Let’s Talk Narrative… with Jehanzeb Baldiwala

 

Narrative Therapy India is resuming the interview series, as a way to bear witness to and archive the unfolding of Narrative Ideas and Practices in India.

Our guest this week is Jehanzeb Baldiwala, a therapist, supervisor, trainer and part of Ummeed Child Development Center’s management team since 2004. She has aligned herself with narrative ways of working over the past 15 years. She was instrumental in developing a year-long mental health training program in collaboration with Narrative Practices Adelaide and Reauthoring Teaching, Vermont which has been running successfully for the past ten years. 

She has a keen interest in exploring narrative ideas in supervision and organizational development, as well as in the development of professional identities of mental health workers and allied professionals, and has helped with the design, implementation and documentation of supervision processes at Ummeed as well as developing ways to explore long term training and support for professionals in using narrative ideas in supervision.

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Mithila: If you could start with sharing about your journey with narrative ideas and practices and what drew you to it and how did it all start?

Jehanzeb: My goodness. Ok. It’s really hard to pinpoint a point where it started, but I think for me, I got into this space of working with mental health from a personal experience,  because I have a history of mental illness experiences in my own family and so the subject of treatment and working with people has been something that I was very drawn to from a young age. When I started studying psychology, there was an experience of learning things but also knowing that the two don’t fit and I was wondering sort of how one is going to work as a practitioner in the Indian context. At the time when I met narrative practitioners, at least something started to make sense for me; the attention to social justice and looking at the context, that really caught my eye. It was looking at the preferred spaces and the possibilities and the alternative stories, which made me start reading more about narrative. I did my Masters here in Bombay University, then I enrolled in a Family Therapy Program in the University of Massachusetts, where I was introduced to the ideas and that is where I got very excited and interested. I had to drop out of the Masters Program as it was too expensive for me to continue and since I was very clear that I wanted to move back to India and didn’t want to end up with a gigantic student loan. However, I ended up taking a job at a community centre and as I worked there, I continued to explore the practices on my own, doing a lot of reading. Also, I had some amazing mentors.When I moved to Bombay, I started working at Ummeed but again here at Ummeed it was mostly just me and Shamin and we were doing different things probably at that time. I wasn’t really interested in working with children when I first took up the job at Ummeed, it was more, I was helping them set up parent’s support groups and do some School Outreach work. Slowly I started seeing children and also started building a team. When I started seeing young people, I think it’s their ability to just explore, they don’t have boundaries, because they’ve not learned those things yet, they’ve not learned so often what is not possible. So everything is possible for them. And that would really excite me. Their sweetness, their ability to connect and their imaginations. Also the idea that people have about small kids, they don’t know things, but you know how much they know. And deep understandings they have of what is right and wrong, so I think that used to fascinate me and I grew to love it. I had realised that while narrative work stands different from dominant ways of doing things and a team is what will help support the development of these ways of working in our context. It was 2006 when Maggie was visiting Bombay for an 8-day intensive training in narrative therapy and so I enrolled for that and that’s where I became very convinced that I wanted to articulate and align the team to one single approach. So 2006, probably is when we officially aligned ourselves and we started developing the team. We did a lot of reading and trying to figure things out and after Michael passed away, I wrote to Shona. Then we went to the US to meet Shona and Peggy and attended some short training. But I think a lot of my initial interest and training has just been self reading and figuring things out. We had one copy of the maps of narrative practice, which my mother-in-law had gotten me on some travels to the US and we used to all of us sit and read it together and try to figure things out, work with children, come back and read some more. So initial days were something like that. 

Mithila:  So I have been reading the book – maps of narrative practices and I was reading  this part where Michael is talking about how he was initially exploring his journey with externalisation and he was sharing about his experience and I was just curious to ask you, when you started practicing these ideas or practicing narratives in your work, how was it like?

Jehanzeb: So like a lot of people who start on this journey; I think when you start exploring, you tend to use the maps a lot, at least I used to use it as a guide and really hold it close to have the conversation. We did a lot of externalising conversations and reauthoring conversations initially. But the understanding of the practices grows over a period of time, the philosophical understandings deepen as you see the effects on people. Awareness of dominant single stories and how they subjugate identities grows as you delve into reading, but also as you collaborate with more and more people. And the sort of freedom to move between maps and those kinds of things happen gradually. In my current practice today you will probably see me doing a lot more of rich story development, and of course using all the maps, but I think everybody develops different ways of using the practices and wrapping their heads around it. People had some really exciting conversations and especially because we work with children there was never a dull moment. I have so many memories of externalising fear, anxiety, adhd, so many different things and I remember growing to love sharing the space with very little kids. In the initial days there was a lot of excitement around witnessing families come together. When the problem is taken out of the person and it suddenly becomes like all of us can work together to overcome something rather than us trying to fix the kid. I think that was also something which really drove us and also the sense of relief and the child feeling so much lighter, the burden of not being a problem; those were the things which were very exciting in the early days. 

Aditi: What have been some things that have become visible ever since you’ve started using these ideas and practices with families? 

Jehanzeb: One thing that becomes really visible is how obviously a lot of  families and people care a lot for each other, but I think problems really make the care invisible many a times, problems make people feel like they have no skills and make them believe that they don’t know how to respond to them. But this idea that people are always responding has been really helpful for me. Even very young people, for example, when you see a young person who’s 5 or 6, refusing to go to school, I mean that’s somebody taking a stand or trying to draw attention to what the system is also doing to them in so many ways. Does it mean that we don’t have to get them back to school? I guess not. I mean we have to figure out our ways. But just to be able to know and acknowledge that people know what is not okay for them or what’s not going well.

So, I think being able to see some of these things have become more and more possible for me. And then aligning people to each other and supporting them to reclaim their choice over the influence of the problem.

My understanding of anxiety has changed so much. I have seen so many young women experiencing anxiety and it really makes you think of what’s going on in the world and what is it that they’re experiencing that brings this kind of anxiety. Is it this system of constant having to fit in. I’ve seen people who experience anxiety because of all the injustice that is so visible to them. So I think understanding it in these ways has been really helpful rather than thinking of it as a symptom or a problem, or of people not being good enough or not being able to manage things and therefore experiencing anxiety is really something that’s calling attention to all the injustice around us and all the violence that’s around us in big ways and seemingly small ways that have real effects. 

I’m thinking of a young person I was working with and this whole idea that identities of people just get subjugated by ideas of normalcy. I very distinctly remember this conversation; because a lot of the young people we see are people diagnosed with developmental disabilities, and they experience anxiety because they have to exist in this world which requires them to exist in a particular way. There was this young person I was working with, who was experiencing a lot of anxiety and despite having multiple conversations we couldn’t figure out. Both of us were collaborating to figure out how to tackle the anxiety and he was having trouble getting back into school, but then I asked myself this question: what is the identity that’s getting subjugated by the world? And once you ask yourself that question then certain things become visible to you. With this young person it was a lot of difficulty living up to the standards of masculinity and being the male of the house which were not at all obvious or visible. But once we were able to explore those questions, then being able to explore those things with this young person made it possible to develop alternative ways. And It still goes back and forth, he still experiences a lot of anxiety because the world demands that he exists in a particular way. But I think these things become visible only when you’re aware, and if you are alert about what ideas and single stories are doing to people rather than tackling things in a problem-solving mode.

Mithila: Can you share a bit about your journey with training people from different spaces to narrative practices and ideas? How has it been and what has become possible?

Jehanzeb: All through my days of studying and the time when I had to leave the program I was pursuing, I had a hope that people who want to learn should have access to training that is relevant and nurturing of people’s development. When we had the opportunity to develop a training it made two dreams come true, a step towards building a wider community that can develop more and more narrative practices here in India and also access to training as I mentioned earlier. I had a clear idea of what learning should look like, so the fundamental intention at that time was to get people into groups talking about stories from work and thinking of a different possibility for those conversations, so that was my hope. We started the group supervisions, where that kind learning starts, which did. We had very few people who enrolled, we had only six people of which two were internal in our first MHTP. That program was so intense it was impossible; we would meet on three half days of the week, two days we could teach, and one day would be supervision. But how it was structured was also to include overviews to other approaches of collaborating with people including SFBT, CBT etc. I think the learning from that batch… they were fabulous, and they gave us a lot of feedback, we had one parent of a young person who was hearing diverse and all of them gave us a lot of feedback about the structure, and the parent Tanya infact said that its like you teach these other things, but you teach them also so disheartedly. And then in supervision it’s so clear in the excitement in the body language when we practice narrative and all the ideas which are shared. You know your heart is so clearly somewhere else. So the message I am taking back is somewhat this is the approach where the meat is. I think simultaneously that was when Shona was engaging with the team and so it would be around 2010. I think 2011 is around when she came and then we just decided as a team that let’s align ourselves in training too. This is the hope, this what we want to do to the practice in the country, the world is being taken care of, but here at least lets step in. And let’s just not be afraid to do it, so we had spoken about whether they would co-teach it with us and they had agreed to do that because I think that was also one of Michaels’ hopes. For them it was also taking forward his legacy in some ways. So a lot of their influence in the initial structuring; and by then we had figured out also that this thing of three half days is very disruptive for people because they are not at work also, and they are not here also. We changed the format to 4 week long blocks with supervision meetings weekly so that we could become more accessible for people out of Mumbai as well as it became easier to get permissions from organizations etc to attend. We co-taught with NPA and Reauthoring teaching for some years and then in 2014 I remember a conversation with Shona where she pushed me to think of taking the program ahead with us teaching alone. And she said that “You know we will keep coming as long as you invite us because we love it here, but was that your hope?” I remember that conversation so clearly with her. And she said, “I remember you articulated a different hope when you started, but is that not a hope anymore?” and she is just one of those persons who can really make you think. And really realizing that we have to figure it out at some point. We stepped into the teaching completely. We also started thinking of language and how we can do these training in Hindi for community workers. I am also that person who can keep chasing the next possibility forever.

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Then we had ‘Room Full of Stories’, which was the next sort of major excitement. That was a really another big hope, I have come to an understanding that it’s not work that thrives in isolation. It’s work which thrives in community and work which thrives in collaboration. So really building that community and I think ‘Room Full of Stories’ was three or four things, it was a statement for the practices to really give it a voice in this country, to put it on a platform there, to hear that you won’t able to have 100 people come in, but to have 225 people come in at that conference, that there’s that many people who can be interested. So I think at every point it’s been done more but with the intention of just more people getting into this community. 2014 again, when I talk about people, for me again Ravi has been that person who as a supervisee pushed me to the edge of what I knew, because he always had a questions, so at some level you reach a comfort when you’re floating and then you need someone to unsettle the water, the timing of our collaboration was fantastic. He was someone who always wanted to try something new, sort of really pushing you to the edge of what you know. That really brought a lot of energy for me again into what I did, and we were able to create so many possibilities, so quickly. That year was so much fun, because all  5 of us, Jill, Daisy, Shamin, Ravi and I were exploring so many new possibilities in training spaces. I remember Ravi talking about the conference and he had said that if you sit here you are not going to recruit the 225 people, do you think we should try two days and we were all going, okay let’s try it. It was hard because giving people two days brought a lot of questions like, ‘Is it a justice to the practice?’. I know you can’t practice it for two days. I have such an understanding and commitment to the loitering with intent in training and such a know-how around that people need that group to sustain things. These shifts need ongoing conversations. You really need time to  have philosophical shifts and what is two days, it’s not going to do anything except introduce an idea. So he was just like people are not going to sign up for your programs if they don’t know what they are signing up for. And the conference was also about having people come and witness other’s work. So we decided on one two-day just to start with. That is how the two-day training started for us. And I remember Preeti Broker was my supervisee in 2013 MHTP, so she is another one, she’ll say that Jeh always have plans for people, suddenly I had a small center in Pune, and then one day I just called her and asked her what are you doing with all this space? So she turned around and asked me what do you want me to do? So I told her will you host a two-day in Pune? she just said yes, that’s how we started with her the two-day. The trust and the sense of supporting one another has allowed these practices to travel far and wide. We reached out to others and hosted many two-days and then it was like something was happening. Kolkata was interested in us going there, so we went there. That happened after the conference in 2016. So that was the conversation at the conference. And that materialized. And then I remember writing to Priscilla that I’d like to do a two-day there. So a lot of it has also been networking, keeping people in mind and the team’s excitement to go into diverse contexts Just to explore how it can look beyond Bombay and beyond therapy. 

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CMHTP has evolved so much, those understandings that we will just take an English program and it will be fine if we know how to speak Hindi, we will be able to make it work. And to realizing it looks so different for them and their work is so different. But this is one way of teaching them, but it does not need to be taught only that way. I think we have just become more and more nuanced over the years in our understanding of the practices. Really imbibed the ideas, the thing that Shona used to say, really understood the context before teaching in it, makes so much more sense to me now. Having this journey, making things experience near for people. That is so much the heart of narrative also. And just that openness or the understanding that people are the experts of their own lives, understanding the context that creates so many possibilities that you cannot even imagine, I think knowing that. I think knowing that going into a different context each time there will be a different shift. And that thing at the back of my mind. 

When I think of the narrative gatherings, the privilege of seeing everyone’s journey and knowing that these two are doing something that they can see and learn from one another, but not having ways to connect people. I think the gathering was a hope to create both those things. Two things that I have started noticing, there are some people who really hold onto the practices and they take these fabulous shapes, but during the program they are doing these super exciting things, but many people, while they philosophically shift it, the day to day practices there must be things, they don’t maybe come out as an identity as narrative practitioners or maybe go back to do some other things or start exploring some other ideas which are in conflict sometimes, so what is it that it making it so difficult for people. So these are some of the things we could think of, the fact that when you are isolated, it’s not a practice you can do alone. Because you are so much against the dominant story or ideas of speed or ideas of evidence, structure, you know what are the three steps, tell me how you do it? It looks so different, that it becomes hard in isolation. Because people also have the genuine intention of helping, it’s also difficult, so I think really creating those opportunities for people.

But we have created so many different possibilities as a team, gone to so many places and diverse contexts, and then weaving our voices. It was magical. Our community of almost 500 people who could come but so many more…

Aditi: How has the space of supervision in training been for you? Could you share a little more about how that space has evolved for you over time?

Jehanzeb: I have a super keen interest in exploring narrative ideas in supervision particularly in supporting the development of professional identities of mental health workers. 

I’ve learned so many more possibilities, but there are two moments in supervision, one when what you are talking clicks with people. And they can imagine what can become possible for the people they work with. And second is how it has changed the supervisee’s work in some way. That kick is something. The privilege of witnessing people’s work, I don’t think anything can replace it. I think those are things very close to me. There’s always the excitement, because you obviously love every person you work with, but with certain people there’s connections which makes so many more things possible for me as a worker, so there’s always that hopefulness. I have had such a fortune of co-travelers. 

I really want to start offering  pure clinical supervision, which is not managerial, because the freeness, I love that. I understand that one has to deal with it. I remember a conversation with Shona so clearly, she would see us interact and supervise the team, and I remember her saying, “Oh my god you are the line manager along with the clinical supervisor. I have never realized that. That must be tough, because on one hand you know people so much and then on the other you either have to refuse their leave. You know how these two things work”. I remember her thinking “wow! how do you do that?”. I think those things don’t come in, in an MHTP or CMHTP, because it’s purely clinical, it’s not about those administrative things. Except if they are missing the attendance of the program, that’s the only time you are raising it, other than that it is not restrictive in that sense. So making that space for people, the Aha moment that they call it. Those things and when you see the shift of them being able to bring the person of the therapist. I think community workers again to see them find a space of being able to have that privilege of witnessing.

Aditi: If you had to think of a word, metaphor, image or anything else that would capture the essence of supervision for you? What would it be or look like?

Jehanzeb: I think it would be an image of a butterfly, that image of somebody moving around. And Dora and her best friend Boots, who always has her back. For me so much of the practice is that metaphor of her with that backpack, which every time she opens it, those three things she needs are always there. And she’s going, always discovering new lands, always coming across some obstacle, but finding a way out, reaching her destination. 

I think it’s the same thing, every group or person I interact with, I learn so many more possibilities, but I think those two moments in supervision, when people, when it clicks what you’re talking. And it clicks for them what would become possible for the people they work with, so that knowing that there are these many more people that this can go to. One is how it has changed the supervisee’s work in some way. But also what are the possibilities for all the people they work with. That kick is something. The privilege of witnessing people’s work, and when they find it and able to bring it into their work. I don’t think anything can replace it. I think those are things very close to me. When you work with X number of people, you know it will happen, so there comes a knowing, it’s just the matter of when, but I think that becomes important for me that it will at some point. I think being able to watch that over that over and over time is such a privilege. There’s always the excitement of, because you obviously love every person you work with, but with certain people there’s connections which makes so many more things possible for me as a worker, so there’s always that hopefulness. I have had such a fortune of co-travelers. The evolution of my relationship with all these people.

Mithila: I also want to know because we are talking from the work perspective. How has narrative practices and ideas also impacted you personally? Like,  your personal life and your understanding and your lens and everything?

Jehanzeb: I mean I think for me the personal is professional and the professional is personal. I think that because I believe these things in my heart. I try to have them in and hold them in all my interactions, whether it’s with friends, my family, my colleagues or in supervision. It just becomes your way of looking at the world, and so I think it’s very much in every aspect of my life; in my raising of my child,  in all of that. I think that the practices are there for me at all times. 

What we wrote for the conference for me meant so much….

The journey of narrative ideas and practices in India. Like a rhizome that tirelessly creates connections, the practices have thrived against dominant stories of mental health and flourished out into the open at the most unpredictable places. In contrast to a structured scaling using a predetermined path, narrative ideas have travelled in an de-centred, non-hierarchical manner, direction in motion, with the many shoots connecting to each other at diverse  points of time. The installation is a celebration of the little clusters of mushrooms that come together to perform hope, make visible agency and have discovered innumerable, magical, imagined and unimagined possibilities. It is also an acknowledgement of the understanding that narrative ideas and practices and these dense networks of interconnection have existed and thrived in our cultures for as long as we have lived. From the knowledge of the adivasi people on how to nurture land and relationships to the stories of our fight for independence to the writings of Dr.B.R. Ambedkar and the reflections of Arundathi Roy that call out to us to think critically about taken for granted ideas and systems and the so many other Indian writers, authors, artists, philosophers and the people leading their everyday lives narrative practices are ever present in our songs, our dance, our celebrations, our daily lives and our collective identities. We hope that the thick interconnections, resilience and love nourish these practices so that they may continue to thrive in their diverse, chaotic splendour and take many more forms than it is currently possible to know.

Mithila: Do you have any know-hows or messages for fellow practitioners who hope to use narrative in their work?

Jehanzeb: Resilience, Hope, Connection, What is possible to know… holding on to these and being aware of and critically thinking of the taken for granted ideas and their influence and hold on to people. Our responsibility always.

What Micheal says: 

“Is it our role to be unwitting accomplices of modern power, or is it our role to sponsor diversity in everyday life? Is it our role to promote single-storied conceptions of life – or to bring forth complexity in the sense of alternative stories of life? Is the therapy room context for the confirmation of the known and familiar, or is it a context for arriving at what it might be possible to know? Is it a context for domesticating the exotic, or is it a context for “exoticizing” the domestic?”

And Michael’s words on solidarity…

“And what of solidarity? I am thinking of a solidarity that is constructed by therapists who refuse to draw a sharp distinction between their lives and the lives of others, who refuse to marginalize those persons who seek help, by therapists who are constantly confronting the fact that if faced with the circumstances such that provide the context of troubles of others, they just might not be doing nearly as well themselves.”

Aditi & Mithila: Thank you very much Jeh.

Aditi is a Mental Health Therapist at Ummeed Child Development Center, working with children and families who experience disabilities.

Mithila is a part of the mental health team at Ummeed Child Development Center, working as a trainer with communities using narrative practices and ideas.

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