Stories are powerful. Stories make experiences come alive. One of the best means to positive transformation, dialogue and healing can be found in the form of story-telling. This is why today, I choose to tell a story. This is my Caux story. The story of my time at the Caux Scholars Program (CSP) at Asia Plateau, in Panchgani, India.
Coming to think of it, I almost didn’t make it to the CSP at Asia Plateau (AP). I received an acceptance letter in September 2015 from Jitka-Hromek Vaitla, the program coordinator, informing me of my admission to the program with a scholarship. After which I travelled to Australia and New Zealand with family in November only to end up working in a new project upon my return to India in December. Taking off three weeks for the Caux training was quite a task when I had only just started working on a new project. So I decided to let this opportunity go. Of course I was unhappy about it and informed Jitka that I would not be able to make it. It was only on the 12th of December when I was watching a Salman Khan (a popular movie star in India) movie in a theatre hall in Ahmedabad, that I suddenly decided to listen to my inner voice (at that point I did not know I had an inner voice) and sent an email to Jitka telling her I would be joining the program. The next moment was the happiest for me and I knew I had made the right decision. I started packing stuff for Panchgani. I still have no clue about the connection between this sudden revelation and a Salman Khan movie.
I left Ahmedabad for Panchgani on December 19th on a bus and by the time I reached Surat, I was the only lady passenger remaining. I made a frantic call to Pravin Nikam (our jolly and ever helpful Caux co-ordinator) and told him I was scared to travel in this situation. I thought of leaving the bus when it reached Mumbai and joining other scholars who would be travelling to Panchgani the next evening. What a beginning this was to my Caux journey! Nevertheless, I managed to stay on the bus when some ladies boarded it at Surat. I heaved a sigh of relief and finally made it to Panchgani on the 20th at 10:30 in the morning.
Strange faces greeted me when I led myself to the dining hall for lunch. I was hungry and tired. I was introduced to Bibek, Amit, and Debanjan (all from India) who had landed at AP a day before. I had forgotten my toothpaste at home and we ventured out to a nearby ‘tapri’ (a small tea stall) to buy one for me. At four in the evening, my roommate for the next twenty days, Abhidha Niphade, from Pune, knocked on room 604 and I discovered that she too spoke Marathi (a dialect used in Western India). All of us who reached AP gathered in the evening for dinner and exchanged numbers and Facebook details. This was the beginning of a roller coaster ride that started on December 20th, 2015 and ended on January 10th, 2016.
The Caux Scholars program (2015-16), an annual event of The Initiatives of Change, selected 14 people from 10 diverse countries around the world and brought them together for an academic training on peace building, conflict resolution, and sustainable development. This is only the second batch of the program in India. The training is held at Caux, Switzerland in June every year. When I began this journey, little did I realize, that by the end of these three weeks I would be a part of the Caux family and leaving them would be a difficult task. Participants for this year’s program came from Bangladesh, Burundi, Egypt, Germany, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Ukraine, U.S., and Zimbabwe. My story is about how these 14 people undertook a journey of personal transformation through reflective learning, story sharing, and inter-cultural exchange rooted in empathy, confidence, trust, and grassroots experience.
Often, our cultural competency skills leave a lot to be desired for because we are so full of stereotypes and judgements about the ‘other’. This is because we have not met and interacted with the ‘other’. The CSP introduced to me to the existence of 14 different cultural realities all under one roof. As a group, we were exposed to peace building and conflict transformation through the concept and practice of shared living and caring. Lessons about inner governance, conflict analysis, restorative justice, participatory rural appraisal, and self-care were imparted not merely through class room lectures in our sacred space, the library, but as lived experiences in the form of games and role plays. Never in my life had I imagined I would meet Niyonzima Protais from Burundi who is struggling for life in a dangerous conflict. I did not understand what an identity crisis can mean to someone until I met Esther Teh and Vika Stepanets from Malaysia and Ukraine respectively. I did not give much thought to the struggles of women from the Middle East until I heard from Asmaa Sleem from Egypt. And how much did I know about my own country? Very little until I learnt about tribal culture from Amit Rana Tirkey and about a unique type of majority-minority conflict in Murshidabad from Bibek Sarkar. I experienced what a refugee goes through when I became one for a role play exercise during the program. I learned about the significance of self-care as a peace builder and an individual. I also took time to reflect on the consequences of rushing for everything in life as I wrote a letter to myself about what I might be missing with this approach.
The sessions on ‘Quiet Time’ and the discovery of 'inner voice' where we benefited from the opportunity to introspect and share feelings with a trusted circle of friends was special because though I practice meditation, I never felt the need to pen down my thoughts. Simple activities such as dinner time conversations, playing games together, sharing meals with each other, knocking on each other’s doors to be able to wake up on time for the morning session, the visit to a mountain top or just hanging out during breaks became so much a part of me during the three weeks. Discussion, reflection, writing, sharing, laughter, watching movies, dancing, singing, enjoying the bonfire, playing games or simply admiring the brilliance of our primary facilitators, Dr. Ashok and Ms. Florina Xavier, worked to build a community of individuals who will stay together despite a thousand divisions.
During those 21 days, that seemed too long in the beginning and too hurried toward the end, I engaged critically in some prejudices that I had formed over a long time period and reflected on what I was doing in my life. I came to appreciate people living in adverse circumstances yet filled with hopes and smiles and came to become more grateful for what I had in life. As someone with a firm belief in peace, I learned about more than 20 varied conflicts simply by interacting with people. I now have come to question my own understanding of conflict and examine it with a positive lens, rather than branding it as completely negative. I have learned how as peace builders we rely on individual strengths, which is good, but we must also consolidate interdependence and work with everyone, even those who advocate violence. My Caux journey has taught me not to jump to conclusions in conflict situations and be more understanding of why people indulge in violence. It has also strengthened my conviction of working particularly with those who believe in extremism, intolerance, and exclusion. It’s easy to work with those who are convinced by peace, but the challenge is in engaging with those for whom peace is still an illusion and violence is the only way.
At Caux, I learned that peace building and community development can go hand in hand. Our visits to villages in the Satara district where I had the first-hand opportunity to interact with citizens in rural India, brought home the message that peace building work need not be grand and glorious. It can be small scale and humble, yet very valuable. My experience of facilitating translation between the villagers and scholar participants offered insights into how language can be such a powerful tool to connect with people around you. Innovation that is grounded in local knowledge, is low cost, and is owned by people is very crucial to social and political change.
My Caux story also includes learning from the scholars themselves through presentations made on a conflict that they experienced, at personal, social, cultural, and political levels. It’s also about washing dishes together at the AP kitchen and tidying up the dining hall as a part of service. It’s also about late night chatting and listening to songs that were played in the room next to mine. The Caux journey was special since I was away from home for a long time and I missed Christmas and New Year’s with my family. But while in Panchgani, I attended a midnight mass in a Church for the first time in my life, sang carols, and participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange with strangers. I danced on New Year’s Eve to the tunes of Hindi and English songs to welcome the new year with my new family. To add to the fun, I also played football! I learned how easy, yet how difficult it is, to share what one has gone through in life, how sharing with a trusted circle of friends reinstates your belief in dealing with adversity. I learned how stories in a ‘peace circle’, both sad and humorous can connect people together, to share grief and joy. I learned how each one of us had a powerful story to tell, a story that has played its part in shaping the world as we see it today.
This Caux journey is just the beginning for a group of motivated people from different parts of the world, connected by a shared belief in peace, justice, and non-violence. We may fall short of resolving all conflicts that we face in our communities and in our countries, but we have committed ourselves to the struggle for peace. We know it’s not going to be an easy one; there will be times when we will be tired and may feel like giving up. I believe that during such times we will remember and seek inspiration from our days together at Panchgani. However difficult a time we may face, we will be ‘all right’ and eager to go, fully aware that in each corner of the world there is a Caux scholar friend with whom we promised to strive to make this world a more peaceful place to live in.
After reading my story, if you think you want to learn more about this program that happens in December every year and want to participate in it, please visit the Caux Scholars Program.
Dr. Nidhi Shendurnikar is an independent researcher based in Ahmedabad, India. She has a Ph.D in Political Science from The M.S. University of Baroda, Gujarat. She is interested in research on young people in peace building, the role of religion in peace building, and counter-narratives to mainstream Indian secularism in the digital space. She is a team member with Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, which works to promote peace between India and Pakistan. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Dr. Nidhi Shendurnikar and published on 01-February-2016