Story #2: Engineering a creative space in the community: Bhakti Shah

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A wise person once told me: “No Knowledge is wasted”

“Bhakthi Shah is an imagineer!!”

A successful engineer by profession, she gave up a lucrative career to use her professional skills and training, to reinvent herself creatively and adapt herself to the choices she made.

The transformation here is a layering of talent, not a peeling off!  As she faced newer challenges, she gathered her past and spearheaded into the future with a vision for the common good.

The library she started is a haven for young and old, like an oasis in a desert, it provides a refreshing platform for thirsty minds! The friendly, vibrant atmosphere the library possesses is a reflection of her personality and brings to my mind the adage; ‘Great things come in small packages!!”

( Yet again I reiterate that the story is written by the protagonist themselves and I have only taken the liberty to edit it

(you can reach her at:  ebhaktishah@gmail.com)


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am born:

I was born on 10th Dec 1969 in a very middle class Gujarati family in Bombay.

Joint family was a norm then, and my father used to support about 10 or 12 people single handedly. My mother too joined hands by taking tuitions for the children nearby.

But it was fun growing up with my aunts and uncle and grand parents. My grand mother used to tell stories all the time, even while bathing us. Then my aunts and my uncle got married and we became a nuclear family.

My childhood memories:

Can you imagine 10 people sleeping in a 240 sq ft. house?!

Yes, I remember two people sharing the same pillow, one sleeping on either side. We shared each other’s warmth, that we did not even need blankets to cover ourselves!

Each of us would get just one bucket of water to bathe and that too we had to hand pump it ourselves! I remember my brother and I would stand on a stool as we could not reach the pump, and contribute to the kitty of water that was stored for the day’s use. This time has given me immense strength physically and mentally as well.

Another incident that I remember was that we never celebrated our birthdays at school or at home. We did not have that much money to waste. My brother’s birthday fell on our school’s founder’s day and hence it was always a holiday. My parents used to tell him that as it was a holiday we cannot celebrate his birthday!

I always wanted a doll, but the condition was laid out that I had to do well in my studies. I remember getting the doll once when I stood 3rd in the entire school. I used to cherish that doll like a precious gem. This taught me the value of hard work.

I went on to study BE (electronics). My fee was taken care of by the scholarships that I got for scoring good marks. (I take this opportunity to thank all of those who have supported me in my studies.)

My conflicts:

So I became an engineer and took up a job in Mumbai (Bombay).

I was employed in a small company and later moved to a larger MNC. I continued to live with my parents at this time, and the most memorable part of this period was the commute. Most Mumbaikars are used to this way of life, where one has to walk to the station, take a local train to central Mumbai, and then change 2 buses to reach the work place! This is what I did!!

As in the Gujarati community, not many approve of girls working and girls are married at an early age. So it happened to me. After about 2 ½ years of professional life, my marriage was fixed and I was almost sure that this would be the end of my career. Though a little disappointed; I decided to go along; very sure that something else will come up in my life.

I now moved to Baroda where my in-laws were staying. I wanted to adjust to the new house and so I thought it would be best to take a break from my career. My friends would comment that I had studied so much and I was not using it in any way now. But to me family was always first.

I always believe that there is a third way out in any situation. It is never this or that, black and white.

In about a year’s time my husband was transferred to Bangalore to setup his company’s presence in the Silicon Valley of India and so I too, took up a job in Bangalore.

We went to different parts of the world on assignments and that changed me quite a lot. I got to know how people had different views, ways and means to do things that they like. These were some of the best years in my life, which taught me a lot.

After a career of 8 years in the software field my son was born. He was a bundle of joy, but at times, it was very difficult to handle. I had no help at hand so I was finding it very difficult to manage the house and the office front. I never wanted my child to grow up in a crèche. The company that I was working for was very accommodating as they allowed me to work part-time and also from home. But I was simply not able to manage it. I missed my joint family then. So I quit the job, not knowing what to do.

One thing I was very sure was that I wanted to be there for my son at any time he needed me. I did not want to miss his first steps, nor his first words. People were once again reminding me that I had not taken a wise decision, and that I should get back to work soon.

I remember when my son was just 6 months old I would give him small square books with bright pictures and he used to spend his time seeing them and putting them in his mouth. I would sit beside him and read my book.

I should also mention here that at times I was getting frustrated, at not being able to work and at not having the challenges of a working environment.

But I was sure there was a third way out in this also. (Perhaps I was not able to see it yet.)

Soon the days passed, my son was growing up, and I had more time for my self. I used to volunteer at my son’s school for activities like story telling, arts and crafts. I was very happy!

Then a friend of mine gifted me a Warli painting. I was very fascinated and learned the Warli art. I started painting anything and everything in Warli. I started putting up my own exhibitions and making new products. I also tied up with a local shop that started selling my artefacts and paintings. The engineering knowledge helped me in designing and packaging. I was very happy.

This was my third way in life!!

My experiences shape my thinking:

I always dreamt of doing something for children. When I went abroad, I saw huge libraries, science museums, and children’s museums. But to tell the truth I did not have enough money to start such an enormous project. I was not sure how well it would be taken in India. (This thought was there at the back of my mind but I was still happy doing my Warli).

My son was growing up, and he spent more time in school. I soon found that I had more time in my hand for myself now.

I used to read stories at bedtime to my son, from a very early age. So he was also hooked onto reading. I tried to find a library near my house but none was close by. I also felt that it was waste of money to buy books when children read them just once and would not even know where it was lying the next day.

You can’t blame the children. How many times will they read the same stories again and again? Yes, if something is close to their heart they would not mind reading it again and again. But most of the books are read only once. So I tried looking for a library. The closest I could find was British Council and immediately I enrolled in it. (It kind of brought back my teenage days when I was a member of BCL, Bombay.)

My son and I used to tuck in food and milk and head to BCL Bangalore for 5/6 hours of heaven. Both of us used to sit there and read. I would read to him. Then we would get 5 more books home. This would last us for a week to 10 days. So it was kind of our routine to go to BCL once in 2 weeks and get new books.

Soon my son and I could not spare time to go to BCL and also traffic in Bangalore had increased exponentially. It was then that I felt that every area needed a library for which I was sure there would be many users.

But I still did not do anything. The worm in my head would wriggle for 2/3 days to do something but then nothing would happen!!

I planned and dreamed of opening a children’s library for books, toys and CD’s. I actually visited brokers to survey places for renting, and publishers to get an idea of books. But all on paper. I did not have courage to open one. I was always afraid of failure.

What if I lose all my money? What if my planning is not correct? By and by the days passed. I discussed my ideas with my close friend but everything would stop at the thought of failing. Luckily by then I had enough money to start a small venture on my own.

My defining moment:

Once I visited a shop in Bombay which had a very nice pen stand. It had a small man made of fibre lying down and day dreaming, and a quote on it. I read the quote:

“Dreams never work unless you work”

Somehow I liked that very much and I picked it up for myself. I think this quote changed my life and I said to myself, that to realize my dream I had to work. If I am passionate and have done enough ground work, I will not go wrong in a big way. My husband also supported me saying that if the idea does not work, we will lose some money but then I could always donate the books to an NGO and they would make use of it. So to just go ahead and do it!!

It took me 6 years to get the courage to start my own venture. 6 years to gain courage to overcome the fear of failure.

Soon everything started to fall into places. In just about one and half month, I started a library: Think Box Children’s Library.

I am very happy that I did it!!

My whole initiative was based on a love for books, reading and children. I could have started a library in any central location in Bangalore, but I believe every community should have a library and that it should be within walking distance of their home. Keeping this in mind I looked for a place to rent, around my neighbourhood. Luckily I found a first floor room on a busy street, small but adequate for a start up. I was also particular that it should be on the first floor to ensure privacy and also safety, where children don’t step out into the road when the door is opened. Personally for me, having my business venture so close to home ensures that it saves me travel time, it is cost effective and easily manageable.

Not only is it a Library, I have also created a space for community learning and sharing. We not only have a collection of 4500books, (I started with a meagre collection of 500!!), toys and CD’s, we have storytelling/ art/ craft /science/ maths activities for children. Parents also participate and conduct many events and activities.

We have had Gynaecologists, Psychologists and Educationalists coming in to give talks and share their experiences on various issues, ranging from Women’s Health to Multiple Intelligences, to Phonics and much more. I invite parents to involve themselves in these events and encourage talented mothers to share their skills and expertise.

An interesting learning from this is that, Fathers’ when they overcome their shyness and participates in such activities; truly amaze us with their creativity. This I say keeping in mind a wonderful clay modelling session we had where Father’s participated with enthusiasm and zest!

Another point is that children enjoy coming into my library with their parents, and the child who is there with his/her parent is more involved and curious than a child who comes alone or with a maid.

I have created a safe environment, a space they can come in alone or with someone, a space that is easily available to them, a space that they can use in the evenings, a space they can access after school.

People come in to tell me that it is a boon to have such a place in this area. People have appreciated my effort and tell me stories of how it has helped their children. (By god’s grace and blessings from my elders I hope I will continue to do this good work.)

My insights and learning:

I come from a very middle class family and I have done something good for the community with a little effort. I believe the lessons of hard work and effort I got from my past helped me in this process of transformation. There is no short cut to anything. But if you work hard you can get what you want.

I have seen government run libraries abroad in excellent condition and I would always wonder why we can’t make it happen in India. But then when pondering over it, it looked difficult to make changes from the government side.

“You be the change that you want to see” Gandhiji’s words

I jumped in! I dreamed of making a change in the society, and in the community. That gave me courage. I have changed a lot, gained a lot of experience by starting this venture. It has now become my life line.

You will always succeed if you have passion for something. I have a passion for reading, books and children and it is that which compelled me in this direction

Another aspect that I want to share with you all is about positive thinking. Always think positive and you will see how your day changes. I am person with great positive vibes. People come and share their stories, experiences with me. I try and talk to them and give positive feedback. I have also learned to help in which ever way I can. Joy of giving is keeping me going.

If I don’t visit my library once, I feel I have missed something for that day. When I feel low I visit the library, it immediately boosts my morale and I feel very good.

I get to interact with a lot of people especially mothers, and I want to do everything possible for them to be happy and healthy while bringing up their children. Hence I take extra effort to do some activity for the mothers and I always give them a chance to come to the library and do something for the community.

My deepest passions pave a way for my vision:

I never had a platform to display my inner talents. Especially when I was doing my Warli paintings I felt I had no place to go for guidance. No help on how to set up a business venture, no one talk to and no places to show case my talent.

Though I was able to sell my art work and reach out to a small group of people who liked and appreciated my artistic talents. Yet deep with in me I had a yearning to do something larger for the community and the society which I was a part of.

I weighed the two ventures in my mind, where one was displaying my creativity and making profit for myself, and on the other hand giving back to the community and especially providing some services to the children in my locality. I decided to go for the third way once again!!

I hope to maintain the same quality and passion that I started with. Though people ask me if they can start a franchise of my library, I am not very keen. I believe it will only water down the quality of my services. Yet I am always willing to share my know-how and expertise on how to start a library if any one is interested!!

I want my library to provide a platform to one and all; to give them confidence, to give them happiness.

 

( The author was prompt in sending the first draft, in the first week of January. After editing and rearranging, I felt there were some aspects missing, especially stories from her childhood and her vision. I called her and collected the necessary details, which I then added to script.)

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8 responses »

  1. Very interesting reading…I think the difference between achievers and dreamers is that first step forward despite the fear and anxiety. Truly courageous people are not only the ones who save others lives or survive some major catastrophe but also the everyday people who, despite the odds, take little steps daily to make what they always thought was impossible, possible. Kudos!

  2. Very inspiring story indeed. Being a friend and a neighbor of Bhakti (for the last 10 years) I can vouch for every word of it and can confidently say that there will be many more feathers of success added to the cup … Life has just begun …

  3. Life teaches us so much.
    We truly thank our parents to give us such a solid foundation.
    Reading the initial period of struggle that we have been through as typical lower middle class family, i some time wonder where we would have been now had our parents not dreamt of giving us the best education despite their means.
    I am sure under the leadership of Dolly (yes thats Bhakti’s pet name) thinkBox is going to keep growing bigger and stronger in years to come.
    all the very best.

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