Sweat drips off my nose onto the just tilled soil of the Shikshantar kitchen garden. The temperature is hovering just above 90 degrees Fahrenheit while the Rajastani desert sun beats down from a cloudless sky. The picturesque garden and its short, stubbornly green sprouts contrast the street just beyond the Shikshantar gate where road dust mixes with the exhaust from tuktuks and the calls of various motorcycle horns echo.
I crouch down, picking up a segment of potato with large, angry looking eyes shooting from it’s cratered surface. I use my spade to guide the spud into the ground and pack the soil tightly on top.
“Naheen, naheen, naheen!!” Calls Kamlendra, a permaculturalist who works in the garden at Shikshantar. “No, like this.” He leans down, taking my spade and tossing it to the side. He begins to gently break up the soil I just packed down with his hands, and repack it with slow, controlled motions. His hands move with intention, scooping up loose soil from either side and hugging it tightly to the small mound of dirt. “Pyarse,” he mumbles as he works: “with love.”
Later that day, I find myself stirring a large pot of rice in the Shikshantar kitchen, occasionally breaking to flip a chipati over the stovetop flame. The rice is heavy and it takes effort to get the spoon around the pot and keep the bottom pieces from sticking to the metal. From behind me someone calls: “pyarse!” A woman who I don’t yet recognize comes up and takes the spoon from my hand. She begins to stir slowly, with a small crease between her eyebrows as she carefully watches the rice churn. She nods slowly and hands the spoon back to me. “Give attention, give care.”
By the end of my first week at Shikshantar, I’ve come to see “pyarse” as an informal motto for all activities there. With love. Everything you do, do with intention, do with care, do with awareness.
This mode of operating contrasts my life in the US almost as much as the Shikshantar garden contrasts the street outside. In school I sought to achieve: to get my work done efficiently and effectively. To work smarter, not harder. I struggled to be satisfied with work that was adequate instead of excellent or even perfect, but “love input” has never been a metric for my work. No AP test or college application has involved an intention and compassion score or a kindness point.
That’s not to say that my life was devoid of love. My friends, family, and even teachers epitomized and continue to epitomize compassion and respect to a degree that I hope to one day embody. I have simply always drawn a mental line between interactions (which require kindness) and work (which does not).
Meanwhile, Shikshantar operates on the philosophy that all activities are social interactions. As you garden, you converse with the soil, with the plants, and even with the sun as it glares down. As you cook, you commune with the plants that have been grown for many weeks, with the water that has been taken from the ground, and with the fire that springs from the gas stove top.
It’s a new mindset. If I am honest, it’s a mindset I have not fully embraced (check back with me after a couple months of working at Shikshantar). But the reminder to work with intention and care has helped me see the work I am doing in a different way, and that feels good.