Vasudhaiva kutumbakam means the whole world is one’s family. It is a remarkable phrase from the Maha Upanishad, an ancient Hindu scripture. We come from a culture that teaches us to perceive the entire planet and all its inhabitants as our own kin. And yet, over the years, our outlook has changed. Between pursuing our own goals and taking care of those in our immediate circle, we have little concern for the plight of those who aren’t as privileged as we are.
In times like these, the work of people like Akshatha Shetty and Piyush Goswami becomes crucial in making the world a better place. This couple travels across the country, shares a roof with rural communities and documents their struggles and scarcities. Through Rest of My Family, their social-work-through-art organisation, these youngsters source funds from corporate entities and help the needy. In an interview with Soulveda, Akshatha and Piyush talk about what drives them to live a life of service.
Tell us about your initiative.
Piyush & Akshatha: At the core, we are on a mission to spread awareness about the ill-effects of a paradigm that is built along the lines of selfish competition. Through our documentation and dialogue, we are striving to explore the negative aspects of the capitalistic way of life and, in the process, find alternative modes of community living. An attempt to shift the foundation of our society from selfish-competition to mutual co-operation is at the crux of what drives us.
What is the story behind the initiative? What motivated you to start something like this?
Piyush & Akshatha: Through our initial exploration, self-reflection and the time we spent with various rural and tribal communities of India, we understood that the very foundation of our society breeds indifference and creates a ‘me vs not me’ scenario. Hence, we made a conscious decision to look at the whole of society and their problems as our own. We quit our jobs and started travelling to rural India to document the lives and struggles faced by various communities.
For the first two years, we only documented/wrote about these issues. We felt that by doing so, we would be able to draw people’s attention to these issues and get some organisation to offer help or suggestions. But as time went on, we realised that writing stories alone changed nothing. Hence, we created a working model where we raised awareness about these issues through our photo stories, documentary films etc. on one hand and then followed it up by undertaking development/empowerment projects to support the communities.
Everybody works for a living. But when the work contributes to the society, it becomes immensely gratifying. Can you share your thoughts on this?
Piyush & Akshatha: The key to a happy, satisfying life lies in balancing the selfish with the selfless. Most of us have to work to secure our own livelihood and survival before we can think about the greater good. The problem is that we feel that our responsibilities towards the society are optional. We rarely rise beyond the pursuit of more resources for ourselves.
Honest human connection is the currency of life. The more we connect, the richer we feel. Such a connection is simply not possible for an individual who sees other people as a competitor or a threat to his or her own interests. We have to shed our fears, bring down our walls and embrace everyone we meet to experience true gratification.
“When we do exactly what we want to be doing in life, emotional investment becomes equivalent to passion. In such a life, struggles, challenges and heartbreaking encounters all work to strengthen our resolve rather than weaken it.”
Can you give us an idea of how you go about your projects? In what ways do you hope to help those in need that you meet in your journeys?
Piyush & Akshatha: We start with research to decide which community we would like to work with next. Once we have figured that out, we travel to the region and get in touch with our local contact/fixer. We then settle down in the village and live with the community. Then begins our exploration and documentation of the situation on ground. During this time, we identify areas of improvement in the community. It could be education, power, healthcare, infrastructure or drinking water. Once the areas of action have been identified, we draw up project proposals, talk to our funders, secure resources and implement projects.
We have already sponsored the education of 200 underprivileged children across various states; initiated a clean drinking water supply project in arsenic-contaminated North 24 Praganas district of West Bengal; kicked off a mobile medical diagnostics project in Bastar and started a farmers’ collective in Assam. Four other projects are in the pipeline.
What were the challenges initially? How did you get the people to see you as more than just tourists and open up to you about their problems?
Piyush & Akshatha: We didn’t have to do anything specific to convince people why we were there. Intentions can never be hidden for too long. The only thing that we needed to give people was time. Time to get to know us; time for people to understand that we are just like them. This is true of all human connections.
Our challenges are many. The biggest being to secure funds to do what we want to do and figure out how we want to do it. But challenges have come and gone, we continue to persist.
You have travelled extensively for the initiative. Tell us about the most memorable people, stories that you have encountered.
Piyush & Akshatha: We once lived with the Bonda tribe in Odisha, at one of the remotest locations we have been to so far, for close to two months. The villagers gave us a house made of mud with a leaky roof. There was no plumbing or toilets. So, we bathed and relieved ourselves in the jungle and walked to the neighbouring villages to buy supplies like everybody else. When we were there, Piyush came down with Malaria and sprained his leg on the same day. The concern, love and care that the villagers showed, made us feel completely at home. This experience is definitely close to our hearts.
Given the amount of emotional investment it requires, how do you find the strength to keep the initiative going?
Piyush & Akshatha: When we do exactly what we want to be doing in life, emotional investment becomes equivalent to passion. In such a life, struggles, challenges and heartbreaking encounters all work to strengthen our resolve rather than weaken it. We are only getting stronger and more determined with time.
How has Rest of My Family changed your perspective about life?
Piyush & Akshatha: Our life has taught us many priceless lessons. We have learnt to be less judgmental and more accepting. We have learnt that people everywhere are the same and we all need the same things–like love and acceptance–to live happy lives. Being constantly on the move has also taught us that nothing and no one lasts forever and hence, we cherish each and every experience and individual in our lives to the fullest.
But most importantly, our experience with Rest of My Family has reaffirmed in our minds the dangers of living a selfish, insular life. This journey of true human connection has truly enriched us and today, money has been reduced to what it should be – a medium to achieve and do things that are priceless.