The city where I live, I breathe, the one I grew up in………….. changed into a nightmarish view, the day I started visiting the field for my PhD data collection. I never indulged myself to believe in any fairy tale rendition of my city, as I knew that it had its boons along with uncountable hitches. But nothing had prepared me for what awaited along those dark, tricky alleys...
When I planned to do my PhD thesis on ‘urban health’; many around me raised their eyebrows, asking me whether I decided to do my thesis in this part of the world simply because the majority of the published scholarly work in the field of urban health were based on metropolitan cities. This thought process led me to a dilemma in choosing the right field area and finally giving importance to feasibility, access, I chose my city, with all the earlier doubts still lingering in my mind. While going through all these thoughts, I had a notion that I may not be able to visualise what I read, but with the support of my mentor and a few innovative research methods I was optimistic to a large extent that I will explore the arena with reasonable success.
I ventured into to the city with the help of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and truly they were of great help. I was welcomed with disturbing visuals of poverty, inequities, disadvantages, handicaps all around and for a couple of days, initially, I was very distressed with the whole scenario. Slowly, the totality of these experiences gave me a perspective of how to see things, how to identify, how to define them, which to an extent helped me in answering the WHY question, which is of utmost importance. Passages to most of these urban hamlets were narrow, more or less stacked like ‘building blocks’ often skimming each other. Most of the houses were located near or on top of open drains or canals, surrounded by filthy water and no proper drainage facility. The most sickening scene was the flow of sewage in these open drains and canals which was nauseating and malodorous. During my data collection, once I remembered being tucked in a match box kind of room, sitting on top of a septic tank surrounded by cats, parrots, pigeons and white mice. Wondered how people live in such settings. In spite of innumerable disadvantages, majority of the people welcomed me. As they were trying to explain the plight of their life - their pain and sufferings, whether it was related to their amenities or their needs, they looked at me as if they believed that I was the ‘CHOSEN’ one who would help them in resolving their difficulties. Sometimes I felt I was selfish since I was exploring their lives solely for the purpose of my research, but later realised that from this process ‘I was learning’ and this learning could upgrade me to a resource person, who could eventually benefit the society as a whole in one way or the other……..fingers crossed.
Stories were innumerable, often scary and inhumane…………… of a mother who locks her sons after six o' clock to protect them from a bunch of criminals who try to influence her teenagers, the stories of men beating their wives, drug addicts who showed me how they were using drugs, an old mentally disabled woman being tied to a chain in front of her house from morning till night by her own son as he didn’t want the house to get dirty. With this backdrop, I could see the health care needs of the urban population, which was my topic of research, in, a completely new light and realised that actually, this included a much wider range of outcomes than what I anticipated. Since it was an urban population, they had their access to health care institutions, but what mattered most was how their decision making was done when it came to accessibility. It is indeed incredible to note that they had strong viewpoints when it came to matters related to health, which could be considered very urbane. But I also found isolated extreme cases where mothers were reluctant to provide immunisation to their children, making a mutual concession in the name of god. Many a time I removed my researcher’s cap to wear a counsellor’s one to educate them about health beliefs, notions, importance of education and so on. But whether I succeeded or not, only time will prove.
I am still discovering my city……. trying to arrange the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle, although I do think that I may have lost some pieces along the way, which I may or may not discover again; let’s be optimistic.