Category Archives: India

“I am addicted to teaching as a volunteer, not to the money”

“I am addicted to teaching as a volunteer, not to the money,” says 63 year old Lily Sawant. The best way to describe Sawant is that she is a serial volunteer. For the last 40 years, she has been teaching children in Delhi, Aurangabad and Mumbai.Sawant’s journey began in 1972 when she was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi with her research scholar husband. “During the holidays, I saw many children playing in the hot sun. That’s when I decided to help these children utilise their time constructively. Since I had graduated in Chemistry and Maths was my favourite subject, I decided to teach the children Maths and English using stories and puzzles,” says Sawant.

Sawant then moved to Aurangabad when her husband got a job at the Aurangabad University. In 1984, Aurangabad and other parts of Maharashtra were affected by drought. At that time, the armed forces had advertised vacancies for entry level posts and many youngsters from peasant families wanted to apply. However, they could do so only if they passed a competitive entrance exam and English was compulsory. A colonel contacted Sawant and requested her to help these youngsters. “All the boys passed,” recalls Sawant. “They came to me with a box and sweets and told me that whichever part of the world they may be, they will never forget me. Till today they come to my house and visit me,” she exclaims.

Sawant and her family moved to Mumbai in 1988. Since then she has been teaching Maths, English and Moral Lessons as a volunteer. “Education is a must, a degree is not necessary and that’s why I did not study B.Ed. and become a professional teacher,” says Sawant. “My husband has done a Ph.D. and my two daughters are currently pursuing their Ph.D. degrees. I am the least educated in my house,” she exclaims.

In 1995, while teaching science to students at a municipal school, she had to use a projector. That’s when she realised that only sighted people would benefit from slide display and not the visually impaired. She then went to Vikas Shorewalla, a visually impaired person who taught her Braille and within the next few months, she started teaching maths at the National Association for the Blind. Today, Sawant can read English, Hindi and Marathi in Braille. Sawant learnt to read Braille and Morse Code at the age of 53.

Sawant takes pride in using innovative methods of teaching her children. She teaches children how to make litmus papers using flowers and demonstrates the solar system with the help of fruits. Sawant does not use a blackboard while teaching. “I don’t believe in showing my back to the class,” she exclaims. While teaching the children, they all sit in a circle.

For the last 40 years, Sawant has taught many children but she has done all of this free as she has never had a job in her entire life and therefore never felt the need to charge anybody for her service. I have taught children belonging to all classes of society. Parents of privileged children have offered to pay her for her teaching but she doesn’t take the money. “Children are children after all. It’s not their fault if they are rich or poor,” says Sawant.

Currently Sawant teaches Maths and Science in English, Hindi and Marathi to underprivileged children at Baljivan Trust near her residence at Santa Cruz. She spends three to four hours a day on volunteering. “I don’t waste my time watching movies or going to hotels. Time is in my hands, my hand is not in time,” exclaims Sawant.

Sawant takes pride in the fact that at the age of 63, she has no health complains. “All my worries and tiredness vanishes when I am amongst children,” says Sawant.


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Play it again, Joe

He’s proof that age need not rob you of your deepest passions. A professional musician for the past 84 years, Mumbai-baJoe Menezessed centenarian Joe Menezes still offers music lessons.

Born in Goa on 4 October 1909, Jose Matias Francisco Menezes – Joe, to friends – greets visitors with a firm handshake. Not surprising for a man who started using the walking stick only after his 100th birthday two months ago. “I give credit to my bicycle that I rode daily all over Delhi and Mumbai,” says Menezes. Though cycling helped him stay physically fit, much of his emotional well-being can be attributed to his passion for music. A professional musician, Menezes still offers piano lessons at his house in Bandra, Mumbai.

Menezes’s lifelong affair with music started when he was studying at Island School in Malar, Goa, where a Catholic missionary first noticed his sharp ear for deciphering musical sounds. Menezes learnt to play the violin at school, apart from the basics of reading and writing music. At 16, he received an offer to join a musical troupe that played in cinema halls in Malaysia and set sail on a 10-day voyage to Kuala Lumpur, from where he later travelled to Malacca and Seramban in the next five years. “While the movie was going on, our group of five violinists would sit below the screen and play the background music,” he recalls.

In 1931, he returned to Goa. Just days after coming back, he received an offer to play violin and saxophone at Bristol Hotel, run by a Goan, in Kanpur. “In those days, musicians needed to have expertise in more than one musical instrument to make a decent living,” says Menezes. “I used to play the violin during the lunch session and saxophone at dinner.” As British orchestra groups hired musicians on a contractual basis, his job profile kept changing every few months. From Kanpur, he travelled to Indore, Peshawar and Nainital on various musical assignments. “The British changed places according to the seasons,” he remembers. “During the summer, they lived at hill stations and in winter they shifted to the plains.” Unlike a lot of people, Menezes’s memories of pre-Independence years are not tinged with pain. “Those days were tough but I was not involved in the freedom struggle,” he says with candour. “Life during the British Raj was better. At least we did not have corruption and terrorism the way we do now.”

During one of his visits to Goa, while playing the harmonium in the local church choir, he met a young lady, Retinha. The two fell in love. As Menezes lived in Peshawar, Retinha travelled alone from Goa to Peshawar in 1941 where the two got married without the support of their families. Their son Albert was born a year later and daughter Sophia, in 1948.

Just before World War II, the family moved to Delhi where Menezes got a job as a music teacher at St. Columba’s High School, a stint that was anything but easy. “The boys were rowdy and the principal had offered me a year to train them to form an orchestra,” he reminisces. “That’s when I decided I would never teach boys again in the future if I had a choice.” Today he gives piano lessons to three students – all girls.

Disobedient students apart, Menezes recalls the breathless pace of his initial years in Delhi. “I used to go to the school at 6 am, then play at a restaurant during the lunch session, go over to my students’ houses to give music lessons and then go back again to the restaurant to play at dinner.” His hectic schedule hardly left him with time to think, let alone rest. “I had no weekly holidays and commuted all over Delhi on my bicycle.” Life switched to a more sedate pace when he got a job at the government-run Ashoka Hotel in Delhi where he worked for 10 years. It was the most secure job he had ever known. He even received accommodation at the staff quarters at Diplomatic Enclave in the Teen Murti neighbourhood – where then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru lived and Mahatma Gandhi often visited.

In 1968, Menezes decided to move to Mumbai. “My wife was keen to settle in North India but the climate didn’t suit me,” he says. The couple bought a house in Bandra. A few days after moving into the city, he got an offer to play music for films. Menezes joined the Cine Musicians Association and worked with music composers such as Shankar Jaikishan, Laxmikant Pyarelal and R D Burman. On the side, he also gave private tuitions in violin and piano.

He continued to play music for films till he turned 90, by when the hassles of commuting and the changing norms of the music industry began to get to him. “In my heyday, a large orchestra of 80-100 musicians was quite the rage,” says Menezes. “Eighty per cent of the musicians, though, were dummies who only pretended to play the instrument. After the recording session, musicians used to unwind with a drink, but I was always too busy to hang around.” He is glad he remained a teetotaller and feels his disciplined lifestyle has been an important contributor to his good health.

After retiring, he decided to offer tuitions at home rather than going to his students’ houses. Though, over the years, he had mastered the harmonium, piano, saxophone and clarinet – all on his own – he gave up playing wind instruments a decade ago on the insistence of his family who felt he was too old to exert himself. “It was with a heavy heart that I gave away my prized saxophone and two violins to music enthusiasts.” Today, he can still play the violin flawlessly, but the fingers that once played Mozart don’t comply so easily now. “My fingers and shoulders hurt a little now,” he remarks. After giving up his violin, Menezes focused on the piano.

Though he is adjusting to the aches and pains of life, adapting to the changes around him is not always easy. “Now there is noise and traffic everywhere and I rarely move out as there is hardly any space to walk,” he says with a touch of resignation. He spends his day playing music; meeting friends; going for a walk; reading; watching TV and teaching music. “Though it feels wonderful to spread the joy of music, I don’t encourage my students to pursue a career in music because the profession is riddled with a lot of uncertainty and you don’t earn much.”

His beloved wife passed away 10 years ago but his life is still filled with the laughter and conversations of four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His daughter lives nearby, in Khar, while his son, who has a house in Andheri, now lives with Menezes. “I wanted to dedicate my time to him, so I moved over to live with him,” says Albert, 67, who enjoys the long conversations they share about the good old days. For Menezes’s 100th birthday, Albert and his sister threw a party that was attended by 150 family members from all over the world.

Though Albert keeps him company, Menezes is fully independent. “I don’t visit doctors and I don’t even remember the last time I had fever,” he says. The glaucoma in his eyes is all that bothers him. Both his eyes have been operated upon for cataracts. “I did my second cataract at the age of 95 and the doctor was surprised to see such a good pathology report,” he says with justified pride. When asked if he has any dreams left to fulfil, Menezes has one small wish: “All I ask from the Almighty is to give me good health and happiness right till the end.”




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VOICE of the voiceless

Raju, a porter at the railway station chooses to study after a hard day of work so he heads to the NGO VOICE for his daily dose of education.

VOICE (Voluntary Organisation In Community Enterprise) Victor and Rajashri Bansiwar with the childrenwas started in August 1991 by the husband and wife team Victor and Rajashri Bansiwar who began teaching beggars, porters, rag pickers, vendors and shoe shine boys at railway stations. VOICE started with just 20 children. After 18 years of serving street children, the couple has touched the lives of over 5000 children into becoming educated and independent individuals.

“During my MSW (Masters in Social Work) course, I was posted as a trainee at Matunga at a remand home. During that time, I felt sad to see the dehumanising conditions of the children who were not looked after properly,” says Virctor Bansiwar, founder of VOICE. “By the time we finished our course, our attention got diverted towards children on the railway platforms,” adds Victor. The Bansiwar couple completed their MSW course from Nirmala Niketan College.

“Initially it was very difficult to start the organisation as we neither had the funds nor the resources to do anything. We registered our trust and opened the office in our residence in Andheri,” says Rajashri Bansiwar, founder of VOICE.

The organisation provides not just non-formal education but also encourage children to join the mainstream schools. “Due to unavoidable circumstances, some children could not go to school hence we give them non-formal education at our centres. “We cater to the needs of the Mumbai street child. We do not focus on book learning but on all-round development of the child such as value education, computers, yoga and music. We start with literacy skills and if they become interested, we send them to municipal schools,” says Rajashri. From its inception till 1996, the volunteers and staff of VOICE were teaching at Churchgate, Dadar, Vile Parle, Andheri, Jogeshwari, Goregoan, Borivali, Bhayander and Virar railway stations. “We wanted to teach children at all railway stations but the railway authorities objected to us being there. Everytime they asked us to leave, we would come back only because of the children,” adds Rajashri. Due to the non cooperation of the railway authorities, VOICE could not continue at railway stations. Instead, they taught all the children in their 1BHK home cum office.

After years of struggle, with a grant from Sir Dorab Tata Trust, the Bansiwars obtained a one acre plot at Virar and have constructed a home in August 2006 called Sanjivani for homeless girls who are particularly vulnerable to rape and molestation. The capacity is for about 100 girls. Sanjivani now has 53 children aged between three years to 17 years, seven volunteers and team of teachers who work along with the Bansiwars. “At Sanjivani, in addition to academic education, we teach the girls cooking, tailoring, gardening, yoga, music, computers and so on,” says Rajashri. The couple has now started reaching out to the Adivasi community in and around Virar. Currently, 30 tribal children go to Sanjivani.

VOICE has devised several programmes for the benefit of children. “One important initiative we undertook is Prayas. Under this programme, bank accounts are opened for the children. This inculcates the habit of saving money. The children are expected to save a part of their earnings into their accounts,” says Rajashri. The children have been taught screen printing on gift wrapping paper, cards, letter heads and to make diyas (earthen lamps) which is sold during Diwali. The proceeds of the sale of the gift wrapping papers and diyas go to the children itself who save it in their bank accounts. So far four children have purchased new bicycles with the money they saved while 14-year old Santosh saved Rs. 15,000 over a period of three months.

Other programmes include counselling sessions, debates on social issues and current affairs, educational camps to places like Delhi, Rajasthan and Dharmsala, yoga, singing and playing musical instruments like the tabla, harmonium, guitar and keyboard.

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“Development without security is meaningless. Join the Army”

“There may be lots of development, but if there is no security, development is meaningless. Therefore, join the army” is the motto of 60-year old Anuradha Gore.Anuradha Gore

Fourteen years ago, Captain Vinayak Gore laid down his life fighting insurgents at his post near Kupwara during Operation Rakshak. Since then, his mother Anuradha Gore has drawn up a battle plan of her own.

Since the death of her son, Gore took it upon herself to educate and inspire young children about joining the armed forces. During school vacations, she conducts workshops on all-round development, leadership skills, terrorism and about the armed forces as this is her way to keep Vinayak alive. “Values of bravery have to be inculcated in children at a young age so that they grow up to realise the importance of joining the army,” says Gore. She narrates stories of brave war heroes like Shivaji, Veer Savarkar and Mangal Pandey.

On a regular basis, she also tutors students of class 4th – 6th students of Paranjpe Vidyalaya in self study techniques. She has a team of 12 housewives who help her in this mission.

Gore feels that today children are looking out for more lucrative opportunities, but joining the armed forces does not necessarily mean the person will die. The salaries may be less but benefits are tremendous.

She was a teacher at Parle Tilak High School till 2003 and retired as the principal of R. N. Podar High School in 2007. Her teaching profession helped her deal with the death of her only son. “The principal of Parle Tilak High School sent me a letter stating that there are more than 100 Vinayaks waiting for you in school and there will be many more,” adds Gore.

Gore has written a book titled Vaaras Hovu Abhimanyuche on the lives of 19 slain defence persons. In addition, she serves as a columnist for Marathi newspapers.

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Let there be light and a noise-free diwali

Diwali is the festival of lights and celebrations not of noise. But for animals this could seem like a terrorist attack. Noisy fireworks are frightening to animals as their hearing is far more sensitive than that of humans. Lighting clay lamps are not only beautiful but will also spread the Diwali cheer.
Before buying firecrackers, make sure that you buy them from authorised stores. Check the box for declaration of no involvement of child labour. The government does not allow bursting crackers between 10 pm and 6 am. If you must burst crackers, stay away from silent zones. This year the police will levy a steep fine of Rs. 1 lakh and imprisonment of 5 years under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

Have a happy, prosperous and safe Diwali.

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Sight for the Sightless

Tucked away in a bylane near the archaeological site Gilbert Hill at Andheri West is Andhakkshi Ashram. For the people here, their condition is not a deterrent. However they may be, they still strive to live their lives like anyone else would do.As you enter Andhakkshi Ashram, you are greeted with smiles of children and women. Andhakkshi Ashram is a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) that provides shelter to abandoned women and children.Fatima Vengurlekar, the 56-year old dedicated director gave up a career as an airhostess for Air India to pursue her inner calling – service to people. Prior to Andhakkshi Ashram, she served as a volunteer in many organisations. “Whatever you may do in life, nothing gives you more fulfilment than serving people,” says Vengurlekar.

Andhakkshi Ashram was started 1937 as a rehabilitation centre for women with schizophrenia. However, today the organisation provides shelter to destitute, blind, mentally challenged and HIV + women and children. The organisation is run by the trust The Association for the Relief and Education for the Street and Needy Blind Indian Female. “Andhakkshi that means sight for the sightless, currently houses about 40 women and children,” says Vengurlekar.

Most of the inmates at Andhakkshi Ashram are mentally challenged and have been abandoned by their families. An example is Prabha who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and was abandoned by her family. After Prabha took to the streets, she was picked up a social worker and taken to Andhakkshi Ashram in 2002 where she was rehabilitated. Prabha is employed as a cook and that is her source of income. “Even though I am still on medication, my family respects me now because I give money at home and I am productive,” says Prabha.

Most of the women and children, says Vengurlekar, come from well to do families. Because of their mental illness, their families consider them as a liability and are ashamed to care for them. The criterion for admitting women and children into this home is that they have to be either blind, mentally challenged or HIV+. “The organisation provides many facilities that help inmates to get educated and gain skills for life that will help them earn a decent living thus making them independent,” says Vengurlekar. Anshakkshi Ashram gives these children an opportunity to live there, attend special schools and have other requirements met.

Four months back, the organisation has started Andhakkshi School that provides functional therapy for fine motor coordination. They also offer Speech Therapy for the speech and hearing impaired and Occupational Therapy to maximise the skills and ability of the differently-abled. A recent addition to the facilities is Chromotherapy (also known as colour therapy) that uses colour and light to balance energy wherever a persons body is lacking whether physical, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. “Through this physically, they feel better as their pains/aches are reduced and their immunity levels increase. Mentally and emotionally they feel secure, safe and strong. Their anger and irritability is reduced,” says Vengurlekar.

Andhakshi is dedicated to the mental and spiritual health of women and children using medication as well as alternative therapies. To widen their horizons and to reach out to more people, there is a Sacred space in Andhakshi which gives mental, emotional and spiritual guidance to people. This sacred space offers sessions and classes of alternative therapies, stress management courses, group and individual counselling and so on.

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Austrian aims to make Mumbai slum-free

Adolf Tragler has one goal in mind – to live in a slum-free city. Keeping this motto in mind, Tragler started the Slum Rehabilitation Society (SRS) in 1972.Adolf Tragler

Tragler, born and raised in Austria, had a wish to study in a foreign country. He had many options in mind and settled for India after having visited the country along with a missionary group. Thus is 1962, Tragler set foot to India, where he completed his Bachelors of Arts from Fergusson College in Pune and then came to Mumbai to complete his Masters in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

“The first time I came to Mumbai, I was shocked to see the plight of slum dwellers and that is when I decided that I had to do something for them,” says Tragler. SRS targets individuals and families who have been forced to live in slums due to the absence of affordable housing facilities.

SRS works only in Mumbai under the ‘Free Housing Policy’ of the government. The main areas of operation are Kandivali, Oshiwara, Bandra, Dharavi, Dindoshi, Mahalaxmi and Chembur. “We think of what can be done on the land that they are already occupying. In cases where the slum dwellers are occupying land reserved for open spaces then we try to relocate them to the nearest place available,” informs Tragler.

SRS normally meets the slum dwellers and helps them form an association and elect representatives from among themselves who could approach builders to rehabilitate them. According to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) guidelines, a slum can be rehabilitated only with the consent of 70% of the occupants. If the land is a private land, the No Objection Certificate (NOC) has to be obtained from the owner of the land so that slum dwellers can apply for acquisition of the land.

When asked about the Free Housing Policy, Tragler says, “Real estate prices are skyrocketing for the common man. Why should a certain section of people get free houses? We are against free housing but we promote affordable housing. Distributing free houses is not a form of development.”

SRS adopted a slum in Mahalaxmi and each family from the slum contributed Rs. 25,000 and collected an overall total of Rs. 40 lakhs. Seeing the level of commitment, HDFC Bank sanctioned a loan of Rs. 1 crore for the project. “When people pay for their house only then they will realise the value of it,” says Tragler. “We encourage slum dwellers to develop the land they are already occupying to reap maximum benefits from the land. Getting a builder to do it often benefits the builder more than the slum dwellers,” he adds. This was the first major project approved by the SRA where residents themselves financed their own housing rather than depending on builders.

Another activity of SRS is post-rehabilitation. “There are people, after getting free houses, sell it off or lease it and come back on the road. In such cases we counsel them into keeping their own houses because a permanent residence always helps them raise their social status. However, sometimes these people need ready cash say to pay for their daughters marriage and are hence forced to sell their houses,” says Tragler. As part of post rehabilitation, SRS has also mobilised women to approach authorities for adequate water supply and cleaning drainage systems around the buildings.

Today, Tragler, aged 70 lives with his wife in Bandra and can speak fluent Hindi and Marathi. He has an Indian citizenship and visits Austria every 3-4 years to visit his family. “I have to obtain a visa like any other Indian to visit the country of my birth,” he says.

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Where History Meets the Arts

The thought of the East India Company surely brings back unpleasant memories of our freedom struggle. However, with the passage of time, the company just made it to History books. At present, the East India Company is owned by UK based Indian Sanjiv Mehta and the furniture division called the East India Company Home is owned by Anurag Kanoria.

Located in Byculla, just around the zoo in New Great Eastern Mills, stands a sprawling 9,000 square feet double-decked showroom known as the East India Company Home.

The East India Company is the oldest company in the world that was formed on 1st January 1600 when the East India Company started colonising India. During its existence from the year 1600, the East India Company specialised in the trade of several commodities such as jute, sugar, saltpetre, cotton, silk, indigo dye, opium and tea. This company even had the largest defence force. After the uprising of 1857 against the East India Company, the British monarch took away the assets of the East India Company in order to prevent the latter from becoming more powerful. About four years ago Sanjiv Mehta acquired a 100% share in the East India Company from the original heirs. The furniture division is owned by Anurag Kanoria.

Tucked away within the premises of a crumbling mill, where the wild grass and broken walls show no sign of activity, an eager client will find his way along the tar road. The East India Company Home today, boasts of elegant pieces of furniture with intricate works of art handmade by their own carpenters and craftsmen. “Each piece of furniture is made of rosewood, walnut wood or Burma teak which is of very good quality,” says Anurag Kanoria, the owner of East India Company Home.

The East India Company has its head office in London. The company showrooms are currently in Mumbai and in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The third showroom will open shortly in Thailand. By the end of next year, the company plans to open showrooms in London, New Zealand, Moscow and the United States of America.

Konoria holds a master’s degree in Aesthetics and doctorate in Literature with Aesthetics as a specialisation. Thus, giving him an edge in furniture design. Kanorias furniture company earlier specialised only in high end furniture and interiors. After taking over the furniture division of the East India Company, Kanoria began to stock premium antique furniture.

Every piece of furniture is crafted in a limited edition. “Since the clients pay a premium for our furniture, they expect exclusivity from us. Therefore, we do not repeat models. If it is single model furniture, we do not make more than 12 pieces. However, the higher the price of the furniture the lesser number of units are made,” says Kanoria. “Even if we do repeat the furniture, we ensure that it is well spread out and does remain in the same showroom. In this way, the chance of someone spotting an identical piece is negligible,” says Kanoria.

The store is not just unique for its furniture but also for its collection of crockery and panels. Right from dinner plates and side plates of 22 carat to glasses, candle stands and napkin rings; the store has it all. Each dinner plate is hand painted. Even the embroidery and crochet on the upholstery of the furniture has been completed manually.

The store also specialised in Art Nouveau style of furniture. “We are the only manufacturer of art nouveau style furniture in the world,” says Kanoria.

Wood being the core raw material for the furniture could pose as an environmental hazard. “We are an environment friendly company. We make use of recycled wood obtained from government authorised plantations,” says Kanoria. “90% of the wood that we use is obtained from the wood that has been used in buildings. There are many buildings built during the British rule, which are now being demolished. The quality of wood back then was very good. Our evaluators evaluate the wood and then recycle them for making furniture,” he adds. The variety of recycled wood is Burma teak.

The furniture sold by the company is very elaborate and given the fact that real estate prices are increasing at an alarming rate, people try their best to save every inch of space. “Our clients include industrialists, NRIs, expatriates and people across the world that has sprawling houses and spending power. We advise people to take crockery or just single unit furniture in case they have a space crunch,” says Kanoria. Since the company also deals with interiors, the company provides flooring, upholstery, curtains, lights and taps that would suit the theme of the furniture.

Kanoria feels very privileged to be associated with the East India Company. “The name of the company holds a lot of weight and depth. Not only does it carry along with it history and culture but also a feeling of nostalgia and worth,” says Kanoria. queens charterAs the owner of the East India Company Homes, Kanoria uses the symbol of the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I. Thus, on the first floor landing, there is a stained glass window with the imperial Coat of Arms of the East India Company with the words “originally established in 1600 by a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I”. In addition, Kanoria is one among the privileged few to have access to archives of the Royal family and of the East India Company in London. Sourced from the archives, hanging on the walls of the showroom are black and white photographs and maps of the East India colonies and books on the company history are placed on the tables kept on display.


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Signs of Change: The SMS Way

Thirty-five year old Divya Bhandari was born with a severe hearing impairment. Divya Bhandari (in blue)Today, in spite of being unable to hear or speak, she has no qualms about confidently approaching people with a bright smile and handing over her business card for Divya Soft Toys, an initiative she took to venture into the world of business thus making her self-reliant and financially independent.

Being handicapped in India is discouraging due to scarcity of good jobs for challenged individuals. Despite her limitations, this Andheri resident has completed her SSC from the state board and went on to complete her diploma in Home Science. In addition, she developed new skills by enrolling herself in short term Yoga, beautician, soft toy making and computer courses. Her small home-run business enterprise keeps her totally occupied. During the lean season, she prepares herself to organise exhibitions and to sell her soft toys during the busy seasons. “I am completely independent. I can travel all over the place even in an auto rickshaw without getting cheated,” says Bhandari in sign language. “I do my own shopping and purchase things only on maximum retail price,” she adds.

Bhandari is blessed with many friends who have hearing impairment and they have all come together to form a support system for one another and for other individuals with such impairments. Pragati Shah and Ashutosh both aged 21 recently joined the group. While Ashutosh is currently taking lessons in computer animation, Shah has successfully completed her graduation in Economics. “All this while I used to travel alone by bus from my home in Andheri to college in Malad. It is only now that I have started going out with people like me and learning to become self reliant,” says Pragati Shah.

The oldest in the group are 40-year old Ajoy Kumar and Mandeep Chawla. Kumar is married and works at a petrol pump. His wife and children are hearing individuals and have learnt both the American Sign Language and the Indian Sign Language to communicate better. Chawla studied at the English Language Institute at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. He is currently involved in his family business.

Despite of their limitations, these individuals make an earnest attempt to speak. For Bhushan Yadav and his younger sister Shweta Yadav, their parents were very strict and did not allow them to completely depend on sign language. Instead, the brother-sister duo studied in a regular school and can converse with speech irregularities. Today, Bhushan works as an editor for a popular television production house and Shweta is in college.

Among the hearing impaired, age is no bar. “Even though I am 40 and the youngest one is just 21, there is no generation gap between us as we can connect with each other very easily. We hang out together and help one another,” says Ajoy Kumar. “Our condition brings us closer to each other,” adds Chawla. Kumar, Chawla and Bhandari being the older ones have seen much of life and often help the younger ones in all ways whether it is looking out for a job or even if it is about self reliance and independence for daily living.

“The mobile phone has helped us tremendously. Since we cannot speak on the phone, SMS is the biggest blessing to us,” says Vaibhav Darkonde who assists a doctor. “Earlier we used to ask out family members to pass on our messages to one another but now, we plan our meetings and outings on our own through SMS,” adds Radhika Goyal.

One of the biggest hurdles these hearing impaired individuals have to tackle is lack of disabled friendly facilities. “I completed my Std. X from a school for the deaf in Juhu but I had to move to a regular college as there were no colleges exclusively for the deaf,” says Pragati Shah. “However, my classmates and professors were cooperative. I used to copy notes from their books and if I had doubts used to write down my queries to my professor who used to reply in writing,” she adds.

This group of hearing impaired individuals meet informally every alternate Sunday in Andheri. The main purpose of the group is to form a support system for one another and to extend it to others like them.

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Chronicles of a Story Teller

As Russi M Lala, veteran journalist and author walks into the Princess Victoria Memorial Gymkhana near Churchgate, delighted cries of “Russi, Russi” greet him from all sides. Russi LalaPeople walk up to him and shake his hand. He answers them all with an old-world friendly formality that seems to be characteristic of him.

It is difficult to associate this lively 78-year-old with age or disease. And yet for Lala, his battle with cancer has been the turning point in his life. “I was in the lift one day, when I felt the lump on my neck,” he says. Lala was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but he was not disheartened. JRD Tata, whose biography has been written by Lala, was the person who sent him abroad for treatment. “My confidence stemmed from my ignorance,” he recalls. “I was so stupid and busy that I did not realise the gravity of the situation. But when the treatment started, it was horrible.” Lala gives credit to Freny, his wife, for having been his strength and support during those trying times. To this day, the love and affection that he feels for her is visible. He revels in pampering her and being attentive to her every need.

“When cancer strikes, your approach to life and your own personality come alive. You focus on what you are within yourself,” he says. “The disease was an interruption in the busy hum of my life.” His positive attitude not only got him through the ordeal of the disease, but also inspired others around him.

Vandana Gupta, another cancer patient, who met Lala during the course of her treatment, had completely lost hope in life. Her conversations with Lala gave her back her zest for life and she went on to start a support group for cancer patients called ‘V Care’. Lala later wrote Celebration of the Cells, which is a book about his battle with the disease. The book is in the form of letters to Vandana Gupta. However, the book that he is best known for is Beyond the Last Blue Mountain — The Life of JRD Tata.

Lala considers himself quite fortunate for having got the opportunity to interact with JRD, and he is obviously very influenced by him. “He was a great human being. To have known him and been with him was a source of refinement,” Lala says. He recounts how while working on the biography, he had told JRD, “I am neither going to call you good nor great. Let the reader judge,” to which JRD responded with “That is as it should be”.

Lala started his career as a journalist with newspapers like the March and the Current in 1948 at the age of 19. “At that time, there was hardly any competition and very little advertising. We refused to print cigarette and liquor ads,” Lala observes. He has seen the field grow over the years and feels that journalism today is lighter and more interesting. He became the manager of the first Indian publishing house in London, the Asia Publishing House, and by 1964, he had co-founded the Himmat Weekly with Rajmohan Gandhi. “I was the only investigative journalist then,” he says.

His work in the Himmat Weekly was highly appreciated by the then director of the Tata Company, SA Sabavala, who invited Lala to write about the Tatas. This marked the beginning of his association with the company. Lala liked meeting people. “As an editor, I would meet people very often, but now, I am unable to go out frequently due to old age and illness,” he says. He wrote about 26 personalities, whom he had met during the course of his life and career in his second book, titled, Touch of Greatness: Encounters with the Eminent. Vinoba Bhave, Mother Teresa, Dalai Lama, Jayprakash Narayan and many others he met have inspired him.

Once with the Tata company, he served as director of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust for almost 18 years. He helped in setting up the JRD Tata Centre of Ecotechnology in Chennai and the Sir Dorabji Tata Centre for Research in Tropical Diseases. At present, he is the Chairman of the Centre for Advancement in Philanthropy in Mumbai, an organisation that assists other philanthropic institutions by advising them on various issues like legal matters, fund raising and so on. Currently, he is working on his next book, The Role of Purpose in Life.

His encounter with cancer led to the renewal of his faith in God. “When I was undergoing the last radiation, I suddenly realised that there is nothing more important than God. That moment of realisation has been the most important in my life,” he says. Today, Lala begins each day in solitude to strengthen his faith. Lala advises, “Live each day as if it were your last. You will then have no regrets, no enemies — only peace of mind.”


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