By Paige Wagar
Remember math in elementary school? 2 + 2 = 4. No complications, no qualms; simply a matter of fact. Life was so simply blissful! But as the years progressed – with time tables, long division, algebra, trigonometry, calculus – numbers transformed into something less straightforward. I still remember sitting in my middle school math class listening to my teacher explain the complexities of imaginary numbers. I was so angry at my previous teachers for not informing me of this important facet of mathematics, for sugar-coating the science of numbers. Why had they lied? In my older and now wiser age, I retrospectively see that exposing a seven-year-old to the true nature of numbers is not the most pedagogically-sound approach. This is all to say that the ideal-types used to present life in static categories, narratives of real-life fact, are in fact quite complicated. Numbers are far more complicated than they appear at first glance, as are people and communities and life.
As our days in Kotagiri continue to pass, this same idea seems to be a recurring theme: the notion that events and institutions that appear simple at first glance are exceedingly complex. Perhaps it’s a function of developing a more critical eye or simply a product of accepting a categorization scheme that operates outside of binaries. But as weeks go by, that initial anxiety has become just another aspect of life here – a training in the acceptance of ambiguity.
The theme of this week was “Livelihoods and Governance”. Over the course of the week, both inside and outside of Manda’arae, we discussed the complexities of governance given the range of actors involved in decision-making. Beginning Monday morning, we were instructed to adopt a critical perspective when looking at how authority and power intersect with our daily lives, and how these relations evolve as we navigate society. It continues to strike me how, despite our upbringings in such wildly distinct corners of the globe, there are always trends or shared experiences in the lives of the Cornell and Keystone students. Each of us faces versions of the parent-adolescent clash, feels the pressure of community expectations, and struggles with institutional authority figures.
Our field trips added interesting anecdotes to our discussions of governance and the intersection of stakeholders with varying interests. We spent Monday afternoon touring a flower farm and an agricultural processing center in a Badaga community outside of Kotagiri. At the flower farm, we met a group of migrant farmworkers who had travelled from West Bengal to the Nilgiris for work. This raised questions of how authority, governance, and security operate on both a national and individual level. On Wednesday, we explored the not-so-rosy side of working within communities at the site of one of Keystone’s failed social enterprise attempts.
In previous weeks, we had discussed the interactions between the spheres of the public, the private, and civil society organizations. This week concluded with a discussion centered around the notion of hybrid institutions, much like Keystone Foundation, which operates somewhere at the nexus of these three spheres. In many ways, especially in the field, Keystone serves as an extension of the state by providing particular services to Adivasi communities. Simultaneously, their social enterprise, Last Forest Enterprise, operates in the private sector. Keystone, the very institution responsible for the Nilgiris Field Learning Center, is proof that the system of constructed categories falls short of telling the whole story.
My primary lesson from this week: it’s advantageous to accept ambiguity. It is healthy to remain critical of the vernacular we use – a vocabulary that often hides the dynamism in the nature of authority and institutional governance. For me, this week was marked by an “aha” moment of sorts, a moment of clarity in the complexities that swirl around society. This week was the beginning of a comfort in the notion that life is far from black and white. Abandoning the idea of simplistic categorization allows for new innovative solutions with interdisciplinary approaches that recognize the true complexity of our problems. Though ignorance brings about a more idealistic understanding of sustainable change, I am grateful to hold a recognition of how truly complex the world is.