Life-changing lessons from India – Surrender


‘In India, sometimes you have to surrender before you win’ ~ Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

It’s almost 6 months since I returned from India and I’ve finally been able to make sense of some of my experiences. I chose India for my Social work placement because it’s a country I’ve always felt drawn to explore and it was an opportunity to practice Social work in a completely different context to what I had experienced whilst living and working in Australia.

During my placement I wrote about my struggle to feel as though I was seeing the ‘real India’ and I acknowledged that I needed to surrender, and to immerse myself in the experience to understand what was happening. Reading that piece now it seems quite insightful, because I know that although that was my genuine intention I just couldn’t let go of the need to feel in control (yes, I am a little bit of a control-freak).

Only a few months earlier, I had been in Sydney for the Aim for the Stars gala weekend and had a surfing lesson with Layne Beachley! As I’d tried to be cool about awkwardly dragging my ridiculously heavy surfboard out in to waist deep waves, and not feeling self-conscious in my body-hugging wetsuit, I suddenly found myself lying on the board with Layne bobbing in the water next to me.

I felt completely out of my depth in every sense of the word. This was the deepest point I’d ever been in the ocean (much to Layne’s amusement), I was in the water with the world’s greatest surfer, and I could barely swim let alone surf.

The feeling of being completely out of control in the middle of the ocean was totally overwhelming and led to a mini-break down on my board as I could feel the tears welling, my heart pounding through my chest. Luckily Layne is too cool to be caught up in my craziness, and after explaining how great the ocean is in teaching control-freaks to let go, she firmly but calmly said ‘don’t let your fear sabotage this experience for you’. And just like that, her words snapped me out of it and after a few hilarious attempts I finally stood on my board to catch my first wave (a tiny little wave).

But only a few months later, I was in India and again feeling out of control as I struggled with a lack of structure or support around my placement, and the most intense loneliness and isolation I’ve ever felt. And no matter how much positivity or self-talk I tried, I could not fully bring myself to the point of just letting go and surrendering to the experience.

When I returned to Australia things spun further out of control, as I was suddenly trying to process my 3 month Social work experience, the end of my 5 year relationship and where I was going to live and work in the next phase of my life. But this time I finally had the space to stop, to clear my mind from distractions and focus on my thoughts and feelings because India had shown me that I couldn’t avoid doing this.

It’s fair to say that India transformed my life. Not as the gentle spiritual-awakening I’d hoped for, but as a big ol’ punch to the face. Buddhists believe that we repeat similar life experiences over and over until we learn what we need to move on. I feel like my 3 months in India placed me in that lesson (for what felt like an eternity at times) to develop my awareness of what the lesson was – letting go – and to give me the space to be honest with myself about taking responsibility for my role in it.

Surrendering is definitely not a lesson that I have mastered yet but I am grateful for my time in India for challenging me to question who I am and to experiment with other ways of being.


My social work placement in India was possible thanks to the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Photo Essay: India’s national campaign to raise awareness of child rights

In 1996, the CHILDLINE India Foundation (CIF) launched CHILDLINE 1098, a national toll free, 24-hour helpline in India providing emergency phone support and outreach for children in need of care and protection. A total of 36 million calls were answered by CHILDLINE as of March 2015, with over 600 partner organisations supporting the operation of CHILDLINE across 346 Indian cities.

Childline Se Dosti is a one-week national campaign run by CHILDLINE, with the aim of encouraging community members to become stakeholders in CHILDLINE 1098 and to raise awareness of both child rights and child protection. The campaign involves a range of events and activities across India to generate a million dosts (friends) for CHILDLINE. This photo essay highlights CHILDLINE campaign activities that I participated in with the CHILDLINE BREDS Pathapatnam office, as part of my 70-day Social work placement in Andhra Pradesh, India.



1. National Children’s Day – Outside a classroom at Government Zilla Parishad High School, flower garlands surround a portrait of Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime minister of post-independent India. National Children’s Day in India is celebrated on Nehru’s birthday, November 14th, and is also the start of Childline Se Dosti. Nehru is said to have adored children who gave him the endearing nickname – ‘Chacha Nehru’.


2. Raksha Bamdhan ‘a bond of protection’ – Children tied yellow Child Se Dosti arm bands around Police from Hiramandalam Police Station as part of a movement to strengthen the partnership between children, CHILDLINE and community stakeholders. This activity also increases children’s confidence in accessing help. Police identified that the biggest safety issue for young women in this area is child marriage.


3. Signature campaign – CHILDLINE staff gain signatures from community members and youth at a bus station in Pathapatnam. The signatures will be photographed and documented records will be provided to the state government to bring awareness to the work of CHILDLINE.


4. Mandal Stakeholders Meeting – At the Mandal Development Office in Pathapatnam, stakeholders met with CHILDLINE staff and children with disabilities from local schools. This meeting aimed to increase awareness of CHILDLINE and children were awarded prizes for their posters. This child’s drawing depicts a child calling CHILDLINE (left) and the Hindu god Lord Ganesh (right). This elephant-headed god is worshipped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of new beginnings.


5. Saravakota street rally – girls from the local government high school joined the CHILDLINE rally and street walk. Children held placards promoting children’s rights, in particular the rights of the ‘girl child’, and raised awareness for issues such as child marriage and child labour.


6. Saravakota street rally – children held the CHILDLINE banner and placards to lead two rows of school children to rally through the streets of Saravakota. Ghanis (age 14) (far left) used my video camera to walk up and down the rows of children, filming them as they rallied down the street.



7. Pathapatnam street rally – twin boys from the local government high school join the CHILDLINE rally and street walk. A Police escort joined the rally on foot and CHILDLINE staff used megaphones to call protest chants in Telugu that the children responded to such as ‘Child Se Dosti – friends of children , Balaya Vivahalu, apaly apaly – Child marriage, Stop Stop and Balala Hakkulu Kapadudam – Protect Child Rights!


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation

Poverty in India

Before travelling to India, I expected to be confronted by extreme poverty and wondered whether I would be able to ‘hack it’ or if I’d feel a sense of helplessness. In the first week of placement we visited an urban slum in Bhubaneshwar. This was a fairly new slum community that had developed over the last 10 years. Like most slums, it was established on government owned land along a railway line.

The people living here migrated from rural areas to this urban region to join their families, earn a livelihood and access education for their children. This slum was home to 1,400 households of approximately 10,000 people and was an organised community of families, schools and businesses including a kiosk, tailor, sari shop and a magician! The caste system still operates within the slum and our guide (a community member living within the slum) walked us down a ‘street’ within the slum where the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits live. She also pointed out the house on the edge of the slum owned by a person identifying as transgender. The way she spoke suggested that this person was most likely ostracised by the community.

Despite the slums being viewed as ‘problem areas’, field workers we spoke to acknowledged that the people living in the slums provide essential domestic services and support for the urban population outside of the slum such as the auto (rickshaw) drivers and labourers including carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

Villages in India that have become absorbed by city expansion may also come to be viewed as slum areas.  This slum was described as ‘politically powerful’ and we learnt how the community has lobbied government ministers for access to water and electricity. The government has also built an overnight homeless shelter in the slum and ministers will campaign strongly in the slum areas and make promises that will secure a large number of voters.

This experience really challenged my ideas of poverty as I came to understand that people living within the slums are not necessarily poor, they are just investing in different assets. And whilst they may be experiencing different types of hardship, the Urban Micro Business Centre (UMBC) across the road is an NGO aiming to empower the slum community via skills and enterprise training that leads to business ownership – a pretty innovative project!


In the second week of placement, we went to the local mela (fair) after dinner. As we stood around eating our ice creams a little boy, aged maybe 4 or 5, approached us and started to beg. This was different to other times I’d seen child beggars in India. This little boy looked hungry. And he was dirty. His little lips were cracked and dry and he was only wearing a pair of dirty shorts. He walked around the circle we stood in tapping each one of us and signally to his mouth for food. The Indian lecturer we were with became frustrated and yelled at him to leave. The little boy kept moving from one person to the next until a young adult male walking past hit him on the back and seemed to tell him to leave us alone. So the little boy left. And although I knew all the reasons not to give to child beggars there were so many things running through my head. Where were his parents? When did he last eat? Why was out so late by himself? Did anyone care about this little boy?


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation

Understanding community development work

In the first half of my placement, I wrote about the struggle to incorporate case work experience into social work practice in India. Now that I understand more about the nature of community development work, I can look at social work practice in terms of working with the community, at the pace of the community.

I’ve also recognised that whilst I practice from the dominant Western ideology of individualism, the NGOs I am placed with work from a collective, interdependent community development perspective. This collective view doesn’t see individuals as separate, but as part of a larger group such as an extended family, village or tribe. This larger group has shared values, experiences and needs. Shifting my focus from individual needs to community needs, has been a really critical point in my learning and it’s literally taken me the last 9 weeks to get my head around this concept!

The last NGO we were placed with works with tribal communities in India to increase their awareness of legislation and government schemes, and to empower communities to access land rights. It’s been really inspiring to see this bottom-up approach to community development work, and I have learnt so much from my task supervisor. He is an incredibly hard-working, humble man.

When I was having one of my lowest moments on placement he said ‘don’t stop your tears…we’re all human’. And he just let me sit there and have a good cry. Actually it was an ‘ugly cry’, but after many mixed interactions with Indian men here, I really cherished this moment where he validated my feelings. It also highlighted what social work is all about for me – the human connection. So much of Australian (and probably Western) social work is administrative and that it’s easy to lose focus on the human side of it all.

Over the last month, I’ve been working on a photo essay to share some of the work of this NGO and the tribal communities we’ve been visiting. But after a conversation I had this week, I’ve been rethinking this. A project officer visiting from an overseas NGO told us that we need to be careful about the information we share online when working with tribal communities in India. She told us that her NGO was named in an Indian Government Intelligence report, and as a Christian organisation, the perception is that they are engaging in missionary work or religious conversion.

Although this is not the case, our task supervisor who told us that many people within the government perceive that NGOs working with tribal communities are involved in the ‘destruction of livelihoods’. I could appreciate this concern more if the Indian government was considering the broader context of colonialism, however it’s pretty ironic when you consider the level of corruption within the government and their failure to implement legislation.

Or the way they grant mining leases to their family members in blatant disregard for the people living on the land. But that’s probably all I’ll say about that here because I don’t want to be named in an Indian Government Intelligence report!?

Despite differences in the historical, legal, sociopolitical and cultural contexts between Australia and India, there are significant parallels between the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Australia and tribal communities of India, to exercise their human right to self-determination and access land entitlements.

Spending the last month researching and learning the policy frameworks for land rights in India has really highlighted the huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to Indigenous land rights and issues in Australia, and this is an area I want to learn more about.


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation

Seeing the ‘real India’

Today is day 28 of placement. In addition to the social work learnings, there have been the day to day adjustments to life in India, including showering with a bucket, using a squat toilet and water instead of toilet paper, eating with my hands, and accepting that I will be served rice and yellow dahl for breakfast, lunch and dinner! There’s been public transport adventures via autos, buses and trains, the privilege of sharing meals and chai with families and tribal communities, witnessing communities celebrating Ganesh Chatturi and Dussehra, visiting temples, buying saris, seeing movies in Hindi and Telugu, and having a favourite Telugu song we sing to in the car!

Lately, I’ve really struggled with feeling ‘de-skilled’ on this placement and I’m constantly questioning how I can incorporate 10 years of knowledge and learning in to my experience here. The simple answer is that I can’t because this is community development work, not case work, but it’s almost impossible to view situations objectively in a cross-cultural setting. When I speak to family and friends and they ask me how I’m feeling, it’s too big a question for me to answer. For me, travel and living overseas create an environment of emotional highs and lows of emotions from week to week, but whilst travelling and living in India I’ve experienced this daily.

Then there’s my conflict about whether I’m going to be exposed to the ‘real India’. I first started thinking about this when we arrived on campus in September. The uni has a signs promoting safety for women and respectful relationships which I was really surprised by. But in the same month, a Tamil paper the Kumudam Reporter, posted photos (without consent) of women wearing leggings with their Kurtis (tunics) blowing up in the wind. The sensationalist paper has a history of misogyny and the article titled ‘Are leggings obscene? The youth are crossing the line’ was an attempt at moral policing and body shaming young women.

My conflict about experiencing the ‘real India’ has been present in our visits to tribal communities too. Whilst we sit and sip chai, chatting with villagers, the news reports an alarming number of rural farmers committing suicide due to the drought – an issue that hasn’t come up on any of our visits. And coming from a background in out-of-home care, I can’t help but feel that I’m not gaining a real insight to the welfare of children in India. Last month we laughed and drew pictures with school children from a an urban slum in Bhubaneswar, and just four days ago Police in northern India arrested four men over allegations that they killed two children from the Dalit community (untouchables) by burning them alive.

I keep reading that India is full of contradictions. This is true and I’ve become one too. I’m a social work student and I believe in fairness and equality, yet I’m already immersed in the class system and have drivers, cleaners and cooks taking care of my daily needs. Every day I battle with the patriarchy of living and studying in India. Issues of gender and safety mean I don’t walk anywhere alone. I’m always chaperoned, and one of my task supervisor’s 17 year old son and his friends thought it appropriate to assert themselves as our entourage at the train station. My supervisor tells me that a 7 year old boy would be considered an appropriate chaperone by some people, simply because he is male.

It’s a lot to take. I’m learning that I have to let go of the idea that I’m ‘just an observer’, to surrender, and to immerse myself in this experience to understand what is happening here.


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Reflections on life in India

It’s really hard to summarise everything that we’ve shared and experienced over the last few weeks of our Social work placement. We are learning from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed. And I’ve typed pages and pages of reflections but my thinking is challenged so frequently that by the time I actually have wifi to post something, I already feel disconnected from what I’ve written the day before. Every situation and interaction is a lesson. This makes it both amazing and overwhelming at times, as there’s not a lot of space to stop and process each day before we’re moving on to the next. So, over the next few months I’ll post some reflections on different issues from my placement and if there’s questions that you have or an area that you’re interested in then let me know..


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh Chaturthi from Bec Jane on Vimeo.

Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi in an urban slum in Bhubaneswar! We spent the afternoon walking through the slum and meeting people in the community and then this happened…Thanks to Georgie for the awesome footage – one of my favourite moments in India so far!


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Kolkata to Bhubaneswar

(September 20-21)

On our last full day in Kolkata we returned to Mother Teresa’s house to see the museum and her tomb which were closed on our Friday visit. Petals shaped into words on Mother Teresa’s tomb read – ‘YOU DID IT TO ME’. This seemed a little sinister but one of the nuns explained that it was a bible reference. Any of the work that Mother Teresa did such as feeding the poor and looking after those with leprosy was done in the belief that she was doing it for Jesus. There’s been a lot of controversy around Mother Teresa and a statement in the museum denied allegations that Mother Teresa would only help Christians or converted the people she helped to Christianity.

Mid-morning we visited a colonial cemetery which claimed to have an ‘Architectural Fusion’ of tombs. We’re learning that ‘fusion’ is a popular word in India used to describe everything – food, clothing, architecture. It’s been interesting that despite the number of temples and sites in Kolkata, our guesthouse and driver continued to assume we would be more interested in visiting colonial sites.

We then hit the local shopping complex which was a stark contrast to the streets of Kolkata. We had some amazing food chosen by Jeyaletchmi (letchmi), watched a hindi movie, ‘Kati Bati’, and went clothes shopping at ‘FabIndia’ where we bought some clothes for placement. I picked up some Kurtis (long tunics), churidars (leggings) and a dupatta (scarf/wrap). When I told the shop assistant that I had plenty of pairs of black leggings to wear with my Kurtis he said ‘Madam, you need to be more colourful’. Clearly he’s seen my last 7 years of travel photos! Georgie and I found it hilarious that one of the fabrics was called ‘chicken curry’, only to read the tag later and find out later that he was actually saying ‘chickankari’ – a type of intricate embroidery?! Chikan comes from the Persian word chakeen which means to create delicate patterns on fabric.

Prior to checking out on our last day, we had a quick walk around the streets of Kolkata in search of an ATM and a few interactions with the locals. So far when people try to guess where we’re from they usually ask ‘England? America?’ and then when we tell them they say ‘Ah, Australia. Ricky Ponting’. And we normally respond ‘Yes. Australia. Ricky Ponting’. And that’s as far as the conversation goes because none of us have a clue about cricket!

After saying goodbye to the friendliest, smiliest staff, Suresh and Pablo, we jumped on the train to Bhubaneswar to start our placement. The journey was pretty smooth but I possibly should have experimented with a squat toilet before trying it out for the first time on a moving train!


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Melbourne to Kolkata

On Wednesday’s flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kolkata we were all pretty exhausted from the early start in Melbourne. Sleeping was made impossible due to the pilot switching between a torturous combination of dim mood lighting versus interrogation-style spot lights. This seemed to go on for hours and when we finally touched down in Kolkata it seemed like we had met our fate when the cabin crew announced that everyone should cover their faces and proceeded to spray a white, gassy substance everywhere. Given that we’ve lived to tell the tale, I’m hopeful that this was some kind of DEET and malaria prevention and that we’re not going drop dead next week.

In Kolkata we’ve been staying at the Bodhi Tree guesthouse and it’s amazing! The staff are so friendly and the rooms are filled with an eclectic mix of arty pieces, carvings, prayer flags, lanterns and wall hangings. It’s got a Balinese kind of vibe and the dim lighting is so peaceful to come back to after the craziness of the city.

We arrived for the start of Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Ganesh who is widely worshiped by Hindus as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. I know him as the remover of obstacles (and I have a little Ganesh at my front door) so it seemed very appropriate for the start of our journey! During the festival, temporary shrines (pandals) are set up for worshippers to make offerings to the idols and at the end of the 10-day festival there’s a mass-emersion of idols at Indian beaches. It’s really humbling when you see people who appear to have so little celebrate life and give thanks for what they have. A huge lesson in gratitude.

I love the sounds and chaos of the city – the smell of incense, waft of sewerage,
stalls of street food, and constant traffic horns! It’s been so much fun trying new dishes every day. My favourites so far have been masala chai tea, dal makhani (black lentils, butter and cream) and Gulab Juman (deep fried, spongy dough balls soaked in syrup). And there was a really yummy, savoury pancake-style bread that was delicious for breakfast too! I’m not great at ordering food though, even in English. Apparently, ‘we’re going to share’ also sounds like ‘I’d like a kingfisher beer’?!

My first impressions of India have already challenged some of the assumptions I had made about travelling here. Yes, the men do stare but everyone stares at us – women, children, goats! There is so much negative Western media about India but I have found that people are just curious and interested in what we’re doing and that’s a feeling I share for the people here too. We’ve had a few paparazzi moments already, posing for some family photos and we were also stalked a few blocks around the New market area by men keen to become our tour guides and take us to their shops. We managed to lose them eventually and I guess we’ll become much assertive over the next few months here.

On Thursday we caught the metro and spent time orientating ourselves with the city, and today the Bodhi Tree organised for a driver to take us to some of the sights around Kolkata including the Victoria Memorial, Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse, New market and the Indian museum. In between stops we walked along the Beautified Bank Of Ganga River where heaps of couples sat cuddling on chairs by the river bank – so cute. Jeya placed her hand in the Ganges water but neither Georgie, Bec or myself were that game and were quick to pass her the hand sanitiser. Later that afternoon whilst we waited to meet our driver, we were caught in a monsoon torrential downpour – clearly we should have put our hands in the Ganges and the universe made up for it with a drenching cleanse. As I waded through calf deep water to get to the car, my thong washed of my foot and started floating away down the street. As I hopped over to get it, luckily Bec was able to rescue it for me and we jumped into the taxi dying of laughter. The owner of our accommodation told us that monsoon season use to run from June – August, however climate change has meant that the monsoon season now runs into September. We haven’t even started placement yet and I feel like each day is filled with Social work learnings – white privilege, spirituality, climate change.

Despite being covered from ankle to neck at night, the mossies found a juicy area under my chin to feast on so I may have to step up malaria prevention to a full body suit this week.


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation 

Aim for the Stars Foundation


Photo and image credit

In 2015, I’m returning to blogging to share my journey as a grant recipient of the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation.  I applied for this grant late last year and in January 2015 I received a call from LAYNE BEACHLEY herself to let me know that I was successful. Despite that fact that my phone battery died mid-conversation and I had to wait an agonising 15 minutes for it to recharge and call her back, it was super exciting to have a personal phone call with Layne.

The foundation was established by Layne in 2003 to empower women and girls to achieve their goals though financial support and mentoring. The 2015 scholarship recipients are girls and women from across Australia who are involved in a range of sporting, academic, community and cultural pursuits.This grant will support me as I enter the final year of my Master of Social work (Qualifying) and prepare to complete my student placement in Odisha, India. Initially after applying for this grant and then finding out that the foundation had received over 1000 applications, I ruled out my chances of receiving a grant and accepted the fact that I would not be able to complete my final Social work placement overseas. As Layne has said,

“it’s amazing what you can create if you don’t place limitations on yourself”.

I feel really blessed for this opportunity and excited for what 2015 will bring!

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