THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 4. BHOOPALI
Bhoopali Nisal was fast asleep when her father answered the telephone about 1.30 a.m. on November 16, 1995, at their Ahmednagar residence. Without telling her anything, he immediately started. His destination: Bhoopali’s elder sister Deepa’s place in Pune, where he had bid bye to Deepa just a few hours before. Where he would now reach to find her dead.
At 19, married for about a year, Deepa was full of life—astronomer, actress, photographer, poet, dancer, musician, state-level badminton and basketball player, and studying-to-be a polymer engineer. True to her name, Deepa was a lamp of happiness who lit up lives around her.
For Bhoopali, tai was more than a sister, older and wiser. She was parent, friend and guide. A relationship of deep love that only got stronger even after Deepa, much to the surprise of everyone, agreed to an early marriage when a close family friend proposed.
Violence that left no sign
“The violence started just about three months after the marriage. However, there was never any mark of the beating she got on her body. I was 15 then, and like everyone else, I hoped things would settle down and my dear tai would be happy. Every night at 10 p.m. we would both talk over the phone, sharing everything,” Bhoopali recollected. “Finally, when she met Papa the day before she died, she told Papa that it was getting too much. They decided that after appearing for her last paper in the examination, a week away, she would return home.”
“The news of Deepa’s death was such a shock that I lost my ability to speak for a few days,” Bhoopali remembered.
After a couple of days, her father asked Bhoopali, “Do you believe that your tai would commit suicide?”
Bhoopali was emphatic, “No way!”
“Then what are you sitting around for?” her father replied. “Get up! We have to fight!”
The fight begins
Ten years of struggle followed. Countless visits to the court, police, lawyers, VIPs, anyone willing to listen and help them get justice. Bhoopali put aside any thought of her own career or life. She had dreams of studying aeronautics in Chennai. With the case on, she was tied to Ahmednagar and Pune. She settled for a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from Ahmednagar in 2000.
Her father too ended up paying less attention to his construction business. The fight demanded every moment of their time, and tested every fibre of their patience and determination.
“It was so frustrating how the system worked against you. We simply did not have the resources. I remember poring over medical books and talking to doctors to establish that the nature of the brain haemorrhage the autopsy had revealed indicated not an overdose of contraceptive pills, as the lawyers tried to establish, but trauma.”
Regardless of the setbacks, young Bhoopali was as determined to keep the fight going as her father, if not more.
Service as salve
During their struggle, they got acquainted with others who were also fighting a seemingly hopeless fight against an uncaring system.
“There were so many people, many of them women, with zero support, fighting on in the hope of getting justice. In comparison, even though we were not rich in terms of resources, we had our friends and family with us. They were totally lost. Papa thought the best we could do to honour tai’s memory was to do something to empower people with education and guidance.”
They set up the Deepa Nisal Smruti Pratishthan (Deepa Nisal Memorial Foundation), a year after Deepa’s demise. Over a period of time, the Pratishthan got into several activities, all based in Ahmednagar.
Support and education
One of the first institutions the Pratishthan set up was a public library and a study centre. “Papa strongly felt that the answer to gender discrimination and domestic abuse lay in good, early education,” Bhoopali explained.
“Presently, the library has more than 15,000 books. The study centre benefits those who lack the space or the books to study at home. It has been very useful to many students from various parts of Maharashtra, especially those who are preparing for MPSC and UPSC examinations. Some of those who made good use of this are now occupying high posts in government service. Tai would have been proud.”
Nyayarth is another Pratishthan venture that provides guidance and counselling to those seeking justice. Bhoopali said, “Papa’s efforts made it acceptable and easier for girls to return to their parents, if the marriage was not working out. While counselling reunited some, others found more suitable partners and led happier lives. One may go through a bad patch, but that is no reason to end or take a life.”
Bhoopali continued, “Through Nyayarth we guide people so that they follow the right course of action. Most cases we see are of domestic abuse where women are at the receiving end of physical and verbal abuse. In some cases, men are the victims.
“Fortunately, in Tai’s case no one changed his or her testimony in court. However, in several cases that we handled through Nyayarth, we found that change of testimony was a frequent problem. This made us lay emphasis on scientific evidence, which does not change in the course of time. So, now we have a forensic expert in our team, who helps people understand medico-legal reports and how to make the right use of those.
“Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, many people give up when they discover it is a slow and tough fight. It is disappointing when we invest our efforts for a long time and then all of a sudden, they withdraw. We just move on.”
Under Devrai prakalp, the Pratishthan undertakes tree plantation drives in nearby villages. So far, more than 400 trees have been planted in six villages.
Then came a computer institute open to everyone. The training was free or at a nominal cost. The Vanaushadhi Prachar Kendra was an earn-and-learn venture where students sold herbal medicines. The profits were used to fund their education. The Pratishthan also set up an Aaji-Aajoba Centre. This was an activity centre for senior citizens. These three ventures were closed down in 2006.
The Pratishthan started observing every November 16th as Deepa’s smrutidin by organising an all-Maharashtra competition—photography and Marathi poetry, both favourites of Deepa. For the contestants, it was a prestigious achievement to find their winning work (picked by independent judges) published at the end of the year. Blessed by luminaries in the field, it soon became a national event and even started attracting entries from other countries.
“One day I received a call from a girl in Maharashtra, asking about her entry to the competition,” Bhoopali narrated. She took it to be a routine call and confirmed that the judges had received her entry and she would soon receive an acknowledgement letter by post. “Please don’t!” was the surprising response from the caller.
The girl was deeply interested in poetry and that was the reason she had participated. “My people (in-laws) at home do not know I write poetry. If they come to know, they will beat me up. So, please don’t send any communication and please don’t publish my name.”
When all entries were adjudged, her poem turned out to be among the top 20 entries. “Sadly, we did not publish her poem as we do not publish anonymous entries. And we did not want her to get into trouble,” Bhoopali said.
The case drags on
Meanwhile, the case was dragging on. “After the district court awarded life imprisonment, the accused was in prison for barely three months,” Bhoopali said.
“They filed an appeal in the High Court. That meant we now had to make frequent trips to Mumbai. That really took a toll on us. There were times when I did not have enough money to return to Ahmednagar from Mumbai. We were fighting a strong adversary. Just to encourage me to give up, someone tried to run me down. Papa’s health was failing, and he asked me to give up and focus on my career.”
Bhoopali’s father, now a broken man, passed away on June 17, 2005. Bhoopali decided to keep up the fight, all by herself.
“In a curious turn of events, despite the arrangements I had made to be present on all critical days, the court ruled against us when I was not present. Also, a few procedural blocks ensured that I lost out an opportunity to take the case to the Supreme Court.
“We lost but, at Nyayarth, I now make it a point to narrate the mistakes I had made so that others have a better chance of getting justice.”
Wearing father's hat
The very evening her father passed away, Bhoopali was taken aback when 700 people came to see her. “They were the daily wage earners who had been employed by my father. Now that father was gone, there was no job. And without a job, they were afraid they would starve. They wanted to know if I had any plans for them.” Bhoopali heard them out and sent them away with the promise to figure out a solution.
She consulted her mother. With so many families depending on them, there was only one solution. She had to take over immediately. “My mother was very composed. She asked me to go ahead,” Bhoopali said.
The next day, after immersing her father’s ashes, Bhoopali went to his office. She called every employee. Took charge of every pending job. They used to renovate bungalows and build temples. “It was difficult for me to understand the intricacies of civil engineering, given my limited exposure to mechanical engineering,” Bhoopali said.
Over the next two years, she completed the remaining jobs, ensured that everyone found other jobs and closed the company down. “Unfortunately, stating some reason or the other, no one paid me any money during those two years. Suddenly, I found myself in a desperate state. I needed a job to support myself and my mother.” Bhoopali got ready for another struggle.
Born, the entrepreneur
On the strength of her old diploma, she found a job as an inspector for an engineering company. “The job involved visiting various engineering companies and inspecting their facilities and work. That gave me the opportunity to understand the world of engineering as a business. Slowly, I gathered the courage to start my own enterprise.”
Beginning with a borrowed lathe and a drill and working from a small rented place was not the real problem. “No one was willing to give me an order. You are a woman. How can you do a machine job? I kept hearing that.”
Worse, the industrial park where she started out had no toilets for women. She had to put up with that for four years.
“The biggest plus when I moved to my own factory building in my own plot, in 2013, was that I finally had a toilet for women,” Bhoopali said. Not that she succeeded in recruiting a woman mechanical engineer or even finding one in her vicinity. Now that she has a team of ten and has a good track record, “it is easier for me to approach new clients. People no longer ask me if I have come for an accounts or office job.”
Remembering tai's words
During her long conversations with her irreplaceable tai, there are a few pieces of advice that young Bhoopali imbibed, even though at that time she was too young to understand those fully.
“Whether you get married or not, adopt a baby girl. I wanted to, but now I don’t think it will be possible. Please name her Srujan.”
Srujan, all of 6 months, came home on January 12, 2012.
“Some think that when we adopt a child, we are doing an orphan a favour,” Bhoopali pointed out. "My experience is that we do not adopt a child, the child adopts us. At a time when everything was gloomy and there was hardly any conversation at home, Srujan adopted our family and lit up our lives again. My mother was reborn.”
For some reason, as soon as she could speak, Srujan decided to call Bhoopali baba (father) instead of the expected aai (mother). “Initially, we tried to correct her. She wouldn’t change. Then I accepted that it really doesn’t matter,” Bhoopali said. The two were a hit in Srujan’s school during Father’s Day.
Srujan knows that she is adopted, and she has some idea about what happened to tai. “I keep telling Srujan that there is nothing that she cannot do. Makes no difference that she is a girl,” Bhoopali said.
Indeed, Srujan cannot have a better role model than her baba. Here is a partial list of Bhoopali’s achievements: National Technological Innovation Award for her final-year project of conversion of two-stroke petrol engine to two-stroke L.P.G. engine; tabla visharad (“can play any musical instrument”); state-level cricketer (leg-spin and batting), horse-riding champion, and karate and judo exponent. Her multifaceted personality (academics, music, sports) has won her a permanent place of pride among other luminaries in the prestigious Marathi Encyclopaedia.
Lunch and her cartoon show done, Srujan joins us.
She follows the conversation closely. When Bhoopali talks of girls and boys being equal, Srujan interrupts, “I tell everyone there no difference between girls and boys. They don’t listen.”
The pout that follows is that of a child. But I find the accompanying anger that flashes in Srujan’s eyes very grown-up.
THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 3. HEMLATA
A suicide ended Hemlata’s first job with an NGO. It was probably no big deal for the locality in New Delhi, where gender decides the value of a life. But it shook up Hemlata, then in her early 20’s.
“I will never forget her beautiful face and smile. And she was among the brightest in the class.” The memory still haunts Hemlata. “I fell sick. It took me a few days to feel strong enough to face the world again.”
The NGO was doing a good job of ensuring that the children came to class and got good education. “However, we failed to truly connect to the children. Later, the locals said she had ‘something’ going on with a boy. At the age of 12? And we had no clue that she was so desperate?” Hemlata considered it her personal failure.
At the education centre that she heads today, Hemlata is more than a teacher. She is a dear friend, a trusted confidant and a role model to her students.
Thanks for letting a girl study
Hemlata was born in Bareilly as the oldest of two brothers and three sisters. The family moved to Delhi when she was barely one.
She remembers her father’s words when he took her to college: “This degree will open up many doors for you. Please study well.”
Hemlata had already started tuitions at home to pay for her graduation and her personal expenses. “Looking at the state of girls where I lived, it was enough that my parents were letting me study. I did not want to burden them more with money problems.”
She passed her B.A. examination from Delhi University in 2012. She wanted to complete her B.Ed. immediately after but her financial condition did not permit that. (Hemlata has now taken up B.Ed. and has already completed one year.)
In order to help her mother, Hemlata decided to stay at home for some time. She used that time to tutor her younger brother. She also tried her hand at becoming an electrician. That didn’t work out.
Teaching beckons to hostile lanes
Her first love, teaching, was calling her again. She applied to another NGO that was about to start a centre to teach girls at Kalyanpuri, two kilometres away from her place.
The task was daunting. The locality was not safe for girls. Hemlata had to go there as an outsider and conduct a house-to-house survey to enrol potential students. Then she had to persuade the sceptical and at time hostile parents let the girls come to the new centre.
Sure enough, she had to put up with some nasty comments as she negotiated the narrow lanes. Banking on the encouragement she received from her team, she persisted. She armed herself “with a thick skin and plenty of hope.”
Most initial visits were just to establish herself as a harmless visitor with a positive intention. Whenever she came across a family that had school-going girls, she would ask if the children were receiving tuition. Most parents could not afford the money or the time (in Kalyanpuri it is considered unsafe for girls to walk alone). So, would they consider sending the girls to the new centre nearby for free tuition? Maybe for an hour to begin with? The parents could also come along to see what was happening. Please?
Her perseverance paid off. “In about 20 days, I managed to enrol 54 students.” The centre started in May 2016. Later, she would help recruit another teacher, Bharti, and take the tally higher.
Nurturing dreams, equipping for reality
The main objective at the centre where Hemlata plays the lead role is to ensure the girls remain successful in school at least until grade 12. So, they get supplementary education in the main subjects like Mathematics, Science and English.
However, the care is not limited to academics. “We pay attention to their nutrition. There are regular health check-ups. We help uncover and develop the artist in them. We encourage them to express themselves freely. We make them confident enough to stand on their own in society. The martial arts classes help.”
“They are in their early teens and very impressionable. We keep talking about various aspects of life—good touch and bad touch, and the importance of pausing to think before taking any important decision. The teachers look out for subtle changes in attitude, in dressing and in dealing with others. And we stay in touch with the parents.”
Hemlata clarified that the idea was not to dictate how the girls ought to live their lives. “We encourage them to make friends and to spend time with others regardless of gender. However, if the cues are not right, we caution them. Is a friendship becoming an obsession, a distraction that pushes everything else away? Do you end up doing things on the sly? Do you find yourself telling lies often?”
She remembers a case where a girl was all set to elope with a boy. When the parents got wind of it, they made matters worse by preparing to marry her off immediately (early marriage is common as a "safe" option). It took several rounds of counselling to restore normalcy.
“The tendency is to come down on the girl heavily and ban everything. What she really needs is a friend, not a disciplinarian, someone willing to hear her out. We told this student she was at liberty to choose her friends and a life mate. The choice was acting in haste now, losing her education and the regretting it later. Why not wait until she was old enough to take a mature decision? Wouldn’t the relationship have a better chance if they waited until they were both older and independent?”
Keep learning and help others learn
Three years after Hemlata braved the hostile lanes to enrol them, the girls are today more confident and better equipped to tackle the world on their own. One girl had enrolled from a locality where conditions were the worst. While the teachers helped her with personal hygiene, it was a task to make her sit properly in one spot. However, she was a keen observer and noticed how her fellow students were behaving in class. Soon, she was chastising others who behaved badly.
Another student began as a very shy girl. She too absorbed what was happening around her and made Hemlata her role model. Now she is confident enough to mind the class when required. “The transformation came from within her; we just let her discover herself,” Hemlata said.
Hemlata has now taken on the responsibility of running more educational initiatives. She is training more teachers to be mentors. She would love to see more such centres in economically diverse locations.
“Here we had to deal with reluctant students and reluctant parents. It took our team quite some time, but I believe that we have succeeded in changing the mindset of the local community. I am sure there must be other families, maybe in different economic brackets, keen to educate their girls. They don’t know where to go. Here we go beyond tuitions and examinations and prepare the girls to fare better in life with confidence. My experience tells me more girls deserve that opportunity,” Hemlata said.
Her mission is clear. “I want to keep learning and help more girls learn to cope with life.”
Pooja Varma, a development professional, who played a key role in recruiting Hemlata and then went on to work with her, is amazed by Hemlata’s growth. “From someone not at all sure of herself, she is now a confident leader and an efficient trainer. She is sensitive to the feelings of the girls, knows them well, and yet respects their privacy. I remember the bold stand she once took to refuse all scholarships because the money was offered only to a few students. She felt that kind of discrimination would cause major disruption and undo all the good they had managed to achieve. Hemlata is mentoring more teachers to be more than just teachers in the academic sense. I am sure she will go on to guide more and more girls discover themselves. She will give them the courage to dream and the wings to fly.”
Hemlata is currently associated with iDream.
THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 2. ROMESH
Tomatoes are important. Ask Romesh Kumar, a farmer in Pachote village in Chenani, Udhampur, Jammu.
“When we formed groups to try out new techniques to cultivate vegetables and flowers, women farmers from Mandlote village thought it was a joke,” Romesh remembered. They had never been able to cultivate vegetables in Mandlote. So, how were they, some of them helpless widows with children, expected to believe Romesh?
Believe they did! In a few months, thanks to the support and encouragement from fellow farmers led by Romesh, they produced enough tomatoes to eat at home.
“That was the turning point! From hand-to-mouth survival on maize and the occasional kadam (a local leafy vegetable; Kohlrabi) they now had the luxury of eating fresh tomatoes during family meals!” Romesh said.
Of course, Romesh had his own doubts, too. So, he decided to experiment. “I planted 1,300 tomato saplings in about one kanal (eight kanals make one acre). I put to use all the new techniques I had learnt. I ended up getting about 40 quintals of tomatoes!”
For a traditional farmer, used to the same manual methods for at least four generations, it was a miracle to end up with that much produce, mound after mound of luscious tomatoes!
The traditional farmer in Romesh continued to be sceptical when he went on to plant capsicum. “Nobody has ever grown capsicum in my village on a commercial scale. So, I decided to take a chance with just four lines of plants.”
It was a “gigantic” success! The capsicums weighed 250 gm each on an average. Romesh the modern farmer was born; so was Romesh the guide and mentor to fellow farmers.
From farmer to leader
Born in 1983, as the oldest of three brothers and a sister, Romesh had to give up school during grade 9. “My father was finding it difficult to manage everything. So, I joined him and picked up farming.”
He is happy that his brothers were able to complete school. And he will ensure that his two sons (12, 5) get good education. “Maybe if I were more educated, I would have learnt all these new things faster and better.”
“Not so long ago, after putting in a lot of hard work across 10 kanals, we would barely get ₹ 1 lakh a year. Now, if you follow the right techniques, you can get the same income from just one or two kanals. It is not a matter of luck, just simple, systematic effort using scientific methods.”
The 50 farmers Romesh has guided to prosperity so far are happy to agree.
The project that taught and supported farmers like Romesh to cultivate vegetables and flowers was discontinued in October 2018. Romesh goes on. Without all the institutional and expert support, is it worth the extra effort?
“Some five years ago, we all started learning together, thanks to the project. Lessons were taught to groups of farmers, demonstrations were given to groups, benefits were given to groups. Individually, none of us could afford to buy a diesel plough. Together we did and that too with government subsidy. We took turns to plough our land. When all of us use our resources like land and water the right way, the benefits are multiplied for every family. Every child eats better and gets the chance to study well. We have to just keep going, try to do better, support one another. I am grateful I was given this opportunity.”
His initiatives to help others made him a popular candidate for the local body elections. Not surprisingly, he won the Ward Panch position in December 2018.
Being the bridge to benefit
Today, he is an important bridge between various government departments and his fellow farmers. He understands the needs of the farmers in different villages. He recommends beneficiaries for government subsidies and schemes including those for seeds and home.
How does he pick a beneficiary? “I verify that the beneficiary has a genuine need and the willingness to make full use of the benefit within the prescribed deadline. Else, they would be denying someone else an opportunity.”
His days are longer now, and he has to walk longer distances. What else has changed?
“I have never felt that I am someone special. I am one of them, another farmer. We have all been through difficult times. Now, a few of us have seen some success. All I am doing is sharing a little knowledge, giving them a little confidence. So that more of us can succeed.”
Ashishkumar Patel, a development professional, who worked with Romesh through the duration of project, said: “Projects may start and end. But it takes a hardworking local person to assume the leadership role to ensure its success during and, more importantly, after the project is over. I am happy to have witnessed Romesh’s growth. Now, his personal mission is to continue to work for everyone’s success. I am sure Romesh will achieve greater success in this project.”
As usual, Romesh’s day had started before the sun rose. Now, before it gets too hot, he is gearing up for a regular trek, with his brothers who are his co-farmers and a couple of neighbours. They load some crates and gunny bags full of capsicums and tomatoes on two mules. The rest they carry on their heads and shoulders. They have a testing kilometre and half to cover, all uphill.
Once they reach the highway, the produce will travel to the market. And Romesh will proceed to a meeting with the government officers and community members.
THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 1: GUS
After I read a newspaper report about the state of drought in Maharashtra and how man and animal were both at the mercy of the next monsoon, I called up my friend. He is the CEO of a company that is involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) work (including water conservation) in several villages.
“I appreciate your concern, Mohan! We now have someone looking after our CSR activity. I will ask him to speak to you. Catch up later!”
That was abrupt! Was he too busy running the business to bother about CSR? My conversation with his new CSR Manager a day later was revealing.
“Thank you, Mr Joshi for your interest in my work. To be honest, I am busy with my year-end paperwork. I have budgets to prepare and I need to close year-end issues with our partner NGOs. Your suggestions are great, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to take up anything new. I have just one intern to help me. And the boss wants the impact presentation tomorrow.”
While I commiserated with him, I could not help wondering if the profit centres in my friend’s company made do with one intern and used that excuse: no bandwidth.
Saving 5000 mothers
Around the time Indian law mandated companies to spend a portion of their profits for social good, some of us were in Jawhar, a remote district in Palghar, Maharashtra. This place had various problems, but the specific issue on our radar was maternal mortality.
It was a familiar story—early marriage, the pressure to give birth to a male child leading to repeated pregnancies, no access to medical care and utter neglect of nutrition. Haemoglobin levels in expectant mothers in the region were at times less than 4 g/dl (whereas in a normal, urban setting a drop below 10 g/dl is enough to set off alarm bells).
Over the next three years, we achieved a fair amount of success—Hb levels rose, maternal mortality fell. Apart from the government, the Indian Medical Association and the NGO Pragati Pratishtan, many shared our work and the satisfaction we derived from it.
I remember interacting with the audit team from one of the companies. They came there to ensure the medicines were being put to good use. They went back transformed, having seen how they were helping transform the very lives of poor villagers and save many mothers and infants.
I shared the Jawhar story with my busy CEO friend as we met at a Rotary lunch. I believed the audit team went back more committed to their employer, more charged up to do better work, I told him. And all of them became ambassadors for their company’s products. The other participating companies too must have experienced the positive change, if they had bothered to keep their customers and employees posted.
I was getting somewhere, but I could see my friend was still sceptical.
“So, like you guys did in Jawhar, my employees go out there, solve the drought and my business booms, is that it?” he smirked.
Precisely! I ignored the sarcasm.
“Listen, the law wants me to spend 2% on CSR and I am doing it. Beyond that, what’s in it for me?”
When you do good, sustainable work, you are fulfilling your responsibility to society. And, in the process, when you ensure your brand gets greater visibility, you are fulfilling your responsibility to all those who have a stake in your business.
That's what's in it for you
Having been his mentor, I knew some of the problems his company was facing.
Their product was technically superior. However, it was also pricier and struggling to survive in a market flooded with hundreds of cheaper, me-too competitors, who were more aggressive advertisers.
His company comprised several islands of excellence. The silos were deeply entrenched. Much as my friend tried to build them, the “we-are-one” bridges never survived for long.
At the same time, they were doing some good work on the CSR front. They had fabricated a library on wheels, the only source of books for schools in several villages. And their little water tankers on three wheels were the only source of drinking water in remote locations as the severe drought singed crops and lives.
Imagine, I told him, that you were some 20 years younger. You are social-media savvy, discerning and passionate. You are bold, intelligent, a fantastic team player and, yet, ever willing to trek down a new path.
He must have liked the picture I painted because he was smiling.
Now, would you like this younger version of you to be your customer? “Yes!”
Would you like to recruit him? “Of course!”
Perception as a differentiator
Suppose you had taken pains to make this young you aware of the good work you are doing in the villages around the factory. Is he likely to pay more for your product that is helping children read? Will he feel proud to belong to a company that is reaching drinking water to families living in barren lands? Even if he were not aware of your niche products, would he easily recollect your brand because the name was emblazoned on vehicles engaged in keeping the length and breadth of the town clean?
When you do good, sustainable work, you are fulfilling your responsibility to society. And, in the process, when you ensure your brand gets greater visibility, you are fulfilling your responsibility to all those who have a stake in your business.
We talked for long. At the end of it, he wanted me to go over and address his senior team.
I hope your CSR Manager would be present, too? “Of course!”
I agreed to meet them after two weeks. I needed that time to put together some resumes to beef up his CSR department. That band deserved more width.
This was first posted by Mr Mohan Joshi in two parts in LeaderConnects. Abridged and re-posted with permission.
"I want to be someone capable of seeing the unseen faces, of seeing those who do not seek fame or glory, who silently fulfil the role life has given them. I want to be able to do this because the most important things, those that shape our existence, are precisely the ones that never show their face."
Like the flowing river
Meet Gus in the first of a series featuring "unseen faces".
Gus, 12, has just won the full house in Housie (Bingo) in his school. The prizes had been on display even before the game started. He is eager to receive the first prize from the school’s Summer Holiday Camp Manager. It is a beautiful statue of Our Lady. He can’t stop smiling when he accepts it.
Then, in a moment, his world changed.
“You take this,” the Camp Manager took away the statue and handed him a smaller bust, which was chipped. The boy who had won the second prize happened to be from an affluent family and deserved the better prize, a shocked Gus was told. Surely, it would make no difference to Gus, right?
Gus felt angry and sad. An inferior prize, just because he was poor?
He was already waging another battle at home. Because he was standing up to an alcoholic and trying to protect his mother and four little siblings. He felt responsible for them.
Why was the world so unfair, Gus wondered. He just had to grow up and find a job, any job, that would give him money so that he could look after his family.
Gus is overseeing another game of Housie with a group of girls and boys, all around the age of 16. For every boy and girl, it is an effort and an achievement to face a group of people and read out the numbers by turn. Gus gently prods a boy to make eye contact while announcing a number. One girl who has problems with her sight and hearing (“I want to be an accountant”) is helped by her neighbour.
There are no statues; the winners get mints and chocolates. The real prize is the time they get to spend together, to work together and to enjoy themselves.
They are all equal. At every opportunity, Gus slips in a tip, a piece of advice. Through games, dance and music they are picking up social skills. And, for them, something that is less difficult to spell than to acquire —confidence.
When Gus steps out of the room, I play the devil. “Gus sir is saying do this and don’t do that. Do you think he is being practical? The outside world is so different. And surely money is important.”
“No! Gus sir is right. He is telling us the right things.” That’s the girl who would be an accountant one day.
“I had so much fear. Now I think I can do something.”
“He listens to us,” avers another. He is now less conscious of his appearance. And a lot less angry with the world than when he had joined.
“Yes, money is important,” a boy patiently explains to me. “But it is no more important than petrol. Sure, you need it to go from here to there. That is not the whole journey, though.”
Some of them have learnt to play the guitar “somewhat”, thanks to Gus, they tell me. They were scheduled to have a dance session, but a neighbour was not happy with the noise of the ghunghroos. So, they have to figure out a new location for dance sessions.
And all of them have been with Gus sir for barely a month.
Au(Gus)tine Mendonca is, by qualification, an engineer. However, he considers himself a “people person”.
“I was working in Bahrain for nearly 15 years. Initially, the local boss would keep calling me ‘Hey Indian’. It was infuriating. Then I realized they probably found both “Augustine” and “Mendonca” a mouthful. Next time he called me ‘Indian’, I told him he could call me Gus. And the name stuck.”
Gus says he has “corrected” his career. “I took up engineering because I was desperate to qualify and start earning. If I could go back in time, I would probably take up HR. Not the admin-kind of HR, but the people-kind. Understand them, work with them, motivate them. That kind of HR.”
The Bahrain stint helped Gus clear all the family debts. When he returned to India, he worked with various companies including an engineering company and a hospital.
The engineering company once faced a drastic fall in output during the night shift. Gus spent time with the workers and figured out the reason. As a cost-cutting measure, a supervisor had withdrawn the mosquito repellent they used to give all employees. Now, instead of manning the machines, they were busy slapping the mosquitoes. Gus got the repellent back and, sure enough, productivity was back on track.
The famous but abrasive chief of the hospital was angry. Everyone feared his morning rounds. “Why do you have your rounds immediately after mine?” he once asked Gus.
“So that I can undo the damage you do,” Gus replied.
Gus had a collection of doctor jokes, which he used liberally during his rounds. Those served to soothe frayed nerves and restore morale.
“What nonsense!” the chief roared. “Tell me one of those jokes right now.” Gus did. And the chief burst into laughter.
Apart from doing the jobs that came his way after the Bahrain-stint, Gus also felt a pull to seek out the less privileged and help them. He worked at a night school and assisted a couple of NGOs.
Once at the night school, he saw a boy sitting outside on the steps. Gus asked him why he was not in class. The boy had been thrown out because he had beaten up another boy.
His language was harsh, almost abusive. Gus sat next to him. “There is so much age difference between us. Do you think we can have a more polite conversation?”
The boy looked at him. “You are the first person who wants to talk to me.” And the story came out.
The boy had lost vision in one eye in a playground accident. Ever since, he was called “blind” by other children. He was constantly ridiculed and forever the butt of cruel jokes. The teachers also wrote him off and joined the students in abusing him.
That day, he opened his notebook to find that someone had written an abuse targeted at his mother. The violence followed and the teacher was prompt in expelling the boy from class.
Gus summoned a meeting of the teachers and asked for an explanation. “That boy is impossible; he must be removed from the school.” Gus interrupted the chorus. “That boy will not be removed,” he was categorical.
Then he proceeded to find out exactly what the teachers knew about the boy. Had they bothered to find out anything at all?
A few days later, Gus ran into the boy again. He was all smiles. “I am back in class. They are talking to me now. They are nice.”
“Sometimes, all they need is a hand, a chance. Just what I needed once upon a time," Gus said.
“It is so easy to brand someone as bad or impossible. Just dig a little deeper. I did once. And behind the alcoholic I found a jovial, talented and loving man. If you must, hate the problem, not the victim.
“When the boys and girls come and tell me they are eager to get any job so that they can start earning, I understand. But I don’t want them to make the same mistake that I did. So, I talk to them individually, find out what they are interested in and try to guide them accordingly.
“A few companies are very happy to employ these boys and girls. They say they like the attitude and the willingness to work hard. That is so nice of them.
“Some of those I had the opportunity to help are doing so well now. They stay in touch. They come and meet me at times.
“Of course, in some cases, I failed. They started earning and money derailed their lives. Bad company, expensive addictions, and the wrong notion that they had ‘arrived’.
“In every case, I begin with a positive intention, whatever the outcome. Unless I am confident of them, how can they be confident of themselves?”
Says Yogesh Kapse, a social development professional, who has been working closely with Gus, “It becomes easier for us to support a project when we know that there is someone as passionate and as committed as Gus mentoring it."
Apart from imparting “employable skills” to the youth, Gus shares art and poetry with all.
Today is song time. He picks up the guitar and the boys and girls join him in singing their “special” song:
I am special
You are special
We are special, you see
Black or white
Short or tall
Fat or thin
All of us are special, you see.
Augustine Mendonca is currently associated with Parineeti Projects.
When the parent company imploded, the CSR division was the first they let go. You can’t fulfil your social responsibility when you are struggling to survive, can you?
Each member of the CSR arm had helped a hundred pick themselves up, discover dignity, look up, hope. What happens now to those who are charged up and waiting for upliftment?
Sorry! They will have to fend for themselves. We have a company to salvage. We have a job to find.
All the employees of the division were efficient, certain to find another employer. But, they were all worried about him.
He enjoyed walking into strange places that spoke strange tongues. He patiently overcame suspicion, cynicism and hostile inertia. One beneficiary, one achievement at a time, he made his mark.
He goaded many an indifferent administration into doing what they were meant to and gladly let them hoard the applause. He pushed the invisibles to face the cameras. After all, they had overcome what generations had endured before them. Of course, his little nudges helped, too.
Yet, in the office, they worried about him because he had no English. They helped whenever they could. He stuttered through presentation-studded meetings in his native tongue. His slides were predictable, tutored.
Now, how can he find another job without English?
He was worried too, but for a different reason. In the few days that remained, he had to go back and talk to his partners in far-off villages, where news had no corporate page, and very few could read.
These were the people who used to call him up almost every day, for little things that mattered a lot to them—fertilizer use, livestock insurance, irrigation ponds. Some of them were not sure of their own age; but they were all sure about him, his advice.
He wanted to tell them he was going. Yet, assure them this was not abandonment. “If I don’t do that, they will never again trust anyone who offers to help. And they still need help,” he explained.
He can’t help that his job was cut short. However, he believes the engagements he nurtured thanks to that job deserves a more satisfactory, productive closure.
English would love to give words to his voice. Applaud his empathetic, proactive communication. And his enthusiasm to preserve positive connect as disconnect roiled around him. He has shown the importance of genuine engagement even when you are not selling, just serving.
He never really had English. He doesn’t need it now.
Financial turbulence had thrown the airline into embarrassing news pockets. That did not deter me from booking my flight with them.
The boarding pass that technology delivered in advance clearly mentioned the time I would start boarding.
Thirty minutes past that time, with no information about what was holding up the increasingly restless group of passengers, I suddenly remembered the headlines.
“No sir, the flight would take off on time,” the employee who finally swiped my boarding pass reassured me. If only someone had taken the trouble to inform us just that with or without a credible excuse for the delay! Too late! The next time I had a choice, I would not fly this airline.
On the return leg, another feat of technology specified the boarding gate number 24 hours before I was to start for the airport. Wow!
Minutes before boarding time, they changed the gate.
“But why didn’t someone tell me?”
“You should have checked the display, sir!” Of course, it was my fault. Why did I stop checking the display after the fourteenth time? And they did text me the gate number nearly 24 hours before boarding. Surely you can’t expect them to also text me the sudden change, when it mattered more?
Intelligence, artificial, is just that. Until and even after we infuse intelligence with empathy, there is no substitute for a simple communication at the right time.
Else, tiny cuts can cause more damage than headlined hemorrhages.
“It is not too far,” he repeats what has now become a joke for us weaklings “from the plains”, as the locals love to put it. And he goes on to add a new one, “I will take you back by an easy route”. Hah!
I was part of a film crew to document the lives of farmers on the mountain slopes in Pachote, Jammu. Someone had warned us that it was not a good idea to travel there during the rains, leave alone shoot. There were under-the-breath warnings, too, to watch out for terrorists.
On day one, when we got off the car and took a few steps towards our first location, I did experience terror, albeit a more down-to-earth kind. Because I was down on earth having lost my footing. We were on the path to a farmer’s place, except that there was no path. Just slippery smooth mud shining in mischief, stones waiting for a foot to step on them to start rolling and treacherous plants with long thorns that offered the only possible desperate grab-hold to arrest your free fall. This was to become our way of life for the next five days.
If the farmers tell you the descent is easier, they are not telling you about the effect of gravity on a near-ninety-degree slope after your shoes seem to have forgotten all about traction and are just clinging to your feet to save their own lives. If they tell you the ascent is easier, they are ignoring the panting connection between your creaking knees and your heaving lungs, after about five hops from one jutting bit of stone to a clump of grass that may cushion your fall or open a hidden portal to the raging river far, far below, which you can’t see thanks to the thick fog.
We were about to pack up at the end of day four, having lost several frustrating hours to the rain and fog when he offered to take me first to the blessed car on a heavenly, level, firm road, somewhere up in the sky from where I looked. I abandoned all feelings of camaraderie towards the rest of the crew and immediately accepted. I counted on them to understand that when the going gets slippery, the old get to go first.
Lend me your hand, leader
He is no ordinary farmer; he is an exceptionally successful one. He is also the sarpanch of the area, which essentially makes him the prime minister if that small panchayat were a country.
He makes three offers right at the outset. We will go at an easy pace. You can hold my hand whenever you want. We will rest as many times as you want. My male ego cringes when I accept all three. When the mind is full of fear and the head is held low for fear of missing the next step, the ego quickly learns to shut up.
Here I am, walking with the king of all that the fog lets us survey at that moment. And he is spending all his time escorting me to the safety of the car.
Surely, as a leader, when you walk around you must have your retinue (security and yes-men) with you?
“What for? I walk these paths any time of the day or night. Alone!”
I am not worried about your getting lost. Surely, you must be concerned about security, I ask, warily eyeing a vague dark shape moving towards us in the haze. That turns out to be cowherd, followed by someone who must be his wife. Tied securely to the back of the woman is a baby, fast asleep.
As he steers me gently away from the horns of the nervous cow, my guide has a little conversation with them. I can make out that they are very respectfully explaining why they were late and, probably assuring my friend that the road ahead was all clear. It does not appear to be a casual hello, he seems to know their names.
“Security?” He returns to my question. “Why do I need security when I am with my people? I was a farmer like most people here and I still am. Then I started a taxi service and did what I could to help people here. They asked me to stand for election because they thought I could help them solve some of their problems. They are the ones who elected me to be their sarpanch. Why do I need protection to be with them?”
But, you know, how politicians ….
“I am not into politics. We have many problems here. I have helped my people solve some. We are working to solve the rest.”
As he talks and I pant up a mercifully stone-paved portion of the path, we run into several other villagers. The same scene repeats. A brief halt, a little conversation. By now, I am convinced he knows almost everyone around. Even the sceptical journalist in me is silenced when he translates the conversations. His concern is for real; so is their respect.
Did they give you some sort of ID when you became sarpanch?
“Of course,” he fishes out a card from his pocket. According to the ID, his tenure had ended six months ago. “I am an ex now,” he calmly put the card back. “They postponed the election for some reason. And these people want me to fight the election again whenever it happens.” There is no trace of pride. “Leaders from other panchayats ask me why I continue to work when my term is over.”
Why do you?
“You people have come all the way from Maharashtra to help us. I am right here. Why can’t I help them? What has it got to do with my position? How does it matter if am an ex?” He gets a little worked up.
I gesture to him that I would like to sit down for the umpteenth time. There is a nip in the air; the fog is getting even thicker. But, I am sweating profusely. I can see him watching me closely. Must be wondering, is this guy just tired or is he getting a heart attack?
He decides to cheer me up. “What is left ahead is less than what we have left behind.” That sounds so profound and so politically correct, I think. Then I will my knees to carry me again.
Being a benevolent bridge
Just when my lungs are to ready give me a lockdown notice, he points to a building that emerged from the fog on the left. “This is the school where I studied. It was just a primary school. I made it bigger. Now children can finish their education here. They don’t have to give up or go away.”
So, you concretized this path to make it easy for the children? “This is the only path the children have,” he justified.
“And that shed you see,” we are almost on the road. “We used to wait near the road as children but there was no shelter from the rain and snow. So, I made that shed.”
No, he did not spend from his pocket. He explains that the government has enough schemes for the people. But you can’t expect the government to take the first step; and the people just don’t know. His job is to shatter the reluctance at one end and the ignorance at the other. That is how he managed to get a roof over the heads of many helpless women farmers and got them the benefit of government schemes (ranging from food to jobs).
He is quite capable of spanking the law too. Like when the bureaucracy mulishly refused to complete a small stretch of road the villagers desperately needed, he spurred the villagers to do it themselves in just one night. In the morning when the law came for him, he was right there and so were the villagers. Bureaucracy had to bow and retreat.
As I collapse on one of the benches under “his” shed, he asks the driver to get water. After several long moments, when I feel strong enough to talk and walk, he tells me he would be getting off on the way.
The driver stops at a spot that has no sign of civilisation. Except for the fog, I cannot see a thing. My friend gets off, waves me goodbye, simply steps off the road and vanishes.
I look at the driver for assurance. “Don’t worry, he knows the way.” How long would it take him to reach home? “About 45 minutes,” he shrugs.
That was almost a month ago. I hear he rallied the villagers once again, for another road. And that he has been invited by the government to speak on how he managed to make the most of government schemes and corporate funds to inspire his fellow villagers reap a rich harvest they had never thought possible.
Dear Parkash Chand, we need more of you to guide us through treacherous slopes. And to reassure us that what is ahead is less worrying than that we have covered.
When you pass through Ghazipur in East Delhi, you are unlikely to stop. Unless you want to buy some flowers, meat, poultry or fish from some of Delhi's largest markets for these. Surely, you haven't brought along some garbage to add to the towering mountain that keeps growing thanks to some 2500 tons of waste dumped here every day? If you have friends among the 400-odd families of waste pickers and dairy farm workers, you must brave the filth and stink to meet them.
I did not have friends among them either, when I was there in June to visit Gulmeher, better known to the locals as the place where the "phool-patti" work happens.
No, I will not write about Gulmeher. Discover it for yourself in the video below.
Before you play the video, I will just share one equation with you, that will make more sense after you see the video.
Gulmeher = art + heart + tenacity + hope.
After you see the video, you may want to stop at Ghazipur and be a part of the equation. So that your heart can feast on some painstaking art. And you can help feed the hope that makes wounded flowers and neglected lives rise up and challenge a mountain of indifference.
Video and images courtesy Gulmeher.