Fiona (Fo) had her first contact with IVS in England in 1968, and decided to be an LTV in 1971. She worked in SCI-India’s office in New Delhi, was a fundraiser and put out the newsletter, PAX-India. She currently works with the Quakers in England, does life coaching and has two children from her marriage to Jagwant Chaudhary.
Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Why did I join?
There were several reasons why I became a volunteer for SCI India. At the time I applied to volunteer, I was working in London for a hotel chain as an interior design assistant. At weekends I was an IVS volunteer decorating homes for unmarried mothers, taking out elderly people on day trips to the seaside, helping at a club for disabled people. I lived with my boyfriend and he wanted to get married. One day I realised I didn’t want to get married yet, that I really didn’t care whether the blue in the hotel carpet was an exact match for the one in the painting I was buying, and that there was more to life.
I rang up IVS and said I wanted to volunteer, preferably in Bolivia please. When I told them what I did for a living, there was a snigger at the other end of the phone. “Do you really think there is a demand for interior designers for people living in huts?” Undeterred, I applied and eventually was assigned to become a volunteer with SCI India, helping in the Delhi office. In vain did I protest that I wanted to go to Bolivia and it was only a telegram from Bhuppy saying, “Do not send woman, send man,” that got me to India because I was so annoyed!
I was relatively politically unaware, very immature and extremely stubborn. A summer job as a ‘mother’s help’ when I was 17 had given me an understanding of what it was to be exploited and a simplistic dislike of wealthy people. I felt compassion for the people I worked with as an IVS volunteer at weekends but had no grasp of, or interest in, the deeper issues.
My experience with SCI
My flight to India was the first time I had been on a plane and I was very scared. To boost my morale I had designed a special outfit that I thought would be both fashionable and practical – a red and white checked gingham trouser suit. Juliet Pierce and Hans Kammerer kindly met me at Delhi airport and later told me that they thought it was strange that I had travelled in my pyjamas! When I opened my suitcase at customs, the officer was outraged to discover that I had brought enough toothpaste, soap and diarrhoea medicine for 2 years and lots of packets of biscuits. “Don’t you think we are a civilised country? We have all these things here!”
I was so ignorant that I was surprised to see blocks of flats and tarmac roads outside the airport. I had travelled with another IVS volunteer, Ruth, and we were whisked off to Shahdara leprosy camp for lunch. I was in an advanced state of shock as my food was served by a man with no nose and stubs for fingers. Friends, I had no idea what I had let myself in for. I was a deeply superficial person with a taste for expensive lingerie.
Volunteers would come and stay in K5 (SCI’s office in Delhi where I was based) for a break and envy the occasional electricity and the water that sometimes came out of the taps in the flat. Bhuppy (National Secretary) and I, both being artistic souls and also mindful that we were illegally running an office in a residential area, created a working space that centred round a low table surrounded by attractive floor cushions with a beautiful wall hanging on the wall behind it. We also had a couple of old desks – which I felt rather spoiled the effect! I painted some round figures on the front door and they stayed for many years, making it easy to identify the office. I envied the volunteers who visited because I felt they were involved in real work not sitting at a typewriter writing reports like me. Bhuppy and I had frequent philosophical discussions and he introduced me to Indian art, architecture and music. I watched bemused as various females pursued him with flowers or herbal remedies as tokens of their affection. We revived the SCI India newspaper, Pax India, and got very worked up about its editorial content.
Eventually I was let loose on India and I travelled to Titmoh (in Bihar), Vedanthangal (in Tamil Nadu) and Visionville (outside of Bangalore). I helped organise the Peace Walks in Delhi and Madras. After the creation of Bangladesh, I went on a workcamp there and had my first contact with Quakers and the late lamented Ataur Rahman. I had a particularly romantic workcamp on a passion fruit plantation in Sri Lanka, the experience only marred by the tremendous snoring each night of our esteemed workcamp leader. While organising a Peace Walk, I got pneumonia and ended up being treated with Sato’s magic wheel, as we called it, in Visionville. A treatment that miraculously worked! I helped organise a food for work programme outside Udaipur, Rajasthan, experiencing the difficult living conditions endured each day by the community we were working with. These were all very powerful experiences for me which had a huge impact.
One of my colleagues in the SCI office was Jagwant, who first volunteered when he was still working for a newspaper but who then joined the staff. We disliked each other intensely but, as is the way of the world, this changed one day and we ended up getting married when I finished my SCI service.
What did I think of the work that I did?
I never thought of what I did as work. I discovered I loved writing and even Bhuppy’s lengthy reports gave me pleasure as I edited them ruthlessly and each issue of Pax India gave me an opportunity to practise my newly discovered skills. I mostly enjoyed having people descend on me expecting to be looked after and I suppose providing that hospitality was part of my role. I learnt about what funding agencies were looking for and how to create a winning bid, organised workcamps, well-digging programmes and committee meetings, answered the phone and dealt with visitors but none of this seemed like work. I thought that was what everyone else was doing who was out in the long-term projects. Nowadays, I appreciate the tolerance and patience of the rural and urban host communities who mostly welcomed these young foreigners and Indians into their lives.
Looking back on my experience with SCI, what is my appreciation today?
I hadn’t been to university in England and I felt that India was my university, giving me so many more opportunities to learn than if I had gone down a traditional academic route. It is a tribute to the patience, love and understanding of Valli and Seshan, Bhuppy, Chari, Shashi, Chandru, Juliet, Ruth, Sheila, Solvig, Martin, Andrew, Myra, Pat and the numerous other Indian and foreign friends that I made in my 3 years of SCI service in India, that I eventually began to learn about injustice, political systems, nonviolence, Indian history, colonialism, the caste system, things spiritual, healing, Indian family life and so much more. C8 South Extension, Valli, Seshan and Subi’s home, became a home for me too. I came to feel one of the family and I will always be grateful for the extraordinary warmth and generosity which Valli and Seshan extended to me.
I learnt about myself, what I was capable of, my fears, my prejudices, my gifts. What other organisation would have trusted a group of young, inexperienced people, foreign and Indian, with setting up and running the sort of community projects that we did? The only limits were those we imposed on ourselves or the permit restrictions that prevented foreigners from working in vulnerable areas. Fortunately we were guided by the wisdom and experience of SCI India staff and committed SCI committee members.
Thanks to the international meetings that sometimes took place in India, I had the privilege to meet the most amazing people who were involved in all sorts of challenging and interesting projects, from northern Ireland to Japan. My eyes were opened to a world that I knew nothing of before I joined SCI.
Is there a lasting impact of what I experienced in SCI?
Since India, I have spent most of my working life in the voluntary and public sectors – no more interior designing! I did a degree in education, and a Masters in complementary therapies. I discovered I loved teaching adults and I have had numerous opportunities to use my writing talent. I became a Quaker and now divide my time between looking after an historic Quaker meeting house on the outskirts of Bristol and life coaching. Although Jagwant and I eventually divorced, our children Supriya and Alex are a living testimony to a period of my life that changed me profoundly. A few months after arriving in India, I remember having my feet read in Delhi (therein lies another story!) and the woman looked up and said to me, “You may not believe it now, but you will become a completely different person in the next few years. You are shallow now but you will become deep, interested in a spiritual life.” At the time I dismissed what she said but I had a good laugh years later when I came across an old journal recording her prediction.
I am still in touch with friends I made in India and, in some cases, these connections have passed on down to our children. I feel part of an extended family that has given me love, support and friendship over the years and helped me through difficult times in my life. I was very moved to be at the gathering of SCI India wallahs that was held at Martin and Juliet’s in the summer of 2006.
The Quakers have a small book called Advices & Queries. Advice no. 27 says, “Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak…”.Without realising it, the day I picked up the phone to IVS to volunteer my services, I began living my life in this way and, thanks to my experiences in India, I have the courage to continue to do so.