Would you leave your comfy house, high paying salary and other luxuries of life in order to give back to society? Truth be told, it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? But, Bangalore-based photographer/documentary filmmaker Piyush Goswami and writer/ journalist Akshatha Shetty have restored our faith in humanity – they quit their jobs and set out on a journey that will make their presence felt. With their initiative Rest Of My Family they travelled the far corners of India restoring peoples’ lives and wiping the line of ‘me’ and ‘my’ – showing us that we are all but a big family. We catch up with the daring duo and discuss things like touching peoples’ lives, challenges they faced and so on.
Could you tell us a little about your initiative Rest Of My Family – what is it all about? When did it officially start?
Through our own inner journeys and internal reflections, we realised that more than often we tend to draw a circle of ‘me’ and ‘my’ around us and consider only certain people, places and things as our own. As a result, by the very design of this paradigm, the rest of the people, places and things in the world fall outside this circle. We felt that this was one of the root causes of the issues plaguing our society today. So, we decided to come out of our own bubbles and wanted to rediscover our lost connection with and understand our forgotten responsibilities towards the rest of our human family.
As we started travelling and meeting different people and communities, and documenting about the struggles, over time, we realised that documenting alone was not enough. Hence, we felt we needed to do something more substantial because once you understand that someone is a part of your family, and then you would do everything in your power to help and support your family in whatever ways you could.
Although the name and philosophy has been with us for over two years, Rest Of My Family was officially launched last month.
The initiative is started by Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty. How did you guys meet, and what triggered your decision of doing something so concrete?
We met in college. We are both Engineers by degree. While Piyush is a Mechanical Engineer and I am an Electrical and Electronics Engineer by academic qualification. We graduated from National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal in 2008. This project sprung out of a very personal journey and necessity. We wished to make a strong social impact through our work and medium of expression. After a few years, we realised that we felt incomplete in a certain way. We could not just do these stories and move on knowing fully well that the lives of these individuals and communities we were writing about remained the same.
Your initiative has an interesting name – a back story you may remember?
As we started travelling into different regions and meeting communities, the inescapable fact that no matter what the distance between us the entire humanity is one big family became apparent to us. For instance, when we visited Ransisar Jodha in Rajasthan, we were told that the village was first set up by two brothers. All the villagers were in fact, their descendants. But no one remembers that anymore. Everyone is caught up in their own lives and has become quite distant from one another. Gradually, we have forgotten our intrinsic connection with the rest of our human family. Hence, the name.
What is a typical day like for both of you, when you are out working?
Well, this is an interesting question. The days vary based on our travels. While some days are spent on the road, others with communities. With communities, the entire day usually goes in meeting people, bonding with them and understanding their situation. We share our joys and sorrows together. When we first visit these places, we are often considered as outsiders, the urban travellers who have come with their fancy gadgets. But gradually, over time, we become their children; an integral part of their family. When we are travelling non-stop, we drive for hours sometimes passing endless fields, barren lands or the hills. We often take detours into unknown territories to meet different people or just relax by the lake or under a banyan tree. There’s an element of uncertainty in our travels and that is a big part of our journey.
Truth be told, there are thousands of organisations doing similar things that you guys are doing – things/ aspects that set you apart from them?
Most organisations are cause-based organisations whereas we are a story-driven project. We have reached this point today through our own journey of storytelling.
We have also come across numerous instances wherein social organisations were created to solve problems within a particular community/village. But, over time, they realised that their sustenance was at stake if at all the community was completely rid of all issues. Therefore, their efforts were strategised to ensure that the problems of these communities aren’t resolved entirely or they keep projecting that these people are still in desperate need of help. As a result, the main objective invariably shifts from addressing and solving issues to self-sustenance.
Moreover, most of these social organisations came into existence based on the problems they witnessed in one particular region. And, our journey requires us to move from one place to another. Therefore, we’ll go to a certain place, highlight the issues and social concerns, facilitate measures to address it and move on.
In your crowd funding page it says that you have travelled for more than 4-5 year. In this span, where all have you guys been. Things you saw that changed you as human beings?
We spent about a month in Ladakh in extreme winters to experience the life of locals residing there in harsh weather conditions. We also spent a month camped on the Ganges at Kumbh Mela in Allahabad two years ago. We spent about four months travelling through various villages in Rajasthan. We’ve travelled through rural belts of Uttar Pradesh. We also spent three months in Nagaland. We’ve also travelled through some remote tribal and rural belts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
That pretty much sums up our travels so far.
As we travelled, we met such beautiful human beings who still kept their humanity alive in their hearts. They strived really hard to treat everyone with kindness and love despite their own personal struggles. The fragmented view of the world we saw broke our hearts. And, that strengthened our resolve to continue doing what we are doing and in the process de-fragment the world through our own little ways by connecting the people we meet to the rest of humanity.
One winter evening, we were travelling to Tso-Moriri in Ladakh and got badly stuck in a snow-blizzard. We somehow managed to pull our vehicle out of the snow and sought shelter in a Tibetan refugee village called Sumudhu nearby. We met an old man who offered to help us and gave us shelter for the night. At -25 degrees, we sat around the fire as Namgayal told us stories of his past. He was from Tibet and his village was close to Mount Kailash. He has been living here for the past 60 years and has still not applied for Indian citizenship because he hopes that someday he would be able to go back to Tibet.
It’s obvious that your travels are not random – could you tell us a bit about how you choose specific areas, scan problems and try to solve them in the best way you can?
Our main drive behind our travels is to make an efficient use of our time, resources and energy. Hence, we try to venture into areas that need more attention. Even though, we have a certain plan in place, we also leave some room for uncertainty, because there is no way for us to plan for situations that come our way during our travels. Although, there’s a tentative direction we follow, we allow ourselves to be flexible enough to cover things that we could not possibly have planned for in the first place.
The challenges you faced so far?
One of the biggest things we need to remember while exploring unknown territories is that while we are curious about understanding their culture, lifestyle and identities; it is imperative we understand that they are looking at us with as much curiosity as we are looking at them. So, one of the biggest lessons we have learnt in our journey is the ability to trust a fellow human.
The challenges we face with every community are unique in their own ways. For instance, when we went to visit the Malasar Tribe in Nelliampathy, Kerala, at around 11 pm we were taken to the police station and interrogated for 45 minutes because we were asking questions on the tribes who have been suffering for more than a decade owing to land displacement. In the pretext of confirming that we might be aiding Maoists or terrorists, they discouraged us from going to the tribal settlement. We didn’t back down, and in the end, we decided to visit the tribe and understand their situation.
What is the face of rural India like? Is it exactly the way the media paints it? Your comments, please?
Having seen both the urban and rural life, we feel there’s an innate sense of simplicity in the rural folks which has unfortunately been lost in the urbanscape. For instance, to them, happiness means having clean drinking water, good food and peace of mind. On the other hand, the concept of happiness is quite complicated for us urban folks. Even though, the rural population and their hard work form the backbone of our country, their lives and their problems have been largely ignored by the policy makers and the urban population who have the resources and the means to give back to them.
Then again, rural India is not just about issues. There’s a lot that we can learn from them. People have time to bond with each other. There’s a timeless joy in the rural ways of life. Perhaps, we urban folks need to revisit that and contemplate what we’ve gained and what’ve lost leaving those good old simple ways behind – at what cost?
Key things according to you that you think needs attention in rural India and your take on how can they be eradicated?
Of course, the range of issues faced by different communities is different. But, most of these problems stem from extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure. The issues could be varied like lack of education, health care, poor sanitation, casteism, untouchability and rampant racism that require urgent attention. In many cases, there has been an exponential rise in the number of people migrating from the villages to cities in hopes of leading better lives. However, they end up doing menial jobs and are barely able to make ends meet. As a result, the villages are slowly being abandoned by their people. The solution for this problem would be providing world class infrastructural facilities with respect to education, health care and farming within the rural setup. This will eradicate the problem of villagers being forced to leave their homes to move to bigger cities. Problems like casteism and untouchability still continue to be rampant in the rural areas because of a lack of awareness which again stems from poor educational systems. We feel taking care of these things will once again instil pride in India’s villages.
Success stories/ lives of people and communities you have touched so far?
Before launching this project with the hope of providing necessary support more efficiently, we have only been able to help communities in our own little ways. This is one of the instances: When we were in Ransisar Jodha, we came across a school that was run by one man alone. He had to function as the principal, peon, caretaker, sweeper and even driver sometimes. The parents would sometimes tell him, Sir jee, fees agli fasal ke baad de denge (we will pay you the fee next month). He was struggling to run the school, yet didn’t give up. Around the same time, we had met a traveller from Sweden, Mika, who had visited the village earlier. So, Piyush gave him some of his photographs and asked him to sell it in Sweden. All the proceeds from the photographs went to the school. On realising that the school had a severe shortage of teachers, I decided to teach children Math and English every evening.
How is your crowd funding campaign going so far?
We have been receiving overwhelming support and reaction from people so far. We have already managed to raise close to $10,000 and we still have 33 days left to reach our $30,000 target. Even small contributions from people will help us inch closer to our final target.
Plans for the future?
Rest Of My Family is a project that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We are quite certain that as long as our journey is honest and we stay true to our philosophy, we will be able to continue to do what we have been doing for the rest of our lives. We have come so far only through our dedication and sincerity, and support of the rest of our human family. And, we will let that decide our future…
Anything we missed that you would like to add?
The only thing that stands between us and our journey is the lack of enough resources. So, we would like to take this opportunity to reach out to people who can aid us in our efforts.
Follow Rest Of My Family on Facebook here.
Donate and follow the crowd funding campaign here.
Twitter handle @RestOfMyFamily