond their chronic pain & suffering and  decided  to spend their lives creating meaning in the society in ways they can. 

I salute them.

NIRDPR Diaries Part II : Day One of Workshop on Research Methodology

In this post, I will consolidate all the lessons that I learned on the first day of the three days pre-conference workshop on research methodology that I had attended at NIRDPR (National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj), Hyderabad. A background to this post can be found here

  1.  The first session was taken by Prof. S. Siva Raju on "Overview of Social Sciences Research". Very elegantly he explained that there is a journey that has to be taken from identification of problem to the generation of its solution and that every step in this research journey is important in its own way and also in relation to the entire project. He had enthusiastically emphasized the importance of literature while performing research experiments. According to him, theoretical understanding is imperative for research problem investigation and opens avenues to explore a problem in multitude of ways. Linking research to context, according to him, is one of the best exploratory of ways to perform research. Most importantly what I remember are the little anecdotes he had shared of his own experiences in research, especially of the "aging" study in which he had to read extensively the research conducted in past on the health of elderly population. Overall, his session was interactive, small research anecdotes did help in maintaining alertness in the class :P   
  2. I believe one of the most significant lessons came to me in the class of Prof. R. Siva Prasad. He had delivered a session on "Research Design and Selection of Research Problem". At the outset of his address he had mentioned categorically that "unless one feels excited about research , his/her job will become monotonous". I also feel that this is a very important and often neglected fact. Unless one really enjoys what he/she does, he/she won't be able to give their best and as a result there will no great work but only cookie-cutter approach based work. He had also shared that a good research supervisor provides freedom to research students. I cannot overemphasize this. Having mentored 4 students in their research and internship projects I can totally relate to this. Giving freedom is, needless to say, a tough task; one has to forget about self in the moments when we provide freedom to others and that can be discomforting if proper perspective is not maintained. But one must acknowledge that innovation & creativity flourish when the mind is unbridled, when there is little coercion and a clear respect towards the ideas an individual brings to the table. What good it would be if everyone thought in similar veins? Prof. Prasad made a very interesting case. He mentioned that just because some work has been done before does not mean that it cannot be researched. According to him, there is no such thing called as "finality" in research and that the attitude of "I know it is done, but I am doing it differently" goes a long way in refining the researcher instincts of a budding scientific investigator. This really clicked me. Often times, our own mentors very hastily reject our ideas or proposals citing that there is no novelty and virtually no chance of discovering one if pursued, but such outright rejection can be an impediment to a great work. I see this often times around myself also, but I have also learnt that results speak for themselves. If one believes in his/her approach, they must work towards it because faith can unleash great work. I had asked him a question on handling confounding results. Often times it so happens that we assume the results to be in a certain fashion but some times they just turn out to be completely unexpected, my question was then, how to handle such situations. He very gracefully answered that we must accept confounding results as much as we would not want to,  otherwise what we'd be involved in doing would be manufacturing some work for self-convenience which by any means can never be termed as research. Pretty simple thought, yet takes a lot of courage while applying. Some times in my work earlier confounding results used to almost challenge my ego but then I read something in a research paper that completely transformed my perspective. "Not getting desired results could also be the beginning of another research" - this simple yet powerful thought has taught me about the importance of being an open and an unbiased investigator while conducting research. I am still learning how to, it is a very conscious and arduous effort.
  3. The third session was on "Quantitative and Qualitative Research" by Prof. M. Gopinath Reddy. Prof. Reddy emphasized that it was not always about the quantitative or qualitative approach. Essentially, according to him, both are required and that theoretical understanding is tremendously important to understand the research problem and then convert it into praxis. He mentioned about a book related to the conversations between an economist and an anthropologist. (Book) I was looking forward to much more from this lecture yet had to satiate self with less. A recurrent statement during the conference was that social scientists play a role in investigating "why" a situation is like a certain way while "statisticians" can only help with the "how much". But I differ on this. I believe that mathematicians and biostatisticians can also contribute towards the why. The classic case of epidemiology of cholera and John Snow comes to my mind. He could find out why the residents of a particular locality were dying increasingly of cholera by investigating the number of deaths segregated by geography and the location of hand pumps. In fact, given an equation and a dependent variable, we can always change the independent variables or their values and observe which independent variable (or which value) causes the dependent variable to behave in a particular way. I also do not understand the premise which is widely and implicitly supported that social emancipation is the prerogative of only the degree holders in the related disciplines; this way we only widen the chasm. If someone were to ask me, I'd say that everyone who is socially conscious is a social scientist and a potential investigator. It is the inter-disciplinary nature of transformation in society which calls for people from different disciplines  to come together to usher  "just and lasting changes". Overall, I was not much satisfied with the content of the lecture, it was more of a digression from the relevant topic yet insightful in myriad of other ways.
  4. The final session of the day was delivered by Dr. Akanksha Shukla on "Writing Research Proposal". Well, this session was different; she was brimming with energy and her enthusiasm was visible. She began her address by asking questions to all of us with an objective to make the session more interactive. I did not know the difference between a research synopsis and a research proposal. After her class, at least I have a brief idea now. She also talked about the distinguishing factors between research gap and research limitation. Although I understood its meaning, but I still find it hard to write in words, but I will make an attempt here. Research limitation is something which could not be accomplished in a research project owing to resource constraints or knowledge unavailability. For example: If I am a researcher involved in making a health index based on lifestyle habits of a person and I am not able to include food data while doing this, then it would be a research limitation. Owing to unavailability of appropriate data, its consequent non-inclusion can be called as a research limitation. Research gap on other hand would be a situation in the same example if I am not able to provide the proof as to why certain set of variables is taken into account to calculate the health index. That is, in this case lack of a legitimate evidence would amount to research gap. (Anyone please correct me, if this is wrongly put). Then she shed some light on difference between methodology and methods. All of her questions were  making wonder all the time; these were small and seemingly insignificant things to which I had hardly paid any attention yet they were activating my brain to think and gain clarity. She was to explain later that methodology was not about methods but the logic behind the methods. Methodology, in that case then, was constituted by underlying methods. There was one thing that she had said which continues to bring a smile to my face. She had mentioned that, "PhD is a door". I think she meant that it was not the end, that a PhD was only a beginning to sailing in unknown waters and perform experiments. I must say that this statement could only come from someone who has been very conscious in her journey post PhD. Dr. Shukla was an excellent speaker and was able to create a rapport with her audience, which is definitely a talent. She had the toughest task of taking the final session of the day when the energy had plummeted, but never for a moment did it seem that there was any plateau in the energy. She takes all the credits.
Overall, first day was very informative, I was alert throughout the sessions. The experience for me was like that of a person deprived of water for long discovers a fountain of an elixir.  We also received a book on Research Methodology. NIRDPR made sure that there was no holding back while sharing knowledge and that everything was duly transmitted to the young minds. As I write this post, I cannot help re-visiting my days spent at NIRDPR. 

Every morning when I wake up in Bangalore, I invariably remember the mornings I woke up at NIRDPR without any noise, with silence all over, without honking noise of UBERs or OLAs, where I could recline to my own self in the comforting solitude before dawn and before the worldly responsibilities took over me.

I would like to thank NIRDPR and IASSH (Indian Association of Social Sciences and Health) for organizing this workshop and also to the speakers who took time out from their busy schedules and job responsibilities to share their lessons and experiences with budding researchers and aspiring leaders. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

An experience unprecedented : NIRDPR Diaries Part I

From 12th November till 18th November 2017, I was at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad to attend a pre-conference workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research" and the subsequent conference on "Health, Gender and Rural Development". Those seven days have become etched in my memory as the most beautiful, unforgettable and productive days at a conference. The conference was organized by Indian Association for Social Sciences and Health (IASSH) in collaboration with NIRDPR. 

I reached NIRDPR on 12th in the evening around 6pm. As soon as I reached the campus, I was bewitched by its vastness, cleanliness and beauty. (I have seen multiple IITs and my own institute (ABV IIITM, Gwalior) was extremely breathtaking, but NIRDPR stands alone, its campus is beyond comparison). Without much wastage of time, I quickly wore my track pant and went on my exploration in and around the campus. The campus was really sublime and its beauty was like those VIP areas in New Delhi or even better. Whenever I go to any place, there are always two things that I  look forward to eagerly: Library and Gym, NIRDPR offered both and on the top of that it proffered a sports complex which had badminton courts. What else could I seek for? The very first day  I played badminton for 90 minutes with people who would become my regular play mates in the evening.  First day went  peacefully and I slept with excitement anticipating the next three days of the pre-conference workshop and the prospect of meeting new people and new faces. 

I will write lessons from every single day of workshop in subsequent posts in a more elaborate manner for I believe that will do justice to the hardwork of the professors, organizing committee and will be useful for the readers who wish to know more about the workshop in detailed way. Here I  provide a brief glimpse into those three days of extreme intellectual sharing of knowledge,  informative and unconventional lectures, liberty to question and cross-question and most of all, the well-articulated topics for respective sessions.

On the first day, the senior professors and mentors of NIRDPR and IASSH addressed us in a conference hall. I vividly remember the words coming from them which were emblematic of their vast experiences in the field of social sciences research.  Prof. Gyan Mudra had very cogently pointed out that a good research work in the field of social sciences must lead to improvement in the Human Development Index (HDI); I had written this point in my diary and made a copy of it in my brain. As I am going ahead in this journey of research in public health I am learning that an important research work leads to emancipation of society, ushers meaningful and sustainable changes and creates some value and impacts the lives of people positively. Her address had a candor about it and you could make out that she wanted the attendees of the conference to understand the prime importance of research and the workshop, at the outset.

Dr. W.R.Reddy, Director General of NIRDPR was always a delight to hear to. He mentioned that there is a deficit in the field of social science research in India and an acute deficiency of body of knowledge in social science which plays an instrumental role in policy formulation. His words are all over my heart and mind. It was clear that he was trying to bring to table the exigency of quality research work for Indian context,  bring our attention to the plight of poor, uneducated and underprivileged masses that are waiting for resources to improve their situations. He continuously reminded us of the significance of focussed and passionate work. He had also mentioned the travesty  that as a research community, we are always in the post-mortem scenario and that we must go a step further to become better equipped to handle unexpected emergencies that project threat to our communities' well-being and progress. The immense sincerity that he exuded while speaking was extremely infectious and actually compelled me to look within and ask, "How am I serving my nation?". Overall, from the address of the guests at the inauguration ceremony of the conference it was evident that the conference was a neatly carved out strategy to help young researchers and budding investigators in the field of social science and to make them cognizant of the responsibilities that lay on their shoulders.

After the inauguration ceremony, we had back-to-back sessions till 5:30pm in the evening. The sessions were about the topics related to Social Sciences Research, Research design and Selection of Research Problem, Quantitative and Qualitative Research and Writing Research Proposal. I will elucidate lessons from them in my next posts. Immediately after the sessions got over, I rushed to my room and changed into my sports kit to play badminton! It reminded me of my college days, when be it winter, summer, autumn or monsoon, for all seasons of my life, I had one answer: badminton. How could I miss that in the state-of-art sports complex at NIRDPR? These were the days, when I just was in the moment, studying, deliberating, debating, questioning, exercising, playing, eating and JUST BEING- a luxury in this fast paced world where all of us our chasing our Northern Star Goals. The best part after dinner was the long sauntering in solitude, where I would just feel blessed to be a part of this elaborate event at a beautiful place. I would walk 2-3 kilometres every evening in addition to the morning runs and gym workouts - "When you get opportunity, you grab it will all your limbs". Normally, in Bangalore my daily average of steps as tracked by mobile-app based pedometer would be 5k-6k, but here at NIRDPR I was breaking all records with the highest steps recorded as 19k - I was indisputably loving every moment at NIRDPR. I must mention that I found the staff at NIRDPR very friendly, right from the janitors, to receptionists to sports officers, all of them respected the participants and understood all their problems and rectified them. Their demeanor warmed my heart and cleansed me from within. The charm of the campus was simply jaw-dropping. In the evening, I also spent some time in the library and it was then I realized that the bookshelves at NIRDPR were replete with seminal works on research in fields of social sciences and allied disciplines. I got one book issued to study with the help of a student of PGDRDM; she was generous in offering help, thank you Shefali. The more I explored the library, the more it stoked my hunger to read and learn and the more it made me realize that NIRDPR is the kind of place where I ought to be for more than just 7 days for my academic and spiritual growth both.

The next day of the workshop had an eclectic mix of topics for lecture: Relevance of Policy Research, Case Study Application: How and What to report, Qualitative Research Methods and Secondary Data Analysis. I really enjoyed all of these sessions and there was something to learn and remember from each of them. The presenters were very patient and responded in the best of spirits to the queries of students. Second day, got over around 5pm and I rushed to market to buy some fruits and dry fruits for myself. I enjoyed a good walk till the market and bought apples, bananas, almonds, cashewnuts and raisins to help me satiate during snack times. Immediately after returning, I rushed to the badminton court. Students at NIRDPR were friendly, I made friends on the court : Purari, Ram, Abnish, Mini: five of us used to play daily and enjoy together. They were welcoming of me and allowed me to participate in the games; the managing team at the sports complex was also very cordial in their mannerisms and ensured that I got equipment to play with. My special thanks to the gym trainer who very sincerely guided me in all my workouts.  Even now, as I write all this I am filled with nostalgia and my eyes brighten up reminiscing the beautiful time I got to spend at NIRDPR. Early morning and evening at NIRDPR converted it to some sort of heavenly abode; in mornings I could understand why the campus was so clean: its team which cleans the road was diligent, regular and very particular about keeping the cleanliness. On second day, I spent longer time in the library reading the book titled, "Osho on Woman" - a wonderful read. What really amazed me was the collection at NIRDPR library, how exhaustive it was in so many fields and issues related to the society. The section on women really impressed me - there is no wonder that NIRDPR library  is a cauldron of best books on social sciences research and issues related to society. The journals, magazines and most importantly the seating arrangement rendered such tranquility to the library that I could forever spend my lifetime there, being with the most companionable of friends : Books. 

On the third day of the workshop, we were enlightened on the Ethical Issues in Social Sciences Research, Quantitative Data Analysis - SPSS and Writing Thesis and Publication of Research Paper. In the end we had the valedictory ceremony and certificate distribution. On the third day, I along with my friends went to RTP since we had more time in the evening and RTP (Rural Technology Park) did not disappoint us. I, personally , am a big-time connoisseur of natural beauty and believe in the healing power of nature with its unvarnished beauty. I stood still when I reached at the peak point, not that I have not been to mountain peaks (my trekking adventures have led me to the most heavenly of locations) but this was different; it was in the campus, a place where one can come daily and just breathe for sometime mindfully, in his/her own personal solitude. In fact, I did see in the mornings people meditating there and chanting the "Om" sound : all this rendered so much peace to my mind and lifted my spirit in gratitude to the Lord. On third day also I went to play badminton after helping my friends in their visit to Charminar. 

As the workshop came to an end, there was an uncontrollable excitement at learning so much in a brief amount of time, in gathering ideas to conduct future research and to remember practices of research in future endeavors. The workshop was very well organized, time was paid heed to and the facilitators' (Rashmi, Apporva) efforts and hard work was conspicuous and is tremendously revered. With one phase over, I seemed all the more geared up for the conference which was to happen in the next three days. With speakers and presenters from all over India, this seemed like a giant "Boston Tea Party". 

In the inauguration function of the conference, I heard K.Sujatha Rao speak. I was super-excited to hear her words from the moment I  saw her gracing the dais. Her words on conducting evidence based research that informs policy making still reverberate in my mind. I have read her book, "Do we care?" and could make out that most of the content of her speech was like a brief summary of her book, not to say that it was not useful. It is always a pleasure to hear someone who has spent his/her life in service towards the nation. Dr. W.R.Reddy sir also addressed the gathering, and once again the tone of his voice expressed his sincerity and dedication towards the cause of societal emancipation. The next two and a half days were to become another set of memorable events of my life.

I took active participation in the oral presentations and in poster presentations, so much so that in one of the  poster presentations I saw myself becoming an activist who was vehemently yet respectfully disagreeing to the work presented (topic of my subsequent blog post). People had gathered around and were listening intently to the discussion. The presenter and I did not agree but I did give her a hug after the discussion, I know she has worked hard for the work and for that she is entitled to respect from my end: research, I am learning is not for the faint of the heart. Then I moved onto the next posters and very patiently listened to them and gave them suggestions. One of them even asked me if I was an evaluator (LOL!). I believe, interest follows passion and participation follows commitment when you know what you really want to study and make your career in; for me it is research in public health and everything that affects/influences public health. The situation is becoming clearer with time, as it always does; clarity is a journey. 

On 17th November I presented my work related to diabetes, mental health and health care affordability among sexual minorities. It went well, I responded to the questions posed and also took suggestions in a positive stride ( I believe so). I loved every moment of the conference, the informal discussions with professors (something which is not so readily available in the college premises) were wonderful, we talked more like fellow colleagues and fellow participants at the conference; this definitely was a good experience. I got to interact with many students and scholars from different parts of India under the umbrella of NIRDPR. We got to know each other, each other's work and area of interest. Some of the discussions which were impromptu were highly informative and source of multiple research ideas and had potential to become topics for further investigation. 

Who gets to have such infinite amount of exposure in such a finite time? It was a privilege to be a part of this entire event and a great experience being at NIRDPR. On the day when I was coming back, I was not in the best of my vibrant energy, separating from the "place where you belong to" is always bound to be painful and slightly difficult but as was the life's dictum I came back, had to. But at the airport I did fill pages of my diary describing how I was feeling after the workshop and conference got over; the 6 days of extensive interaction morphed into silent roads, silent corridors only to become active again with events which keep on happening at NIRDPR. I also got to know about the training that was being imparted to women Self-Help-Groups in production and manufacturing of Sanitary Products. Dr. T.Vijay Kumar led me to interact with the ladies on multiple occasions and I told women that the kind of project they were involved in was inextricably linked to the bigger direction of a healthier nation and they have my respect for their commitment and contribution towards it. Words can hardly do justice to my experience at NIRDPR, I never wanted to leave this place. It not only satiated me intellectually but also gave me a glimpse into my spiritual growth.

Who would not want to be a learner at NIRDPR? I have told about the institute to all my friends and they can discern from my excitement and energy about the impact the brief stay has caused on my psyche. I have been telling them, "That's the kind of place I belong to" and it does not tire me to talk about NIRDPR. It has definitely become one of my favorite academic institutions and the experience I gained from there is a real treasure. I will write about multiple sub-events during the conference in subsequent posts. Stay tuned!

PS: I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to IASSH and NIRDPR for coming together and organizing such a conference and knowledge extravaganza. It was an unprecedented learning experience and the efforts of the organizing committee and assisting hands was conspicuous. My sincere gratitude to Dr. Sucharita Pujari who ensured that everything went smoothly. Thank you for this wonderful experience, I look forward to spending more and extended time at NIRDPR to learn skills which will make me adept at action research, a more empathetic human being and a better scientific investigator. 

(This is the first in the series of posts that will talk about my experiences and ruminations at the conference which happened at NIRDPR)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Born into Brothels : Documentary Afterthoughts

Sonagachi. A city , a 300 year old history, a dystopian existence, a veritable truth, an irrefragable reality of our times, South Asia’s largest red light district and hence India’s, a nine letter Proper Noun which I had never heard before July 2017 and a word which now I cannot stop thinking about. The first time I heard this name was in the book, “Do we care”, by Sujatha Rao. Sonagachi is a place notorious for sex-workers, it is located in Kolkata. Sex-work is actually a profession practiced openly in Sonagachi.

Immediately after finishing off the chapter I Googled and read about Sonagachi. It led me to the Oscar winning documentary , “Born into Brothels” (available on Netflix) and a second documentary “Tales of the Night Fairies” (available on YouTube). Both the documentaries have very different themes; while the former talks about the lives of children born in Sonagachi, the later revolves around decriminalizing sex work (shocking!, right?). The documentaries were an assault on my small mind full of hubris at my education and a reminder of my ignorance of the brutal realities of our contemporary world.

In this post I will talk about the first documentary.

Brief Summary: The maker  of the documentary, Zana Briski,  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zana_Briski)  tries to delve deeper into the lives of people in Sonagachi by providing the children she befriends a camera. She teaches them how to click photographs and analyses the photographs and they have discussions over it. She organizes photo exhibition in New York and India to create traction about the lives of children in Sonagachi. It wins recognition and also helps one of the children, Avijit, attend a Photo Workshop in Amsterdam. The maker of the documentary puts her heart, soul and sinew to get the children admitted in boarding schools but most of them choose to discontinue.

“Sex work” - the educated ones like us, the ones who work in cities in Multinational Companies, who are studying in the best of the best school grimace and feel disgusted when we hear that word and ask ourselves, “How can possible someone indulge in that?”. To say that poverty leads to this would be a very simplistic a reason. The reason behind sex-work is basically a cauldron of reasons, ranging from destitution, poverty, illiteracy, lack of resources, lack of political support, lack of awareness, lack of money to eat, clothe and live under a roof and the most insidious of all: lack of hope, lack of opportunities to create a better life. The documentary really opened a vast landscape in front of me - my safe and secure landscape, where I have a job, a DREAM, resources, opportunities and HOPE ! Here are the children whose normal childhood is but a gross reality for all of us. They grow up seeing women being hounded, overpowered, beaten, disrespected, slapped, threatened, killed at the hands of those cowards who exercise their powers over women. This is a typical life in Sonagachi for most if not all. The peril looming over a girl whose mother is a sex-worker is quite palpable, she knows that sooner or later she is going to become the same irrespective of how much she abhors it.  In the documentary the one thing that hit me hard was despair, paralysis of hope of a better life, imprisonment of those little ones who are born there and perpetuation of their histories in Sonagachi.

Walking to and fro between my life and their life which I can only imagine vicariously I am stunned to realize the degree of disparity. My eyes which have become blind towards such horrendous realities find it difficult to accept that such a place could ever exist. Sure, I have been to Dharavi and made a documentary on its mini-factories  but the thought of visiting Sonagachi sends a shiver down my spine. I am still fearful about a lot many things in life and this is one of them. I remember this incident: Once when I was walking at night near a flyover on my way to a friend’s place I saw just beneath the flyover someone who had put on a heavy makeup and was shining despite the darkness of the night- I was scared, very scared. I hurried off and took fast steps but till today I have not been able to evade that image from my eyes. In the midst of the busy city, I believe, she was someone who was looking for a client in the dark to earn some money.

What seems horrible to us is normal in Sonagachi. What we condemn in public is openly practiced in Sonagachi. Not that it does not happen in cities, but the stories get buried easily in the darkness of Cubbon Parks or beneath the flyovers. “Born into Brothels” is a documentary which chooses to look at the other aspect of life of sex-workers- the future of their children. And I believe that is a very significant aspect. If something is not done for these children, then Sonagachi will continue for another 300 years. At the same time, the inability of these innocent children to attend schools compels us to look deeper at what we are doing every single day with the education that we have received. It deeply hurts me to see that youngsters these days equate life’s purpose to the company they get placed in or how much their salary is, especially those who are newly graduated. Life is tough and it is tougher to know one’s calling, toughest to follow the road not taken in the direction of that calling, but in the headlong rush to gain instant gratification we are missing out on a beautiful journey that life is with its struggles, lessons, mistakes and experiments.

Education is a strong social weapon, which we can use to create meaningful difference in lives around us in ways we can. Instead of abusing our degrees and our education, it is time to realize that with great education comes great social responsibility and ask ourselves, “Am I contributing to the society?”

Monday, October 16, 2017

My Trek to Kumar Parvatha (KP)

Last weekend, that is, October 14-15 , 2017 I was on a trek to Kumar Parvatha. I had registered for the event to see for myself how difficult the trek is, as it is generally considered to be. I was excited, eager  to experience its alleged strenuous nature and most importantly test how fit I was. Friday night, I had a dosa around 7pm and began anticipating the journey. However, in less than an hour my stomach bloated up, I felt considerable uneasiness in my abdomen region and I was feeling very uncomfortable. Notwithstanding all this unexpected turn of events after eating a dosa (I am not gonna eat again from the same place), I decided to reach the pick-up point. All this while praying that the tightness in the abdomen region will plummet and give me some mental relief. I was in a not very good state of mind, then. I called the organizer and asked if there is any provision for postponing the trek, to which he replied that all the arrangements had been made and expenses paid, therefore, there was no possibility of such provision. I thanked him and did not cancel my entry. I decided to travel with all that discomfort and a state of mind which is very unlikely of me . The enthusiasm and verve which everyone could conspicuously see on my face since morning had been robbed by this untimely abdominal quagmire. And I do not know what kept me going, may be, I just went with the flow and said to myself, "I will see whatever happens". 

The way to Kukke (where KP is located) was bad, the roads full of potholes; there were installments of sleep rather than a more fulfilling sleep. Around 6:30am we reached Kukke and after freshening up and breakfast began the trek. I believe that for the first time I was carrying a backpack on trek (a sleeping bag included). Usually, it is dumped at a lodge and what we carry is only snack to energise us on the way. But from the base station to Bhattar Manne (7km from base station), which was to be our first milestone, it was required that all that stuff was carried which would then be dumped at the Forest Department. From Forest Department begins the final lap of the trek. It was a Saturday morning, usually on Saturday mornings I am doing my leg workout in gym and rejoicing looking at the sweat which adorns my body while working out, but here I was morphed into a walking pail of water. I am not joking, I feel that if I were to add every amount of sweat I have shed so far in my life, it would stand nowhere to the amount I shed during those 7km till Bhattar Manne. Feeling like this which would make me proud in gym, the feeling of sweat dripping from my face, had become so mainstream, I had become like a mobile cloud. Here and there and everywhere it was as if I was leaving the footprints in form of  sweat drops. It was one hell of a feeling, this was definitely more challenging  than doing squats on Smith machine. I still have vivid memories of that; it seemed such a rare delicacy to savor. The me, totally drenched in sweat from head to toe, with hair wet as if out from shower continue to remain one of my fondest memories of the trek. The way to Bhattar Manne tests your leg strength. It is not that steep a slope as from Bhattar Manne to KP. Further, it is still lenient as to offer paths of less   inclines, so you seem to    have times of relaxation in between intermittently. Many people were climbing down as we were climbing up. I was wearing my favorite shirt, which says, "The Beast Never Stops". A man who was descending, I saw him resting on a rock. He looked at the sparkling me (in sweat) and with a smile on his face, repeated the lines on my tee shirt. I tapped on his shoulder as I continued to move and uttered, "I am discovering". 

There were many people who were trekking on that day; some were climbing down, some were ascending, some were resting while some were having a good time with their beloveds on the side of streams on the path. As for me, I was busy scaling the heights, talking to self, talking to air, to ether, thanking every tree on the way which lent its hand to me, thanking every root which  stood strong enough to bear the weight of my body. I rested once on that 7km stretch, second time to drink water and eat some dry fruits to fuel my co-operative body. On the trek I also met a lot of people at whom if we look our first reaction would be, "Wow ! Now that is guts". On various treks I have seen many people who are overweight and that has led me to learn that may be there is no relationship that strong between the extra-kilos and the heights one can scale. It obviously takes lot of mental strength to challenge oneself to trek to difficult terrains when you know you are not at an ideal weight. I did appreciate a lady without sounding offensive. I believe my words were, "I am very proud to see you here". 

Bhattar Manne happened, I relaxed there for half an hour, had lunch (Anna & Sambhar). I was happy that I could eat as much rice I wanted for I was shedding calories and required carbohydrates. However, I chided the tempted me and maintained good proportion of rice enough to sustain me for the next phase of the trek. We dumped our sleeping bags and tents at the Forest Department and with few snacks, water bottle and a rain-coat tee began our journey to nail KP. The joy of less weight was profound and very encouraging. Somehow it had filled me with much more renewed energy, vigor, strength and confidence. But the path was interesting. Almost 90% of the path was incline and I learnt that that is what is referred as tough by the trekkers. However, it was doable. There were foreigner girls also and they were ahead of all of us; never stopping, going on, climbing up, faster and faster. That was encouraging and I felt proud of them. It seemed as if no incline was steep enough for them. While climbing, entire time the breeze was cool, refreshing as if festooning our path with its energy and instilling in all of us the required strength to reach till the peak (1,712 metres). 

After some time we reached Sesha parvatha and the view from there was breath taking. Looking down it seemed as if the Earth was engulfed in fog, there was nothing to be seen around, except for the Divine Beauty of nature spared by the atrocious hands of Human Being. I stood on the big boulders and that zephyr is still fresh in my mind, the kind that no world-class AC can provide. I do not know how I felt, I had become devoid of thoughts, utterly, purely, absolutely blank. I just stood marvelling at the majesty of Nature.  From there, Prasanna (one of our warm-hearted guides) told us that it would take another 30 minutes to peak. The excitement knew no bounds, but it was not the kind of wild excitement, it was the one defined by equanimity. Finally, we began towards the KP peak and taking step by step, crossing boulder by boulder, making path on the rocky terrain reached the coveted peak. I was not tired, I had never felt tired during the course of the trek (There are situations in life when getting tired is not an option). There was something that had kept me going and I do not know what that was. But I do realize that "With God everything is possible". 

Trekking, I believe teaches us some of the greatest lessons of life and that there is an insane amount of striking similarity between trekking and life (topic of my upcoming posts). But most importantly it teaches us empirically about what can happen if we just keep on taking single step at a time. All of us were taking one step at a time, left, right, left and right, up-down, up-down. That's all. I do not think there can be any better proof of what Lao Tzu says in Tao Te Ching, "The journey of 1000 steps begins with first step" than trekking. And as Wayne Dyer had added to it, taking one step at a time, that is doable, that can be done. Period.

 There was a point in trek when I was questioning my sanity, I kept on going and talking to myself, laughing at myself. I converted this trek to an ongoing conversation with the Universe throwing questions which I believe are on my way to be answered. There were times when there was no one around, lost to my own about figuring out the way it seemed scary many times but every time it happened I followed the path, a faith that someone was around. This again has mind-blowing congruence with life and I am eager to write about it in my next post. Sometimes when I felt lost, I would look at ground, an unclaimed shoe here and there, a chocolate wrapper, a single sock would confirm    that I was on the right track. Even in group treks, it is very easy to become aloof from everyone; you sort of get separated and get joined to your own being propelling self by courage and faith. Trek is like a journey within, a difficult trek is like a journey within devoid of all distractions of life, left to our own solitude, which initially seems like a paralysis and then becomes our greatest Guide.

At Kumar Parvatha Peak

I am really grateful to Prasanna and Ved (our co-ordinators). Prasanna is extremely fit, no wonder he is part of the wonderful Bangalore Mountaineering Club (BMC).

The Trek is doable and I am not saying it because I did it (Come on, there are foot prints on Moon), I am saying it because it just demands that one is fit and strong. It is a beginning to another level of fitness, a higher level. You can do it. I feel its difficulty is exaggerated, KP only teaches us how strong we are. Some people will say, that I say all this because I am fit, which I believe is all the more reason to believe because I was not this fit since my  birth. We can all be insanely fit if we choose to be and nothing tastes as good as being strong. 

The trek was a singular event but it has given me so much to write about that one blog post does not seem enough. And then there are conversations which are wordless, which even words will shy from explaining; silent musings about life. Some blog posts are safe kept in my heart because if I strive to bring them down to the level of keyboard I know I will not be satisfied by the rendering of amorphous beauty into tangible text. 

Trekking is a wonderful outdoor physical activity, one must experience it multiple number of times in their lives. I am eternally thankful to BMC for organizing such a wonderful event and conducting it with grace and concern for all the participants. 

From here on, we only up the GAME! 

WITH LORD EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. 
I BELIEVE IT IS HE WHO DOES EVERYTHING THAT WE BELIEVE "JUST" HAPPENS
OR WHICH WE BELIEVE, AS
"I DID IT",
IT IS JUST HIM, IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN HIM.

NIRDPR Diaries Part IV : Day Three of Workshop on Research Methodology

Finally, in this post I share my lessons from the third and the final day of the wonderful workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences...