Story #9:Redefining perspectives on Career and Women: Chitra Vasudevan

Standard

   Chitra Vasudevan,questions our view of the world and the meaning of empowerment. Success and satisfaction in the Corporate world did not lure her in spite of every indication that she was headed that way. Through this brief autobiography, she gives us an insight into the working of a mind that chose to quit a lucrative corporate career and embrace full time volunteering as a joyful, satisfying alternative.

She also shares with us her thoughts on labeling women, while urging everyone not to look at career and income as a measure of success. Ultimately the reinvention here is in many ways a redefinition of the traditional mores, throwing away that which fails to add any meaning or joy and replacing it with that, which enriches and nurtures.

(Please do check out Yoke society website, an endeavor to empower the youth of Kodanganallur Village, TamilNadu, founded by Chitra Vasudevan)

https://sites.google.com/site/yokesociety/


I am the last born in a family of three children. My siblings are both more than five years older than me, and so I had a pampered childhood, with parents, Grandmother, Uncle (only 11 years older), brother and sister doting on me.  Although my Grandmother and Uncle moved back to our ancestral village when I was about six, we remained a close-knit family with several generations of cousins staying in touch.  Our home used to be a hub where everyone felt warm and invited, despite being very much middle class with modest means.

I went to a ‘better’ school than did my siblings. My aptitude for music was discovered as a three-year old, when I used to accompany my sister for Music classes, and would sing all that she was taught, in perfect tune. I don’t remember when I “formally” started classes in music; I am told I was about four years old.  Studies came easy to me although I would never work hard enough to top the class.  As with most children, I would often be asked by all visiting friends and relatives, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would happily say I want to be a doctor, not knowing what it entailed to any extent.

When I was in final year school (we were the last batch going with 11 year schooling for the ISC examination) I wanted to write the Joint Entrance Examination of the IITs.  People good in Maths were supposed to get into Engineering, right? We were doing O level Maths at school, and one of my classmates had chosen to do A level privately. I wrote to the JEE authorities asking for exemption, and they replied saying A level Maths was a pre-requisite to the JEE.  The next option was to get a Science degree and then do a post-graduate professional course.  Admission into undergraduate courses for ISC students was not easy as our marks were invariably lower than those who had done Pre University course.  Thus I landed in Stella Maris College for a graduation in Chemistry, a subject I thought I liked.  Actually I was not too sure what I wanted to do.  So I literally grabbed the first call I got from a reputed college.

What I enjoyed at College…

College was fun although the Science stream was known to be the serious kind. I had been Secretary and President of Chemistry Club, and enjoyed the roles. We kept the Department flag flying through the year with several activities. I loved organising activities and the faculty and students supported me to the hilt.

As we came to the final semester, we would discuss what to do further. A couple of our classmates were getting married.  Some of us thought Biochemistry would be a good career option.  One of my classmates, part of my ‘group’ (groups were inevitable, as it seemed!) mentioned to me that her father was a guest faculty at Department of Management Studies, University of Madras, and he could easily get her in.  But she was not going to do PG, but prepare herself for a married life soon!  That got me interested as I had already done the IIM entrance and did not do too well.  Why not try at the University Department?  After all, my mother was clear that I could do any course I chose to, in Chennai, from home, but should not move out.  That’s how I applied for MBA at Madras University, and cleared the Entrance, GD and interview to get in.

Becoming a ‘Manager’

Management course is very comprehensive. I enjoyed the exposure I got to Economics, Psychology, Accountancy, Statistics and Systems.  They weren’t ‘dry’ subjects as I had imagined. Our team did projects and assignments with great interest.  Infact when I finished my course, I realised that I literally knew every inch of Mount Road from Safire to Anna Statue as we had gone up and down with our surveys and fact-finding so many times.  Some boys in my class at MBA used to lament, that when girls joined the MBA course they were denying potential breadwinners (read boys) the opportunity of taking care of entire families.  They would argue that by having a career of our own, we girls would probably be spending more on luxuries than on bare necessities for a family.  I don’t know why, but this thought remained with me. They would also point out to some of the girls in my class who were already married, and one of them even in the family way.  “Wasting an MBA seat to sit at home tending to your babies”, the boys would taunt us.

We had a few companies coming for Placement, and I was shortlisted and selected by one of the local advertising agencies.  It took a few months before I got my letter of appointment.  (I was almost taking my second offer, which was in Pondicherry, much to my mother’s discomfort.)  Thus I began my career with a leading Advertising agency, which was starting a full-fledged Research division.  Two of us were the first recruits, my boss and me.  Our job was to automate (design software for) Media Planning.  I found this very interesting and thus decided that probably Research should be my career option.  My Math skills came in useful as we went along.  I would have been at work for about a year or more, when my marriage with Vasu was arranged.  I was to move to Hyderabad, and therefore quit work.

All this while, my music training was going on, and I had moved on to train under a top-ranking Carnatic artist by now.  Music would always be my passion and solid accompaniment to whatever I chose to do.

First Break and the Learnings

Marriage meant becoming a part of a very different family, a very different city, language, people, and coming to terms with all that.  It took me a while to realise that you cannot take independence and support in what you do, for granted.  I also learnt that not all people need to take to you instantly and warmly.  Until then, life had been smooth for me, a pampered upbringing, good education and fair amount of success everywhere.  The lull after marriage was a good exposure to ‘the other side’.  I must say that this experience tempered me a lot, and grounded me literally and figuratively.

I was at home for four years after marriage.  My father in law was not keeping too well, and with Vasu on tour most of the time, I had to stay home.  I did not have a choice, but used the time to retrospect and learn to accept life as it came.  My father-in-law passed away in 1988 and soon after we were moving to Delhi on transfer.  I wrote to my first employers about this and they offered me a job as a Research Executive in Delhi.  Thus I resumed work after a pretty long break and it was almost like starting all over again.

Our tenure in Delhi was short, and Vasu was transferred to Chennai now.  I also took a transfer with my company.  And soon we moved to Hyderabad, and this time I shifted companies.  Three years down we were to move to Mumbai, with my company also willing to transfer me, when Vasu’s ex colleague made him an offer from the UAE.  Thus we shifted out of the country.  My first assignment in Sharjah where we lived, was checking the Russian translation of a brochure for Sony.  My employer in Hyderabad had given an excellent reference to one of her contacts running an Advertising agency in Sharjah and a passing mention in my CV that I had a Diploma in Russian (I did the course soon after school and alongside my first two years in college) landed me this freelance assignment.  In one assignment I recovered all the fees I paid to learn the language.  Soon I joined a Market Research Agency based in Dubai and changed to the Dubai Ports Authority subsequently.

Working in the Middle East was a little different from working in India.  In India, in the agencies I worked in, my professional colleagues were really smart.  Quick, clever, very intelligent – it was a challenge to be in that environment and be on par.  I had the advantage of a boss who was ahead of his times, in my first job.  We had to necessarily grow in leaps and bounds to keep pace.  It was tough, but when we could do that, it felt so good.  In Dubai, everybody was very smartly turned out for sure, but I missed the intellectual challenge I had in India.  At times even some mediocre analysis done by me would be so much appreciated that I would often wonder why. Infact when I left Dubai, five years down, I often said that a lot of mediocrity thrives in Dubai.  I was making a sweeping statement, as now I find nothing wrong in mediocrity and a lot of it thriving in India as well.  After all, the world cannot be made of intelligent people alone!

Back in Chennai

When we moved back to India after five years in the UAE, I was firm that I did not want to go back to working in the Corporate sector.  There were so many reasons.  I had already put to good use the knowledge I had gained in my MBA, in my jobs in India and Dubai. My salary was only supplementary to the family, and working in the Middle-east meant fair amount of savings. My work style was such that I would take deadlines seriously; hence there were times when I would carry work home.  I would also be stressed until the job was done and delivered.  I decided that such stress can be done without.  While I had the energy and means, I wanted to work in the Voluntary sector, probably with some children. In a sector where I won’t have to think about bottom-lines and deadlines all the time.  My older cousin who was working with an organisation for children and young adults with developmental disabilities, took me to her centre and that’s how my career as a Volunteer began.

Volunteering in the Disabilty sector opened up a new world to me. It was quite non-structured, and informal unlike the Corporate world, but still the ends were achieved. I was willing to spend three afternoons at the centre, and keep the rest of the day for my music classes (I had resumed my classes with my guru and had also started teaching at home).  However, my first employers were reaching out and asking me to join work again.  Three afternoons at the NGO proved to be mostly idle, reading in the library, waiting for work to do.  The professionals were busy doing many things; but there was no continuous work for me and I felt I was wasting my time.  But I did not want to give up on music and so told my first employers, I will work flexi time, four hours per day, as a Consultant.  I was incharge of the branch in Chennai and got myself a mobile phone (very expensive in those days), to be available “full time” to clients.

I kept in touch with the NGO, but sporadically.  Although I had told my bosses at work that I would work for about three years, I held on for five years with the Consultant arrangement.  When I quit, I started teaching music at the special school I volunteered with, in addition to learning (with my guru)and teaching children at home.  I also started volunteering for a magazine.

By this time, I had also taken some initiative with my village project, to clean up the water hyacinth proliferating on the river surface.  My students of music provided me several opportunities to organise events – based on various festivals, occasions, and even for raising awareness on the water hyacinth problem.  I enjoyed organising these events immensely.  So did the children.

So when I quit work, I already had enough to keep me busy.  It was like I had weaned myself out of working for a salary.  Of course the money box stopped ringing, but I was anyway providing only for the jam, while on one salary we could definitely have bread and butter.  Our living had always been modest and therefore I did not miss the inflows.  Infact I continued to use the fees the children paid for my music tuitions for the children of my village, as I had started the Summer camp as an annual event, after registering an organisation, calling it YOKE.

Introspection

What made me quit my career?  First, I always knew that my earnings would only provide for the rich toppings which we could do without.  So when I quit working, the changes in our lifestyle did not hurt.  We could manage without the cushion. Second, I longed to work with children and with the community. My exposure at the NGO and this longing manifested in some way into our village organisation YOKE, which is now growing.   Third, my career had actually had a number of breaks – short and long; therefore I had not climbed the Corporate ladder high enough to feel insecure; last but not the least, I was busy and enjoying all the other things that I was into – learning music, teaching, organising events, entertaining guests, and volunteering.

I have somehow remained in touch with atleast a few of my classmates at school, college, University and colleagues at work.  My network is now growing, with the social networking sites and search engines proving to be a great help.  And what do I find now?  Most of my classmates at school did very well academically, and went on to work.  Today, several of them are sitting back, and taking on assignments as much as they want to.  Atleast some of my classmates have dabbled at quite a few things and finally settled with something they love doing.  And doing it to the extent they want to, not as a full-time, 9 to 5 job.  It is almost like all of us went on the centrifuge and finally precipitated into what we are doing now – quite similar in the basic thought (following one’s passion but not getting carried away), and perhaps different in scale.

Careers and Empowerment

Do women have to be on a ‘job’ in order to be empowered?  Do women who remain at home have to necessarily say with regret ‘I am just a housewife/homemaker’ as if it implies they are nothing much?  Do women who have great careers and success have to indulge their children for not giving enough time and wash off the ‘guilt’?  I would say a big NO to all! To me empowerment is all about doing what one wants to do, out of choice and not out of compulsion – external or from one’s own desire to ‘be with the Joneses’.  Empowerment is all about taking a decision after deliberation, and not regretting it ever.

Does that mean women need not be educated?  Of course not!  We need to be educated in order to provide the balance in the world.

Because only women are capable of using their education in mentoring a good family, community, and society.

Because only women are capable of looking more at the whole than at the parts.

Because only women can dream and make the dreams a reality.

To all women with or without a career, let me assure you, by borrowing a phrase from a programme that came long ago on BBC, “The Future is Female”!

Advertisements

Story #8: A leap Into the Unknown: Breaking Conventional Norms in Thinking: Dola Dasgupta

Standard

Unconventional, radical, different are some words that stand out when I introduce Dola Dasgupta to you. Strong, Infallible and Honest are also words that describe her.

This is a story of a young woman’s journey to authenticity. Not many of us have the guts to grab our inner voice and prosecute it, not many can open our lives and perjure it. Her transformation is at many levels and in the many roles that she chose to assay. Scrutinizing her role as a mother, a teacher, a wife, a daughter, a woman, and a human being.

She has reinvented her thinking in every way and in her every day. In telling us her story she shows us that transformation and the very process of becoming authentic to your self (and others) is the most difficult of all reinventions. Society demands that you conform and fit into their conventional norms; but she chooses to break this thinking to carve a future for herself and her children.

Yet to fit into the scope of this blog, she chooses to highlight her un-schooling journey; as her goal and aspiration at present is to “nurture the natural growth of children”.

So do feel free to contact her to know more about how to learn without school: doladg@gmail.com

She also blogs at:

http://www.thouartthycreator.wordpress.com

(Please do leave your thoughts and feedback on the comment form)

Thank You

(A simple direction shown to me by a dear friend and another protagonist, led me to Dola. A couple of emails, questions asked, answers given and here is her story, raw, clear and unedited. A pleasure when the writer is so proficient and I all I need to do is sit back and share with the world!)

When it all began:

I am Dola Dasgupta, unschooling mom to daughter G and son I…and a disciple of life!

I started out in life pretty much as most individual do. I was born to a family with reasonable means. Grew up with a father; who was mostly away at work trying to support his immediate and extended family and an incredible mother who practically ran the whole household and pretty much took care of me and my sister’s needs. My parents raised us in ways that they thought were doable by them or as they could to the best of their abilities at that time. Most of their parenting was imbibed from how they were raised.

However my mother was always a little more independent and free thinking and tried her best to instil a sense of freedom and independence in both my sister and me. Always talking to us on how a woman needs to find her own voice to be able to make a difference.

Yet there was a paradox that I saw as a child and almost all of my growing years. I also saw a woman in my mother, who was never cherished or valued for all the contribution she made in our lives and in my father’s and our extended families. Not having a father around for emotional and other support made me hero worship him. Since my mother was not cherished for being the homemaker and creative person that she was, I grew up with a perception that to be loved and appreciated in a man’s world I needed to excel in more masculine areas of life.

So all my growing up years were about trying really hard at excelling in academics and pursuing careers that would get appreciated by my father and also trying to become that free and independent woman, my mother felt she could never be. Even though my mother was an incredible woman, there lay deeply buried within her, sadness and resentment towards her own parents for marrying her off early and also towards her husband for not being appreciative of her true self and her presence in his life.

In my loyalties to my father, the man I never had, and my mother who herself struggled with her situation, somewhere I lost my own voice and true expression of the self that I was born with. I excelled and was on the top of things till school.  But when I joined University, the downslide happened. From being a topper in both my 10th and 12th examinations I finished bottom third division in my bachelors.

It was a miracle that I did not fail. The three years of college was the most torturous event of my life. I hated going to college. I despised the subject I chose. I hated myself and felt a lack of love and affection within me. I was disillusioned and discontented with all that my life was. I entered into various relationships thinking they would make me feel better about myself. I slid from being a confident school girl to a woman with rock bottom self worth and esteem.

At the age of 19 I no longer wanted to look at myself in the mirror. I was in serious depression. It led me to many more self depleting experiences. (Of course they are all now my biggest learning lesson from life and I actually value them very much today). But trust me those were not very happy and blissful days!

So if I say, my discomfort with how children are being raised or educated started when it was time for my daughter to go to school, it would not be the exact point to start sharing my journey. But the more I contemplate on my decisions (TO UNSCHOOL) I can see how this discomfort is what I grew up with myself. The intensity with which I wanted to explore my inner world was denied and thrashed brutally by the environment that I was born into and grew up in. That parents always have the best interest of their children in mind is a myth that really needs to be busted. The parents (unknowingly) have only the best interest of a myth and image in mind while raising children.

The fear of breaking norms always kept me in shackles of conformity. The pain in my heart, that constricted tight feeling in the chest and stomach, kept me crying into my pillow for nights at different stages of my childhood, youth and adult life.

When we Adopted: who chose whom?

The flood gates opened and some realisation of this conflict within came to light when I held for the first time G, my daughter who is now almost 10 years old. She was just four months old, when we adopted her. My husband and I were eagerly waiting at the waiting room of the orphanage and the Anganvadi worker came with her and asked me to hold her. That tiny baby felt so warm and she looked straight into my eyes and smiled.

My heart melted after eons of pain and constraints. It was as if time and space did not exist. And soul mates were being reunited. I cried like a baby and she watched calmly, As if knowing and understanding every feeling that was going through my heart. At that moment I knew that I had always wanted to be a mother and creator.

Many people ask me why we adopted. Well to say I always knew I would, is not satisfactory to most. So I say the factual stuff.  I was just recovering from cancer and was advised by the doctors to not conceive. It was a seed lying dormant deep in my heart. Fortunately my husband and I had talked about adoption when we were courting. Post marriage, my husband’s work once took him to an orphanage in Bangalore. On his return, we began to discuss adoption in earnest. I had been advised by my doctors to not conceive for sometime due to the cancer that I was recovering from. We did not want to wait. So we adopted.

So to say cancer happened so that G could come into my life is looking at life as it is. It was the happiest and most touching moment of my life. Little did I know it would in years to come, change and shatter every false image I had created of myself.

I realised each day that I really wanted to be a mother so that I could heal the wounds of my own childhood, spent in the lonely by-lanes of my inner world, which I never expressed out of fear that I would not be understood or received well. My father was practically absent and my mother was trying very hard to keep the household and its functions going amidst motherhood, wifehood and trouble in her own family and husband’s family.

That instance at the orphanage when she smiled at me, is the reference point for me. Even now when I am in doubt about whether I am doing the right thing by not sending my children to school and parenting radically, I remember her smile. If a baby of just 4 months knew she had found the parents she was looking for, I feel she pretty much knows all else there is to know for her growth and development!

When I quit:

I was working as an assistant Company Secretary in a prestigious corporate house. A job I got after much hard work and sweat. A job other women would die for. But the thought of a 4 month old at home alone with an old babysitter was too heart-wrenching for me.

I quit my job, much to the dismay of family and friends. And I became a fulltime mom. Of course it was not easy. Years of conditioning kept pulling me with rational thinking like “what is a qualified person like you doing at home?” or “If I do not have my own money my husband will not respect me?” or “Life is passing me by and I am stuck here with baby?” And the biggest ever fear…that I too would land up being angry and resentful like my mother.

I fought these thoughts; sometimes successfully, sometimes the thoughts had the better of me. Amidst all this my daughter was already two years old. So I decided to enrol her in a play school and join as a teacher in another school, the rational thinking brain telling me “at least you will be home half the day.”

So the day my daughter was sent away with much fanfare to a play school I joined work again. She could barely talk. That day when she came back home she was in shock. Her eyes and her body looked all dejected; losing faith; telling me “How could you do this to me?” She cried all the time and her tears told me ‘I am not ready mom. Just let me be with you a little while longer.”

But the hard core conventional mom that I had suddenly let my conditioning make me, just overlooked all that and sent her back every day. My friends told me “Don’t worry, they all cry for a week or a month. Eventually they start liking school more than home.”

So that is how it was. She got used to school. I got used to school. The household got used to the chaos of a working couple. Every morning was a warzone. I was rushing myself, G and my husband. I would lay out G’s things on the bed and leave for work even while she was sleeping. The house maid would come in and get her ready and drop her to the bus stand. My father would pick her up in the afternoon and I would come back from work and pick her up from my mom’s place. This went on day in and day out.

She wanted to play with me and talk to her, but I was so tired from my job. The anger and frustration of not listening to my heart was taking a toll on me. I would push her away and shout at her. “Go away mom needs to rest.”

In the evening she would play for a while in the park with me and other kids. Then the evening rush would start to get all to have dinner and then bed. Mommy has to wake up at 5 am.

When I could take it no more:

At the school where I taught, the situation was none the better. Most teachers were happy, but I was always bewildered by the way things were. I taught German language to 300 students, who were selected to learn German because they had secured 80% in Maths. That was a boon all my fellow teachers told me, because I got the cream, the top of the class. But little did the administration realise that language skills have nothing to do with math skills. So the parents of these children complained all the time how their wards were good in all subjects but German.

I had two classes a week per section of 45 minutes each. No audiovisual aids, no interactive books, no respite from straining my vocal chords. Add to that a class which had no interest in learning a foreign language.

I was so frustrated. I felt bad that the students were being forced by parents to learn a foreign language for which they had no use. I felt bad for myself, for turning into a screaming shouting lunatic who seemed to be forever running a race against time.

During that time G was being ‘prepared’ by her play school for the BIG interview to get into the big schools. So every day she would be made to go through the same drill of colour identification, shape identification, alphabet and number recognition and rhymes and story telling.

From being a bubbly little girl, G was turning into a turnkey toy. The dates of the interviews closed in on us like dooms day judgment. She went to mock interviews with her play school teacher, accompanied by us.

In one of the mock interviews the teacher drew a river on the floor and G was asked to decide what she would have to do when she came across a river. She obediently stepped over the drawing and crossed the river! Then she was asked to recite (for the 1000th time) Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Then the teacher asked her to name the yellow coloured fruits.

After all this the teacher told us. “Well she is fine here…let us see what she does in the real interview.” Imagine crossing a river by just stepping over it, which according to the teacher is a real interview?!

Then we started the weekly march to the schools for interviews. I would dress her up in best frocks and shoes and promise her an ice cream after the interview. At the venue, she would be whisked away from us into another room by total strangers. The principal would whisk us away to another room and ask us questions like:

“So Mr Banerji what is your job profile and what is it that you exactly do.?” Mr Banerji had answered tougher questions than that at innumerable job interviews. But as I held his hand below the table I found it cold with sweat. He knew his answers would decide the fate of his daughter.

Then the principal asked me, “So why did you adopt G?” When I told her I always wanted to adopt, she had the nerve to ask me but why not your own biological child. I wanted to tell her to mind her own business. But Mr Banerji squeezed my hand under the table indicating keep calm. So I had to tell her the official story.

After all this, the next day our daughter’s name did not appear on the list of those who got in.

This is what we did with six schools. Making up incredible answers at the interviews to justify why we are choosing a particular school was really beginning to make me sick. The last school was done and the last date for school admission was looming large on our heads. By evening when the courier did not come, the home environment was stiller than stale air. I could not breathe and I saw the whole weight of failure or success on the tiny shoulders of my precious daughter. Then the door bell rang and we rushed out to grab the courier man. She had got through. Relief and disappointment both filled my heart.

But again my rational (conventional is a better word over here?) mind took over and I sent her to school. I had finally quit my job at the school as I was expecting our son.

G was not toilet trained. At the play school at least they were gentle with the children. At the big school, no one cared. She would be afraid to ask the teacher for permission, since the teacher always gave stern looks to children who wanted to go during class. The ayahs were also over worked and did not help the children to wash up properly.

G often came back home with soiled clothes or wet clothes in a packet. Then I would be called to school for this problem of hers. One day I lost it and punished her at home and beat her for not telling the ayah, (I feel so ashamed of my behaviour even now.)

Then the teacher would complain at the parent teacher meetings about her ‘friendly’ nature and how she could not sit in one place and had too many friends! The teachers complained about her not willing to write a full page of ABCs everyday and that instead she liked looking outside the window.

But they always praised her dancing and singing skills. She was in the school choir. But that did not count much. I realised she was bored with writing alphabets each day. By then my husband and I were seriously thinking of other options. I was really upset with her becoming restless, angry, irritated, her loss of appetite, her lack of warmth. We knew the school was taking a toll on her authentic nature.

 

When we finally decided: A leap into the Unknown

God answered our prayers and we met a family of homeschoolers in Hyderabad on my husband’s insistence, and when we came back from the holiday G never went to school again. This has been over three years now

Before we started homeschooling, I was skeptical of it. But meeting this family with two wonderful daughters made the decision easy for me. Just listening to the mother and how, while she was certain, her husband was not. That she had prayed to Jesus (she is a devout Christian), to help convince her husband about homeschooling and her conviction in her faith, made me take the intuitive jump into the unknown.

I have made many heart decisions in the past without thinking much. And even though my husband was keener than me to start with, he did not expect this sudden change of heart. He was afraid and still is, but nevertheless he was excited and hopeful. The respective families were by then used to us being head-strong who did what they felt was right. They did not say anything on the face but surely thought we were crazy and out of our minds.

My husband’s family thought that way when we adopted G also. My family thought this way when I left a lucrative job to be a stay-at-home-mom. We were already pros at messing around!!

Of course since that day every family and household crisis got attributed to children not going to school. If I was in bad mood, it was because kids were always at home. If my husband and I fought, it was because kids did not go to school. If my children were becoming more self assured and spoke their minds more often, it was because they did not go to school.

I have been asked so many times if I knew what I was doing. My father often asks me to stop messing around with the lives of our children and ‘Teach’ them something. My mother could not fathom the idea of a life where ‘no one was going any where in the morning hours.  My mother-in-law once told be very gently, “You know I found out that homeschooling was started in the USA because of the problem of sex and drugs in school.”

Respective parents would obliquely ask the children questions like, “are you studying enough?” Then one day my mother-in-law hinted this, “you know there are no doctors in my family”. Then if my children did not want to eat breakfast my mother would say, “How can children feel hungry when they do nothing?”  My father-in-law would cringe whenever I took the kids to watch a film on weekday mornings! In spite of him beings the biggest movie buff in our family! (He was 12 years old when he went alone to Bombay to meet his favourite movie star Dilip Kumar and shook his hand!)

There were many such instances and when it got to a point where I felt my boundaries were being transgressed I firmly and gently told all near and dear ones this, “You have done your best to raise us, but now it is my turn to have the fun of raising my children. If I need help I will ask and then please see if you can help me.”

That at least put a stop to frontal attacks. Behind my back it still goes on. But as I watch my children getting happier and content, these things stopped affecting me; a long while ago. 

I started this learning journey with a structured curriculum where I designated a few hours to studying. G and I struggled hard with books and subject taught in school to only see the stress levels rising in both of us. The futility of studying new words, grammar, sentence making, additions, and general knowledge started to spoil our fun.

I realised soon that we both needed to detoxify ourselves from years of schooling. Especially as the mother, who had been conventionally educated, I needed more time to get school out of my head. G needed a lot of time to de-stress from three years of being told what to do every waking hour of her days.

When it is time to move on:

During that time when I was still struggling with books and curriculum, my husband and I happened to land up in Pune for a family funeral. We had read about another family and their three unschooled kids in a magazine interview. But we had no clue where she lived. So we logged on to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited website and searched for this family. Once we had their phone numbers, we called them up and my fateful meeting with them was fixed.

The lady, (who is now one my best friends) asked me a most significant question, “so do you Homeschool or Unschool?” and I responded with a “Duh”. I went on to narrate my struggle and my desire to find an alternative to school.

(At that time her older son was into video gaming and a large TV set was switched on the whole time in that household, I saw things strewn all over the place. And her younger son was interested in Guns and liked being called Yakamoto. Her daughter was pursuing a photography course somewhere; and her husband was a practicing Zen student! I felt my heart beat faster than ever. And I knew intuitively again that this is it.)

I came back to Delhi, my home town and Googled ‘unschooling’. Up came links to Sandra Dodd’s website ‘Radical Unschooling.” I have always loved the word ‘radical’, which means going back to roots.  So I went straight to that site and was lost in it for a month. With each passing day getting more and more convinced that this was the Path for me and my children.

I kept discussing with my husband. But soon found his interest diminishing. He was no longer interested in what I did with the children. He told me once that he wanted us to homeschool so that he could travel to any place, keep me at home and make me dependent on him financially and do any work that he liked to do. I was shocked. And suddenly saw that the intention had nothing to do with the kids really.

So somewhere in between all this the drift in my husband and me started happening. We both found ourselves struggling hard to be true to ourselves and yet keep the marriage going. I was getting deeper and deeper into unschooling and his restlessness and unwillingness to see or try and understand the shift was creating a lot of stress in our relationship.

There were other deeper issues also in our relationship which was causing pain and suffering to both of us. It seemed that with my resolve to finally live the life that I yearned for, the turmoil in our marriage also intensified. The differences that arose over unschooling were just another manifestation of deeper issues, which I became aware of and understood were festering for a long time. Unschooling was suddenly taking me away from my old ways of being and the outer world was reflecting the struggle of the Mind to keep me in the same place.

Anyway the crux is that soon out marriage was falling apart for various reasons know and unknown. Suddenly I was being branded the ‘radically unconventional woman.” And my husband proclaimed that he was always a ‘conventional’ person.

I felt betrayed; he felt betrayed and I am still wondering, ‘How did this man become a conventional person?” Perhaps I was all the while projecting myself onto him and he did not really have a choice, so just went with me or was it the other way? It is too painful to talk about and yet I am healing myself and feeling more and more at peace.

Besides embarking on this remarkable journey with my children, I was also being pushed towards another journey, the journey into my inner world. How strange it was that, all through my childhood that is exactly what I felt was being repressed and suppressed in me?

All my life I tried to fit into the acceptable norms of the society, and suddenly I was being pushed to walk a different path. So I took the plunge. There was very little choice left. My marriage had become abusive. There was anger, violence, resentment. It was not a conducive environment for any kind of evolution and growth.

It has been three years since I started out to reclaim myself and rediscover myself. The things that I understood were not all pleasant. I realised how self centred I had been. How hard I had been on myself by trying to prove that nothing was wrong with me? I also saw the control games I play and the control games others play to fulfil our selfish needs. To project a good people-pleasing image to the world, I could manipulate situations. With each realisation the outer world changed.

As I reclaimed the projections, the people in my life changed, some for the better and some for the worse. As I stopped participating in the games, the love that I thought existed was no longer present. I was being branded with many labels. So I saw how it is only when one gives in to others demands and wishes of how one must behave, one is loved otherwise not. There was lack of total and unconditional acceptance because I did not accept myself.

Each day as I own my shadows and accept myself with total love, I see the world changing. I am now with people who love and appreciate me and yet somehow the attachment to this external appreciation does not matter. I am doing all the things that I truly loved doing. My husband and I are no longer together. I am seizing the opportunity to live this life as an adventure and looking forward to the companions I carry forward with me, my beloved children. It is a tough road ahead but I know if I can come so far I will make it farther…..

End.


Story #7: Rediscovering her Core: Shrimathi Usha Srinivasan; Part 2

Standard

Marriage and Family commitments

By the time I finished my degree my father started looking for an alliance for me. Both my parents were very old; all my brothers were married and groping with their own life. My father strongly felt that he should see me married and in safe hands before his demise as I was not professionally equipped to work or to be self-sufficient. Though I was not fully inclined towards a wedding due to my spiritual and philosophical bent of mind, I was positive about getting married, more out of my survival instinct. Suddenly marriage was fixed and with just 12 days gap between the engagement (Nischadartham) and wedding (Kalyanam), I was married in December 1974; at the age of 22.

Jamshedpur

At that time my husband was employed in Jamshedpur. So after marriage I went to Jamshedpur with him. Though it was a very different life style from what I was used to, I put up a brave front. I slowly got used to that life, but it did not last long. My husband made a job change and we had to move to Hyderabad.

Hyderabad

That was it. Suddenly I found myself sitting on a roller coaster! This was the starting of the most tumultuous period in my life and marked a time when I had to completely change and adapt myself to the new environment and new lifestyle. Every woman goes through such periods in their lives but for me it was chaotic, to say the least!

Delhi

Though we were based in Hyderabad, I did not stay there for even 4 months at a stretch. The nature of my husband’s job was to travel, especially to North India. So we would go to Delhi, then come back to Hyderabad for couple of months, then again go to Calcutta and so on. On one side I found travelling to new interesting places, but the constant move on the other side was very difficult to adjust to.

Kiriburu

Kiriburu is a town in Bihar-Orissa border at the top of a mountain. We were there for three months. When I came to know that they were storing the chicken and mutton in the same fridge as vegetables in the guesthouse, I stopped eating! Then one of the mining officer arranged for some idlis to be supplied everyday from a mess in the foothills of the mountain. That and some fruits were my food. There was a lonely peacock in the guesthouse which had recently lost her spouse. Slowly she became friends with me and would knock at my door to share my idlis. Everyday taking a walk to the bazaar road (which totally had five shops) was my activity. My peacock friend always accompanied me to the shops

Jaipur

I remember when we were staying in the Jaipur Guest House, everything was taken care of. Of course food was completely new to me; only Chapattis/ Aloo and Urad dhal. I had a lot of time at hand also. So out of sheer boredom I went to the local library for books. I loved to read and thought I could pass the time with that. But to my dismay I found not even one book in English!! With no choice available I took a Hindi novel home, and started reading Hindi! I knew only the basic alphabets, but slowly over the week I started reading faster, and then finally reaching a stage where I could read a full story book in 3 to 4 days!! (This Hindi helped me later on while teaching my children!!)

But our favourite route was always Delhi-Hyd-Delhi-Hyd back and forth.

My husband had a typical IT job, demanding and time consuming, many times he would be immersed in his work and even his free time was with office friends. What do I do?

They were lonely times. In every situation, I found something new to learn, something new to do and that probably made me the strong person I am today. I had to survive, literally like throwing the baby into the water and watching it swim; I gained expertise. I learnt how to approach strangers and I could actually walk up to strangers in our building or guest house and ask them to help me out! I learnt to get things organised in completely new places, completely new situations where I did not even know the language.

I lost my first child in the eighth month unable to take care of myself emotionally and physically in the midst of all this turbulence. At such times we are fortunate to have parents to support us; in spite of their age my parents came to Hyderabad to spend a month with me. It was a very difficult period for me. After they left, again I was alone and with poor mental state. I was not even aware of that otherwise I could have taken some medical help.

Bhadravathi

Two years later I conceived again and my first daughter was born when I was in Badravathi. Soon we got news that we had to move to Calcutta. So I packed everything and sent it to Calcutta, and reached there. Initially we were staying with my sister for some time. Her whole family used to dote on my child. We had a very nice stay with them. It was so soothing like finding some shade in the desert. Being fiercely independent I did not want to trouble my sister who lived there, so we found a house to stay and had just finished the required house warming, when we received news that we had to move to Bombay. So without staying in the new house for even a day we packed our bags and with my little baby we went to Bombay.

Bombay

Bombay is another story. With no accommodation available we had to stay in a PG with a shared kitchen. So I was given a time slot to enter the kitchen; morning and evening. I would prepare whatever I wanted and then bring it back to my room stayed in that room with my young daughter. No need to tell that in between all these shifts now and then we would be touching Hyderabad for few months since it was the headquarters. In the meantime I was carrying again. This time when my husband went to Bombay again, I didn’t know what to do and went to back to my parents. But one of my close friends (whose friendship I had developed when I was in Delhi) was in Bombay; Mr and Mrs.Ramachandran who had three grown up daughters of almost my age. Mrs.Ramachandran used to love me as much as her own daughters. They were kind enough to write to my father that they could have me and my husband in their house and that they would take care of me. So I went back to Bombay and stayed with them for few months and they truly took care of me so well. I am grateful to God for bringing such wonderful people into my life.

It is such people and their friendship that I have collected as treasures during my criss-cross tour around the country. Our things were scattered all over the country, and we were literally living out of suitcases. I then travelled to Chennai to have my second daughter while at the same time shifting from one PG to another within Bombay We shifted to Chennai due to my husband’s job change and finally stayed in Chennai for a longer duration (around 6 years).

 A friend in need….

Chennai

 I was a complete wreck. With 2 small children at my side and managing everything on my own, cooking, cleaning, washing, and schooling; I had gained a lot of weight, and looked like a maid and not the wife of senior level manager that I was.

It was then my neighbour started sharing her thoughts and her attitude to life with me, and I started looking at my life and changing the way I looked, dressed and ran the house. She helped me understand that maids can be employed to help us and better we pay them we can get better service from them. I changed my attitude towards employing help around the house. I realised that they too are needy people and not just out to get our money.

I finally took things into my hand now, I employed a full time maid and cook; joined a fitness club, started taking care of myself. I learnt driving, and with my maid’s encouragement and support (“I will take care of the kids” she said), I joined the Music Academy in Chennai, to complete my teacher training certificate course. I stood first in the practical, theory and pedagogy papers. I also started learning from eminent Vidwans.

 (It was around this time that my father too passed away and I felt the loss tremendously. I was 31 years at this time.  He was a constant source of encouragement and blessing to me. He provided that unconditional love that guided and supported me all my life. (His deep interest and involvement in my singing brought out the Bhakthi Bhavam in me and led to my calling my music school after his name, of course much later).

Muscat

After this we went to Muscat for two years and there my younger one didn’t get admission into school (U.K.G). So I gave her home coaching for one full year. When we then came back to Chennai in the middle of the term it was not too good. Staying at my in- laws place, we had to search for schools for our children and a home for us. It was not easy. I had to write lots of notes for my kids and coach them too. Setting up the house from scratch was terrible. The children by now who were used to car had to take school bus and also scolding from teachers as they were behind in their lessons. They were not used to running to catch the bus or push around to find a seat for themselves. Every day, they would come back crying and it made my heart sink. Now my husband was away in Bahrain and I was alone in Chennai.

The turning point

The constant moves and detached lifestyle after marriage influenced me in many ways and I naturally moved away from material attachment and desires. I had a deep leaning to philosophy and the mind.

It is probably because of this and the meditation that I was deeply involved in, that brought into our house a book; called the Blue book of Silva method Like an answer to my questions on the meaning and purpose to my life, my husband brought a book home one day and left it on the table. I would see it daily, dust it, but not bother to take it in my hand. But finally one day my natural curiosity for reading caught up and I started reading the book. It took me deep into the world of Psycho-Oriento logy and dynamic meditation.

The book led me deep into myself and I went on to do an advanced course called the Ultra Seminar and just as I had visualised, I actually was trained by Jose de’Silva himself. José de’ Silva who is the author of the bluebook lived in Texas and was 80+ at that time. That rarely happens, and I consider it an omen, that what I wished for came true when I met him.

I was now interested in Healing and alternative methods of healing. So I also did advanced course in Reiki and followed this with Pranic Healing. I had an intuitive understanding of these methods and this carried me further into this community of alternative healing.

I was asked to take up private practice in Pranic healing after completing the Psychotherapy Healing course, so I set up a small private practice in Chennai and did this for 2 years. Yet this was not the path that was destined for me!

Raising Children:

Again there were transfers and movements to various other places, even Kanpur! You have to believe me if I tell you I have not mentioned all the moves, fearing that I’ll be making your head spin!! In between I was busy raising my children, and I kept them fully occupied with different activities, like swimming etc.

I was a strict mother and had many rules, yet I was quite happy to join them and have fun. I would allow them to play in the rain, on the terrace, yet keep everything ready at the house entrance, so that they could change and enter the house and not go in soaking wet! I believed in making rules, and also explain to the children the consequences, and the reasons behind why the rules were being made.

I gave them the choice to do what interests them, also the ability to understand people better, and to live life simply. I taught them to be independent very early. By 10 years my eldest could make coffee; I even took them to the bank and showed them how to operate their accounts. I kept communication open and gave them confidence that they could come to me with their problems.

Those first tumultuous years we were moving almost every 6 months, but with time we were stable for at least 2 to 3 years. Yet children did have to move states many times and it was difficult for them in many ways. Like this only they grew up.

They each completed their education and my elder daughter married at the age of 22. Even then my husband was away coming just a week before the wedding and I prepared for the marriage with the help of my younger brother.

 

My other turning point:

 Once again I was doing many things but not completely absorbed in anything and I felt this aimless wandering was getting me nowhere. At this time one of the Pranic Healing leaders introduced me to Landmark Education Curriculum for Living.

This became the next turning point in my life. I completed the programme which is conducted as three modules and through this I completely transformed my thinking. My self esteem improved tremendously, and I became aware of myself in many ways; especially my strengths and weaknesses. Till now I was not clear about what I wanted to do with all that I had learnt and gathered in my life, almost like I was in a slumber. The constant moves and family responsibilities had left me clueless and directionless.

Yet after the Landmark Course I became clear about what I wanted in my life and how to make it happen. First I started to put things in their places where they belonged to. I made it clear to my husband that his presence is the family is more important to me than his position or the money he was making. I made it so clear that I was not willing to take anything less than that and now wished to start something bigger and meaningful.

At the core of my heart I was missing my music. Due to all the family commitments there was a big gap in my connection with music. Now with renewed courage and focus, I decided to start a school for music. This was in 2000. As my father was my greatest fan and critic, I decided to dedicate the school to his memory. Initially I called the school ‘Jiva’, after the silk thread in the Thambura which gives the timbre to the Nadham and which makes the difference in the tonal quality. My motto was “Music for All”

Later I changed the name to “Eswaralaya” (after my father) and through this school train professional singers and also have created an empowered group of people which includes the students I train and their families. Music for me is a medium for transformation. Through my school I aim to make people more socially responsible and connected with the world. I believe that Philosophy is not within mere words, but it is a responsibility in those who follow that path to enlighten others. It is my duty as a teacher to show my students how to lead a more powerful and productive life. The learning is not confined to the music I teach or the lessons we practice.

Lord Krishna in the Gita shows us the virtue behind commitment as against attachment, this is a value I carry with me deeply. I also believe the essence of life is in balance. Especially for a woman it is extremely important to balance between her own personal desires and needs and the family commitments; otherwise we can become a liability.

There were 2 places in my life that I distinctly see as turning points, where I had to reinvent myself and my thinking; the first when I did the ‘de Silva course which led me down the path of alternative therapy and the other point when I completed the Landmark course and started my school for music excellence. This is the path I follow now for the past 10 years and have found immense satisfaction and fulfilment.

Yet I know this is not all, I still am working towards making the music school a platform for young artists to use their talent in a socially responsible way. My father always encouraged me to think big and I believe I am living his dream….

Excerpts taken from the website: http://www.eswaralaya.com

To her students, she is a dedicated, sincere and inspiring teacher with the ability to impart knowledge of both theory and practical aspects of Carnatic music. She considers training her students in voice modulation to bring out the best in their voice as one of her greatest strengths.

She approaches teaching in a holistic manner – teaching her students both the techniques of singing as well as other attributes and values that would enable them to grow as individuals and musicians. Aspects such as the various softer aspects of performing, be it stage presence, handling the sound systems etc also therefore form a very integral part of her teaching curriculum. Some of her senior students have started teaching Carnatic music under her guidance.


Story # 7: Rediscovering her Core: Shrimathi Usha Srinivasan

Standard

Shrimathi Usha Srinivasan tells us a story of self realization; as she has traversed a road less traveled by you and me! Notwithstanding the external chaos and changes, she had to turn deep within herself and embark on a journey of transformation. First turning towards alternative healing and then later embracing her deepest passion for music, to create a platform which uses her creative abilities to train and tutor young talent. She firmly believes her responsibility lies in shaping the thinking of her students and is not confined to just the lessons she imparts.

An amazingly versatile, skilled and gifted singer, she temporarily lost herself; but rediscovered her inner calling to create a school for Music Excellence.

(Usha Srinivasan lives in Bangalore and can be contacted at eswaralaya@yahoo.com and eswaralaya@gmail.com)

website-www.eswaralaya.com

(To begin with I would like to say that though I have not written this myself, yet I have allowed Sowmya to write it in first person, as it allows the narration to flow easily.)

(This is the first part of a story that will be presented in 2 parts)

 The beginning

October 1952, the Post master’s house in a town called Gudiyatham was blessed with a baby girl.

My father was not only the Post master but a land owner too and his deep interest in the land he owned prevented him from taking up many transfers that was common to his post. The very few times he took transfers,  it was only in and around Vellore where we had our own house. I was his 7th child and was born very late. Even that was one year after my first sister’s marriage. This made my parents very self conscious and they moved to Gudiyatham for couple of years after I was born.  I was his last child and probably why his favorite too.

Following the death of his first wife and with 2 girls to raise he married again and the family expanded with the addition of 4 boys and a daughter. The first daughter was married while the second daughter was engaged and a son was in hostel studying when I was born into this family. As the youngest I always felt the wide gap that existed between my siblings and me. This gap and the age difference between my brothers and me, and with no sisters in my own age group, very often left me feeling lonely and isolated. My last elder brother was 7 years older than me. And obviously he was not too happy about my birth and presence either, which continued his whole life time. I constantly fought against this feeling of detachment and many of my later experiences, questions on religion and life, were based on these childhood feelings that I carried with me.

I am told I was a very talkative and self expressed child. But having 6 elder siblings and parents around who were constantly commenting and teasing I could not continue being that way. I became very sensitive and suppressed. Though I was much happier and an extrovert in school and college, the impact of the home atmosphere curtailed my openness, I was very cautious of what I said or did. The result was I had nobody to open up to.

But this situation, where I had no company and had to entertain myself to escape the sheer boredom of being the youngest and most energetic in the house, while all the others were so much older led me to find ways to escape this boredom by becoming extremely creative and artistic. I took part in all stage dramas and dance programmes of the school. More than being in the class I could be found only in drama and dance practices. At home added to my music practice I started writing poetry and composing songs. Drawing and painting, doing craft with waste and old stuff which lay around the house were also my favourite past time. I was very fond of dressing up. So I would attach some borders to my blouse, paint my skirts or sarees, make matching costume jewellery out of the stuff I already had, ( my sisters used to get me a lot from Calcutta, Delhi and places like that.)

Growing Up

Growing up memories are many and very vivid, but an unique aspect that constantly appeared to me, which made my family stand apart from others and surely seems different from other families was the way my mother treated her own children! You would expect a second wife to be partial to her own children but on the contrary it was a reversal of this. She went out of her way to take care of her husband’s first wife’s children. She took extra pain, gave them priority, pampered them and her constant stand was “they were mother-less children. Several times my eldest sister took this to her advantage and was so demanding that she would want everything for herself. In order to act and be fair, my own mother was extra strict, matter of fact and distant with us.

Many instances where my mother would take my eldest sisters’ side and insist that we give in, or give away something because she felt “they were mother-less children”! The unfairness of this was felt by me, the youngest in the family who could not find her own mother supporting or giving her comfort when I needed it the most. (I am talking about a woman who was already married, who was being called mother-less and being given priority over a child of 6 or 7 or 10 years!). Not only she was of this thought, she even kept coaching my brothers that they should take care of these 2 motherless ladies! Again my eldest sister would take this to her full advantage, as we were told to tolerate all her inappropriate behavior without uttering a word.

My elder bothers’ who were working, would lovingly presented me with few gifts such as an alarm clock or a hand bag for an occasion (like,  getting into college). I was very fond of these gifts, cherished them and kept them with me carefully. Yet the moment my eldest sister came home for a visit and her eyes fell on these things, my sister would ask me to give them to her. I was not happy. But I was just 14 and she was not only elder to me she was also very powerful. I meekly expressed my sadness which was not heard well by any of my family people. Not only that! I had to end up hearing all the sermons from my mother about how people should be large-hearted and not hurt people’s feelings. (I silently wished how nice it would have been if she had spoken the same words to my sister); finally I had to give away my gifts with lots and lots of resentment. This incident left me wondering what is preventing the elders from taking a stand and speaking up for justice.

But there were many incidents later (of course after many instances like the above) where I chose to act differently. In a couple of years I slowly started resisting this behavior of my sister… I started refusing to part with my things mainly on a principle ground coupled with an emotional stand. Once when we had gone to Moore Market in Chennai, I vividly remember my sister buying dozens of handkerchiefs (she likes buying things in dozens; always!), and then we both returned to our hometown. My last brother had just then arrived from Belgaum and he had brought some saris for both my sisters and a half Saree plus a pack of hand-kerchiefs for me. Now again the game started. When she saw the new pack she wanted some of it.  For the first time I told her this was not done. This caused a lot of ripples in my life, when my family started advising me not to openly oppose her like this and after all it was a very silly thing. But by this time I had developed a deep sense of right, wrong, principles, fairness etc. From my point of view it was not so much the giving away of the gifts/things, but the feeling that people must be informed when they are not in the right path immaterial of our personal gain, or fear about survival. These were the times I started speaking up and taking a stand for myself. (Later when I spoke to my mother, she gave her perspective and reasons for behaving that way, and though I can forgive my mother for her actions, these incidents and feelings shaped the person I became).

Father was big support to me. He was quite old by the time I was born, yet he did as much or I can even say went beyond his means to provide for us and especially for my interests and talent. He was religious, conventional and quite traditional in some of his views. He was not in favor of women working outside the home, or going alone to market places shopping and things like that. Maybe he had fairly good reasons for that since the place we lived in was a small town. Yet he was a Founder member of the Vellore Rotary club and had many friends of different nationalities. He attended parties, visited his friends often who were of English origin.

He was a voracious reader and would share things that he read with me a lot, and also encouraged me to read. He was very particular that I should not do any degree course looking for work prospects. I was put into an English Literature degree course. He said readers live in wise people’s company and only a lady with wisdom can lead a household and her children in the right path. I think I have also inherited this quality of my fathers’. I value our Indian tradition in many areas and I also appreciate the valid purpose of them. At the same time I also feel for practical purposes people should be allowed to make some changes in their lifestyle.

 Memories of childhood

Memories of childhood are so irresistibly etched in my mind! (Later in life I realized, that even as an adult I enjoy and conduct classes the same way I used to as a child!). Play was my life-line in those days and I had many friends around the house. Even back then music, dance, and performances were my passion! I loved to sing and dance and one of my favorite games was teaching friends to sing and dance, and then we would hold performances in the house. We had a large table and this used to be our “stage”, I would sing and others would dance on top of the table. We would have meetings to discuss this and call the neighborhood children to watch. We even issued tickets like we were in a professional show! I was 6 or 7 years old at this time.

Another game was to dress up an idol, place it on a stool (a small table), decorate it with leaves and flowers available in our garden and pull it along like how they do it in chariot festival. After that there would be performances also by our own musicians, my little friends and myself! We would sing devotional songs and act as if we were in kutcheri!! All this was during week ends. On other days when my friends left after our daily quota of playing, my mother would light the lamp in the puja room and then it was my practice to sing before God. My sister would tell me that I would sit inside the Pooja room and sing songs with tears falling from my eyes, completely lost to the world …though I remember none of this.

I am also told that I would sing out to my mother heading towards the kitchen, when the greens-seller (keeraikari) came to our doorstep.

(Keeraikkari vandhirukkale……Amma); imagine singing that with a tune?!

I jump started my education very early! Being the last child in the house I was given a lot of leniency. I refused to go to 1st Std because I felt the teacher was rude and not good looking too (that is what I told it seems!) and would land up crying. Once my second sister took me to the second standard teacher who was her friend and casually explained the situation why I was crying. With lot of compassion when that teacher asked me ‘Would you like to join my class?’ jokingly; I immediately agreed… I liked the way she looked and so agreed to join only this teacher’s class. But how could that happen, when I had never been to school and hardly knew my alphabets?! My sister was adamant that she should find a way to take me into her class. The teacher friend then told my sister what questions would be asked and my sister and I worked at home. I got admission into the second standard by simply writing whatever was taught to me by my sister But I had no clue what I was writing! I just drew the words and numbers  The school was just next to my house and many days my sister would dress me up and  my brothers would carry me and just place me on the other side of the compound wall, which was my school!

I would go to school only once in a while and could not follow much because I had skipped 1st std and was not attending school regularly.

Till 5th standard I managed because my father knew the school principal and my sister helped me along! It was only after that school became a little tough as I had to go to a government school in 6th. Yet I did well in my studies and went on to join Katpadi Auxillium College to complete my graduation in English Literature.

My Creative Interests

My musical learning was greatly influenced by my second sister who used to play the Veena when I was a child and I was constantly with her. She also encouraged me to sing along with her; Mother too played the harmonium at times. At the age of 8 I started learning from Guru Chengalvarayya Bhagavathar in Vaniyambadi. From there we moved to Vellore where I learnt from a unique Guru-Sishya pair Shri Cuddalore Srinivasa Iyengar and then Shrimathi V.R. Gajalakshmi. From very early I had an inclination towards music, which was greatly supported by my father and sister. I had started singing in the stage by this time. I also started composing songs. The first song was on our family deity Karupuleeswarar in Gudiyatham and sang it during the pooja on Shivarathri day. Next was on Lord Rama of Kettavarampalayam, during the occasion of Sri Rama Navami concert of mine. When I was in college I composed a song on world peace, given a duration of 2 hours. I sang and got an award from UNESCO for best Student Composition.

Usually every evening I would sing devotional songs, bhajans when the deepam (lamp) was lit. This practice started when I was barely six years old. This may be the reason why people find a high bhakthi bhavam and religious devotion in my singing. I advocate this practice to my students also these days.

When I finished college (a bit earlier than others as I had skipped my first standard), and now that I had nothing to do I was sent to Calcutta, where my second sister was living with her family. It was now here in Calcutta that I first composed and performed a musical parody in the Kathakalekshepam style, called “Naveena Shakaunthalam”. I used music from film songs, interspersed it with dialogue scripted by me and performed the entire show on stage which went on for 2 hours at the Udayam Club! I was 18 years at that time and the audience appreciated it very much! I shortened the same show and later performed it for the Monday Charity Club as well.

Interest in philosophy and metaphysical reading.

Parallely it was at this age my interest in philosophy also deepened. The only other place I used to go during vacation was Chennai where my eldest sister was staying. The vacation used to be more like a camp. Though she provided me every thing, every movement of mine used to be corrected, criticized and prescribed and always with harshness and insult. So when I grew up most of the time I started to opt for staying back in my own house during vacations. But the couple of times I went, I used to get bored even after completing all the chores and helping my sister . By this time my sister became a member of Chinmaya Mission. She bought all the Books the Mission had to offer, starting from Bagavat Geetha to Upanishads.

This was the period when my natural curiosity and inquisitiveness in philosophy found an outlet, and I started reading Bhagvad Geeta and Upanishads, this interest continued for life. It was very easy for me to understand and appreciate these works even without any Guru, since the comment (bhashyam) by Great Chinmayanandha Swamiji was self explanatory. Later I read the complete compilation of Jagadguru Shankaracharyar, called “Deivathin Kural” which again defined my views and thoughts on traditional values and systems.

So on one side I was finding an outlet for my creative interests and on the other I was starting my journey in spirituality and philosophy. This period lasted for 2 to 3 years till I was 21years old.

to be continued…..

Story # 6; Following her Heart: Priya Desikan

Standard

Priya Desikan grapples with a system; head on. A conformist who rebelled when her deepest passions were challenged; this is her unique struggle with the Educational System. You and I may have a chalta-hai attitude and plod on cursing the system, tolerating it or fretting over it. Not she. She decided enough is enough and pulled-out her son to reinvent her own thinking on schooling, education and learning. No novice to the field; as a Special Educator she has worked with children with different abilities. When it comes to making personal choices, we may balk at taking such a bold step.

Taking ownership and responsibility for the quality of education that she chooses to give her son; Priya quit Mainstream education to embark on a journey in Home-schooling. Revelling in a process of learning and unlearning, having deep, unconditional trust that the child (her son) will guide the adult in this process of discovery; Priya shows us how we as parents cannot let fear or the “herd mentality” overrule us. A leader by example!

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhiji

( You can contact her at prisri30@yahoo.com)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


It starts here…

I was born on September 30th 1970 in Bombay. My parents were both working at Readers’ Digest then. My parents were pretty well-off and mother had great support from her family and I was always taken care of by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and maids. (I am the eldest of two and have a younger sister.)

My father grew up in a village in Tamil Nadu and never went to school due to health and economic constraints till he was 9yrs old. But he taught himself to read and write English and interact with a variety of people. He had to raise 5 of his elder brother’s children from when he was barely 17 years old as his brother died very young. Father also married late to ensure his nieces/nephews got to some point in their lives. He made a lot of sacrifices and is who he is, through self-determination and his life experiences.

My mother and father were always busy with their work and I missed having them home when I came back from school. The only person who was there for us right through our growing years was my grandmother. Many times, my sister and I would go to my aunt’s house for hot tiffin! Looking back today, I missed having my parents around; I was also a bit of a loner myself and had very few friends. I started writing very young; poetry and letters to my father was an outlet for my emotions and deep pondering.

We were in Chennai by now and school was a very important part of our lives. I liked my school a lot and even today am proud that I went to the school I did. My value systems and other aspects of the person I am today are because of my interactions with some fantastic teachers and people at school. I was always a good student and a total conformist! Many teachers were friendly with us and we used to talk to them about our feelings, problems and so on. (Ironically this is what is missing in today’s schools, the warmth, the care, the personal touch and love of a teacher and guide.)

After school, I went on to graduate in Physics. Next, I wanted to do my Masters, but could not get admission into the course of my choice; and I nearly went into depression. Still, I was stubborn and decided to stay at home and not pursue anything else. My parents allowed me to do this and supported me.

My mother knew someone at Vidya Sagar (formerly Spastics Society of India, Chennai) and asked me to volunteer there to take my mind off things. I started volunteering there and soon discovered how to fight odds in life from the mothers and kids I interacted with. They made me realize that there were bigger problems than mine. Everything Changed!

I did this for 4 months when I was asked to do the Special Education Course; but I could not make up my mind as Physics was still close to my heart. Finally, I was pushed into making a decision and given a deadline. I think I was one of the last to submit my application for the course!

I started living and thinking differently! I lived my new found passion, working with children with special needs; I grew up!

(I was always a sort of a rebel and do not mind being different. I refused to write GRE or apply abroad, despite my family insisting and pressurizing me, as I wanted to study only in India. Today, as a family, I think we are rebels because we are home schooling. We chose to be different and it has its own consequences…But let me come to that part….)

A gift from God arrives!

Srinath came into my life when I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I was in college and 19, when my grandmother passed away. I was very close to her as she was the one my sister and I grew up with; she had taken care of us.

Now roles switched, as I took care of her those last few months. She was 89; very sick and bed-ridden. Bathing her, taking her to the bathroom, washing her clothes, feeding her, being with her; it was traumatic to see her lose her independence.

I was shattered when she passed away, but put on a brave front as my father was also completely devastated. Suddenly I had no one to talk to at home and hardly had any friends. At that point in time Srinath was there for me as a friend, to listen and just be there and that slowly over the years  took on a different turn as we realized that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.

Marriage was the result of perseverance, prayers and endless waiting as both of us wanted it to be a joyful occasion. Our families disapproved of the relationship and those 5 years were very painful (I don’t know how we survived all that!). But we achieved what we wanted to and finally got married in 1996!

After that, both of us were busy and happy with each other and our careers to think of having children soon. Perhaps we needed that space after all that we had gone through! So it was not until 2003 / 4 that we even thought of having children. We were seriously contemplating adoption and after convincing our families, finally went to an orphanage to register. We loved the place and the people and even landed up taking the necessary forms. Exactly two weeks later I realized I was pregnant! That was one incident which made me start believing in coincidences….And that was it!

Raghav came into our lives on July 1st 2005. I always knew, even when he was inside me that he was going to be a very special child ~ a gift from God to us! Well, he proved that first by coming out in 3 hours! That was all the labor I went through; a miracle for a first-time Mom!

Moving Into School…

Life was charming with my new born and he grew faster than I could imagine and soon it was time to enrol him in school.

Firstly, I scouted a lot for a school that I could trust my child with. I spoke to many people and personally went to see many schools before finally deciding on this one. Initially I was very happy with it; although there were a few things I always questioned in my mind. I thought the individual attention he would get there would make up for everything else and it seemed a happy place. (Only later on did I realize that appearances can be deceptive and I had to pay a huge price for it!)

As Raghav moved on from one programme to another there were many things that came up that irritated and angered me at times.

Teachers would (informally) talk about the kids every day to parents as they came to pick them up, or in the corridors. They would even say negative things in a very curt way, without thinking how the parent might feel about it. Teachers did not seem to care or bother to understand parent’s background and assumed we knew very little.

Parent-teacher meetings mostly focused on rules and regulations, very little time was spent on talking to parents about the methodology or expectations. There was no real observation from the teachers about my child that made me feel she had understood his strengths and needs. Surprisingly parent -parent interactions was also not encouraged.

All the classes were structured so that every 15-20 minutes there was a change in activity; even if the child was really engrossed in what he / she was doing, they were asked to “clean-up”. This really baffled me and many times I brought this up with the teachers’ and Principal; who claimed that that was how long a kid of that age could pay attention. But it used to be hell for me at home as Raghav was so used to this external-programming, that he could not decided what to do for himself. He needed me to constantly keep things ready for him and that got a bit too much after a point as he had absolutely no self-direction. I knew he was not actually a child like that. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

In 2009 one thing led to another…

I was asked to help train a girl to work with my friend’s child (who had special needs), at the same school but in a different class. I took it on hesitatingly as I did not know how much time I could commit. It was a huge challenge as the school did not seem to like her (the trainee) but the parents could not find another replacement. I went in once a week or so to observe my trainee and provide her hands-on-training.

My first objective was to give the trainee, the skills to deal with things there. The second objective was to settle the child and get him onto a way of communicating his needs. We achieved both. We started working on topic charts and a visual timetable for each day. (It was important for the Class Teacher to understand how difficult it is for a child not to know what to expect and not to have control over his environment, especially when things are changed suddenly.)

Things took a turn when soon the Principal tried to get my trainee to join as an assistant staff in the school, after all the effort I had put into training her for the special needs child. The way they went about the whole thing was what hurt and angered me. They could have been straight-forward; but when asking the trainee-girl to join the school they never thought of an alternative for the parents. They just wanted to ditch the parents and leave them to find another person for their child on their own…again. That really angered me. (I did not expect this from the school and this was the first blow).

I had a long chat with the trainee girl and she decided against joining the school. (I won this battle without any direct confrontation.)

Around the same time, a lot happened with Raghav in school…

He was very close to a girl in class and they purposely kept the two apart at circle time. Raghav and I share what we do every day just before bedtime and we call it our “share and tell”. One day when we were sharing what each of us had done that day, he started sobbing uncontrollably. After a lot of cajoling and reassurance, he opened up and told me that he and this girl had hugged each other during out-door play time and that Aunty had shouted at them. He then said “Amma; you, Appa and I hug each other every day because we love each other. I love her. She is my best friend. Why can’t I hug her then?”  Why would you scold a 4 year old child for something like this??! It was shocking to say the least! It showed how much of child development they actually knew or understood.

Soon they started formal writing and I found a lot of changes in Raghav. He started detesting anything to do with writing at home and complained that they were making him write too much and that they did not get time even for outdoor play (not enough by his standards I guess.) He refused to do any homework or even do scrapbook work that he used to love earlier!

He would tell me that the teachers were getting angry with kids for scribbling and not writing properly and that one teacher even said that they would be put in a dark room! (This coming from an elitist school that claimed to be very child centric?! It took him a year to get over this fear of darkness!)

Towards the end of the term he started rebelling even in school. He used to be a goody-goody child and always listened to the teacher. But once when he refused to write, he was kept back in class and not sent to play outside. That upset him a lot. (I told the teacher that writing was not as important as reading to me, as that was the crucial skill needed for kids to access information on their own. But nothing changed.)

Then there was a community event (carnival) at the school. Children participated with their family and Raghav decided to dance on stage with his father to a popular Hindi film number; and then call his friends on stage to dance with him. He chose the song, practised with his dad and decided on whom to call to the stage too. But on the day of the event while they were on stage and dancing, the teachers decided that it was not a fast enough number to get everyone dancing and so changed it, without asking or even telling him! He was so upset that he just walked off.

There were other issues that escalated as well…

Raghav’s sleep issues became pronounced. He would sleep late and then get up with nightmares; screaming and crying; we would not know why. Next morning would be a war zone to get ready for school. He would not eat properly, would be very cranky and irritable and then when I went to pick him up he would not leave school despite being tired. Here, all he wanted to do was cycle like crazy in the play area and pretend to destroy things and people there. That got me really worried as it became very frequent. I realized there was something drastically wrong. I had to help my child and find a way out of this mess.

Another day there was a discussion in class on how, they were big children and so should sleep on their own in another room. Raghav sobbed to me about this one night as he was scared we would make him do that and he was scared of being alone and he wanted us near him. I disliked the way in which they handled these issues by throwing blanket statements at kids without understanding their sensitivities.

The other issue was about teaching facts itself. They had a project on food and said things like: “Non-Veg food was important to make you strong and healthy!”; “You should not eat oily foods as they go and clog your intestines” and so on!! Raghav then refused to eat ghee and oil and I had to do a lot of talking before convincing him otherwise. This made me realize how important it was to present the right information to kids in the right way and also be aware of what they have understood from all that information.

The last straw for me was when I found that a friend’s daughter had been hit by a teacher and when my friend went to the authorities; she was called a liar! I tried my best to give her all the emotional support I could. I decided to stand by her even if it meant that Raghav would lose his seat in the school and I was also ready to sue the school. But my friend decided against it and moved on. That incident was a revelation to me. I now saw the hypocrisies and the insensitivity of the Head.

And we move out….

By then the fights with Raghav to get to school every day was getting to be too much. The days my husband was not in town I had an even tougher time and he absented himself pretty often! There was no other way out. So, we decided to go and talk to the teachers and find out what the problems were and express our thoughts and opinions.

The teacher gave the impression that she could not flex too much especially when it came to writing and if we wanted to keep him back that would not be possible as then he would have to be there for 3 more terms doing the same things, due to some school policy.

We were caught in a fix as to what to do. We decided to meet the teachers of the next class he would move to and then decide. This was their response:

When I told them (Principal and teacher) that I was worried because my son hated coming to school…

You should not give him a choice in these matters…….just be firm! Let him cry…..he will settle down…”

When I asked for flexibility – whether it was ok not to send him on the days he doesn’t want to go….

Well, then you will have to take on the responsibility to fill in the gaps……he would miss out if a concept has already been introduced that week in class or if there is a field trip”

“What does he do at home? Do you sit with him and work? If not, then maybe that is the problem! You should do that; make it a habit.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the environment to suit his personality style, he is a loner”

“Other kids don’t think much of him anyway!”

“You should make home a boring place to be in –  then he will know that it is better to go to school!”

When we told them that he was coming late everyday because he didn’t want to come to school

“Oh! Maybe I should I call him to my office and have a chat with him for being late everyday to school……he needs to be accountable for time”

(We are talking about a 5 year old here!!)

Srinath (Raghav’s father) adds to Priya’s recollection:

One more of the behaviors (????) highlighted: “Your child has a big attitude.” It shocked us. Where does this come from? Principal and a person who claims to have been seeing children for more than 25 years as a teacher (and a very proud one at that.)

The explanation: “Though your child knows answers to the questions asked, he does not want to answer. He has a look of the all-knowing.”

Does a child of nearly 5 know what attitude means? Believe me it still rings in my ears!!

(It is a scary thought when you realize as a parent that the people you are trusting your kid with to play a part in building his values, his understanding of people and the joys of learning, actually have a very warped understanding of children, education and values!)

I share all this not to justify my decision about home-schooling / unschooling, but to share with others what I went through as a parent. To understand that I had no other choice but to decide what I did. I hope others know or will learn how to tackle these issues better than I did.

(Excerpts taken from the blog: You can read the entire flow of thought here: http://people-for-change.blogspot.com/

The Decision is taken

Many such instances left scars in our hearts. To me it was that last meeting that really hurt. No mother or parent likes to hear these kinds of things about her child. We went back home that day to tell Raghav that we had decided to home-school him. To this day, his immediate reply rings in my ears: “Finally you decided!” He had perhaps decided long back that this was not the place for him!

When he had said: “Amma, why can’t I go to school for 14 days and stay at home for 17 days?” That remark from him got me thinking! I realized he hated going to school because his freedom was curbed. Coincidentally, I attended a meeting on alternative education. It was great to meet a group of parents with very young children thinking of alternative ways of educating their children as they were not happy with the schooling system for various reasons. I started reading and looking up on options and that got me going.

What De-schooling means to me…

Till some time back our lives revolved around Raghav’s school. Starting our day with “getting ready for school” and ending the day with “getting ready for school”!

Coming to think of it our routines revolved around school routine! School was life! Holidays were planned around it, outings and playtime were planned around it, family time was planned around it, and eating time was planned around it. Can you imagine how “important” going to school is?

That has suddenly vanished! School has become non-existent! We have nothing “to do” as a family every morning! I think that was the first thought and issue we had to confront in this “deschooling” process! Ourselves!

It takes time to adjust to any change and although Raghav was ecstatic about it and there was a drastic change in him after we took this decision, we had to come to terms with this “nothing to do”. That is what deschooling means to me now; having nothing to do that is imposed from outside, where everything you do comes from within; you do something because you want to do it!!

Time seems to have stopped suddenly or slowed down! We don’t have to rush all the time, any more. We are learning to value and manage our time better.

We are learning to question our own ideas, thoughts and beliefs on education, life, values and other issues. We are learning to rely on ourselves. We are learning to be free….learning to just be! This is a journey with no road-map; we are going wherever we want to go and wherever it takes us.

I used to be one who was most comfortable when I had an objective or a plan. I have learnt a lot, changed a lot. Most of what I have learnt is about myself and my conditioning and how that impacts everything that I say or do. Today, I hardly plan anything, just live in the moment and go where life takes me (or at least I am trying my best to do that!). Raghav is my greatest teacher.

My “learning” and “unlearning”

When we know that a child has a disability, we immediately try and make an attempt to understand things better. Why is it that we don’t make an effort to try and understand “all” children irrespective of their labels and personalities? Why is it that we find it so difficult to respect individuality?

I have often pondered over many issues, and many continue to surface with Raghav everyday or every now and then. I would like to share my pondering with all of you. These are not my rigid views but my learning and unlearning. When you have a child or are in contact with children, you learn everyday.

Tantrums
I think it is important to understand the situation and environment the child is in first, before labeling it as a tantrum. I would rather see it as a way of expression than, a “problem behaviour”. I think most tantrums happen when kids are under stress, that stress could be due to hunger, sleep, tiredness, boredom, and so on. Now, I have learnt to observe things more carefully and look for patterns in this, with Raghav.

Routine

Routines are convenient for us adults. Children live in the moment, the present; and so schedules do not make sense to them. If it did then they would ask us for schedules! When I was asking Raghav about the things he liked and disliked at school, this was what he said:

“Amma, what is a timetable? I don’t understand a timetable.” I tried to explain what it was and then he said: “Amma, I don’t like to do a particular thing at a particular time. I like to do it in my time.” (I have given him that time now and work my routine around his. We do only what he is comfortable doing – nothing else. When you do this with understanding and respect his needs, it does not feel like you are sacrificing things for him – your time, your social circle, your needs and so on. I am learning to respect his time in the hope that some day he will learn to understand our urgency and needs as well.)

Restlessness:

Children caught in a time and space warp that have been created by regimental structures in schools, often show restlessness and sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that they need that; that they need structure and stimulation. But in reality what they need is to unwind, relax, unlearn and relearn what it takes to be free and creative. For when you are truly comfortable with yourself, you are okay with just being and having nothing to do.

After just one month at home, I saw a huge change in Raghav. He is comfortable with himself, there are fewer times when he asks me what he should do. He is better able to make those choices and decisions; there is more laughter, more smiles, more understanding less whining, less tears, less defiance, less anger and more peace! No more talk about destruction and monsters!

When you respect your child he learns to respect you.

When you listen to your child he learns to listen to you.

I sit back and wonder, how it was for us and how it has all changed with one bold decision of “un-schooling”!

I believe in coincidences, especially after reading the book “Celestine Prophecy”. I have started to look at events and people in my life as a beautifully made jigsaw puzzle, where you find one piece after another fitting in at the right place and time. So maybe this was all meant to be……

With all those conflicts that Raghav and I had at school I have re-defined my concept of learning and education:

  • I don’t want Raghav to do things out of fear, I want him to learn to question everything and have no fear of anything or anyone. I want him to enjoy learning
  • I want children to be understood; celebrate their uniqueness and appreciate every child as an individual personality
  • I cannot be a bystander and watch injustice especially when it concerns children (something that is so very close to my heart)
  • Children need just empathy; you being there and not teaching. In fact I don’t believe in teaching any more; I think it’s a waste of time!
  • Children have a natural desire and ability to learn. You are like a gardener providing the right kind of soil, water, light and love. All the potential is within – in the seed. All you have to do is tend it with your caring, humble hands and watch it grow! When you think you own the seed and are the creator of the plant is when problems arise.
  • I am learning everyday to be mindful and always go with my heart, my intuition and be answerable to my conscience.

There is a need now to invest time in more meaningful things, to live in the moment without fear or hope for tomorrow…for tomorrow is always another day…

“Life is like a rainbow….enjoy the moment!”

My journey is just beginning….

(This is a story that came to me in 2 parts. The events leading to the decision and later the learning/unlearning. Her honest sharing was an amazing journey for me!)

Story #5: A Family stands for Transformation: Bharathi Pandurangan

Standard

Bharathi Pandurangan is a woman of indomitable courage. A quirk of fate left her facing challenges that she would rather have not faced. Ironically, Bharathi herself does not feel the transformation and believes she only lived the role that was entrusted to her by her husband’s family. Matter-of-fact while recounting her story, she is grateful to her sister in law and brother in law for guiding her in the initial years.

This story comes to us from her niece, Lakshmi Devaraj (the same sister-in-law’s daughter), who saw her Aunt change from a docile and timid person to a dynamic person capable of taking decisions. Lakshmi believes her Mami (Aunt) underwent a reinvention and realising that her (Mami’s) story has impacted them right from childhood, she chooses to tell and to show how a family can be a support and cause a transformation in an individual. The story is a little more unique as the family that stood by Bharathi was her family by marriage!


Early Years

Bharathi was born in the year 1953, into a middle class Brahmin family. Her family was large by today’s standards, with 5 sisters and a brother. Her father worked in the railways, which took them to many parts of the country, especially down South.

As theirs was a large family; it was common in those days, to send the children to stay with grandparents, or even aunts and uncles, who would help to raise and educate them. So also Bharathi’s brother was raised by their paternal grandparents, while her elder two sisters were raised by their maternal grandparents. Bharathi herself stayed with her maternal grandparents until she was 4 years old, after which she joined her parents and younger sisters, to start her formal education.

Since her father was employed in the railways, they were constantly moving, so schooling was spread over many places, Guntur, Pakli, Tirupathi and Puthur. (Theirs was a family with Keralite roots, but as they had been living around Andhra, she was used to speaking, reading and writing in Telugu.)

Her family gave a lot of importance to education. Her mother, who had studied up to SSC back in those days, used to encourage all of them to study and would even help them with their daily assignments and examinations. (This is probably how, all of Bharathi’s sisters went on to become working professionals and have held various jobs ranging from railways, to central government teacher, to commercial practice).

When Bharathi was in 9th standard her father was posted to an inconvenient place, so they decided to relocate to Chennai where they took up house in Villivakkam.

Theirs was a close-nit family; Bharathi’s Aunt (mother’s younger sister-Chithi) and Uncle (mother’s brother-Mama) were also there to lend a helping hand. For the next 3 years, till she finished her SSLC (11th standard), Bharathi took a lot of help from her Chithi who was staying in Ayanavaram. Chithi, had completed her BA, B.Ed, and was a teacher in a government school, gave her a lot of support through extra coaching, in Maths/Physics/Chemistry, for which Bharathi would travel every day from Villivakkam to Ayanavaram. All this effort paid off and she completed her 11th standard (SSLC) with a first class. (Back then getting a first class was considered a very big deal!)

After her 11th she joined a polytechnic course. Yet, a unique problem did not allow her to complete the course. She suffered from severe travel sickness and found it extremely difficult to travel up and down by bus every day for her studies. So pretty soon without completing the 2 year course, Bharathi dropped out.

Things moved in a different direction and her marriage was fixed in 1973. The groom was the son of a famous doctor in a village in Kerala. In those days, doctors were rare and her Father-in-law’s service was sought by many villages in that district. So Bharathi married into a very important and influential family in the village. The family she married into was also quite close nit. Her Mother-in-law’s sister lived in the village, and the families interacted with each other on a daily basis.

Very soon, in 1974 and 75, she was the mother of two lovely children. A girl and a boy. Her husband too set up a medical shop close to her father-in-laws nursing home and life was moving very smoothly.

 

Quirk of fate

It was the year 1980 and all of a sudden her husband contracted jaundice. As her father-in-law was in the medical profession, and probably having a pulse on the seriousness of the ailment,  he immediately admitted her husband into the city hospital for treatment. Though given adequate medical attention her husband’s condition deteriorated.

 

Father-in-law called his daughter (she was in Delhi), without informing her that anything was a-miss. His daughter arrived by train and was surprised to find her father waiting to take her home in the car, which was not the usual practice. Without saying much he asked the driver to take them to the hospital. There, sister saw her younger brother lying on the hospital bed. It was a shock for sister to realise that her brother was very sick. She could but speak a few words with him.

Yet, even as his condition was explained to her, sister still did not get the gravity of the situation completely. Her brother soon went to sleep and she left the hospital to go home. Believing that he would recover and everything would go back to normal.

They did not realise that he had actually slipped into coma.


The family gathered around him. Mother-in-law was insistent that her son was sleeping or resting, and would wake up fit and fine, while Father-in-law was consulting astrological almanacs wondering how he had not seen anything amiss. By this time Sister-in-law’s husband had arrived with their 2 daughters, to provide support to the family. They had just enough time to pour some gangajal into his mouth before he breathed his last.

Bharathi was just 26years old, left with a 6 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.

Their lives were shattered for ever. Bharathi was almost hysterical and isolated herself into a room. All the others tried to cope with their sense of loss and grief and at the same time felt the unfairness of a life taken away so soon and so young.

Bharathi’s Sister-in-law had a daughter, just 9 years old at that time. The entire family was in turmoil and no one was there for the two little children. The young girl of 9 nine took care of the two little ones; bathing, washing, cleaning, feeding and sleeping with them, while the elders tried to cope with the tragedy. No one told her what to do; no one had asked her, she just took on the responsibility. (Necessity can  move mountains.) The young boy of five in his innocence wondered what festival was being celebrated in the house, seeing the lamps lit in the hallway.

Donning the mantel

Financially Bharathi was secure as she was still with her in-laws, yet her Sister-in-law and Brother-in-law (SIL’s husband) felt that if she was left by herself or stayed at home she would land up re-living those 6 years of married life and she could literally kill herself with negative thoughts. So they engulfed her into their mature and understanding folds.

Now a in spite of stiff opposition from the elders in the family and in spite of the fact that they were a upper class Brahmin community living in a village, where even today social taboos for women are high; where widows are restricted from mingling with the outside world; where untouchability, casteism, and societal norms play a pivotal role in their living; SIL and BIL became a stand for Bharathi.

Her SIL and husband encouraged and even insisted that she behave, dress and conduct herself as before, and not do anything that would make her stand out as the young widow; which circumstance had made her to be. At this time Bharathi’s parents recalled her, asking her to come to them so that she could resume studies. But Bharathi refused. She decided to stay on with her in-laws.

Despite all odds, SIL and BIL encouraged her to take over the medical shop, and run it the way her husband had done. Yet as they were living in the village she could not step out of the house for one year while she was in mourning. So BIL trained her to run the shop from home for a year. The stock list used to be delivered at home, for her to decide on what orders to place. He trained and coached her about licensing fee, taxes to be paid, and many other aspects. Bharathi was smart and did a wonderful job, running the shop this way very efficiently for a year.

After one year, again SIL came down from Delhi to convince the elders to allow the daughter-in-law to take the next step. So on Vijayadasami day, Bharathi stepped out of her in-laws home, to run the medical shop on her own. With her SIL’s encouragement, love and affection, she found herself taking on challenges that she previously could not have imagined. She was looking at financial independence, emotional independence and a breaking away from societal restrictions.

Bharathi would leave every day, neatly dressed with sticker bindi on her forehead and go along with her FIL as the shop was just next to the nursing home. She was also encouraged to attend ceremonies within family and be an active participant; everyone ensured she was not hurt or ostracised in any way.

She ran the shop capably for 11 years, raising her children and taking care of her in laws at the same time. She even gained courage to dismiss the family cook and took over managing the entire household, children, in-laws, shop, and studies.

Taking over the responsibility of the shop transformed her as a person. She became more confident, motivated and committed to her job. She was financially independent, and she also gained a lot of good will and respect from the people of her village. Literally a turning point.

Through all this, she had her in-laws to support her immensely. They were her pillars, as they guided her towards empowerment and transformation. They refused to allow her to fall into a trap of negativity and self pity. Giving her the shop, was literally giving her the rope to pull herself out of the well into which circumstance had thrown her; and she did come up very well, through her self-determination and hard work.

They moved to a larger town for further studies; later her children went on to finish their studies and picked up jobs in the city. Daughter is now married, while her son works in the city. After her FIL passed away, she sold the shop and moved with her son to the city. Here, she keeps herself occupied looking into the affairs of a temple nearby.

I am her niece, the one who looked after her children, when they were 6 and 5. I was just 9 years old when all this happened. I have literally seen the transformation happen before me. That is why I choose to tell her story.

I am extremely attached to my Mami (uncle’s wife). My uncle himself is a distant memory, but I know and love my Mami very much. She is the warm, loving, exceptional person who was forced to turn a tragedy into a success story.

Our families became even closer after this and the bond that has formed is divine, like she was meant to be a part of our family. I remember spending many summer holidays with Mami and my cousins, playing in the village; growing up together. The manner in which she carried herself and the way she blossomed with the help of her SIL (my mother) is a story I want to share with people.

Even today we find it difficult to talk about the loss and my Mother still sheds tears thinking about her brother. Yet, they did not allow the tragedy to take over their reality and in standing by my Mami, they ensured they not only transformed one woman, but also broke many societal norms and in that way helped transform traditional thinking in their village and within our family as well.

Death can be cruel and sudden, yet those who are left behind are the unfortunate sufferers. We can further deepen the suffering by holding on to petty rituals, and thinking. But my Mother and Father chose to break such norms. They stood by my Mami to create a person who could contribute to society and in that way contribute to creating an emotionally stable and secure family.


(This is a story that was given to me in written format by Lakshmi. I also visited her house to gather more information from family members. I spoke to Bharathi as well, but I could gauge her reluctance in calling this a transformation. Yet as I felt the story touches a chord in its simplicity and its message, we choose to share it with you)