COVID second wave has been about guilt for me. My privilege protected me and my family, we had the means to stay at home during the pandemic and though we stepped out for essentials, we were lucky enough not to have contracted the virus.
So while SOS requests flooded my social media feed and frighteningly, texts from my acquaintances, there was a sinister voice in my head that offered the only solace I could find - at least it is not you or the people you love. Shadowing this thought that seemed immoral, was another whisper, for now.
A friend who was experiencing something similar told me how he was doing whatever he could to amplify requests and check the references for acquaintances in need of resources. He too had a selfish voice in his head, "What if it was I who needed help and no one helped me, how would I feel then?"
We knew that our wellbeing was our responsibility and since these were the thoughts that were guiding our actions or lack thereof, we knew we weren't doing a great job at looking after our wellbeing.
Soon after the urgent impact of the second wave had receded in Delhi, I started working closely with the vartaLeap and ComMutiny - The Youth Collective ecosystem. This is a collective of organisations and individuals who share a common vision of creating youth-centric spaces for young people across sectors by designing and facilitating powerful self-to-society innovations! Every youth a jagrik, Every Space nurturing Jagriks," as they call it! Jagrik being a self-awakened active citizen, a jagruk nagrik.
To me, a 24-year-old Delhiite, having previously worked only in the corporate sector, it was overwhelming to be a part of something so intimate and seemingly abstract.
The more I learned about this ecosystem, the more in awe I was of how organically it had evolved over the past months. As SOS requests reached the vartaLeap Members' WhatsApp Group, help and support poured in within seconds.
Despite being inflicted with grief and trauma themselves, or perhaps it is owing to these shared experiences that this, cross-sectoral volunteer-run ecosystem, decided to take this narrative of the interdependence of wellbeing for individuals and communities out into the world. What emerged from this solidarity and camaraderie is, a public initiative called #SaathNirbhar: Wellbeing Together that creates experiences that are helping thousands of intergenerational participants feel relatability and build resilience as a collective by being 'well' together!
My idea of wellbeing was so different from what this ecosystem was propounding that the warmth and intimacy with which they received me felt alienating. I followed their public initiative on social media to understand what they meant by wellbeing. #SaathNirbhar on Twitter hit me like a thunderstorm, there were hundreds of tweets from people all over the country sharing about what personal and collective wellbeing has meant for them in COVID times and how youth leadership can play an important role in recovery.
The deeper I went into the rabbit hole that societal wellbeing is, the more strongly I felt the camaraderie and sense of belongingness that had eluded me in the past months. (I showed these Twitter threads to my friend and he too, tweeted his revelations to the world.)
#SaathNirbhar that was introduced to the world with this tweet-a-thon, has been followed by designing and executing a series of innovative experiences including a reality check game show called the Q-Ki National Championship - Plutory Power (the power of plural stories).
As many as 98 intergenerational teams from 57 organisations from 16 states across the country are participating in this game show. During the course of this championship, the participants will compete through interactive quizzes, plutory (Plural Story) performances, and Imaginative practices that aim to foreground the need for building collective societal wellbeing during COVID-19.
One of the objectives of the Championship is to spread awareness about wellbeing and mental health. So, the first round which was designed as a quiz posed questions that sought to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Is anger a usual response to grief? Is depression just about having a negative outlook on life? Are eating disorders only a way to seek attention? Questions like these and more were put forward by the quiz-master who then invited the team to discuss it among themselves. And oh, such rich discussions these were! "Aren't eating disorders only about food?" "But I have read they can be caused by genetic factors." It was electrifying to watch an intergenerational group of people - some in their early twenties, even younger and others in their late forties, coming together and exchanging notes on mental health issues. For those two hours everyday for a week, it was liberating to talk about mental health and burst the myths, taboos and prejudices surrounding it through co-learning.
Amplifying regional stories and experiences is as important a part of the Q-Ki Championship as initiating conversations. The Plutory round does exactly that by giving teams half-baked stories for them to create 5-7 minutes performances out of. For instance, one of the prompts was the situation of a 20-year old nursing student from Jharkhand challenging vaccine hesitancy in his community, while another spoke of a depressed young girl and how her family and friends were reacting to her situation. The participants co-created these plural stories (plutories) and offered them as narratives that liberated the true spirit of #SaathNirbhar by challenging the mainstream dominant narrative.
It was magical how these teams offered us their world through the tiny windows on the computer screen. While a team portrayed a possible way to navigate complex familial relations, another one showed the bright future a young girl from an underprivileged background could have if her education isn't disrupted by COVID.
Even the way in which they told these stories was equally creative. Puppets, dance and poetry coloured the performances, along with some very innovative use of props, spaces and camera angles while performing on zoom.
More than 90 percent of the teams were from rural and/or marginalized communities from remote pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, etc. Even their poor internet connection did not deter them or their competitive but collaborative spirit.
In yet another revelation, I realized that these plutories have seldom found their way into my carefully curated social media feeds (even though I make it a point to follow all the so-called 'woke' pages. How have I missed them?). There can be no one all-encompassing story, and though my own narrative might feel like the most important story for me to know, it is definitely not the only story out there worth knowing. The space that this Championship has created for the participants, audience and facilitators for research, learning, imagination and empathy is a testimony to how promising this design is.
All of this is experienced in one match lasting two hours. And when I think about the sheer magnitude of impact 38 matches between 98 teams will have in a span of 2 months, nothing about this feels abstract anymore.
For me, a young person who couldn't anchor herself in the storm of collective loss, pain and grief, except by withdrawing into herself, being a part of this space has been an invigorating experience. For the young, the reassurance that wellbeing is a shared responsibility, and that there are spaces like these that are dedicated to promoting and celebrating this interdependence, is a sign of true social hope!
Follow the movement on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram) for updates on the Q-Ki Semi-finals and Finals and to see what else this very humane group of people at vartaLeap will pull out of their magic hats next! Share with them what wellbeing means to you by tweeting with the hashtag #SaathNirbhar. Your words might just give hope to another young person disillusioned with the world.