THE UNSEEN FACES SERIES: 5. UDAY
Uday was about 11 years old when he saw his elder sister being teased on her way to school. That prompted Uday to start learning karate. He went on to become a popular martial arts instructor in Maharashtra and very successful in national-level tournaments.
Years later, Uday was at a court in Pune to meet someone when a boy called out to him. “Sir, what are you doing here?” Uday recognized him as one of his karate students. That boy was with several others, who were all carrying their schoolbags. They had apparently decided to skip school to come to the court. Why? They wanted to see a notorious criminal who was to be produced in court. “He was their hero. I thought it was urgent and important to give them another role model,” Uday remembered. “Else, they were sure to follow their hero and take to crime.”
That incident started Uday Jagtap’s journey to turn people, especially children, away from crime and integrate them into the mainstream. So far, that mission has fetched Uday many honours, including a Guinness world record.
Giving crime an option
Uday believes that for most people, crime is not the primary livelihood option. “The first crime is often the result of an impulsive action or an accident. That lands them in jail, and they get branded as criminals. When they are released, no one is willing to give them a job, nor do they have the money to start some business. Whether they are reformed or not, they are left with one option to survive: crime. And the child of a criminal is more likely to turn to crime,” Uday said.
With the help of his family and some friends, Uday produced a small film. It showed a young man, like many in Pune, who felt proud to commit a crime. The film focused on the plight of the family after he was put away. How the young wife struggled to eke out a living. The gradual change in the attitude of his friends, who were once his admirers. Far from making him a hero, the film depicted how crime made him a victim and caused untold misery to his family.
Uday used this film as an ice breaker when he set out to understand the mindset of a criminal. He got permission from the authorities and visited Yerwada jail. “I showed them the film and had long discussions with about 2,500 inmates. The hardened ones apart, many of them regretted their actions, but had no clue how to get on with their lives once they were released.”
Just to drive the message home and to ensure they were committed to turning over a new leaf, Uday drafted a letter. It was from a daughter who was missing her father at every birthday. “Day after is my happy birthday. When my friends celebrate their birthday, their fathers are around. But you are never there. Don’t you feel like coming? Everyone asks me. When I ask mother she just cries and promises to tell you.” The letter ends with a plea to Ganpati Bappa to send her father to her with treats on her birthday. “And when you are coming, please get a new schoolbag. Mine is torn. I miss you a lot.”
Of the 2,500 prisoners who received that letter, 190 sent a reply to the jailor saying they wanted to start a new life.
“In response, an NGO that I belonged to, Adarsh Mitra Mandal, promised to support the education of their children. Also, the jailor chose 26 of them who were due for release and recommended them for suitable jobs. We found them jobs based on their qualification, experience and interest. Eleven years later, some of them have found new jobs or have started a business. But, not one of the people we supported went back to crime,” Uday proudly stated.
Correcting them young
Uday thinks it is important for every child to have a healthy role model. Everyone appreciates an example like Sachin Tendulkar. However, “when you are growing up in a crowded slum or chawl, where most fathers spend time drinking and mothers are too busy keeping the family going, even Sachin can fail to score,” Uday pointed out.
“It is easier to look up to the local goon who appears to lead a lavish, fearless life. We countered this by putting up photos and messages of well-known saints and historical figures at many homes. This had an immediate impact on the alcohol problem. Maybe the fathers found it a little awkward to drink when a Sant Gnyaneshwar or a Mother Teresa was keeping an eye on them. The ultimate beneficiaries were the children,” Uday said.
There was one school in the locality, which was notorious for a high failure rate and rowdy behaviour. The pinnacle of achievement for many children was to feature on hoardings that celebrated criminal elements.
“We worked with the teachers and the local police to identify some of these children. Soon, we were counselling some 24 children. We held classes for them in police stations. On the one hand, the children got to see where criminals ended up and the fate that awaited them. On the other hand, the initiative empowered policemen, used to being punitive, to become proactive in helping build a healthier society. We named this police-public project Parivartan."
Sports libraries were another initiative started by Uday. “We keep complaining that children are addicted to the mobile and TV. But, as parents, we don’t or can’t afford to do anything about it. A sports library makes it easy to keep children occupied in healthy games. Any child can borrow a play equipment (bat, ball, chess set, skating shoes, etc.) for up to three days for a daily fee of one rupee. We urge them to play without fear; they will not be penalised if some equipment is damaged during play. For cricket bats, we put in a condition. They must find at least another 10 children to play with. As a result, we witnessed the formation of some informal teams. The heartening part is that even after eight years, the teams are still playing together. We have 3 sports libraries functioning in Pune and 25 in Gadchiroli.”
The call of Gadchiroli
Gadchiroli, situated about 900 km from Pune, is notorious for Naxal activity. Over four years ago, Uday happened to catch a news headline on TV: some Naxalites had been arrested in Pune. He wondered: if the violence that has caused so many deaths over the years can come to Pune, why can’t peace go from Pune to Gadchiroli?
“My first reaction was to get in touch with the top police officers in Gadchiroli and tell them that I wanted to do some social development work there. Initially, they discouraged me saying that the ground situation was very bad, and I was better off doing my work in Pune. But so many policemen, so many adivasis dying! For what? I just couldn’t sit back, watch the news and be safe in Pune. I went to Gadchiroli.”
Based on his Pune experience, Uday started helping the children first. “The children were innocent victims. They had to walk for 5 km or more to reach school only to find that there were no teachers. Most of them lived in thickly forested areas. We first got the children some bicycles. With generous help from Rotary and my friends, we managed to give them 110 bicycles.”
Then came electricity. “I was warned that there would be severe opposition to electrification from the Naxalites. For me it was symbolic. More than 70 years had passed since the nation gained independence and they were still in the dark. They deserved light. We began with five schools and then lit up more than 1,000 homes with the help of solar power. Some of the old people at home would just sit and stare at the lamp at night. It was something they had never seen, never even dreamt of.”
It was not possible to force the teachers to risk their lives and come to school, but it was possible to reach education to the children. “We set up e-learning facility in three schools. Attendance improved, not just of students but also of the teachers, who now faced a different problem. With students going to schools that had e-learning, the other schools were in danger of being derecognised for want of students. I met a group of 40 teachers, and they pushed the government for e-learning in more schools. At the request of the government, and with the help of Rotary, we set up e-learning in 1200 schools. Now, the teachers maintain the system and ensure regular update of the software.”
While e-learning was a giant leap, it did not cover all children, especially those in remote areas, too difficult and too dangerous to access. Uday and his team worked out a solution--Gyanganga!
“We set up libraries in all police stations. Most police stations in Gadchiroli are like fortresses. Once a policeman enters a station for duty he may not come out for over a month. But the children could go in and come out easily and safely. It worked well for the police and the children!”
For those children who could not make it even to the stations, the police ensured that the library reached them. “We set up what we called ‘cot’ libraries. We would take the books to a village and spread the books on a cot. The children would come and read. The library would remain in one village for two days.”
Uday wanted to help the children lead as normal a life as possible, away from the threat of guns and the shadow of death. So, following the Pune model, he also set up sports libraries in various police stations.
Public health facilities were almost non-existent. The solution: mini ambulances, equipped with all essential facilities, manned by a medical team and operating within a 10-km “safe” radius. “It was a problem keeping the motorcycles refuelled at all times, ready for action. So, working with an engineering company in Pune, we have recently developed an e-ambulance than runs on three wheels for 80 km on a single charge. We will be deploying these soon.”
It was a happy sign that many Naxals were giving up violence, surrendering their weapons and accepting government support (land, means of livelihood) to once again live peacefully. However, Uday thought more needed to be done.
“They had taken to the violent way of life after they were brainwashed. Now, they were willing to return to the mainstream but was it not necessary to reboot their mindset? We resorted to Gandhigiri to achieve this end. We offered those who had surrendered an opportunity to become familiar with peace and non-violence through Gandhiji’s teachings. We gave them books. The police and I would talk to them. Finally, 56 appeared for the Gandhi Vichar examination.”
Uday added: “It was a very significant moment for all of us. Those who could only think of violence were now wearing white caps of peace. Hands that held murderous AK47 guns were now holding simple pens with the power to transform lives.”
Also, “there were attempts being made to fan inter-caste conflicts. With tremendous support from the police, we got leaders of different religions to talk to the people (especially children) and answer questions. It was soon clear to everyone that no religion advocated hatred or discrimination.”
Winning the battle against violence. Left: The winners in the Gandhi Vichar examination conducted for reformed Naxalites. Right: Children who did well in the Sadbhavana examination. Arrayed behind them are leaders of various religions, who taught the children that every religion advocated peace and harmony with all.
G for Gadchiroli, the Guinness record holder
While this transformation was revolutionary, Uday was convinced that making an impact would require the involvement of children. They were the ones who could bring about a radical change in the way the world looked at Gadchiroli. It was time for good thoughts to find expression as good words and set up one good deed that the world would applaud. It was time for Gadchiroli to bask in the Guinness limelight.
The team mobilised 13,500 children from 273 schools for a Sadbhavana examination. The children were exposed to thoughts of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, other historical figures and the religious leaders they had interacted with. The participants also had the opportunity to express their own thoughts on peace.
Based on all these inputs, Uday Jagtap penned a book Gandhivichar Aani Ahimsa (the thoughts of Gandhi and non-violence). This was read out by nearly 7,000 residents of Gadchiroli (mainly students) creating a new Guinness World Record: “The largest audience at a book reading (single author) consists of 6,786 people, achieved at an event organised by Gadchiroli Police Department, Adarsh Mitra Mandal, Uday Jagtap and Maheswar Reddy (all India), in Maharashtra, India, on 3 March 2018.”
Uday said, “I told the children that it was up to them to change the way the world saw Gadchiroli.” This world record is what Gadchiroli should be remembered for, not violence and not backwardness. You have made it happen, you can make it last.”
A copy of the world record citation was given to all and now occupies a pride of place at more than 7,000 homes. “According to a police survey, the Naxal movement has seen no fresh recruitment in the last four years or so. I am confident a new Gadchiroli will emerge in another five years,” Uday is positive.
He conducts regular educational tours to Pune for the children of Gadchiroli. “It is hard to believe, some of them have not seen a world outside the forest where they live. The visits and the interactions open their eyes to possibilities beyond a life of fear, suppression and violence.”
We are at peace only if all of us are
“I may provide all the comforts to my children. But in the process if I totally ignore my neighbour who continues to live in misery, anger and frustration, I am putting my family in danger. We are safe if all of us feel safe. We are at peace if all of us are at peace. So, the motive behind social work is in a way selfish. That’s how I see it,” Uday smiled.
He is grateful for all the support he has received. “There is nothing that I could have done alone. I have had great support from the police in Pune and in Gadchiroli. My friends in Adarsh Mitra Mandal have been with me every inch of the way. There are many organisations that came forward to help financially and otherwise. Many are keen to take up new projects.”
Doesn’t he fear for his life when he works in the jungles where every shadow hides possible death?
“Of course, there is always a threat and I keep getting indirect messages to stop what I am doing. Fear does not help. At the same time, when you become a martyr, you end up being just another statistic. To do more and to help the cause of progress, you need to remain alive. Therefore, while working, I do take basic precautions.”
Yes, there have been failures. There have also been touching moments, “more precious than any record.”
“There was this old woman who would keep calling me at every odd hour. She was living alone and was unable to move around. Her daughter lived at a distant place with her husband, who was a violent alcoholic. The mother was worried the son-in-law would one day kill her daughter. I would keep reassuring her that within 10 minutes of her call either the police or some friends would reach her to help. One day she told me: ‘Beta, when I speak to you, I am able to sleep in peace. That’s why I keep calling you.’”
Then there was another old woman who rebuked him. “Several years ago, at the time of Ganesh festival, we screened a movie that showed how boys could put on fake looks and make false promises to lure gullible young girls. An evening after the show, one elderly woman got up and roughly caught hold of my shirt. ‘Why didn’t you make this two years ago? You would have saved my daughter.’ Then she broke down.”
At 47, Uday heads a business that employs 350 people across 8 offices and deals with 94 well-established companies that outsource work to his enterprise. “Most of the money for the social work I do comes from here. Also, the people who work with me typically contribute a month’s salary. Then there are project-based donors.”
As his family pleads with him to be careful for their sake, he is now focused on delegating old and new projects to other NGOs and individuals, who are genuinely interested in social work. And he continues to make regular visits to Gadchiroli.
“Pune is supposed to be a pensioner’s paradise, the Oxford of the East. Instead, we now have increasing unrest, violence and worsening traffic. I have started some work on tackling the traffic problem. Plus, I would like to do more for children. Recently I managed to expose the menace of hookah-pens and e-cigarettes. The government has now banned its use. There is so much to do.”
Uday Jagtap is far from done.
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
"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.