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In Conversation With Prerna Srivastava

Ranjani Saigal

Prerna Srivastava graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a BA in Political Science and Education, and worked for two years in corporate law and management upon graduation. Realizing that her passion lay in international development, however, Prerna left her job, and pursued a one year Indicorps Fellowship with SEWA Rural, where she facilitated the formation of self help groups (SHGs) for women and girls in rural Gujarat, India. This grassroots development experience, in combination with her prior work in Bombay, India as a sex workers' rights advocate with Point of View, reaffirmed Prerna's belief in women's latent potential to uplift their families and communities from poverty.

With this underlying philosophy in mind, Prerna hopes to one day return to rural India in order to establish social and economic empowerment programs for underprivileged women and girls. Currently, Prerna is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Managing Editor of ThinkChange India.

Could you tell us a little about your childhood ?

My mother tells me that I was so eager to join the outside world that I told her when I wanted to be born, and she was compelled to listen.  And so, a full month before my due date, I entered the dimly lit operating ward of my grandfather's clinic in Patna, India.  Nobody remembers what time I was born.  It was never recorded.

For the first eight years of my life, our family of five lived in a humble flat with a balcony in Bombay, India.  I wore a school uniform with white socks to my knees until I was nine years old, and believed there wasn't much to India outside of climbing my grandparents' mango trees and splashing through the seemingly endless monsoon rains in my white rain boots.  At the age of nine, right before my parents fulfilled their lifelong dream of immigrating to America, India was all that existed.  It was my reality.

Now, 16 years later, as I sit here in Cambridge, MA, India is still my reality, but I no longer take it for granted – it is a relationship I have struggled to cultivate with my own hands over the course of these past few years.

What motivated you to return to India in 2006?  What did you learn about yourself in the process?

I've been back to India on numerous occasions since we immigrated to the US, but the most pivotal point of my life was my decision to do a one-year grassroots development fellowship in rural Gujarat with Indicorps (www.indicorps.org).  Up until that point, I had seen only urban India, and had no sense of village life; neither had I ever imagined myself living and working in a village on my own.  Never would I have anticipated how profound of an impact the experience would have on my conception of myself, especially in relation to India.  It simply wasn't enough to have been born and raised in India - I needed to understand its people, feel its pulse, build my own community.  I needed to see, feel, and experience India with my own eyes.  When I finally did, I found a love that I had never known existed.

The seed to return to India was planted in 2003, when I worked with a media advocacy organization called Point of View in Bombay. For three days, my NGO sent me to rural Sangli, where I met Indian sex workers for the first time.  We talked about what I'd talk to any other woman about – family, love, marriage, and dreams for the future.  Time stood still in those moments, because for the first time, I saw a side of India, and in turn - a side of myself - that had been hidden for years.  I started seeing our collective stories as part of a continuum of women's experiences, and for the first time, I didn't dichotomize India as black / white, ugly / beautiful, rich / poor, but rich in its complexity.  For the first time, I felt connected to India, and saw its multiple truths through the eyes of its women.

I vowed that I would return to India someday, but instead, I ended up working in the private sector for 2 years post-graduation.  Near the end of those two years, I realized something - I didn't know who I was, what I represented, or what I wanted to do with my life.  I didn't understand my relationship with India. And so I dropped everything - my job, my apartment, my life, essentially - packed up a suitcase with pictures of my family, and got on a plane to India.

Once I arrived at my project site in rural Gujarat, I was faced with the challenge of empowering women to become agents of change in their respective self help groups (SHGs) - I didn't know the language, didn't understand the culture, and certainly didn't know anything about microfinance, but it was my faith in these women that gave me the strength to persevere.  Through these relationships, through our collective and individual failures, I learned about the community, and in turn, about myself.  Most fundamentally, I learned to love India for all its contradictions, all its incoherence, all its dynamism - not on somebody else's term's, but my own.

Given your deep connection with India, what impact have the Bombay attacks had on you?

My childhood memories are of Bombay. Furious, unrelenting monsoons.  Rain boots.  Football matches on the terrace.  Water balloons filled with colour on Holi.  Little girls in grey uniforms, water bottles slung over their shoulders.  A modest apartment with a balcony overlooking a bustling street.

These are my memories.  I thought they were unassailable.  When the assailants attacked the Taj, Oberoi, and Nariman House, they also assaulted the sanctity of my image of Bombay, of India.  A tolerant India.  An India harmonious in its contradictions and incoherence.  An India I believe(d) in.

Thankfully, through the rubble of despair emerged a glimmer of hope.  Instead of being weakened by the tragedy, I found newfound strength.  I knew this was not the India of my childhood.  My India was resilient.  My India was united.  My India transcended.  I realized then that I had to do something to inspire hope in others, and rebuild our collective "idea" of India.

Tell us about the "This is My India" campaign - how can Lokvani Readers help?

I hope to return to India someday, but in the meantime, while I'm in America, I'm committed to the India of building communities that transcend differences, and harness our collective hope and strength.  This is what I learned in India - that communities are the substance of life, that faith and a strong belief in the capacity of human beings to transcend is fundamental to any kind of work.  Most fundamentally, I've learned that change starts from within me, and that the collective strength of individuals that look within themselves for inspiration, strength, and hope, is unparalleled.

It is through these ideas that the "This is My India" campaign came into existence.  It is grounded in my belief that without faith, without a firm conviction in the possibility of tomorrow, nothing is possible.  For this reason, I hope to bring together people's stories in order to re-construct our own conception of India.  I am certain that many of us have inspiring personal stories to share that reflect a vision of India that is united, tolerant, and peaceful.  We have the capacity to inspire love in others with our stories, by building a collective narrative of inclusiveness that runs counter to the violence we have been witnessing over the course of these past few years.

This is my small struggle against divisiveness and violence, and I hope others join me in making this into a movement.  I ask that Lokvani readers send me their stories at prerna.srivastava@gmail.com.  For more information regarding our efforts at the Harvard graduate school, please visit www.voicesofunity.org.

Tell us about ThinkChange India – what is it, why was it started, what do you hope to accomplish?

Currently, I am on the start-up team of ThinkChange India (www.thinkchangeindia.com), which has the mission of serving as a virtual platform for both knowledge sharing and action around issues relating to social entrepreneurship and innovation in India.  Our team of five came together organically in February 2007, with the common passion of connecting budding social entrepreneurs in India with information, resources, and networks of relevance to the field of social entrepreneurship.

Currently, we are focusing on authoring articles, conducting interviews with change-makers, and posting job / opportunity postings relating to social entrepreneurship in India, but we plan to transform the platform into a comprehensive, dynamic resource for social change-makers invested in the development of India.  Keep checking the site for new developments!

Do you have any personal philosophies you would like to share with the readers of Lokvani?

I believe every human being has the capacity to effect profound change.  This change starts from within, with the recognition of our infinite potential.  My role, therefore, is to understand my potential in service of humanity, and empower others to do the same.  That is, most fundamentally, why I exist – to learn, to reflect, to serve.

Tell us about your dreams.

I left India with the fundamental belief that we, as human beings, have the inestimable power to reflect and act.  More specifically, I left India with the belief that change, both on a micro and macro-level, is predicated on the empowerment of women and girls. I intend to translate these beliefs into action by establishing economic, vocational, educational, and social empowerment programs for poor women in rural India.  Specifically, I hope to work collaboratively with local women to establish a network of Self Help Groups (SHGs) run for and by women.  If implemented in a holistic manner, I believe SHGs serve as a powerful forum for enabling women to not only become financially independent, but also wield power within the household and in turn, their communities, by influencing critical decision-making.

Any closing thoughts?

I leave you with a poem about the power of stories and the inherent beauty of interconnectedness -

the edges of things are always deceptive.

because we are taught to believe
in endings and beginnings.

but the truth is:
There Are No Borders.

and all boundaries are lines
drawn in the imagination
(like the equator)

people like to put things
in their places.

(we believe in belonging

this is the problem with

(it does not understand

and it will not be put in place.

with crayons on paper maybe
but who can live life strictly

the color of countries that
cannot be contained
in cliches where-

the red of your heart spills
into the red of the rose spills
into the red of the sunset spills
into mehendi on the hands of a bride.

and who can explain these things?

but what i want to know is simple:

who settled the sky on top of the mountain
and who drew the restless margins of the sea?

everything flows into everything

like a picture drawn without once
lifting pencil from paper;
this world.

now tell me the story of your life
(whoever you are) go on
i Double Dare you!

tell me the story of your life

without once touching

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