Like any other curious teenager, Kaushik Koli questioned his parents when he saw a condom ad on television. His questions, however, were only met with restrained eyes and silent glances by his family, killing his curiosity. “Forget thinking about topics related to gender or sexuality, we were never even aware of these terms. The best option was to just remain quiet when these advertisements played. Even with friends, we would only joke about these things,” says Koli.
For a boy who decided to exercise self-control on his thoughts related to sexuality, writing a research paper on “Mumbai ke yuvako main Mardangi ki soch banane aur badhane wale ghatko ka abhyas (A study on events that shape the concept of masculinity among boys in Mumbai)” has been a path-breaking experience. Koli now looks at research not only as a means to understand the society’s thought-process but also as a right to express what affects his life and surroundings. “I have now started arguing with my parents on a variety of concepts. It is difficult to change their mindset, but I have a chance at least,” he says.
Like 65 other students, Koli is a ‘Barefoot Researcher’ with a city-based organisation PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research). The NGO has trained youngsters from marginalised sections to conduct study on topics that “affect their life”.
Sunil Gangavane, programme facilitator at PUKAR, says, “As a society, we have systematically shut down voices of the marginalised. When we talk of youth empowerment today, is it only related to those youngsters who have digital access? The others also need a platform to break this culture of silence. Their research is what gives them a sense of freedom and liberation.”
Based on the concept of the famous Barefoot Doctors of China, who were minimally trained to provide life-saving services to the poor, the Barefoot Researchers is a similar cadre of youth who are trained to do basic social science research.
Like Koli, several youngsters in the age group of 18-25 years recently conducted very off-beat studies on topics like gender discrimination, difficulties faced by grass-root level social workers, acceptance process of transgenders, challenges faced by single parents, among others.
Another barefoot researcher Vishal Patel’s paper is titled “Kamathipura madhe rahanarya lokanvar Kamathipura ya navane honaraa parinaam (the effects of stigma attached with the name Kamathipura)”. Patel says, “I always thought research is something that is done by doctors or scientists. Now I realise how it is an intrinsic part of everybody’s life.
When I started working on the topic, my mother was very sceptical. But today I have a chance to change thoughts of not only her, but a lot of people around me.”
For these young researchers, writing a paper in a language that they are comfortable with has been a huge bonus. Rajkumari Nimbale, part of the group that wrote on masculinity, decided to write the paper in Hindi.
She says, “When we were studying the earlier papers written on this topic, I used to sit with a English dictionary. I used to practically pause at every word. We then realised that if we write the paper in English, the people who we have interviewed will not be able to read it all. We, therefore, decided to write it in Hindi.” The 22-year-old says that the association with research has been a life-changing experience for her. “I come from a very conservative family where gender roles are very defined. I used to get angry, neglect these biases thinking I cannot argue with the society.
Today, I understand the importance of having a viewpoint. My parents may not agree with most of my opinions, but it is still important for me to voice them. It is liberating,” she said.