I was alone in the house. The dawakhana (hospital) is very far away. I could not take him there. He kept having dast (diarrhea), and finally he died.” Budhia was saying. “Next time,” I butted in, “Remember that a thin soup of kutki (a local millet) is useful in dast. It could have saved your son’s life till help came.” “But I had no one to help me,” She said, her striken voice rising, “No one was in the house!” “Yes, but did this happen in summer?”
“Yes.” She was obviously irritated at the interruption.
“A thin sherbet of green mango can also be given, ok?”
“There is no doctor near here,” she continued, as if I had not spoken at all, picking up her six-month-old daughter, “And no road either. It takes three hours on foot to reach a doctor.”
“Can you listen?” I was getting impatient, “What happened to your son need not happen to your daughter, or any other child. You can save their lives with things you have in your house, do you understand?”
“Yes,” said the pretty young mother, her eyes sad and her tone disappointed, and fell into a sullen silence. She had not registered a single word I had said, and I could see that when I left, she was glad to see me go. Once again, I had failed to be of help.
I was in village Sirijhont in Patalkot, Madhya Pradesh, home of the once fiercely self-sufficient Bharia tribals, and one of the most difficult to access tribal areas in the country. And as I left Budhia’s house, I could have cried in frustration. For God’s sake I was trying to help that woman! Why couldn’t she listen?!!!”
It was very late that night, in a state of half sleep, that a counter-question came to me – why couldn’t I listen?
I jerked bolt upright in bed, all sleep gone. Of course! The woman was in pain over the loss of her first child, and sad that she could not do anything to save him. Maybe she was blaming herself for his death! If only I had listened empathically instead of rushing in with advice, she could have emptied her heart and felt some relief. Maybe afterwards she could even have listened to the helpful suggestions I was making.
But damn! WHY COULDN’T I LISTEN?
After having run a weekly NVC (Non Violent Communication) practice group for nearly a year, and practicing empathy at least two to three days a week during that time, why couldn’t I still remain in empathy?
How it all started
When NVC entered my life, it entered with some force. After almost two decades of passionate environment journalism and activism, I was utterly frustrated with both, and didn’t quite know why. Unknown to myself, I was in depression.
The breakthrough came in the form of a question posed by my NVC teacher Shammi Nanda, when I was struggling to express my dilemma to him. “Do you feel the pain of mother earth in your body?” he asked.
My own answer, a simple ‘yes’ that came gushing up like a volcano, literally pulled the carpet from under my feet. I did not quite know why just an affirmative felt so earthshaking, but I was suddenly quite clear that neither my job nor my current mode of activism – both of which I had been passionate about – were serving a crying inner need to do something to heal the earth.
With this much clarity, but with very vague ideas about what I wanted to do, I quit my job about two months later. It was an intuitive leap into the unknown.
But the tables turned on me. I had thought to start some meaningful ecology-related work, but here I was, hooked to NVC. I started a practice group in my hometown of Nagpur, and ran it for almost a year, deepening my practice, and sharing NVC with others. I started translating Marshall Rosenberg’s book on NVC, A Language of Life, into Hindi, a job I am still at.
In the process, I felt my communication patterns change. I felt more space within me to hold the perspective of the other person in empathy, and the grip of the old pattern of rushing into judgments began to loosen. I was also learning to communicate my own side of the story by using the NVC tools of ‘Observation, Feeling, Need and Request’. My conversations became both more effective and more harmonious. Interpersonal conflicts and anger began to recede from my life and my respect for boundaries – both mine and others’ –increased.My inner space was growing clearer, and it was growing more and more possible for me to clearly define what I needed, and why, and to make my choices in accordance with that.
As a writer and poet, I had always had an intimate connection with words. However, with NVC practice, I began to discover a new dimension to the use of words, and their power. Simple changes in my diction – for instance, saying “I think this is….” or “This comes across to me as….” instead of simply, “This is….” gradually began a shift in my perceptions, and I began to be less attached to my own viewpoints – seeing them as what they were – viewpoints, rather than the absolute truth.
For a long time in life, I had had a deep desire to make peace, and had this trust that dialogue could make it happen. I had long fought a losing battle trying to bring into action broad adages like “Be positive”, or “Try to stand in the other person’s shoes,” and so on. As a Buddhist practitioner, I had struggled with ‘right speech” and gotten nowhere. But at last, I had found a set of very doable, or as my Buddhism teacher described them, nuts and bolts, tools, with which to put my beliefs into practice, and at last I felt I was getting somewhere.
I was also putting together a little collection of NVC success stories of my own. Once I was invited to an art residency, which, I later found out, was hosted by an orthodox right-wing organisation whose rules I found restrictive. To my own surprise, I was able to hold a harmonious conversation with the organisers and was not only allowed exemption, but also invited to come back and work with them again.
But excited as I was, at the back of my mind the question of what I ‘really’ wanted to do was drumming away. NVC had touched a deep chord inside me, but no insight was coming on the other deepest concern in my heart – ecology and its healing. The mysterious term ‘mother earth’ kept coming back to me with varying intensity, and for the life of me I could not translate it into anything doable or even logically graspable. Why do I identify so intensely with mother earth? I had no answer.
What did I want to do in that area? More precisely, where did I want to start? And how was it going to connect with my newfound passion for NVC?
After many months of pondering, I decided to make a start with my most direct passion – uncultivated forest-based foods. I decided to undertake a country-wide journey in gift culture – another idea I had picked up from Shammi’s life – studying the forest food traditions around the Mahua flower – at one time a staple food among the indigenous, but now demonised for the liquor made from it.
What was to become of my practice group? The little community I had built around NVC? Again, I did not know. I just had to go.
My Mahua Yatra
The journey, which I have called Mahua Yatra, brought me much joy, because I was doing my dream work – staying with tribal families and learning about their food first hand. But along with the joy, it also brought back to me all the pain I had accumulated in 20 years of activism. I went from one to another indigenous community, staying in tribal homes, and noting with pain and sadness how these communities had lost faith in their own nature-connected lifestyles.
The incident with Budhia brought up the same pain – of seeing her helpless to the extent of losing her child to a simple health issue, that her tribe had easily handled before concepts of ‘modern’ health care trashed their knowledge as superstition.
I faced the same pain and anger while trying to study the pivotal subject of my journey – mahua. Everywhere I heard this curiously paradoxical story about this once much-loved food – that it was very nutritious and health giving, and also that it was food meant for the poor and starving. In the same breath people told me that they, or their elders, had been very healthy when they ate mahua regularly, and that they did not like to eat this ‘inferior’ food now that they had enough grain to eat.
Suddenly, it was as if I had never practiced NVC and never learned empathy. I could not listen for a single minute. The moment these stories came up, I was madly triggered and tried to counter them with facts or logical argument. And that is where the conversations ended.
On my teacher’s advice, I started practicing self-empathy around these triggers, and unearthed huge areas of pain and anger inside myself over the pressures of modernity that had decimated ancient and wise food cultures. The Budhia incident had brought in a lot of self-criticism over my ‘ineptness’ at NVC, but I now started connecting more and more deeply with my own pain and my intense desire to do something positive.
After two full months of sifting through this pain, during which I traversed indigenous communities from Maharshtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, I was finally able to remain untriggered enough to ask the question that should have been obvious. “Why should a food that is so nutritious be considered poor food?” I asked tribal leader Rabi Purti from village Kurkutia in Jharkhand, who had just given me the same story I had heard elsewhere. Rabi fell in deep thought, and I saw him struggle. After a long moment, he offered softly, “Because it takes longer to cook than rice?” “Are you saying that foods that take longer to cook or demand harder work are considered inferior?” I asked.
To my surprise, Rabi was utterly taken aback, and burst out in surprised laughter. “Yes!” He cried, “You know Didi (sister), this is what is wrong with our thinking! Our ideas of superior and inferior are totally skewed!”
And before I knew it, he was telling me about all the health problems a rice-based diet had brought on his tribe, which were never known in the days when mahua, wild roots and millets were the staple foods.
Somewhere in that moment, my pain fell off, and from that point on, travelling through Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, I was able to listen deeply to food stories of tribals, hold nuanced conversations, and received surprising insights into the kind of cultural influences that had shaped their perception of food.
Abundant food, a reality?
Throughout my journey, NVC helped me connect more and more deeply with the dream that had made me start out in the first place. Once, after witnessing a painful incident around a little child stealing a bit of an expensive, coveted packaged food, I was catapulted into similar painful incidents from my own childhood and those of my parents. After several rounds of self-empathy, I came upon my deeper need for this world – abundant and freely available foods – an abundance I have only seen among the forest dwelling indigenous people.
Another time, I was reliving a lot of angst after I visited a village displaced out of the Kanha National Park, which was reduced to abject poverty. I was angry with the Forest Department and the rich tourists for whose benefit the poor had been evacuated from their primal home. Several rounds of self-empathy did nothing to relieve the blackness that had descended on me. And then one evening, I burst out crying after I realised that I did not like to hate anyone – not even those whom I considered responsible for creating pain for the tribals I love.
I think it was this moment of connection with my need to love people, that brought me, over time, to a realisation of the common ground between NVC and my ecology work I had been searching for. I need to heal the earth’s body, and I also need to heal the earth’s heart, which is the collective heart of humanity.
As a journalist and activist, my way of contributing to the protection of ecology was through the path of bitter, hate-filled political battles, which tried to heal the body without healing the heart. Without realising it, I had accepted hating a section of humanity – those whom I saw as wielding political and economic power – as a natural part of the process I was in. It took NVC to help me reach the side of me that does not like hate – that needs a better way to serve the earth than one that turns it into a battlefield of good against bad.
A continuing journey
I don’t know where my journey will take me from here. My life purpose is yet to unravel fully – the ‘mother earth’ puzzle is still unsolved. And I am aware that NVC by itself might not be sufficient to bring me to where I want to get – I may need more intuitive tools. But I know that practicing empathy and self-empathy has contributed a lot to the new turn my life has taken.
Many people tell me that they find NVC too analytical and cerebral. For me, however, NVC has formed a crucial connecting link between my strongly analytical mind and my intuitive side that I often find it difficult to connect with. It has facilitated many an intuitive leap that I needed, without actually being an intuitive tool.
I know I will take NVC along on whatever path I travel in future, because not only will it help keep me grounded through the intuitive journeys, but also help me translate its fruits into something palpable and doable in the practical world.