#inspiringwomen “I just want to hear him say mumma once more”

It was the same time of the year, four years ago. A slight chill had seeped into the air and the festive fervour was building up. Diwali was around the corner and most people across India were gearing up for the festival. We had a Diwali party planned in office and our colleagues in Bombay had planned for a puja. Later that day we received an email that the puja had been cancelled since a colleague’s child was critically ill.

At that time, I didn’t know the colleague well, but the news terrified me, and I prayed hard for her child. By evening it was all over. My colleague Joyce had lost her only son Brendan. He was 15. I cried for days after that. Perhaps because I also had an only son and losing him was one my biggest fears. Just the thought would turn me cold, and here was someone going through this unimaginable pain.

Over the years, I got to know Joyce a little. I admired how she managed to come back to work and how she still had her brilliant smile ready for you. But I never dared ask her about Brendan. I was afraid I might break down in front of her! But when I decided to write about #Inspiringwomen earlier this year, she came to mind. It took me weeks to get the courage to ask her and then when she agreed it took a few more weeks for me to get the courage to talk to her. And now it has taken me months to finally pen down her story. Its not been easy.

Early days

“I come from a simple, hardworking family.”  Joyce and her husband Larson have known each other from a very young age. They started seeing each other in late teens and got married in their mid-twenties. She lived in a joint family with her mother in law and brother in law and his family. It was a one-bedroom-kitchen house and the loft was divided into two parts for the brothers. “wasn’t it inconvenient”, I asked. “everything has its pros and cons, the physical closeness also meant a kind of close bonding.”, she replied. They had a small family business. Larson and his brother made statues, moulded and painted them. Their mum handed them monthly salaries.

Life was simple and happy. In September 2000, their first baby was born. They named him Brendan Henry Fernandez.

Life was beautiful….

“life was beautiful when he came into my life”, reminisces Joyce. “We were so close. We laughed at jokes his dad couldn’t understand.” “even at 15 he was so simple, so childlike. He never asked me for anything – “whatever you bring mumma, will be good. I will eat whatever you make””. “but sometimes I would get angry with him, and now I cry bitterly”, she broke down as she remembered her only child.

“He was the head boy in class IV” ……“he was so smart and tall – he towered above both his dad and me”. “in class X he was chosen to be in the angel squad – he was taller than the rest and it looked like he stood guard over his friends”. His principal later said they never realised they had an angel in their midst.

….. “you know he was a foodie….he loved burgers….i would pick him up every Saturday from class and we would go to Mc Donald’s”

“I took him to Washington DC in 2014. He really liked the country and wanted to live there. He started planning for it before he passed”

Memories are never ending and memories are all Joyce has. She shared them with me. We cried together.

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…. And then everything went horribly wrong

“Brendan and I celebrated our birthdays together on 22nd October and on 24th we brought Mother Mary’s statue home. Next day he went to school. He had complained of a headache but I told him to go as he had his practicals. But soon after, a call came from school saying he was unwell. That night he had slight fever.”

By the 28th Brendan’s fever had climbed up. Joyce requested the doctor to do some blood tests. Dengue was spreading in the city. Both the doctor and her husband said a test wasn’t required, Brendan would be fine. She still went ahead and did the test. The test came positive but his platelets were 130,000 so the doctor again assured her that all will be fine.

Assured by the doctor, Joyce came to office on the 29th. But she was sent back by her boss when he found out her child was sick. She came home and he seemed better. What she didn’t realise was that he was turning for the worse. By the time they took him back to the hospital on the morning of 30th, it was too late. Doctors started to blame them. They spent all day in the hospital and even then Brendan looked fine. He just said, “mumma I want to sleep”.

“it was so difficult seeing him pricked with all those tubes. Seeing my distress, a nurse told me that all patients on that bed get better.”

“but the last time I went to see him, they had changed his bed….he never came back.”

I question God everyday…But still have faith in Him

“do you know that when I was eight months pregnant with Brendan, I fell off a moving bus? And then on his first birthday he was hospitalised with pneumonia. But then he grew into a hale and hearty child. I question God every day why he did this, when he saved him twice before, why didn’t he save him then?. There are no answers.”

I ask Joyce how she can continue to believe in a God that took her only child away.

“you know Sakshi, in 2006, I had climbed one of the local trains that had a bomb in it – I was the last person to climb that train. But seeing the crowd I got down. Even then I asked why me? How did I get saved?”

“A year before that – in the July floods – I was working in Bandra. For some reason that day, I stayed back in office – left office at 2.30 a.m. and reached home safe and sound after 7to8 hours. I walked in water up to my neck but I survived.”

“in 1996, minutes after my friend and I stepped out for lunch, my office building collapsed. I survived.” “So yes, I have many reasons to keep my faith even though I will never find answers to my questions”, she said simply.

And I think I understand. After what she has gone through, perhaps faith is the only thing that gives her some semblance of normality.

“I am not strong ….  I am lonely”

“It has been 5 years, but even today I haven’t been able to accept. I haven’t moved on. People call me strong – but I am not. I miss him everyday. I want to hear him say mumma once more.”

“My husband has not been able to break down. He can’t because he doesn’t want to see me cry.” Larson cannot cry because he does not want his wife to be burdened anymore. And anyway men have never been encouraged to cry. He has kept his grief within and it is taking its toll on his health. He falls sick often.

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Joyce and Larson are bound by their grief – a grief no one can understand. Life has moved on for others. Everyone has their priorities. For Joyce, time has stopped. “I am unable to attend family functions – it is difficult to see everyone with their families, their children. I feel deprived of this happiness. No one comes and talks to me. They are afraid because I always cry. Only my mom visits us sometimes.”

It is difficult to describe how helpless I felt at that moment. Nothing we can ever do, can fill the void in Joyce’s life, but can we not even take some time out and spend time with her? Or with any other Joyce we may know? Are we so afraid of facing someone else’s grief?

Losing a child is the worst nightmare possible. Nothing can be more devastating. This is one wound, time will never be able to heal. The most important thing you can do to help a friend or loved one who is grieving the death of a child is be available, understanding, and non-judgemental. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.

I am reminded of a recent incident of female orca (killer whale) who lost her calf. Many mother orcas are known to carry their dead calf for a day or two but this orca (Tahlequah) carried her calf for 17 days. Such grief had never been seen before and it moved millions around the world. After a few days, other female orcas started taking turns carrying the 400 pound baby so that the mother could eat and rest in between. The orcas surrounded this mother, literally helping her carry the weight of her grief. We need more human orcas like this.

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And if there is another Joyce/ Larson reading this, please know that I am sending you my love. Your journey of grief is your own…. But find someone to share it with. Unburden yourself. Please reach out.

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#inspiringwomen: She Never Lost Hope – Through Life’s Toughest Challenges

In a crisp saree, ramrod straight back, not a hair out of place and a graceful smile. That’s Ruby, easily the smartest lady in our office. Born and married into a defense family, she is a living example of the values of the armed forces – strength and integrity. Without these, perhaps, it would have been difficult for her to handle the challenges life threw her way.

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Youngest of seven siblings, Ruby was born in a post partition India, twelve years after her parents crossed the border from Pakistan. She tells me that her mother was in a petticoat and the youngest child stark naked when they arrived in India. Her family, along with other Hindu/ Sikh families, managed to survive because their Muslim friends safeguarded their houses and helped them escape when the time was right.

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Born in Lucknow and raised across the country, Ruby grew up as a happy go lucky girl, interested in sports and taking life as it came. Married in her 20s, she moved to Jabalpur with Harjinder, her husband. The couple was soon expecting their first baby and excitement was palpable in the air. Everyone wanted a girl as the family had all boys. Her mother in law got busy making frocks. And girl it was! On January 21, 1980, Prabhdeep was born.

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While her pregnancy was uneventful, Ruby’s labour was over a day long. In the labour room, it had been a busy night and the doctors had birthed 9-10 babies already. By the time Prabdeep (lovingly known as Chhotu) was born, both Ruby and the doctors were exhausted. When the baby finally pushed her way out, lights went out. In the ensuing confusion, combined with a weary team of doctors, they forgot to make the baby cry. THEY FORGOT! Medical profession is one such profession where a normal human error can have a huge cost. In this case, it cost Chhotu her first breath and consequently damaged her brain. Permanently. Irreversibly.

But Ruby didn’t know. Nor did the doctors.

What’s wrong with my baby?

As months passed, it became evident that all was not well. Chhotu wouldn’t cry. Pediatricians told them crying was important for her lung development. They asked Ruby to slap her and make her cry. She did. Chhotu cried. Sequence repeated. Endlessly.

But even now no one suspected brain damage despite the tell-tale signs. This was the 1980s and perhaps knowledge of brain injuries was limited. Not only limited, I would say there were prejudices as well as denial. When Chhotu was 11 months old, they had an army doctor couple as neighbors who had a same age girl. Sensing Chhotu was “not normal”, they wouldn’t let their girl play with her. This, coming from a doctor couple. When Ruby consulted another pediatrician, he refused to believe anything was wrong with Chhotu and instead referred Ruby to a psychiatrist. Apparently Ruby was “imagining things”!

But Ruby refused to believe them. She knew something was wrong. On her way from Jalandhar to Bhatinda, Ruby took Chhotu to Christian Medical College in Ludhiana where they had been referred by a friend. The intern who examined her there immediately suspected cerebral palsy and sent her to a physiotherapist.

Finally, Ruby had a diagnosis. And understood the reason why. But bigger and more important challenges lay ahead. Helping Chhotu develop. Become independent. Making her financially secure. A long journey lay ahead.

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The road ahead

I asked Ruby how she felt at that time. After all, a diagnosis such as this is not easy on any parent. I know. I am parent to a special needs child too. But she says they had no time to feel anything. Going from one day to the next, handling daily pressures, left them no time to grieve. Her husband took a posting in Delhi on compassionate grounds so that they could get her the best treatment from AIIMS. Husband and wife took turns to take care of Chhotu on a daily basis. Harjinder would come home by 1.30 and give Ruby a break. And soon a routine was established. It is commendable is how both of them took the entire responsibility of care-giving for Chhotu – feeding, bathing, changing and still do. They never relied on any outside help.

When Chhotu was four, they admitted her to a school. Lady Irwin college – home science, Child Development department ran nursery classes for children including those with special needs. The school was a blessing for them. Chhotu was taught basic etiquettes, painting, playing and there was a lot of integration with ‘normal’, neurotypical children. Chhotu thrived there, slept well, ate well and was happy. Ruby remembers the first day she dropped Chhotu at school. She wanted to go in with her, worried how she would react, away from her mom for the first time. Not allowed to go in, Ruby sat on the pavement outside the school for three hours, waiting for Chhotu to come out. She need not have worried, Chhotu was happy and had had a great day!

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A series of horrors

By the time Chhotu was six, she had outgrown the nursery school and her parents started looking at options. And then began a series of horrors. Chhotu was sent to a famous school for special needs children. Started by someone with a special needs child herself. The school had good facilities, but teachers lacked compassion. They seemed to focus on children who showed faster improvement. And sort of ignored those who lagged! Ruby recounts, “once when I went to pick Chhotu, the teacher told me she has been punished for not counting from 1 -10. And what was the punishment? She wasn’t allowed to eat her tiffin and the little child remained hungry from 6.30 a.m. till 1 p.m.” “I just couldn’t send Chhotu there anymore.”, says Ruby.

At another charity institution where Ruby sent Chhotu, she found out they were in the habit of hitting kids – Chhotu would come back with cane marks on her legs. And at yet another school, a Chinese Checkers peg that Chhotu stuffed up her nose went undiscovered for two days, till Ruby noticed her discomfort.

By this time, her parents also realized that while Chhotu was growing physically, development in other areas was slow. There was no speech till age 4 and even today at 39 years her speech is not very clear. Till age 7 she wore plastic panties and was still not fully toilet trained at 13. A bigger issue came when she hit puberty at 12 and had to be taught how to manage her periods. The last was perhaps the most difficult to manage. She had fibroids and would bleed heavily and more often. The doctor suggested hysterectomy. But Chhotu’s father would not hear of it. He took it as his personal task to help her manage. However, he had to give in when he realized that it was physically taking a huge toll on her. She would droop from the strain and pain of it. The family took a tough decision and decided to go for the operation. Chhotu took it in her stride and was up on her feet the day after the operation.

By this time, Ruby and Harjinder were sure their daughter needed greater support to become more independent and were unable to find it in Delhi. After much research they found out about Swayamkrushi based in Secunderabad, an institution for children and adults with special needs that aims to make them independent and become part of the mainstream society.

At age 14, Chhotu went to Swayamkrushi, to live away from her parents. Another tough decision was taken.

Today Chhotu is a happy young woman

Swayamkrushi was a blessing for Chhotu. She adjusted very well there and has made some very good friends. Today she is a happy and very loving person. Her smile is infectious and you cannot help but smile in her company. And like every young woman, she loves to dress up, shop and is interested in men!

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At Swayamkrushi she was trained to take care of herself. Soon after joining Chhotu became toilet trained. She was able to do small things for  herself. Now when she is at her house, she helps lay the table, put dirty dishes for washing and clothes in the washing machine. She also goes to a special school where she helps lay the table for children and gets to interact with them at a personal level.

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Ruby believes that peer learning, interaction and peer pressure helped Chhotu develop the most. And she has Swayamkrushi to thank for this. To see the work Swayamkrushi does, please see the coverage they received from NDTV, where Ruby also talks about the positive impact this institution had on their lives.

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Building a financially secure future for Chhotu

Early on, Ruby and Harjinder realized that it was important for Chhotu to be financially independent after they were gone. They were also clear that this couldn’t be done only on Harjinder’s income. So she started with small, temporary jobs. She was once selling cards made by special needs children at embassy when she was told about a temporary job at the World Bank. She approached them and got the position. She started with a two week job, which quickly became a month and soon she was filling in for anyone who was on leave. Slowly she got a 6 month tenure and then a one year and then another. By 1992, she had a full time job. And she never looked back after that.

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The hard work paid. They managed to build a house; move from a scooter to two cars and then to another house in Secunderabad. Ruby has also heavily insured herself in case of any eventuality and both Harjinder and she have prepared their wills. Chhotu is also a member of the national trust and two of her cousins (one from each side) are her guardians.

These days, Ruby is putting together a trust for Chhotu with 5 trustees – 2 cousins, a bank manager and a teacher from her school. This trust will ensure Chhotu has a regular income stream and funds available in case on unexpected needs.

Soldiered on like a true warrier – Hats Off

As Ruby and I spoke in length about her life, she revisited areas of her past buried deeply within her. She told me there was a second baby too. Chhotu was around six at the time and was very excited at the prospect of a little baby. Harjinder was posted at Kargil at the time. Her baby boy was born at 37 weeks with a punctured trachea that caused edema in his wind pipe. The child was kept on ventilation. His left cheek had a droop and he was unable to swallow. Even in this situation, the gynecologists and pediatricians were embroiled in a petty battle. Ruby’s gynecologist wanted to keep her in the hospital, but the pediatrician saw no need for it as she wasn’t feeding the baby. On the 10th day she was discharged.

That same evening when they came to see the baby, the incubator was empty. They went across to the pediatric ward to speak with the attending doctor, when they enquired about the baby – he said that the baby had passed away.  We wanted to know where the baby was – he said – “aur kahan hoga…. Mortuary mein” (“where else – in the mortuary”)………..

As she relives this horror, her tears flow for the first time. I am speechless. And at the same time in awe of this woman who has gone through so much, has weathered so much and still exudes so much positivity.

Her advice, “take each day as it comes, and let things happen at their own pace.”

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I hope you found Ruby’s story as inspiring as I did. Please do share – it may give courage to someone else who needs it. #thesewomendeserveit.

#inspiringwomen: “Breaking down was not an option: I had to carry on for my son”

It’s been four years, but the evening is still fresh in my mind. Arnav was home playing with Ayushman, when a neighbor came by and told me Ayushman’s father is seriously ill. Kapil rushed out to assist and I ran out a little later with emergency medication for a heart attack. Downstairs, I found Ayaan slumped in a wheelchair surrounded by neighbours. Surprisingly, the doctor not only refused the medicine but even the suggestion to take him to a reputable private hospital nearby. He just recommended we take him to the nearest local hospital. I didn’t know it was already too late to do anything for Ayaan.

Soon after, Kapil called me to the hospital. I was tasked with breaking the news to Antara, Ayaan’s wife. His cousin did not have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had either.

I don’t know how a woman is supposed to respond to her husband’s untimely death. Will she cry? Scream? Collapse? Faint? I don’t know. Antara took the news without any reaction. Her first sentence was, “How will I tell Ayushman, He is so close to his father. He is only six”. From that day to now, I have never seen her cry. She has hidden her grief and tried to keep life as normal as possible for her son. This year Ayushman will turn 11.

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I asked Antara with trepidation if she would like to share her story with the world, not sure if she would be willing to share a loss as personal as this. But she took the challenge. As she has, these last four years. I worried if she will break down sharing her story. But she didn’t – just as these last four years.

Antara was born and brought up in Kolkata, had a happy, uneventful childhood. An only child, she preferred being on her own and had select but close friends. Her parents gave her the freedom to be – her mum wanted to work, but could not, so she always encouraged Antara to be independent, have a career. Her dad was busy with work and mom dominated all household decisions, like all Bengali households, she laughingly tells me. That open upbringing and a strong mother figure, made her into the strong woman she is today, not afraid to deal with life on her own terms. The foundation laid by her parents, is what has helped her get through the hard reality of life she faces every day.

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She met Ayaan while doing a two-year course in computer programming and coding. They became friends and were part of the same group. While Antara was reserved, Ayaan was her total opposite. Outspoken and friendly, Ayaan made friends easily.

They started dating only after both started their jobs. After finishing their studies, they kept in touch and slowly an unsaid bond developed. Antara says there was never really any proper proposal. They both grew into the relationship and neither had to formally ask the other. Ayaan moved to Delhi for work and Antara followed a year later, when they got married.

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Ayaan was an ambitious, hardworking young man. As Antara says, he was self-made – he got through most of his education on the back scholarships he earned. He wanted to make sure they had their own house before having a child. They both worked hard to achieve that goal and shifted into their new house, three months before their baby was born.

“Though he never mentioned, I think Ayaan was not very close to his mother. However, he really cherished the relationship he had with his father.” Perhaps to compensate for the fractured relationship, Ayaan loved his son to the hilt. No wish went unattended, Ayaan showered Ayushman with toys, gifts and most of all his time. The two developed a very close relationship and Antara feels that Ayushman is probably still not as close to her as he was to his father. The threesome loved holidaying and spent some cherished vacations together. But time was short.

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9th April 2014. Antara had a job interview and Ayaan offered to drive her to the venue. On the way back, he complained of a slight pain in the chest. Shrugging it off as a gastric issue, he came back home and took some medication. When he didn’t feel better till evening, they decided to go to a doctor and Ayaan went to change. Antara was in another room, when she heard a strange gurgle followed by a thud. She ran to the room and found Ayaan lying on the floor, unconscious. She screamed.

Too soon it was all over. He was declared ‘brought dead’ – and was no more a person. Ayaan had become a ‘body’. The hospital could not release ‘the body’ till a post mortem was done to find cause of death. A police report was required.

And in the middle of all this was Antara. Surrounded by women – mostly neighbours – no mother – no sister – no friend. No one she could lean on and cry with. So she just held everything in. Steeled herself to go through all the processes.

Antara had decided to take Ayushman for the cremation. A psychiatrist told her that it was important for Ayushman to understand his father was no more. We all collected at the Lodhi Road crematorium where we waited for Ayaan’s parents to arrive. They reached soon after we did, and I will not forget the cries of a woman who has lost a young son. Crazed by grief, she was in stark contrast to Antara’s composure. Two women who loved the same man, bound and separated by his death.

She broke down once again, when they laid her son on the ground. In her grief, she wanted Ayushman to touch and feel his father for one last time. The little child, not seven yet, froze with fear. Unable to comprehend what was going on around him, he wanted to run. I took him away with me, holding him, playing with him while the last rites were being completed.

Ayaan had been very popular and loved wherever he went. Many of his friends surrounded Antara and helped her with all the arrangements, the paperwork, the post mortem. But they all also had to get back to their own lives. One by one they left. And Antara was left alone to pick up the pieces of a life that once was.

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Kapil turned 40 last December. The exact same day Ayaan would have turned 40 too. I remember feeling that death had prowled our corridors that fateful day and took Ayaan finding him home. Even now I shudder at how close by death had been. I am once again reminded how important is each moment lived. And how lives can change in a minute. Here one minute and gone another.

I am reminded of Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a month after Antara did. She wrote on her FB, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.

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As we talk, I tell her how amazed I have been with her self-control. She says she doesn’t know where it came from. Even her mother says she had no idea how brave her daughter was. As far as Antara is concerned, she knew she had to be strong for her son. She did not show her grief, so her son could retain a sense of normality.

She remembers the evening of the cremation. When she came back home, it was empty. Silent. Her mum had not come yet and Ayushman was with us. She just sat down in the drawing room, soaking in the silence. The cacophony inside and the chaos outside needed to be silenced so she could think. But even then, she did not cry.

When her mum came, she allowed herself to grieve a little, but something still held her back. A close friend called from the U.S. and she was crying on the phone. Antara did not. Her friend told her she needed help and advised her to see a psychiatrist. Antara is glad she took her advice. The first time she really let go of her emotions was with the psychiatrist. Perhaps, it is easier to be vulnerable in front of a stranger.

Till almost a year ago, Antara would suddenly go blank, in the middle of things. But she has been getting better. For almost nine months after Ayaan was gone, she could not bring herself to go out and resume working. (I wonder how she even had the energy to get out from the bed every morning.) But life doesn’t give us so much time. There was a house to run, home loans, Ayushman’s fees to be paid. Some people even advised her to move Ayushman to a cheaper school, but Antara chose not to. She wanted things to run the same way.

With the help of her mum, who moved in with her, she restored normalcy to life. Four years down the line, life is not ideal, but they are happy. Ayushman is a cheerful young boy. They go out for vacations. They celebrate festivals. She goes out with her friends. She is living her life.

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Antara says she has matured as a person. She was very emotional earlier – could get upset at small things, now she learns to ignore such incidents. She was also a very carefree person, “I didn’t even buy a packet of milk – Ayaan would do all that.” Now of course she has the responsibility of running the whole house.

They have almost lost touch with Ayaan’s family, but she holds no grudges, “I don’t expect anything from anyone anymore. I just believe in carrying out my own responsibility.” “I have also learnt, that money is important. It may not be everything, but it is needed to live a life.” She worries about Ayushman, “What if something happens to me?”. She has heavily insured herself. But now she reads the small script carefully. Four years later, she is still submitting papers for Ayaan’s insurance claims.

Have you ever thought of remarrying, I ask. “No. I am content. I have already led a happy married life and I don’t feel the need.”

“And I miss him so much……………………………”

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Do share this if you think it can inspire someone.

#InspiringWomen: A Pioneer, An Entrepreneur – She Built Lives Not Only Institutions

Today is the international Women’s day and we will hear/ read stories of many exemplary women, high achievers in their respective fields. It is important to acknowledge the great work and achievements of these women. In a world that still does not offer equal opportunity or a level playing field to women, recognition of those who have crossed many barriers to reach where they are today is essential.

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However, to a common woman, the achiever’s story might well be a benchmark but perhaps not an example she would be able to follow easily. Most of us common people look at the people on top with longing but never assuming that we can reach those levels. This is where it becomes important to look at women around us – women who have faced issues similar to ours, fought the same battles, maybe even worse than ours and came out a winner. When we see them overcome the challenges life threw their way, we believe we can do that too. We can also achieve, overcome, overthrow, win. As I wrote a few months ago – I have been shaped by the women around me.

For this women’s day, I have decided to bring out the stories of everyday women, women like ourselves who have made the best of their circumstances. By being true to themselves they tell us we can do it too. They have overcome grief, physical hardship, disability, poverty and built institutions. They are us. We are them.

Like the Navratans (9 jewels), I have chosen nine women whose stories I would like to share over the next few weeks. Whether it is Anita, born in poverty and thrown out of her house or Tara, the only female doctor in small town Rewari of the 1950s or Joyce who lost her only child, each of them has the power to encourage us, to tell us that nothing is insurmountable.

As I spoke to each of them, a common pattern that emerged was their own mothers or fathers, that shaped them to who they have become. So let me also start with the story of my mother. I have not chosen her because she is my mother – but because she was part of the first wave of women entrepreneurs of the 1980s, who started out on their journeys, without any examples they could follow, without formal guidance but only their own skills, confidence and conviction.

So let me stop here and dive into Purnima’s life.

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“The person I am today, is in a large part influenced by how my mother brought me up. Even in 1960s, when women had limited power over their own lives, she wanted to make sure that I was educated and trained to be self dependent. I was given full choice in choosing my career and life partner”, says Purnima. A textile designer by profession, Purnima is one of the handful of women entrepreneurs that existed in the small city of Jaipur of 1980s. She established her own institute that went on to develop a formidable reputation. It is also probably not an exaggeration to say that she pioneered design as a serious career option for a generation of young women that had started to aspire for economic independence and challenging professions.

Soon after moving to Jaipur post marriage, she was approached by a lady wishing to start courses in textile designing for young women. Purnima accepted her offer to develop and conduct the course which soon became very popular. A few years later, however, due to differences with management she resigned from her job.

Given the newness of the design field and lack of quality teachers at the time, some of her students insisted, begged and cajoled her to open her own institution. Moved by their faith in her and their own passion to prove their abilities to the world, she opened the Institute of Designing (IoD) in 1984 out of her own house. The garage became a classroom, the driveway was laid with two large printing tables and the terrace a place where students gathered to discuss and debate. Without any financial backing and with only her own skill and experience, Purnima took a decision that changed the course of her life and the lives of many of her students. (and i guess mine too!)

Keep in mind that this is the Jaipur of late 1970s – early 80s. Like most Indian cities of that time, Jaipur also aspired to greater development and urbanization. Infrastructure was developing, new schools were opening and businesses were growing. The mindsets were however still conservative. Many girls from well off families were still not being educated and many of those that were sent to school, were married off as soon as possible. Girls getting professional education were even lesser and the motivation in a large part was to add to their “sarva gun sampanna” status and make them more eligible for marriage. (photo credit colourbox.com)

Jaipur city

The first batch consisted of 7-8 girls which soon grew to 20 plus and then crossed 100s. At its peak, the institute had more than 120 students, many more classrooms had come up on the terrace and classes were conducted in two shifts. The spare room had been converted to the front office.

As garment and fashion industry continued to grow in Jaipur and in India, more courses were added to cater to various needs. Textile designing and printing; fashion designing, garment technology and so on. As NIFT and NID became more popular, designing became a more credible option. Children with a creative flair could now opt for a career more in sync with their talents – instead of having to go for science or commerce. This not only led to a greater demand for the institute, it also ended up in introduction of foundation courses for students who wanted to prepare for NIFT and NID entrance exams.

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By 1990s the institute had developed a strong reputation, so much so that postmen only needed Institute of Designing written on the address to deliver mail. (one of our neighbors got a letter addressed “opposite IOD!!” Another time, when I told a new acquaintance my address, he exclaimed that I live in Purnima Varma’s street! The pride I felt telling him that I am actually her daughter is indescribable!). She even had a few international students to her credit – who came all the way from the U.S. and Japan, lived a year or two in Jaipur to learn the craft. Media also did its bit in recognising her achievements.

 

Purnima was very clear that her courses will not be constrained to theory. Well aware that she was creating a skilled workforce that has to go out in the world and work, she laid a huge emphasis on practical work and exposure to industry. Her students did everything from scratch, right from preparing their own dyes to stitching their own designs. They were also given many opportunities to interact with the industry, display their work at exhibitions and fashion shows. One of the exhibitions attracted such a large crowd that the management of Jawahar Kala Kendra (where the exhibition was held) mentioned that this was the first time ever an art exhibition had so many visitors.

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(photo: Maharani Padmini Devi admiring the artwork)

In 1989, Purnima conducted the first ever fashion show in Jaipur. This not only gave a chance to her students to showcase their work, it gave them important lessons in managing such events from scratch. As was practice, the entire event was created and managed by the students and teachers of the institute. The fashion show started with a closed theater in Jaipur and over the years moved on to the large open air theater with the audience going into thousands.

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As a child (later teen), the institute for me was a fascinating ground for growing up (more in a later blog). On a busy day, you could see students busy tying knots on their bandhni designs. On the terrace, a few others could be seen making their screens for printing – painstakingly hammering the fabric on the wooden frame; tracing the design on the fabric and blotting out portions with enamel colour. In another corner you could smell the strong fumes of melted wax where students were dyeing their batik cloths. Upstairs sewing machines hummed amid the chatter of students. During the days leading to fashion shows, there was palpable excitement in the air and music all around as amateur models practiced their catwalk and students busied themselves preparing their costumes.

Through the decades of 1980s, 90s and 2000s, Purnima was witness to the changing social landscape of Jaipur. Some of her earliest students were driven to classes by their drivers who stayed till class ended and took them away soon after. Later in late 1990s, more and more girls started coming on their scooties or kinetics. One year, she had three students from the same family – mother, daughter and daughter in law – all three wanted to explore their selves and become more than just their familial duties. Many of her students went on to take jobs and start their own enterprises. Many came to her under-confident and went out ready to take on the world. A student describes her experience – “When I came to ma’am, I was like Jassi (an underconfident character from a popular TV show) and today I am as confident of myself as I can be.”

Unlike today, when education has become a money minting machine, at that time, an education provider was revered for the learning they imparted. Purnima established the institute to develop confident, mature women able to hold their own in a world, not balanced in their favour. Like a sapphire, she symbolizes honesty, purity and trust and those are the values on which she built her institute.

In her own words, “the best compliment I ever received was – ma’am aadmi banati hain (ma’am builds a person)”. Her life’s mantra – “Be true to yourself and have courage of conviction. Before becoming ‘somebody’, be a good person”.

So when I am in doubt, I think of this woman and tell myself, “if she could achieve all this, why can’t you solve your own little problem”.

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