Sunday, 18 December 2016

Duty vs Love

Last night, during a family gathering, a younger cousin and I were exchanging views on Hindu mythology when he said, "Sita was a dutiful wife" and I reacted with "Sita was a loving wife. We must not mistake her love to be acts of duty." My cousin was not convinced. His take is that duty is also a form of love. While I appreciate his point of view and respect it, I have a slightly different definition of both duty and love. 

In my world view, a duty is an obligation that is expected to be rendered. It can make the doer of the duty feel burdened, and guilty if she does not fulfill this expectation. At times the duty can become so onerous that it takes pleasure and joy out of all action. Then there is love. Any act done out of love, is voluntary; making even the most dire of situations possible to navigate. Because one wants to do something one finds ways and means. There is no burden of expectation but a strong desire of doing and attaining significant personal satisfaction. If unfulfilled, there is no guilt; a tinge of sadness maybe...

And this is my understanding of Devi Sita as well. As a daughter her duty was to obey her father and attend the "swayamvar", the platform provided to her to select her own groom. The catch was that any prospective groom must be able to use Lord Shiva's bow. She fell in love with Lord Rama when she saw him in the gardens of the palace before the Swayamvar. She  acknowledged that the task suitors were expected to complete was tough and she wanted Lord Rama to win the challenge. She wanted to render her duty as a daughter and get her love; so she turned to the only way she knew and that was to seek the blessings of Goddess Parvati. Her first act of love came when in the course using Lord Shiva's bow Lord Rama broke it and incurred the wrath of sage Parshurama. 

Sage Parshurama was a great Shiva follower and was enraged when he learnt that his Guru's bow had been broken. Scintillating with anger he entered the Swayamvar complex, where out of duty and respect Devi Sita bowed to him and he blessed her with eternal happiness. Then he shifted his attention to the reason of his arrival and on learning that it was Lord Rama who had broken the bow, challenged him to a duel. Not wanting to fight the revered sage,  Lord Rama bowed in front of him when the sage picked up his axe to cut the Lord's neck. Devi Sita swiftly bowed between Rama and Parshurama - she would let no harm touch her beloved. The sage suddenly realised that if he harmed Lord Rama he would be taking away his own blessing of eternal happiness that he had bestowed on Devi Sita. And so love conquered anger and averted a duel. 

As a daughter-in-law Devi Sita's duty was to take care of her mothers-in-law in the tragic turn of events that had dealt Lord Rama a fourteen year exile. Her love for her husband created a need to be with him, even if it meant that it would sans luxuries and comforts. And so she convinced her mothers-in-law that between her duty and her love, she wanted to pick love even if it meant giving up worldly pleasures. A princess who was brought up in opulence and married into a royal family, the life of a nomad without any paraphernalia of any sorts was a challenge unforeseen. Yet she undertook it, not because it was her wifely duty but because of her total and unconditional love for Lord Rama. Had she wanted, he duties as a wife could have been hidden behind her duties as a daughter-in-law and she could have stayed in the palace with all amenities at her disposal. Yet she decided to walk the uncharted waters because her love gave her the strength of conviction. 

After Ravana was killed and Lord Rama and Devi Sita were reunited, she was asked to walk through fire. To the world this was to be a test of purity. Was it her duty to obey her husband that made her walk through fire or was it her love and faith in Lord Rama that got her to glide over the flames? If it was out of a sense of duty, her willingness and cheerful acceptance would not have been a part of her persona. It was love and the belief that the Lord had a reason he was putting the love of his life through this unthinkable task that got her to cross the fire with a smile, an open heart and no questions asked. 

Was it her duty as a wife and a queen that got her to bear Lord Rama his children? In fact it was her undying love that she not only wanted to be the mother to his children, but bring them up in an environment that would prepare them for all eventualities of life. That is the sole reason that she asked the Lord that she get time to spend with the saints in the forest and the children be brought up in their care. It is this wish that led to her being sent to the forest by Lord Rama; a wish that gave them both the grave pain of separation from the beloved. So while Devi Sita had the children to be with, the Lord spent the years only thinking of them and in the calm of the knoweldge that he had fulfilled his beloved's wishes. 

Devi Sita's duties as a queen were to render her responsibilities to the kingdom. Lord Rama as the king was duty bound to his subjects. So when a pregnant Devi Sita, as mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana, asked for her time with the great saints in the forest, the Lord did say that in face of our duties I am unable to grant your wish, however, my love will ensure that I don't let you down. And so, to keep the sanctity of duty and love, an incident in the kingdom instigated talks about how a woman who had spent a night at another man's house should not be accepted by the husband. This gave the Lord the excuse of saying that Devi Sita had spent many nights at Ashok Vatika, a garden in the palace of Ravana and so she would be sent away. 

I could continue with my views on the difference between love and duty, on the life of Devi Sita and the great love that Lord Rama and Devi Sita harbour for one another. I could add to that my learnings of the life of Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati and how duty and love in their lives have been depicted and brought about union and disruptions. However, the idea of this post is simple - to bring forward my understanding of duty and love and to see if the more evolved readers agree or can show me another view point I may have missed out on. The reason for my writing today is to put forward an understanding of a couple we whole heartedly worship but at the same time blame the Lord for oppressing his better half. The purpose of my writing is to challenge my own self and to see if my own convictions are rational. On this last point, with my data points and learnings, I stand by my belief and faith - Duty is not love, love is far stronger a force than duty and the lives of Devi Sita and Lord Rama are symbols of how great love can be. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Delhi - A City Just Happy to Be

Winter is not my favourite season but Delhi houses two of my favourite people. And so when on Monday I was told that I needed to be in Delhi for an urgent meeting on Wednesday, I faced what I call subdued excitement. Oh my little angels were thrilled to hear that I was coming and we made plans of the storytelling session for Wednesday night too. At the same time, I warned Sequoia of my absolute need to hog the heater. And so here I am, in the still adolescent winter of this year, with a coffee mug in hand and a warm fleece around me; wondering why have I never penned my thoughts on this city that gave me some of my most cherished friends...

It was yet another move to yet another city and yet another school. I was hesitant and shy. They had all grown up together, and here as a teenager, a newcomer in me was trying to fit in. I can't remember who it was, but one of them adopted me and soon we were the five fingers of a palm. Oh we did our own things outside class but we all hung out together too. We went to Christmas parties, birthday parties, each others homes and even stood by the classroom window together to catch a glimpse of the latest Bollywood heartthrob! It was a period of seven months, and yet those seven months created a bond that has survived distances and years. 

Delhi gave me a brother in a brother-in-law. The first time ever, when I knew everyone around me was hiding the truth, he broke the news to me. Nana (my maternal grandfather) was no more. Yes my mother and Sequoia had reached too late to be able to meet him one last time, but such was life and I had to stand strong for Bonsai who was still unaware. Yes they had all hid the truth but that's because I had my last exam to write. Yes we had to tell Bonsai but we would do it after I had settled. Had it not been for him, I would not have been able to accept the truth as simply as I did. And then we went for a drive to India Gate, a place that lights up my face even today. 

Delhi was the first city that made me understand what social support means. Of course the so called support can go to the extreme of interference, in some cases; but people here have the time for family, friends and even neighbours. Community living is still a part of the culture here. It still is a place that celebrates Diwali, Holi and Independence Day in neighbourhoods with children and adults participating with equal enthusiasm. This spirit is definitely not visible or palpable in the Mighty Mumbai. 

So why have I not yet written about Delhi...I guess that's because Delhi is just happy to be. Delhi does not scream out glitz and razzmatazz, it does not force you to live a life only the way it seems fit but it also does not open its heart out to you. If you come you are welcome to find your own place in and pace of life. If you live here you will be given the opportunities that you seek. If you expect that the city, and not the people, will make you smile you are knocking at the wrong door. So Delhi has no insecurities about its place on the global map as I see it and it has been an easy part of my life; making me ignore the fact that it did lay the founding stones of friendship.

So why am I writing about Delhi now? Other than the fact that it is an important city in my life, it is because today I felt that it is also a city that has taught me to go with the flow. 

The meeting I came for was not fruitful. I was disappointed and thought maybe the trip had not been needed. Muddled in these thoughts, I was waiting for the car on the main road, witnessing the traffic jam and trying to wrap a shawl to keep myself warm. A lady walked up to me and asked me if she could find a bus from there to Dhaulakuan and I replied, "Sorry I don't know". She smiled, "why are you sorry. You don't know, that ain't your fault." That is when I realised she was depicting the city. It's ok in Delhi not to know it all. It's ok in Delhi to be a newcomer and not to know the way the city works. It's ok in Delhi to ask for help. Is that not true for life as well?

As I am on the flight back to Mumbai, and looking at this Capital from the skies above, I acknowledge that people in Delhi can be aggressive and abrasive but then they have a life. In Mumbai people can be polished and polite but they have an agenda. Delhi can be unsavoury and unsafe but it keeps things real. Mumbai is safer, not necessarily less unsavoury but more of a dreamland. And yes these are statements that stereotype, generalise and talk about my own views; but I can see how Delhi will be nonchalant about these while Mumbai will not take it kindly...and that ladies and gentlemen is the biggest difference.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The tug of Life

I am but one individual, yet I have multiple roles to fulfill. I am but one person, yet I have many different dreams. I am but one human being and I guess that is where I have one responsibility and one reality - to acknowledge and appreciate my mortaliy. It is my responsibility to acknowledge it, so that I never get complacent or inhuman in my dealings with others. It is my reality to appreciate, so that everyday I can enjoy the beauty that the world brings my way. And only with this realisation will I be able to do justice to all my different roles and achieve my varied dreams. This truth of life, the one that will finally decide if it was a life worth lived, gives meaning to all that I struggle for. 

A few years ago, walking along the holy Ganges in Benares, the Benevolent One told me that everyday one should cross a crematorium. A much younger and a less wiser me was stunned and a bit taken aback by his statement. He for one has always known my thoughts before I have, and so instantly he said it's because that is where your Lord Shiva resides. I took heart and smiled in relief. Today, older and wiser I understand what he actually meant - everyday we must acknowledge our mortality, because that is thought, which destroys all our sorrows and unwanted agony. I have not been able to achieve that level of calm yet, but now whenever I am troubled by my ego or arrogance in personal interactions I turn to this thought. In the long run if it won't make a difference, holding on to that ego or arrogance is not worth it. So I try to drop it. I am only trying and I will keep trying. In time my success or failure will be there for my inner circle to assess. 

At work though it is a different approach. A little aggression is needed, at times, to get just that most important but that last amount of work done. I have been known to have felt extremely guilty after having been tough at work. At times I have even spoken to friends asking if they have lost their patience because someone would either just not do what was asked or would not understand and keep repeating mistakes. And at that point, not taking a tough stand could result in missed deadlines or unmet performance targets; both of which can cost the company and other colleagues very dearly. So I may be guilty of seeming to be unkind and harsh, but in the long run I believe it to be a requirement. 

A few years ago, at a leadership training session, all attendees were asked to write their own one line obituaries. It was probably  the toughest assignment I have ever done, but one that I will never forget. I wrote my tombstone that read, "The change maker, hand holder and smile provider." I was a banker then, but nowhere did the words deal maker, money spinner or go getter, appear in the shortlist I put together. It was an exercise that made me think of what I really wanted from life. The answer emerged - to create something, to positively impact lives, to minimise suffering and struggles and to be there for the ones I love. As the answer emerged, so did the opportunity; and I moved to manufacturing. 

The last three and a half years I have probably grown, learnt and contributed the most in my short life so far. But when I look ahead I have so much more that I would like to do, understand, and give, that I do not want to lose a minute of this precious life. I don't want to waste time agonising over what I missed, but I want to cherish and build on what I have. I don't want to ponder on the what if, but I want to seize the moment and see if it is where I find my treasure. I don't want to have to regret, but I want to say what I feel.

I have never lived a life that would conform to a type. I have borne enough burdens of expectations of stereotypes. I can only live if I can stay true to my unique style. And just for that I will have to remember that just like life, every moment is transient. It will all only make sense when it all comes to an end. But before the curtain drops, I need to play my part, say my lines, sing my songs and laugh out loud. Only then will there be an opportunity to stand up and ask if I did justice to the role I was handed...

Sunday, 11 December 2016

An Opportunity to Make it Better

HP messaged, "He just passed away, Tanu". I was sitting at the table and just about to shut the laptop when it hit me; it's over and the only friend with Junior is HP. I could be there but I was told to stay put and so I have been writing. The one coping mechanism, cure and celebration I know does not fail. And so, for the first time in my blogger's life I will write a second post on the same day. 

My thoughts are with Junior, his family and other friends. For days together HP has been upset with the behaviour of other friends; individuals who seem to be there only so that no one could say that they were not seen...

Friends; that takes me back to another conversation earlier today. I made a statement that I have never found Bombay to be a warm city. Of course this December night it's cold but I was referring to the warmth of a place  or person. "Why? Don't you have friends?" Of course I do, but if I was to visit Bombay as a stranger, I would find it impersonal, in rush, disorganised and confounding; in short not warm. And yes I have friends who not only make this city special but make me want to make it less rough for their comforts.

As I am praying for Junior's father and his family, I am taken back to the time when Appyrichvictor's father was diagnosed with cancer. It was early January, four years ago, when he called me from his abode in Europe, asking if I knew an orthopaedic who could give a second opinion. I did; but what was the problem? After a few questions and patient cajoling I realised it was the metastasis of his father's cancer that was the reason for this subdued, troubled sounding and hesitant call. I had no words that came to me. Uncle was the healthiest and most active individual in the seventies I knew. Well that being said, the situation had to be handled. We decided on a course of action and Appyrichvictor decided to fly down to Bombay.

From airport to home, we decided to catch up with the other events of one another's life. Neither of us spoke about the actionable items in the next few days. I guess we were tardy. That very evening we had to admit uncle to the hospital and there we were faced with complications. Appyrichvictor consulted his brother in law in UK, the only doctor in the family, and then took the decisions that needed his consent. The Sporty Biker and I hung around for any need that Aunty or Appyrichvictor may have. Hospital staff behaved as if it was just another day, which of course for them it was, but they lacked any and all compassion. The doctors were unclear and impatient in the way they dealt with the family. All in all, the worried son who had been away from India for over 20years was not in a comfortable place. Aunty went home and Appyrichvictor of course was on ground zero. After a post mid night dinner I left the hospital but Sporty Biker decided to stay on. The battle against cancer had just begin.

The next two and a half years were similar. Doctors who promised to see the patient at 6:00pm would rock up at 2:00am. Asking questions would infuriate some, others needed further consultation to give clarity and yet others were not available. On days when we rushed uncle in emergency I distinctly remember ER staff not giving him a blanket till a ruckus was created. Or for that matter, the ER doctors lacking thoroughness of taking a proper history. Proximity to home, the only oncology speciality hospital in a twenty kilometre radius and uncle's condition; there seemed to be no option but to deal with this hospital. So the treatment, the late night dinners at the hospital stairs and reluctant second opinions became par for course. 

Demanding auto rickshaw drivers, the horrible roads and the poor infrastructure; all added to the woes of the family of the mother and son. When Appyrichvictor was away, he had a job to keep, Sporty Biker and I tried to be around as much as we could be. But Mumbai distances and the rushed life we lead, meant that we were not there as often as we would have liked to be...

On one of her annual visits to me, in London, mother fell ill in the middle of the night. I dialled 101 instead of 111. While 111 is medical emergency number, 101 is non emergency police number. After hearing me out, the 101 operator alerted the paramedics, assured me they were on the way and then politely told me that next time I should dial 111 to save time. The paramedics reached in less than 10minutes. They came up, examined mother with the utmost kindness and care and suggested that we take her to the AnE. I got worried then but patiently they explained that her ECG, Blood pressure, pulse etc were all normal but as a precaution this was recommended. 

I had friends in London, in fact in the same building, but I did not need to bother them at that unearthly hour as the strangers who were care givers gave me no reason to feel vulnerable. Yes the next morning, an unfeeling boss demanded that I haul myself into the office and that is when all friends and their wives took turns to be with mother. Yes friends make life easy but sometimes we cannot do without them and at other times we don't need to inconvenience them. 

No this post is not about London being better than Mumbai. Nor is this post about merits of friendship. This is a post about the environment that we have created in our cities; an environment that forces us to look at self more than all that impacts the life of the self and the impact the life of the self could have on others. This is a post that expresses a wish that maybe someday Mumbai, a fascinating city, can also become a city with open arms. This is a post, to say that it is you and I who make this city, let us make it a better place for all of us. Because once we are gone, we would have lost any opportunity to make any difference. Because when we go, we probably would not even know that time is up. Because after one chance has gone, we may never get another chance even though life may be long...


Life is precious; all life is. Yet life has agonies - physical, mental and emotional. At one point in my life I have said that physical pain is bearable but emotional can be excruciating. Today, as I am writing this, I am aware of the physical and emotional suffering of a father and son and cannot even begin to think who needs to be saved first. 

It all started a few days ago with a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital and on the Operating Table had another attack. In the ICU his kidneys and lungs started to give way. The son, living almost a twenty four hour journey away, was informed. He came to see his father on the ventilator; and then miraculously, as if nothing had happened, he was off the ventilator. Everyone was grateful and relieved when the coin turned again. Not only was he back on the ventilator but had to be wired up. In his concious state he is pulling and tugging at them and so the medical staff has tied his hands and legs. 

What is ravaging his body? What is gnawing at his brain? What emotional tsunami is the son enduring? What mental battle is junior trying to manoeuvre? I am trying not to think about it because reality of life is too harsh today.

The physical state is debilitating. It is heart wrenching. The emotional havoc is crippling. It is completely exhausting. If the physical pain is relieved the emotional pain will dive deeper, at least in the interim. If the emotional agony is given priority, the physical agony will only grind the emotional agony. Then there is the question of morality and ethics vs mortality and science. And then I come back to thinking, life is precious but the dignity is important too...

We are all, those who had the lucky draw of winning the parent lottery, products of the values and education provided, efforts and attempts made, and the love and care given by our parents. When they suffer the world seems to be unfair and the preciousness of life seems to diminish. How can the very givers of life, struggle in the jaws of undignified and intolerable pain? How can those who healed every little bruise, be forced to fight hell raising pain? How can the ones who gave all they could, have still to give when they have no more left? And why is it that at this point, the child, despite all desires, abilities and strength; can only stand and watch?

HP reports, he is sinking...I don't think it's him alone. It's him and junior. It's the end of an era approaching stealthily. May he be at ease. May junior be with strength...

Life is precious, and it is unpredictable. Life is precious, and it is short. Life is precious, and it is not in our control. And so I would take the moment I get, to let those I care for know that they are special. And so I would take the moment I get, and spend it with those who make a difference to my life. And so I take this moment to pray that even if it is not in my control, may life give me the opportunity and the time, to build memories that can last beyond a lifetime. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Making India Work

Over the years I have a rule that I have followed consistently, in professional forums I do not comment on issues that are unrelated to either the topic at hand or which are outside the realm of my professional existence. However, a few days ago, for the first time ever, I broke my own rule.  

I have now been working in India for six years and have spent an equal amount of time in services and manufacturing. The one thing I have come to acknowledge is, a number of individuals have overcome humungous obstacles to achieve a standard of living that their parents could only dream of. Some of their stories give me goose bumps, each time I recount them. So whether it is the story of my colleague whose parents could not read and write but she is a finance professional today, or the story of the young man who moved from the village not knowing English, worked as a peon, attended night college to complete his bachelors and learn English, and then joined one of India’s largest private banks; every accomplishment makes me salute their spirit and achievements. The other thing I have come to appreciate is that while we may all have our differences, when any one of us is in need, the rest of us stand behind, solid as a rock. Recently, a colleague lost his ailing mother. He was out of town and sent an sms. That was all that was needed for the team to brave the torrential Mumbai rains, reach his house, help with all the formalities and last rite preparations and on top of it ensure that he took a flight which even with a delay would get him home in time. This extended support system is rarely seen in other cultures.

 Having said that, I must also admit, the one thing that agonises me the most is the tendency of Indians (me included, I am an Indian and proud to be one) to find someone else responsible for all the woes. Somewhere, accountability for our actions and responsibility for their consequences misses us by miles and miles. And it was a lamenting on similar lines when I decided to break my rule. On the topic of current GDP scenario, one gentleman started his rant on how Indians are intolerant, how the government is ineffective and how the media is irresponsible. After listening to him for five minutes, I had to ask – who are the intolerant Indians, who elects the ineffective government and who reads or watches the irresponsible media without ever writing to the Information and Broadcasting ministry? And then every citizen turns around and says, “what can I do all by myself”; and every time I have the same response, “every drop contributes to making the ocean”. Why do we hesitate to stop littering in public places? Why do we not go and vote even if it is NOTA? Why can we not stop reading and watching the overtly sensational media pretending to give us news and information? If each one of us takes the responsible step, we can usher in change. If we keep waiting for someone else to lead, then we will just have to make do with what we have!

Single person bringing in a different era - Idealistic? Maybe. Honest? Absolutely.  Not impactful? Not at all.

 Idealistically, the freedom struggle is quoted by many as an example of how ordinary citizens contributed to the nation gaining independence. Honest individuals have demonstrated, in recent times, how one person’s quest can lead to positive change – so be it Jessica Lal’s sister who finally got the country to rally behind her and get justice for her sister, or be it the story of how Popatrao Baguji Pawar’s foresight and efforts ensured that Hiware Bazar in the drought prone Maharashtra district of Ahmednagar became the only place in this year’s drought to be breathing; there are multiple incidents of one person creating an impact that can improve thousands of life. Yes these individuals could have waited for someone else but they did not. And yes they needed that every someone else to take some accountability and responsibility, and work with them, to achieve the end result!  

 Historians are writing eulogies about how great a nation we were. I believe, we are still a great nation, with inspiring citizens all around us. All we need is to rise to the occasion and create the consciousness that each one’s prosperity and happiness will only add to that of the others. If there is more money with a larger group of people, there will be more money for everyone eventually (an economic discussion that is for another post maybe). If there is greater harmony, there will be lesser strife. If there is more empathy, there will be fewer intolerance episodes. But none of this can come from the rule of law or from a dictate of any specific individual. This has to come from the individuals who form the civic society and only then will it be sustainable.

Louis L’Armour has summarised my thought beautifully, “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers."

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Seeds of Change

It had been two years, and I was still unsure how to address the situation with her. He was the only man she had ever known. He had been the love of her life. I had seen their relationship start. We were still in school then, and she was amongst my closest friends. Then came college and their love blossomed.  Finally, despite all the ups and downs they got married. And then came a time when they were not together.

So a year ago, two years post them not being together, I sat with her not knowing how she was. I had met her on and off but had never spoken about this. I guess old friends don't need words to understand one another, and she probably guessed what I was thinking. So she spoke about him first and then I gathered the courage to ask her if she felt cheated. Her response was of gratitude, "Sweetie I am glad for all the years I got with him. What would I do if I did not have those years to experience his love and how great an experience being with someone as generous as him can be! Do I have a regret, maybe a small one. But then I see other women around me who are letting their marriages and relationships suffer because of egos and not wanting to compromise. They are being so short sighted. They have a chance to build a better tomorrow, only if they could give in to small things that don't matter in the long run. But even if I want, I don't have that opportunity any more. No one comes back from the other side of life! This observation is more painful than my one my tiny regret."

This conversation has been etched in my memory ever since, not only because her positivity is inspirational but because I agree with her. There is incredible merit in evaluating adjustments for relationships that matter, and that is a personal view that as the days pass is only becoming stronger.

I lost my maternal grandfather when I had just entered my teens. I have always been saddened by the fact that I could not get to know that incredible human being better and spend more time with him. The last opportunity that I had to meet him, I lost, because I was busy studying for my exams. Academics was my oxygen those days, but today I realise that one grade lower and I would not have lost much in life. So six years ago when the opportunity came to move back to India I decided to take it up.

Appyrichvictor, a well wisher and a dear friend, called me post this decision and expressed his apprehension. In his view I was taking a step back in my career for which I had worked hard. In some ways he was right. But I wanted to move back to India for my parents and grandparents. I even joked with him that the move would make me richer as I would save on rent and utilities. Staying with my parents would take away my independence, I was told by many people. My answer to them in jest was that I was going to take away my parents' independence! Eventually, six years later what has happened?

I got to spend time with my paternal grandfather before he passed on four years ago. There were many evenings when I would scramble not much but thirty minutes to go sit with him or lay my head in his lap. Some of those evenings he would hold my hand tight, so tight as if asking me to be just there. Those largely quiet evenings got me closer to him. They showed me his will power, his tolerance for pain, his love for lemons, his total adoration of his two oldest children, his affection for me and his strong desire to see his family happy.

I recollect a meeting I had with the head of credit of a large private Indian bank. At the end of the meeting, seeing my last name the gentleman could not resist and told me the story of a Mr Bagrodia who was heading a textile company when he had just started working. The company's financials were in trouble and so as a youngster he had refused the loan renewal for this textile mill, only to be reprimanded by his bosses. Till Mr Bagrodia was there, the bank's loan was in good hands. I left that meeting feeling proud, humbled and glad that I had moved back to India. I feel blessed to be his granddaughter.

No amount of career progression would have enriched me, with my own lineage, as this incident did. No amount of money can ever repay those precious moments, when with my head in my grandfather's lap,  my inner child rejoiced. No amount of experience in London could give me contentment that I feel, everytime I think of how just the day before he left for the hospital for the last time, my grandfather bid me goodbye. He did not say a word. He just looked at me and held my hand. And then he left it and looked away. I remember walking to my father and asking him to leave everything and go sit with grandfather. A fortnight later he was watching over us from up above.

Moving back was a difficult decision. Adapting to a different work culture was difficult. But all change is and all adjustment is, especially when it involves letting go of something. The criteria that I use is what do I stand to gain by letting go. If the potential reward outweighs the opportunity cost, the plunge is worth it. I may have taken a pay cut in moving to India. My international experience may have been cut short. But I earned the love and blessings of my grandparents. I basked and continue to in the love of my family, and just that experience is priceless!

I had just started working in the UK when my niece, the first of the next generation was born. I will never forget that afternoon when I got the call. Oh how I wanted to see her! WhatsApp and face time did not exist then. So I had to wait for an email. By the time the email came, I think somewhere I had decided to travel to India and spend some time with the little one who had stolen my heart even before she was born. I had just decided to move into my own tiny apartment and the landlord wanted deposit money to hold the flat for the fortnight I planned to take unpaid leave. A month's rent when I was repaying a loan was a lot of money but I went ahead. I loved the apartment and I would not get these days back with my baby. If I had to have both I had to find a way.

I will never forget the little doll in her peach polka dot frock, lying on the bed, as I walked towards her. The first time I picked her up I knew she was my heart. Every night she was in my arms and I walked and sang her to sleep. Today, as she is about to enter her teens, we sing that song together and have a laugh. She still cuddles into me to hear a story and she calls me up without any hesitation if she needs help with homework. This love and bond are invaluable. For the loss of a little pay, I accumulated a lifetime of memories and a special bond; and I will repeat my decision if I had to.

At dinner I saw a woman ushering in a huge change and taking a leap of faith. She is nervous and scared; but she is filled with excitement and hope. At dinner I recounted an old friend's story to new friends. At dinner I relived some of my decisions. At dinner my belief was reaffirmed. 

As I am concluding this, I reacknowledge how right she was in making her statement - we can create a better future only if we accept that for a short while there maybe some adjustment needed. As I am concluding this, I am smiling in the understanding of the validity of  her joy - which is just as palapable as mine on my decision of moving back, despite all the perceived giving up I supposedly did. As I am writing this, it strikes me that though we feel the pain while sowing the seeds of change, by the time we reap the harvest, those adjustments are forgotten and only the gains remain. And just for that glorious bountiful golden harvest, the initial effort is worth it!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Women Empowerment - A Better Pool of Choices Please

After I published my post Women Empowerment - The Context of Us vs Them, for many days I was agitated. I wanted to do something to help her. I asked friends and acquaintances for suggestions. For a few days, everyday I would get a call from someone giving a suggestion that I would note down in my feasibility evaluation list. One such call came when I was sitting with a colleague and discussing a work problem at hand. However, solving "her" problem was also a priority, and so uncharacteristically I interrupted the discussion and took the call. Needless to say that my colleague heard the conversation.

As I hung up, my colleague turned to me and said, "how can we help?" And without thinking, without blinking, from I don't know where the words that came out were - "Can we brighten their Diwali? Can we give her and her daughter some clothes?" My colleague said most definitely and we continued our discussions. Later that evening, I sent a message to my team members, requesting for any clothes or utensils that they could spare for the mother daughter. Lo and behold, the Friday before Diwali, I had five bags full of clothes - bright, colourful and great quality daily and party wear! I was touched by the generosity of my team and of course delivered the surprise to the family promptly.

Why am I writing this today after all these days? Because I want to share what happened today.

Everyday after Diwali I would ask her why Shireen was not in her new clothes. Why was the child still wearing the old torn clothes? Everyday she would say, "Didi, tomorrow, promise." Today I asked her the same question yet again and she said, "On Friday is Tulsi Vivah (a Hindu festival). We will all go to the temple and now I am not busy selling flowers due to Diwali. So I can dress her up and I promise I will take a photograph and we will come to meet you. What is the use of her wearing such wonderful clothes when all she does is play in the dust! Let me enjoy her enjoying her new clothes on a festival."

Having an answer that I could not respond to, I asked her if she had worn any of the clothes that were for her. "Can I be honest with you didi", she asked. "Of course, my dear, always", I replied. "I sent them to the village with my parents. You see my elder and middle sister both ask if I have good clothes from Bombay to send to them and I never had any. This time I did. I get clothes here every once in a while and so am not in need. They may not be as colourful but I get my need satisfied. My sisters do not have this opportunity, so I sent the clothes for them. Please don't feel bad but I am telling you the truth."

Could have I felt bad after what I had just heard! She lives, eats and sleeps on the pavement along with her daughter. She has to worry about every next meal. She is fighting to keep her daughter with herself. And despite all these hardships, she has the magnanimity to look after her sisters! I was unable to say anything and so concluded our meeting with a hug and walked away.

As I am writing, I am staring out of the window and can see her and Shireen sleeping peacefully. Seeing them and thinking of our conversation earlier in the evening, my heart swells with emotions I cannot express. Recounting what she said I am humbled once again with her strength, positivity and generosity.

If I can help her, I will be fortunate. If not it's probably because I did not try hard enough. And on that note I say it yet again, she is making the tough choices but these are not choices out of freedom. Her life can be better and she is ready to work for it; but are we, as a society, ready to help her start somewhere? Will we give her the freedom to make a better choice? Will we empower her to give her daughter a better life? Or will she just remain a story that was written and read...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Women Empowerment - The Selfless and the Less of Self

The brother sister duo's school had started. They had enrolments, teachers and a sufficient temporary premises. Construction of a permanent building was being planned. It all seemed to be under control, and yet there was one person who saw through the calm. She understood that the sister needed someone trustworthy to shoulder the day to day responsibilities; someone who was truly dedicated to the cause and someone who could contribute to furthering the vision that is the foundation of the school. And so Shabri, as I would like to call her, volunteered her services. This is her story.

She got married as soon as she was of marriageable age. That she wanted to work and not enter matrimony was not understood by her parents. Not the one to cause friction when there could be other potential options, she agreed to get married. But with the one who now was her better half, she had a candid conversation. Not that home and family were less important but her desire to teach was strong and she requested his understanding. Her passion and honesty were easily understood and so he truly became the man behind a woman's dreams. 

She completed her teacher training and started to teach. They had two children who were brought up in a disciplined and value oriented environment. Her career continued on its path and so did the family life. It was a simple and complete kin. The children grew up, got married and by this time she had become a principal. All of them were proud of her, but none of this is extraordinary. This is the story of a number of families in India.

The true test came in mid 2016 when she retired. According to the government norms, once an employee crosses 60 they have to make way for the younger generation. This is when the brother sister duo's school had also commenced it's first year and seeing her friend's needs, Shabri decided to offer her services as a teacher in the school along with doing all that she could in the women's home. She asked for nothing in return!

The sister was stumped! Not because Shabri had offered her services but because offering those services meant that she would need to leave her family many many miles away and relocate to live in a village that offers the most basic life. There was no proper accommodation that the sister had to offer, after all she herself had decided to live in a make shift arrangement! And well a salary would not be what Shabri deserved! It was a wonder why had Shabri taken the decision and it was to be seen how her family would react.

When the day of reckoning came, the doctor husband turned to Shabri and asked her if this is what she truly wanted. The son asked her if they would see her at least during the summer holidays. Her answer to the first was affirmative and the second was a maybe,  if her responsibilities permitted. She also asked if she could use her pension to support herself as she would not want to be a burden on the brother sister duo. Seeing her passion and determination, the husband relented yet again and not only agreed to her request on her pension but also said that his help in cash and kind would always be readily available. He helped her pack, loaded the vehicle that was going to take her far away and with tears in his eyes bid her adieu. The son and the daughter in law joined him in a tearful goodbye. But not once did they stop her; and so she is here at the school, devoting all her time and life to those who need her.

Calling her Shabri seems only fit. In Ramayana we read about the Shabri who decided that it was more appropriate if she ate any rotten fruit than any such fruit finding its way to Lord Ram's plate. So she tasted each fruit herself, discarding the spoilt or tasteless fruit and only giving the juicy ones to the Lord. Similarly, the Shabri of today has decided that it is only apt that she undertakes the challenges rather than her friend's noble mission suffering for the lack of a trustworthy person. She is putting in 15 hours of hard work in the school and the women's home every single day only so that goodness and greatness can reach the needy. Such selflessness - demonstrated by Shabri and the doctor, one cannot deny his contribution- is completely rare in today's times...

As I finish making my tea and start to wash the pot, I hear Shabri scolding me;  another aunt worried that my cold will worsen if I wet my hands. Another elder telling me that I am not used to the winters of North India that have begun to set in and so I need to be careful. I tried, but I could not stop myself and I asked her why were there two standards of living - the easy one for me and the tough one for her. Her response was simple, " when you become a mother you will understand".

Will I ever understand these strong women; ladies who have lived tough lives on their own terms, pouring love and values into the lives of all those they have encountered? How can I even attempt to understand the sacrifices they have made, and yet have smiles that light up any room they walk into? Is it even right for me to think that I am capable of understanding them?

While I am contemplating all these ifs, the truth stares at me once again. I am face to face with a life that demonstrates that her happiness is thanks to the respect, trust and freedom of choice that she got. That she undertook struggles, because she had these all around her,  empowering her. She provided for her family, strengthened in the knowledge that give and take are for everyone alike on this planet and not for once feeling victimised or oppressed when she was the giver. She has embarked on a new life, at this age, only because she knows that her beliefs have the understanding of the most important people in her life and that she is truly loved and empowered. What a wonderful world it would be, if we could all live her way. What a wonderful world it would be, if we could all understand the doctor's ways. What a wonderful world it would be if we could all have a little bit of love, respect and honest communication is all our lives; but that would mean that we also give as much as we want to take. I leave the school and this story in this humble acknowledgement.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Can You Sense What I Do?

Most of us have been blessed with all the senses in the world - we can hear the music, smell the flowers, see the sunrise, taste the delicacies and express these experiences in words that are spoken. We can interact and communicate, and yet we don't say what we want to, or understand things differently than intended. And so with all our senses intact, even for while that it maybe, we miss the link and break the connection.
Then there are those who can see the world around them, savour the tastes and inhale the aromas; but they cannot say how these make them feel and they cannot hear the differences in opinions of others. Yet they are the ones who touch our hearts and communicate most honestly. They understand most readily that another individual may have a different experience and that only opens their hearts wider.
I understood this today by sheer chance and stand completely humbled. I am grateful for all my senses and will attempt to use them more efficiently. I pray that I can open my heart and mind, and interact with as much authenticity as I encountered today. I hope that when I hear I can empathise and when I  speak I can convey what I feel. If I can, only then I would have done right by the one who showed me the way today and only then would I be able to stand worthy of possessing all senses in all their glory.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Women Empowerment - The Context of Us vs Them

Returning from my evening walk, I spot her with her signature flowers, walking towards a car at the traffic signal. Where did the promise of my tube roses go, I wonder. With that thought I call out to her, and on the divider lovingly pull her ears. "Didi (an address for an elder sister) I am so sorry. Will get them tomorrow, but now can I pull your ears too please..."

This banter is quite usual between her and me, two strangers who meet at the same traffic signal; everytime that I walk past or drive by. A bright wide smile, lustrous black hair and a bunch of colourful flowers in her hands; she tells me small anecdotes each time and her smile transfers to me.

Last week as I sat in the car, waiting for the traffic signal to turn green, she knocked on the window. She never asks me to buy flowers and nor was that her desire then. She wanted to show me how her daughter was growing up. Shireen; she pointed out, with a mother's heart swollen with pride. Somewhere I sensed the pleasure was burdened with pain. Before I could ask what was bothering her my way was clear. The cars behind honking, I had no choice but to drive away. After I parked, I thought of going back to verify my suspicion but feared being interfering, and so buried my inkling....

"Of course you can pull my ears", and I bent my head towards her. 
She gently pulled one and said, "didi this is probably the last time you will see me. Post Diwali (the festival of lights coming up in 10 days) I am going away to the village". 
"For how many days?" 
"Maybe I will never come back!" 
"Oh sure, and I was born yesterday! You have been here forever! So when will you return and when will my tube roses come?"
"No didi, I am serious. I have never shared what I am about to, with you. Do you recollect, a few months ago, I had asked if you knew of anyone looking for domestic help? Well I have been asking multiple women and have been unable to find a job. The reason I was asking is because I want to get away from my husband; I need physical distance between us. He does not earn, drinks and then comes home to beat me up. I have legally divorced him but he wants us to remarry. How can I, when he does not respect me or support me? He comes even now, on the pretext of meeting Shireen and verbally abuses me. I am scared that one day he will hit our daughter. That I won't be able to tolerate. And so I want to go away."

My brain is processing this very slowly. I am not hearing this right or maybe my instinct last week was right.

"Didi I tried very hard to find a job but because of a two year old, no one will employ me as domestic help. I have no other skills and it's so expensive to live in Mumbai and send her to school."

Puzzled I stare at her. No solution comes to mind. She looks tired but not sad. She looks gentle and yet determined. She looks helpless but still is persuasive.

"So I am thinking of going away and renting a small room in Ahmedabad. There I can find a place for Rs 500 monthly rent, sell vegetables and get my daughter to study. Only if I could get Rs 5000 for the deposit I can manage all else."

My feet are glued to the ground and are not moving when suddenly her sister appears.

"Yes didi he verbally abuses us too. She is better off with some distance from him. Maybe with no way to get to her he will mellow down. But she has no money. we have no money. Who knows..."
"He has tracked me down when I moved away from here to a shelter. If I could get a job as domestic help, the fear of the employer would keep him away. He abuses the cops too. So not able to find a job, I have to leave. There is no option left. Promise me you will come to meet me before Diwali..."
"Of course I will..."

I make my promise, stroke her arm, pull her sister's cheeks and my feet start to drag me home.

My head is spinning. On the day that most women in the neighbourhood are fasting and praying for the long lives of their husbands, this one is struggling to find a way away from the one she has divorced. The irony of life!

I wrote, just last week, that to empower women we must allow them to live a life of their choice. But if she lives the choice she is being forced to make, will that truly empower her? I said, just last week, that emboldening girls will give them their rights. If she uses her confidence to move away from a place that is her home, will that be righteous? In this context it is not choice or confidence that she needs. She needs financial independence and some societal support...

I hope we can all educate our children and I hope we can all be respectful of one another. If not, then maybe some amount of affirmative action will always be needed. If not, then we will always remain weary of the other gender, and the us vs them saga will linger on. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Women Empowerment - A Life of Choice Lived for Others

Where do I begin,
To tell the story of how great a life can be,
The awe-inspiring story of the love she brings to all and me,
Where do I start?

This third story has been on the drawing board for days now. Everytime I attempt to complete it, I seem to go back to the beginning, feeling I have not done her justice. Maybe it's because this story is the closest to my heart. Maybe, because, while my parents gave me my dreams and the wings to fly, she helped me navigate the turbulent winds. Maybe, because, while my sisters showered me with selfless affection, she taught me to love even in the absence of warmth. Maybe, because, while my friends became my support system, she taught me to back my own self through stormy seas.

Her love and guidance are the reasons that I improve as an individual everyday. She is the reason that many young women have succeeded in living their choices by being confident, empathetic and patient; and not fighting under the auspices of feminism. She is the reason that multiple individuals have found harmony and peace despite most dire circumstances. And yes, she is the reason that I say women empowerment is truly about women living their choices and astutely using their abilities to make their dreams come true.


Born into a traditional family, she grew up in a smaller city in Uttar Pradesh. Adept at all house work, incredibly knowledgeable about all scriptures, loving and respectful towards elders and youngers alike; when she should have been getting married she declared that she wanted to give up the larger worldly and materialistic life. She wanted to work for welfare of the society and to spread education. This would only be possible if she could calm and center herself, and keep distractions and temptations at bay. Her choice seemed extreme and her future uncertain; but her knowledge of the scriptures and lessons from her father had taught her to follow her heart. The heart can never lead one astray;  on a difficult path yes, but never on the wrong path. And so she worked on helping the family understand her choice, and her need of their support to achieve her dream. Permission granted, she started her life's work 23 kilometres away from the city on the banks of the Ganges.

It was the early 1990s and she wanted to start a shelter for destitute women - child widows, homeless women of the streets and women spurned by their families. Construction of the shelter was to be done on land that her father had kept for her financial security. The land was duly donated to the Trust (that she had formed for the cause) before it was put to use. Though she was inexperienced, not knowledgeable and had little exposure; she took complete responsibility of the project from conceptualisation to completion. She learnt on the way and asked for guidance when needed; but otherwise in the relatively more conservative and aggressive heartland of India, managed every aspect of the project from monitoring construction workers, to negotiating with contractors, to dealing with government officers, all on her own. No bribes were given, no compromises made on quality and all work was done painstakingly in the manner that it should have been. It took longer than envisaged, but her conviction was that at the right time things would complete. Her determination and calmness did not waiver even for a day; even when locals created wrinkles by bringing up petty issues month after month. She provided all clarification, maintained her focus and kept to herself.

I am calling it a shelter but it is not that, and never was, right from day one. I just cannot seem to find a better word. Every lady was given a room, with an attached bathroom, to share with one other woman. Each one of them had a role to play, the responsibility of a daily chore - cleaning, washing, cooking a meal, tending to the garden etc. And everyone had a title with which they were addressed - bhua or mausi (Aunty) by the youngsters, behenji (Sister) by the elders, or mataji (Mother) by the daily visitors such as the milkman or the vegetable vendor. The same continues todate and it is one big happy family where there is mutual respect and affection, everyone works together, eats together and prays together.

The prayer sessions are all inclusive;  people from outside are welcome to join. Within the first few weeks of the morning prayers starting, she realised that outsiders who attended the sessions were those who had no means of support. So she decided that every one of them should be given a morning meal (rotis and a vegetable), raw dal (pulses), atta (unrefined flour), some salt and a token amount. The reason was simple - one meal taken care of and the basic ingredients of the next one provided for, they would be assured two square meals a day. This would reduce any provocation or temptation do indulge in anything unsavoury. The small sum would be saved, hopefully, and provide a contingency or emergency fund. Or else it would be pocket money to be used when simple wants arose.

Accustomed to waking up at 400am, she used the kitchen before anyone came to make breakfast and prepared the morning prayer meals for over 30 people, everyday. The ingredient packets were put together before she went to sleep each night. This was in addition to running the administration, finances and maintenance of the shelter; and being a friend, philosopher and guide to many like me who form her circle of family and friends. These were her desires and her aims, nobody else could be inconvenienced towards the fulfilment of the same.

All Trust expenses were (and are) met by dipping into the small savings that had accumulated during her tenure as a teacher,  the little money her father had set aside for her and what her brother and sister voluntarily contributed. Ocassionally, friends and family donated (and continue to do so). All proceeds were (and are) strictly used for the works of the Trust.

Money has no significance for her; beyond providing food, water and shelter for the women who she calls family for over two decades now. She owns no more than two or three sets of clothes that she washes herself and wears on alternate days. Jewellery has no place in her life. She eats only one meal a day, and that what is cooked for everyone else. There is no need to travel and if a need does arise, then the cheapest mode is used - tempo travelers, buses and trains at best. With her knowledge and application of ayurveda, a high pain threshold and tremendous amounts of self control; medical expenses are bare minimum. Cosmetics are alien to her and gifts not acceptable. She is content with as little as possible and in giving as much as she possibly can, both physically and emotionally.

To give a purpose to the lives of the scorned, to improve the lives of the villagers and to encourage a community feeling; in the late 1990s she decided to initiate a small sewing school in the premises of the shelter. It seemed to be the most interesting way to skill up the local population and productively engage all involved. The teachers were women of the shelter, students were women and girls of the village, and all material and equipment was provided by the Trust.

Once the pupils were capable, she requested the village women to get their sewing needs, big and small, fulfilled by the newly trained seamstresses. The Trust equipment could be used at no cost, but pre-intimation for planning was needed. Soon there was a thriving close knit community that formed. After lunch, when classes and sewing would be underway; laughter, happiness and melody would tiptoe everywhere that the women went. A sense of belonging was visible on every face on the premises. For those few hours, everyone forgot all worries of life and enjoyed the company of those present. It truly was a place under the sun that soaked everyone in the love of life.

But vagaries of life dance to their own tune. All of a sudden, there was a complaint raised that under the garb of a Trust she was running a commercial enterprise. The bank accounts of the trust showed balances that were embarrassingly low, even for a charity. Her own account had barely enough to meet her meagre monthly needs. Cash-in sources for the Trust were, in majority, identified as deposits made from her and her siblings' accounts. Expense reports and receipts were all available down to the last paisa. Villagers vouched that they never paid anything to the Trust or any teacher. Legally there could be no non-compliance and none was found. Morally not a blemish could be spotted. Ethically, those who were investigating, blushed when the squeaky clean and the noble way of working emerged. And yet someone somewhere decided that all the testimonies and proof were insufficuent and a legal notice was issued. The lessons, the assignments, the afternoon bliss; all came to a screeching halt.

I went to visit soon after, and in my wisdom told her that we should opt for judicial help. She had a simple answer, "the money and time we would spend in a legal battle can be used for better things. We have to find an alternative, non interfering means to improve life in the village, and in time that path will show itself. Maybe there is a worthier cause that we have missed." I was not convinced and said I would bear the legal cost. She asked me to give the estimated amount to those who needed it for education. When I was not convinced any other way, she took to Ramayana to make the point.

When Ravana abducted Devi Sita, Lord Rama did not need anyone's help to find her. He, the omnipresent and omnipotent, knew exactly who was responsible and where his beloved was. He could have waged a war right then and killed Ravana. Yet he went wandering in the dangerous forests, crying in grief and yearning for his wife. That is when Lord Hanuman met him and avowed to help find Devi Sita. When Lord Hanuman left with that aim, he was faced with crossing an ocean. He had forgotten his powers of flying and it was in the despair of not being able to keep his word to the Lord, that he was reunited with his power. Ultimately when war ensued, Laxman was gravely injured. The only cure for his wounds was available thousands of miles away in the Himalayas; and that is when Lord Hanuman's flying prowess showed it's glory. He flew from Lanka to Himalayas, secured the medicinal herbs and saved Laxman's life. So maybe this turn of events was necessary to usher in another effort that would touch and change many more lives. We had to be patient and calm to see how future unfolds. If the laughter had ceased, she was convinced that so would the eerie afternoon silence of the premises. This explanation and chain of thoughts I could not refute; and was once again left speechless by her equanimity, faith and selflessness.

Time continued on its journey and she continued on her path, toying with multiple ideas to bring about a positive difference in the village life. But every idea conflicted with her ideology of non-interference or spoke of significant capital requirements. Amongst all the plans that she brought up over the years, the one that kept resurfacing was that of starting a school. Her only hitch in starting one was the need of place and capital. Both were in short supply and hence her dream remained just that, a dream.

Where there is a will there is a way. When the desire is deep from the heart then the mind is forced to carve out solutions. That is what happened last September. She called up her brother with the perfect solution for a space for the school. It was the premises of the shelter. The women living there would keep their rooms and the kitchen. But all other available rooms, including her own room, the prayer hall, the communal dining area etc. would be converted into classrooms. To begin with, there would be enough space to create decently sized classrooms from nursery to grade five and a staff room. The space available in front of the shelter could be used to create two rooms that could be used as the principal's office and a small accounts office. The garden of the shelter could be used as the playground and to hold events on independence day, republic day, annual day etc. He would need to help her with the funds.

The brother asked her not to worry about finances, his life savings were hers. But where would she live and sleep? That was simple she said - on a folding bed in one of the classrooms. In the evening, post dusk, the bed would be opened and laid in the room after moving the classroom furniture. The next day before dawn she would fold it back and rearrange the desks and tables. Waking up early, not sleeping in the afternoon and having one meal a day; all these helped in that she would need no space through the day. Her training was probably for this day! And if this was not acceptable, she said she would sleep in one of the tiny storerooms that housed all the linen of the shelter. She was ready to make do with even lesser, only to see her dream come true. She now was derermined to start an English medium school and provide the village children with an environment that not only made them literate, but educated them about the rich heritage and culture of our nation, and the newer ways of life that will change the world of the young ones. 

While her brother was taking his time in weighing the merits of her proposition, she started  speaking to a few young and trusted locals. Soon there was a troop of volunteers to help with tasks such as admissions, finding teachers, designing uniform and doing the clerical and office work. She started thinking of a name for the school. She called an old friend, who now runs a school, to understand what it would take to run one herself. Her passion, conviction and relentlessness forced the brother to cave in. He took on the responsibility of doing the paperwork and raising or providing the funding.

In February this year, the school was inaugurated. While the brother sister duo had envisaged only about fifty children to start with, they were astounded with a hundred and fifty plus admissions. Fees payable by students such as young Ali, whose father was lynched to death by a mob and whose mother washes utensils to provide her children with two meals a day, was waived. Trying to minimise expenses, she decided to herself make and serve tea to the staff and the teachers, thrice a day. To ensure standards are maintained and laws followed; administration, accounts and maintenance are all personally looked into by her. All events are planned under her guidance. Teachers, students and parents can see her at any point in time for grievance addressing. This, of course, is in addition to still doing all the work that she has committed to at the shelter.

Last month I went to spend a weekend with her. She was snowed under responsibilities but content at seeing her dream coming true. She had not a minute to herself but still found time to listen to my stories, grunts and dreams. She put her folding bed in the classroom but suggested that I stay at a nearby guesthouse so that I was comfortable. In awe, I burst out laughing. How could she be so selfless and so loving! I was there to be with her, and would sleep on the floor if I needed to; if she has lived her life as she has, I could live with just a bit less for just two days.

Everyday when I speak to her, I come face to face with the fact that just like respect, empowerment has to be earned. She chose her life with her heart. She fought her battles with grace. She soars in victory with humility. And that is how she brings alive the words of Jacqueline Bisset - Character contributes to beauty. A mode of conduct, a standard of courage, discipline, fortitude and integrity do a great deal in making a woman beautiful and a life meaningful. Yes empowerment is earned and cannot be demanded; that is a lesson I have learnt, and now need to master. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Women Empowerment - Against all Odds

"Is this what you plan to wear while you go out to meet your friends, shop or go and do whatever it is that you do? I don't approve of it. But well, I have lived my life on my terms and so who am I to stop you." A rare but loving sermon over, I looked at her, smiled, gave her a hug and was out of the door. Neither was I dressed inappropriately nor was this my grandmother, mother or sister. This was the lady who cooks for the family and her only point was that, as far as she is concerned, I look my best in sarees and so should be wearing only those.

She has always been vocal about her views, protective about us sisters and I adore her. She is my second story, my second reminder of the wonders that self belief can lead to.

Sense and Sensibilities

The Relentless, as I call her, follows Swiss watches and has been doing so ever since she started working. Consequently she is always dot on time. Never has there been a day when she has taken a holiday without giving sufficient prior notice. And even those holidays, annually, can be counted on fingertips. There have been less than a handful of instances in her tenure with us, when she has asked for an advance or a loan against salary. All of this has been consistent for almost quarter of a century and for eighty percent of that, she has been the sole bread winner for her family; a family of four plus a mother and a mother-in-law.

How did she become so self reliant, self sufficient and self confident? As a curious teenager I had asked her this question while still relatively new, she stirred the delicious pav-bhaji (minced vegetables stewed in tomato puree, spices and butter). Her regular stern look refused to deter me that day. I was taking a break from my study schedule and could do with some conversation; I left her no choice and she minced no words.

As is the case in most Maharastrian families, she got married at a young age and did not see her husband till the wedding night. On that night, as an expectant young bride, she waited for her husband to walk in confidently, only to find a drunk man barely managing to sway in through the door. She was not new to the stench, but she was not prepared for this to be the foundation of the rest of her life. Reality had jolted her out of her demure bride's blissful dreamland!

Her husband was a gambler and a drunkard. He was hardly able to keep jobs and what he earned was lost to the addictions. Relentless decided that she would put in the labour needed to buy food for and clothe the family. The first job offer she got was from a Bengali woman who lived several miles away, but she accepted. Every morning she would wake up at 500am finish the domestic chores, leave home at 700am and reach her employer at sharp 900am. After she cooked lunch at that house and helped with the daily tasks, there was still time left. So she took up a few jobs in nearby households. At 600pm she would make her way to the station, reaching home by 800pm to finish the remaining home chores. She did not cook at home. That was her mother-in-law's pet peeve. It was a hard existence which she had almost accepted as her fate until one dark monsoon night when it became her choice, her self esteem and her persona.

Her eldest son was running a fever. It was late at night, pouring heavily and it was becoming critical to take the child to the doctor. The father was nowhere to be found and there were the mother-in-law and two children at home to care for. She wanted some help but none was available. Suppressing all emotions - anger, frustration and fear - she made her way to the emergency room. The child was admitted immediately and the treatment started.

Back home, in the wee hours before dawn, she waited for the man of the house to return. It was still pouring outside and after many cups of hot water she was finally able to feel the dampness go out of her bones when she heard the knock. She opened the door and he stood in all his glory, laced with the scent of alcohol and devoid of any sense that a human being should possess; forget a responsible father of three young ones.

He took one wavering step inside the house, when overcome with self respect, she used all her might and pushed him out, into the heavy downpour. He glared and stared and she silently growled back. The mother-in-law emerged from the shadows and Relentless turned to her, "this is my house. I earn and run it. If you want to be with your son you can go out too. If he wants to come in, he will have to come in sans the alcohol and with some sensibilities of his responsibilities. Otherwise I am capable of taking care of myself and my children. I am done carrying his burdens." The mother-in-law retreated inside and the husband spent the entire night outside. That one surge of strength and confidence ushered in a new her and newfound respect for her amongst the family members, including the husband.

The son in the hospital was in a serious condition. She continued to work and care for him, and the father started being around too. But it was too late for him, soon the son died. He was free from his suffering was her take. The husband saw her immense strength and his core was shaken. What had he done to deserve this selfless, nurturing and principled woman as his life partner? Just that thought forced him to stop drinking. He started keeping small jobs and taking some responsibility at home even if it meant only ferrying the children to and from school. But years of abuse had rendered his liver weak and his strength was limited. In a few years time he succumbed to liver failure but not before letting his wife know that the last few years of his life was when he truly lived. It was now her two children and her mother-in-law who comprised her family.

As she closed her narration, my next question popped out. Why was she still following the same back breaking routine? She had avowed to educate her children and make them into responsible human beings. She liked the houses she contributed to. She knew that her gruel had helped her deal with life's blows and not become a victim of circumstances. So this was going to be it until she could physically find it possible to continue.

The wide eyed, confused and overawed teen me, picked up some pav-bhaji and strolled into my room, back to my books. I could not comprehend her tremendous resolve and decided to stop giving her grief over her occasional tobacco chewing.

Six years ago when I moved back to India she was still around. Her daughter had been married by then and was a mother already. The daughter had a driver and a help as well. Her son was doing well in his career, was married to a nice girl and had a nice house for himself. Backup! Why was her son living separately? Why was she still travelling four hours a day and still exerting beyond her years? Why could she not take it easy? Because she would not be a burden on her son and his family. Because she wanted her self reliance and self sustenance intact till the day she died. Because now after her children were settled the responsibility of her mother-in-law and mother was hers. When did her mother move in with her; I don't know. But I know she was a tremendously proud mother who died recently and that was the first time Relentless took time off without a notice.

I could go on about how Relentless built a new home in the village, and refusing to take help from her son-in-law chose to sell her home and move further away to a place that increased her commute. But if I continue her story I would not know when to stop, and I am sure there is no more evidence needed to see very clearly how this woman made her own choices, gathered confidence when the best of us would sink into the depths of self pity and depression and has moved from strength to strength. Relentless highlights how women are not weak and cannot be oppressed if they so choose. I think women just don't have confidence and self belief that they can overcome any obstacle and have it all.

It is ashtami today, the eighth day of Navratri, the day Hindus prays to Goddess Durga - the symbol of strength, the destroyer of evil and the all benevolent and nurturing mother of all. How apt is it that I am writing about Relentless today, not only because she personifies all of the above but also because her name is another name for Devi Durga herself!