Dreamless People

I wrote this post when I first thought about starting a blog, but I didn’t publish it because it seemed far too serious for something called KabCity.  But I’ve been inspired by the latest post on the incredible Tomzanian, and since this follows a similar theme I thought it would be a good time to share.

Dreamless People

Back in Mirambika, when I was probably seven or eight years old, our class was asked to draw our present and future selves.  For my present self, I drew a kid in a red shirt playing football.  For my future self, I drew an astronaut.

Around the same time, an uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up (a favourite adult question to kids), and I told him I’d like to be an astronaut but I was worried that it was a dangerous vocation, so I might chose something safer like professional cricket or Bollywood superstardom. My uncle laughed at my response and I returned to the room where all the kids were playing.

At some point, I wanted to become an engineer, then, during the internet bubble years, an I.T. genius. My drawings of my future self have changed, but even during my most existential moments I’ve never truly stopped thinking about some kind of future me. Even if it was one-week-in-the-future me, there was still some consideration of how my decisions will affect my future.

For the last week, I’ve been working in a very poor village in north-western Odisha, studying the well being status of people, especially the gap between the general population and people from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.  What has really struck me is the complete absence of dreams in this community.  People just don’t seem to care about their own or their children’s futures. There are many problems in this village, like an understaffed school, poor access to government services, corrupt medical structures etc, but when we asked people about changes they would like to see, they simply had no response.

“In a dream scenario, what would you like to see your child grow up and become?”

“I don’t know…”

“Do you want her to stay in school?”

“I don’t know”

“Is there any way your village could be better?”

“I don’t know.  Ask the panchayat leader.”

So we asked the panchayat leader. And the Anganwadi didi and ASHA worker and school headmaster and farmers and shopkeepers. And none of them had any dreams.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. SLE
    Dec 21, 2010 @ 18:24:04


    Amazing blog man. This is some hardcore fB stuff.

    I also realised recently that people of different background/upbringing have different realms of possible regarding themselves. I felt sad when I heard some stories like yours from Odisha, but I asked myself who am I to make a judgement about other’s dreams?


  2. Tommy
    Dec 21, 2010 @ 22:54:31

    Wow, I’m shocked that government workers, even those in mid-level, would not have any dreams or ambitions. Is the village really secluded from other urban environments?

    At times I am surprised how similar the these people and I are, but perhaps equally often how different we are.


  3. Tina
    Dec 22, 2010 @ 00:01:17

    I am not sure if it would be that they necessarily do not care, and specifically on the family level but more so that, in the reality that you do live in, it is, to a certain extent, impossible for you to imagine such a reality. In our reality, one can ask someone to dream about what they would like life to be like in a perfect world however if it is hard enough for me to dream about what I could possibly do tomorrow without having to get through today, that can be a next to impossible task. It is very sad though and kind of shocking that even the government workers, at mid level, wouldn’t have dreams or ambitions.

    Do you think the answer would be different if someone else asked? I might be completely off track here. But do you think that there is a chance that people in this community do have discussions about this and have opinions? And that the fact that they are responding to someone who has already identified themselves as carrying out a survey and if you don’t think that letting the person know will help you one way or the other and so you just keep quiet?


  4. Kabs
    Dec 22, 2010 @ 00:46:06

    Thank you guys for the comments.

    Ick – It’s definitely not right to judge peoples’ dreams, but I do think (and I hope I don’t sound too libertarian because obviously I’m not one) that a lot of economic success is contingent on ambition and personal agency, and I don’t know if these attributes can exist in the absence of future-thought.

    Tommy and Tina – these aren’t really “mid-level” government people. They are as low as you can get as a government employee. However, I really was surprised that these guys, especially the school headmasters, didn’t really have any ambition for themselves or their community. One of the villages was extremely secluded but the others were less than a two-hour drive from big towns.

    Tina – I don’t think the answer would be different if someone else asked (obviously I can’t know for sure though). I think long-term thinking (“dreaming”) is, like basically every social thing, a learned or constructed characteristic. I don’t think humans are born with ambition – we are conditioned to have it. Where there are opportunity structures that reward ambition, that trait will be valued, and vice versa. What did surprise me though was that parents didn’t seem to particularly care if there children were better off than themselves. I had expected all parents to want their kids to have a better life (whatever that may mean in different contexts) than the parents did, but I was surprised that this didn’t seem to be the case.

    One thing I didn’t write about but plays a HUGE role in rural India is the caste system. The societal expectation is that families will only do things that are “suitable” for their caste, so the children (read: sons) of a barber will also be expected to become barbers, etc. People from lower castes are not allowed/able to open shops, they can’t eat or drink in the same place as higher caste people, they are forced to do the most demeaning work like cleaning human waste from dry toilets, they’re discriminated against in factor markets, they receive unfavourable terms of employment and credit, etc…since this has been going on for thousands of years, people have completely internalised these practices and accepted them as normal. So when you ask a dalit “is there discrimination in the village?”, they’ll say no, but then you ask if they can buy tea from the village tea shop they say “of course not, I’m a dalit”. It’s really deeply ingrained and so incredibly fucked up.

    Would love to hear more about your thoughts on this. I’m sure things are different in different parts of the country and world!!


  5. Becca
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 17:38:48

    I was celebrating Christmas in a coastal village in Mozambique, having drinks with a young woman from the port city of Beira. The conversation turned to the future and she just about spilled over with this dream of how her life goal is to run a game park in Zimbabwe. She’s an orphan who’s been brought up since she was a teenager by an uncle and his young, bossy wife. Apparently her grandfather is the only one who supports her in this dream, while everyone else has told her that she’s crazy. But she trains dogs, and she’s already got a plan for how she’d build up her collection of animals. She was really disparaging of the other girls engaging in commercial sex work that evening. She could have easily gone that route but she wasn’t deterred. By the end of the evening, she was announcing to the bar, “I am a strong woman! This is my life.” All I could offer were words of encouragement, but with that determination she’ll take herself far. You find hope in the most unexpected places.


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