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. 

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