Embracing Life

Vipul Shaha
July 10, 2010

    It was just another Saturday evening after a tiring day at school.  I was not much in a mood to do any work that had piled up on my weekend to-do list.  So I decided to go on a cycle ride in nearby army cantonment area. It is one of those few places where there is much lesser traffic, clean and well-laid roads, and lots of old beautiful trees with a diversity of bird-life still existent.   Weekend cycle rides are for me a way of escaping from the daily routine and regimentation.  Cycling gives me an unusual sense of freedom and control as I peddle along with no particular destination in mind.  I simply follow the path that intuitively guides me on these rides.  I enjoy exploring new places and observing the surroundings.  It allows me a chance to be completely with myself with no deadlines to meet, no appointments to make and no plans to execute.    

    This Saturday evening, I was enjoying one such cycle expedition.  The monsoon showers had covered the roadside with fresh greenery.  The day’s events had turned me into a slightly reflective mood, and so I was riding slow trying to absorb of what is going around and inside.  As I was about to take a yet another unknown turn, I saw him—an old man with a white beard, uncombed hair, not-so-clean clothes on.  About 20 feet distance from where I was on my bike, this man was sitting under a deserted metal shade.  He had an empty bottle in his hand with which he was calling me towards him.  As he called me, my first thought was to start peddling faster and pretend as if I didn’t see him.  I thought of him as a homeless man perhaps begging for money. I would normally just ignore such invitations from a stranger and carry on with my business—partly because I make myself believe that I am always in a hurry and party because I carry inhibitions about roadside strangers.

   Today was different though.  Today, I wanted to know, to get involved and to step out of my comfort.  Something within stopped me. I found myself approaching this man with curiosity and caution.  What would he want from me? As I went closer, he pointed the empty bottle towards me and requested for some water.  My instant reaction was—but I am not carrying any water with me!  His face went sad with rather disbelief.  As I took a closer look at him, I realized that this man had no legs and no right hand!  He asked me to park my cycle near where he was and directed me to the army hospital on the other side of the street for water.  The suspicious self in me was still questioning the credibility of this man.  Is he hiding his legs and hand—I asked myself.  What if he takes away my bicycle?  I locked the cycle and went to fetch him some water…still a little nervous about what I had just seen and gotten myself into.  I wondered if this was some plan to trick me? When I returned with the filled water bottle, he spoke with genuine gratitude, ‘Thank you so much.  God will bless you.  And sorry for all the trouble.’  His words melted my heart.  I couldn’t help feel ashamed about my crude thinking. 

   As I handed him over the bottle, he told me to carry on helping any disabled person I may come across.  I could now see a kind and thoughtful man behind his disheveled appearance.  He told his story…and I found myself patiently listening to it.  To my surprise he spoke good English as he had graduated from the famous Fergusson College back in the seventies—my own alma mater.  A high volt electrical shock left him crippled for life—having to lose both the legs and a hand.  The man also lost all his close relatives one by one and has no one to call family today.  None of this stopped him from having hope in life and faith in God.  The metal shed where I met him is owned by the army.  He looks after it by keeping it clean and not allowing outsiders to misuse it.  He has made it his home—a good protection from the monsoon rains.  I asked him about how he passes his time, being there all day and night with no one to look after him.  He said “When you have purity in your heart, God takes care of you.  There are always good hearted people in this world who come and help you if you have faith.”  I bid him goodbye with a promise to meet him again.  As I peddled back home, I wondered what, despite having literally nothing, keeps this man going in life?  The incidence will continue to inspire me to embrace life to the fullest no matter whatever the situation.

Walking Pilgrimage--The Shakti of Bhakti

Vipul Shaha and Sheetal Sanghvi

“My legs are paining but my soul is rested”, borrowing words from Gandhi, described our state of being even as we struggled to walk that ‘last mile’ to reach the Nature Cure Ashram where a friend had invited us for staying over at night.  It was nothing short of a miracle for us to have just completed a 35-kilometer walk from Pune to Saswad in rather scorching heat as part of the annual waari pilgrimage.  Perhaps it was the Shakti of Bhakti (the power of faith) that kept us going through an incredible daylong journey.

Growing up in Maharashtra, one cannot miss the annual pilgrimage that takes place from Alandi to Pandharpur.  Popularly called as ‘waari’—it is a tradition that goes back to over 700 years and draws over a million people from across the state to walk a distance of about 250 kilometers spread over an 18 day journey through villages, towns and cities.  This year, we felt a spontaneous call to join-in the pilgrimage even if for a short time, and to really understand the spirit of this mega-event that has just passed us by for so many years.  No definite plan, no particular agenda, not really knowing much, we just ‘took the plunge in the river’, and got completely soaked in its flow of amazing generosity, bhakti and the celebration of life.

Accompanied by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (warkaris), it truly felt like we were being part of a river—a river that would eventually dissolve in the ocean of faith and humanity when over a million pilgrims conclude their journey at its final destination—the Vitthal temple in Pandharpur.  Innumerable tributaries representing various saints and their teachings come from the tiniest of villages scattered across the rural landscape of Maharashtra.  Every soul was welcome...the river simply embraced every pilgrim with open arms…washing away any apparent distinctions of socio-economic class, caste or gender.  We met with many elderly women who have been coming on this yatra for several decades.  One elderly women in her eighties chuckled, “my family worries about me…they think that I cannot do this any longer…but I can’t help it...I just have to go!”   

It was very moving to see a physically-disabled man trying to push up a hill his hand-operated bicycle, and fellow pilgrims offering him support.  There were small kids, families—large and small, women walking barefoot, doctor’s group, nature lovers’ group and even Rotarians taking a dip in the pilgrim’s river!  A sense of camaraderie and fellowship naturally flowed amongst people, as they greeted each other by calling each other ‘maooli’ (mother)— invoking their mutual respect and reverence for Saint Dnyaneshwara whom they regard as a motherly figure for having bestowed upon them the wisdom and knowledge of universal peace.  The boundaries of age and social standing also disappeared as the pilgrims would touch other’s feet and seek blessings from one another. It was also interesting to note how there was no authority or hierarchy that was trying to ‘control’ the flow of the river. Self-organizing and self-discipline seemed to prevail as pilgrims from all walks of life had showed up without anyone inviting them to be part of this sacred journey.  When asked what brings them to the event year after year, many expressed that they get tremendous ‘samaadhaan’ (sense of contentment) from joining the waari.   We were simply awestruck thinking of how powerful that seed of faith must have been, which has kept this tradition alive and thriving even several centuries after it must have originated.

 There was no end to the overwhelming generosity bestowed upon those walking the journey.  Unlimited amount of tea, water, bananas, sweets and food kept being poured in as warkaris were welcomed everywhere.  It seemed as if everyone wanted to contribute his or her own bit.  We enjoyed eating simple warm breakfast cooked with love by a family that we had never met.  People opened up their homes for food, bathing, sleeping.  Free shaving and hair-cuts, free stitching, cobbler services were offered at different locations.  Keeping up with the modern times, some people even offered free mobile phone charging service. Even local politicians, business people, government officials, police forces, social service organizations teamed up to be of service in various innovative ways.  Free medical service was made available all the time. The forest department in Saswad had over 30,000 paper bags filled with seeds of various fruit trees and medicinal plants which were being handed out to the pilgrims—requesting them to plant those seeds along the journey.  There were groups performing street-plays and promoting awareness on organic farming.  Another group from the Sevagram Gandhi-Vinoba Ashram was distributing copies of the Geeta and offering public discourses on the topic.

After having just climbed up a long mountain stretch, our feet quite exhausted, we were pleasantly surprised to receive the gift of a foot massage from a Yoga volunteers’ group.  How healing and rejuvenating that felt!  Whenever we expressed interest in learning more about the bhakti tradition, seasoned warkaris very enthusiastically shared their stories and experiences.  One of them even offered his personal prayer book containing songs and hymns (bhajans and abhangas) of Saint Tukaram. 

Singing and dancing to the tune of very soulful bhakti songs eased our legs and brought alive a sense of collective celebration.  It was amazing to see men and women pair up to a spontaneous  phugadi dance or following rhythmic steps to the sound of drum-beats and cymbals.  Flags, multi-colored outfits, sarees, Gandhi topis, dhotis, flowers...every little thing added its own charm and beauty to the multi-pronged gathering.

After experiencing ‘a day in the life of warkaris’, we returned home--our bodies completely exhausted, our clothes soiled but our soul and spirit a little bit cleansed and calmed! 

With deep humility and gratitude in our hearts for the countless pilgrims we encountered along the way, we would like to offer a collection of photographs (slideshow) and this week’s Maitri Tune dedicated to the spirit of kindness and Bhakti.  In the future, we wish to be able to walk the full length of the pilgrimage and would certainly welcome more like-hearted souls to join us on this walking university of life! 


An Escape Into the Himalayas...

October 2017

An escape from myself
or what seemed like a daily grind,
I went to the Himalayas for peace to find.
With every breath I breathed;
and every step I did tread,
a nagging truth resounded from every nook.
the inner chatter was harder to mind;
and the mountains within steeper to climb!

Lost in their charm and beauty,
I embraced the mountains;
yearning some calm and clarity.

The water streams flowing with pristine purity;
pinewood forests vibrant with spiritual serenity;
the shooting stars showering blessings aplenty,
smiling flowers and the cooling breeze;
the griffin flying high with majestic ease,
The mules…their bells ringing a sweet symphony;
how they shared such perfect harmony!

those sounds…the smells…the sights…
shook alive moments frozen in time,
they walked me closer to myself
until there were no escapes to find.

in those humble creeks and giant peaks,
the ego chose to let some of itself go;
like the falling leaves and melting snow,
it was called to dive deeper, dissolve and flow…
to allow life to flourish and grow.

Was I beginning a new journey…?
to discover in me, the hidden treasures many;
n’ to meet the vast oceans awaiting my destiny!

Lessons from a Tribal Community--Melghat

२५ सप्टेंबर २०१६  Vipul Shaha, Melghat
अमरावती जिल्ह्यातील धामणी व चिखलदरा या दुर्गम तालुक्यांचा, निसर्ग सौंदर्याने नटलेला, सातपुडा पर्वताच्या डोंगर-दऱ्यांचा प्रांत म्हणजे मेळघाट. लहानपणी शाळेमध्ये भूगोल शिकताना या भागाची पुसटशी ओळख झाली होती. नंतर काही सामाजिक प्रश्नांचा अभ्यास करताना मेळघाटातील कुपोषण व बालमृत्यू या समस्यांबद्दल ऐकले होते. यंदाच्या पावसाळ्यात मेळघाटात प्रत्यक्ष जाऊन तेथील 'कोरकू' या आदिवासी लोकांसोबत राहण्याची व तेथे आरोग्यविषयक जागृती निर्माण करण्याची संधी मला लाभली. पुणे येथील "मैत्री" ही संस्था दर पावसाळ्यामध्ये "धडक मोहिमेचे" आयोजन करते. 
महाराष्ट्रातून युवा स्वयंसेवक दहा-दहा दिवसाच्या तुकडीने या मोहिमेत सहभागी होतात. अशाच एका धडक मोहिमेत सहा जणांच्या तुकडीमध्ये मी सहभागी झालो. 'हिलडा' नावाच्या छोट्याश्या, साधारणतः ३-४ शे लोकवस्ती असलेल्या गावामध्ये एका आदिवासी कुटुंबामध्ये आम्ही राहिलो. तो आमचा 'बेस कॅम्प' होता. त्या गावाच्या आसपास असणाऱ्या सभोवतालच्या पाडयांना (वस्त्यांना) रोज साधारणतः ५ ते १० कि.मी. पायी चालून भेट द्यायची. घरोघरी जाऊन तेथील लोकांशी चर्चा करायची व एकंदरित त्यांना आरोग्यविषयक साधे सोपे घरगुती उपचार सुचवायचे. तसेच गरज भासेल तिथे प्राथमिक औषधे पुरवायची, असे साधारणतः कामाचे स्वरूप होते. आरोग्याबरोबरच शिक्षण, अंधश्रद्धा, कुटुंबनियोजन, प्रशासकीय सुविधा अशा विविध विषयांबाबत जागृती, समुपदेशन व विचारांची देवाणघेवाण होता असे. कोरकू हे आदिवासी तसे मितभाषी, स्वभावाने काहीसे लाजरे व शांत पण तितकेच जिव्हाळा व आपुलकी दाखवणारे, येणाऱ्या व्यक्तीचे आदरातिथ्य करणारे. अमरावती पलीकडचे जगच माहीत नसलेले बहुतांश कोरकू, आम्ही  पुण्याहून आलो आहोत म्हटल्यावर जणू कुठल्या दुसऱ्याच देशाचे रहिवासी असू असा कित्येकांचा समाज. मराठी ऐवजी कोरकू ही त्यांची भाषा तसेच मध्य प्रदेश सीमेनजीकचा प्रदेश असल्याने थोडीफार हिंदीदेखील त्यांना येत होती व आम्ही त्यामुळे त्यांच्याशी संवाद साधू शकत होतो. भाषा, प्रांत, संस्कृती यांमध्ये इतका फरक असून देखील त्यांनी आम्हाला चटकन आपलेसे केले. आरोग्य जागृती मोहिमेच्या पुढे जाऊन कित्येकांशी अनौपचारिक जवळीकीचे नाते निर्माण झाले व अल्पशा कालावधीतच एका आगळ्यावेगळ्या अशा, पण आपल्याच बांधवांचा परिचय झाला.
आजपर्यंत ऐकलेल्या मेळघाटाचा शापित, अंधश्रध्दा, दारिद्र्य, अडाणीपणा, कुपोषण, बालमृत्यू यांनी ग्रासलेला प्रांत अशा एका ओळखीला काहीसा तडा गेला व या प्रांतामध्ये, लोकांमध्ये उपजत असणारे गुण, तसेच चांगुलपणाच्या, प्रेरणादायी, सकारात्मक अशा काही गोष्टी समोर आल्या, त्या इथे विशेषतः नमूद कराव्याशा वाटतात. 
  • या आदिवासी गावामध्ये एकाही घराला कुलूप आढळले नाही. भीती व गुन्हेगारी याची कुठे चाहूल सुद्धा भासली नाही. यदाकदाचित काही वाद-विवाद झालाच तर तो गावाची “पंचायत” भरून वडीलधाऱ्या मंडळींच्या मार्गदर्शनाने, सर्वसामंजस्याने मिटवण्याचा प्रयत्न केला जातो. स्त्रियांना एक मानाचे व आदराचे स्थान आहे. या समाजामध्ये हुंडा पद्धत नाही. 
  • पिढीजात पद्धतीने हे आदिवासी शेती करून आपला उदरनिर्वाह करतात. निसर्गाच्या सान्निध्यात राहून त्यांनी आपली अतिशय निसर्गस्नेही जीवनशैली टिकवून ठेवली आहे. स्थानिक पद्धतीने, उपलब्ध असणाऱ्या नैसर्गिक संसाधनांचा स्वत:च्या अगदी तुटपुंज्या गरजांपुरताच वापर केल्यामुळे येथील  नैसर्गिक संपत्तीचे जतन झालेले दिसते. ज्याला आपण ‘इको-फ्रेंडली’ किंवा ‘हरित जीवनशैली’ असे म्हणतो ती आदिवासी लोक अगदी स्वाभाविकपणे जगत असतात. 
  • त्यांची छोटीशी पण टुमदार घरे, शेण, बांबू, माती, दगड यांपासून बनविलेली. कचरादेखील नैसर्गिकरीत्या विघटित होणारा व त्यामुळे शेतीमध्ये खत म्हणून उपयोगी पडणारा.
  • पैशाची उणीव असली तरीदेखील स्वयंपूर्ण व स्वाभिमानी असे राहणीमान, स्वतःच्या प्राथमिक गरजा स्थानिक पातळीवर भागविता येतील इतकी कौशल्ये पिढी दरपिढी चालत आलेली. 
  • सारा गाव, शेजारी पाजारी, सगळेच एकमेकांचे सखे सोयरे. आपआपसातील नातेसंबंध, परस्परावलंबन, एकमेकांच्या नडीआडीला लगेच धावून येण्याची वृत्ती हीच यांची मोठी संपत्ती व खरी ‘सिक्युरिटी’ (सुरक्षितता). प्रत्यक्ष उदाहरण सांगायचे झाले तर, एका जणांच्या शेतीमध्ये रानडुकरांचा त्रास होत होता तर त्यांना पकडण्यासाठी ८-१० मंडळी पहाटेपासून प्रयत्न करीत होती. 
  • सर्वच घरे ‘कोरकू’ समाजाची व  एकसारखे राहणीमान असणारी, त्यामुळे कुठे जात-पात किंवा उच्च-नीच असा भेदभाव आढळला नाही. 
  • जीवनाची गती अगदी शांत, संथ, निसर्गचक्रशी मिळती-जुळती असणारी त्यामुळे कुठे ताणतणाव, धावपळ किंवा हेवेदावे नाहीत; अतिहाव यामुळे उद्भवणारे मनोविकार नाहीत. रोजच्या शरीराकाष्टामुळे  त्यांच्यामध्ये काटकपणा तसेच रोगप्रतिकार क्षमता आधिक. 
  • आधुनिक, औपचारिक शिक्षण जरी कमी असले तरीदेखील लहान मुले अगदी कळत-नकळत गावकऱ्यांकडून सहज खेळता बागडता, कामात मदत करता करता अनुभवातून खूप काही सतत शिकत राहतात. दिवसभर मुले कुठे आहेत, काय करत आहेत याची चिंता पालकांना नसते कारण सारं गाव हेच एक कुटुंब असल्यासारखे गुण्यागोविंदाने राहतं. इंग्रजीमध्ये एक म्हण आहे: It takes a village to raise a child (एक मूल वाढवणं यासाठी एक गाव लागते.) ती म्हण मेळघाटमध्ये खऱ्या  अर्थाने साकार होताना दिसते. 
  • केवळ बौद्धिक विकास नव्हे तर कित्येक प्रकारे कुशलतेने हातांचा उपयोग करणे आदिवासी लोक जाणतात. बांबू व सागाच्या लाकडांपासून अनेक कलाकुसरीच्या तसेच दैनंदिन उपयोगाच्या वस्तू घरोघरी अजूनही बनवल्या जातात.
  • प्रत्येक गोष्ट बौद्धिक तर्कवितर्क किंवा चर्चा याद्वारे समजून घेण्यापेक्षा हे लोक प्रत्यक्ष अनुभवातून, कृतीतून चटकन  आत्मसात करतात. कदाचित त्याचमुळे कोरकू भाषेत फारफार तर १५०० ते १६०० असे मोजकेच शब्द आहेत. 
  • त्यामुळे आमच्या मोहिमेमध्ये आम्ही गाणी, गोष्टी, पथनाट्ये याद्वारे त्यांच्यापर्यंत पोहोचण्याचा प्रयत्न केला. 
  • एका तान्ह्या बालकाला ताप आला असता त्यास मीठ टाकलेल्या गरम-गार पाण्याचा लपेट करायचे प्रात्यक्षित जेव्हा त्याच्या आईला दिले तेव्हा तिने ते चटकन अमलात आणले. त्यांची निरागसता व विश्वासू आणि श्रद्धाळू स्वभाव यांमुळे कोरकू लोक खूप लगेच आपलेसे होतात व आलेल्या परप्रांतीयांचे हृदयही जिंकतात. 
  • अशा दुर्गम भागामध्ये जाऊन काम करणारे फार कमी असतात. तेथे शासकीय यंत्रणेचे दुर्लक्ष असते असा माझा समज होता. परंतू इथे विशेष उल्लेख करावासा वाटतो तो म्हणजे पवन बोके या राहू गावातील जिल्हा परिषद शाळेमध्ये नियुक्त झालेल्या शिक्षकचा. वय केवळ २८ परंतू गेली चार वर्षे हे शिक्षक राहूमधल्या शाळेमध्ये अक्षरश: वाहून घेऊन काम करत आहेत व त्यांच्या अथक प्रयत्नांतून या शाळेचा पट केवळ ६ विद्यार्थ्यावरून ३५ पर्यंत पोहोचला आहे. तसेच मेळघाटातील पहिली डिजिटल शाळा हा प्रकल्प ते यशस्वीपणे राबवत आहेत. शाळेच्या माध्यमातून गावकऱ्यांमध्ये देखील समाज प्रबोधन घडवून आणण्याचे कार्य पावन यांनी हाती घेतेले आहे. आणखी दोन सरकारी कर्मचाऱ्यांचा इथे उल्लेख करावासा वाटतो, ते म्हणजे डॉ. विद्या व डॉ. किरण वाथोडकर, ज्यांनी निवृत्तीपूर्वीच्या दोन वर्षांसाठी स्वतःहून मेळघाटामध्ये बदली करून घेतली. येथील चुरणी या गावातील प्राथमिक आरोग्यकेंद्राचे नेतृत्व ते समर्थपणे पाहतात. तेथे वैद्यकीय कर्मचाऱ्यांचा तुटवडा असूनदेखील या दांपात्याने होता होईल तेवढे सेवेचे अखंड काम चालू ठेवले आहे व आलेला रुग्ण उपचाराशिवायच माघारी जाता कामा नये या निश्चयाने ते काम करत आहेत. यांच्यासारखे कित्येक unsung heroes मेळघाटात विखुरलेले असणार. ही आम्हा युवा लोकांना मोठी प्रेरणेची बाब आहे. डॉ. सुनील कोल्हे व डॉ. आशिष सातव ही नावेदेखील अशावेळी आशेचे किरण म्हणून समोर येतात. 
  • इतक्या साऱ्या उपलब्धी व चांगुलपणाच्या बाबी असूनदेखील मेळघाटाचे चित्र वेगाने बदलत आहे. 
  • जागतिकीकरण, औद्योगिकरण, शहरीकरण, सुखासीनता, चंगळवाद, आधुनिक विकास याचे वारे या प्रदेशालाही लागले आहेत. येथील मुले इंग्रजी शिक्षणासाठी दूर-दूरच्या सरकारी आश्रमशाळांमध्ये जाऊ लागली आहेत. नोकरीच्या शोधात युवक गाव सोडून मोठमोठ्या शहरांकडे धाव घेत आहे. जसजशी गावांमध्ये वीज पोहोचत आहे तसतसे टीव्ही, मोबाईल व त्याद्वारे बाह्यजगातील चांगल्या-वाईट गोष्टी, जाहिराती यांचा प्रभाव हळूहळू येथील समाजावर होताना दिसतो. पारंपारिक सेंद्रिय शेतीकडून आता रासायनिक शेतीकडचा ओढा येथीही वाढला आहे. वयस्कर लोकांना ठाऊक असलेल्या पौष्टिक रानभाज्या व औषधी वनस्पती यांचे ज्ञान आता तरुण पिढीपाशी दिसणे दुरापास्त  होत चाललेले आहे.
  • ज्यावेळी दोन किंवा अधिक संस्कृती परस्परांना येऊन भेटतात त्यावेळी त्या निश्चितच एकमेकांवर प्रभाव टाकतात. परंतु त्याचे  परिणाम नेहमी चांगलेच असतील याची खात्री देता येत नाहे. 
  • दळणवळण व आधुनिक संपर्क सुविधांमुळे जग जरी जवळ येत असले तरीदेखील एकमेकांकडून चांगले घेणे, तसेच हजारो वर्षे शाश्वत राहिलेल्या संस्कृतीला, भाषेला न गमावणे यासाठी विशेषतः आपल्यासारख्या बाहेरून तेथे जाणाऱ्या लोकांना सतर्क राहण्याची गरज आहे. आपण त्यांना काही शिकवण्यासाठी, त्यांना मदत करण्यासाठी, एक उच्चभ्रू/ विकसित आहोत (Superior) या भावनेने  तिथे न जाता, किंवा केवळ पर्यटनाच्या हेतूने तिथे त्यांच्या जीवनाचा समतोल ढासळेल असे वर्तन न  करता खऱ्या अर्थाने एका कुतूहलाच्या, आदराच्या, परस्पर संवाद, जाणीव, संवेदनशीलता वृद्धिंगत होईल व चांगुलपणाची देवाणघेवाण होईल या नात्याने आदिवासी बांधवांशी एकात्मकतेने भेटलो तर खऱ्या अर्थाने असे अनुभव, आपल्या आयुष्याला परिवर्तनशील बनवू शकतात व या पृथ्वीच्या, मानवतेच्या शाश्वतीसाठी आधारभूत ठरू शकतात. तसेच अनिर्बंध विकासातून उद्भवणाऱ्या अनेक विकृती टळू शकतात.
धडक मोहिमेबद्दल अधिक माहितीसाठी “मैत्री” पुणे यांचाशी संपर्क साधावा -०२०-२५४५०८८२   (maitri1997@gmail.com)

“Father, My Life is in Your Hands.”

Vipul Shaha, Urban Ashram, Pune

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Shaheen Mistri, founder of Akanksha and Teach for India shares her inspiring life story in a first ever SpiriTED Talk at The Uraban Ashram, Pune, India

It turned out to be an evening full of spirit, energy and inspiration as Shaheen walked in at the Urban Ashram to interact with a group of 30 people who had gathered to hear her life journey and understand what it really means to serve and make a difference.  While words fail to capture the experience, here is an attempt to summarize those precious 60 minutes of a heart-to-heart conversation with Shaheen.

“The Power of an Instinct”:

Shaheen lived in many parts of the world and had extremely privileged and sheltered childhood.  Poverty and Inequity were not part of her world.  She was, however, always very captivated by children.  As early as from the age of 12 she regularly volunteered to work with children.  It was always children who were in some special need—visually or hearing impaired children, autistic children or orphan children.   Her happiest memories from her childhood come from those times she spent while working with children.  

Shaheen studied all across the world in different schools—American, British and even a French school but never in an Indian school.  During summer breaks, she would visit her grandparents, who lived in Mumbai.  A week or two in Mumbai every year, and she would be happy to return back to her own comfortable life abroad.  It was one such short holiday trip to Mumbai, when she was 18 that would change the course of her life forever. 

A chance encounter with some street children at a traffic light in Mumbai and a strong inner instinct to stay back in India led Shaheen to call up her father in America and convey her decision.  Completely taken aback, he challenged her to get admitted into one of the top 3 colleges in Mumbai.  It was September then—three months after all the admissions were closed.  Determined to seek an admission, Shaheen sneaked into principal’s office at St. Xavier’s College and literally said these very words: “Father, my life is in your hands.”  And it worked!

“I am an Indian. I have never known what it really means to be an Indian, to live in India, to do something in India.  I want to stay.  It was a very flitting but a very deep instinct that I had.  Luckily, most the instincts we have, they happen and they go and we move on with our life.  But that particular one, I acted on.”

One of the first things Shaheen did after getting into St. Xavier’s was to try and understand the city in a different way.  She followed a news reporter for a few months wherever he went.  It offered her a glimpse into the life on the ‘other side’—jails, police stations, courts.  It also took her to one of the large urban slums in Mumbai.  She was struck by the potential, the resourcefulness, the courage, the spirit of life and happiness despite all the odds.   

“I didn’t understand how people could have so little and yet be so happy.”

There, she met a girl her own age called Sandhya.  She sat with her just out of curiosity trying to understand her life.  While Shaheen knew no Indian language, no one in the slum community knew any English.  As she sat there, some kids surrounded her.  She tried to teach them a few words of English.  Notwithstanding the fact that she had no clue of what it meant to be a teacher, Shaheen enjoyed herself with those kids.  She decided to regularly visit those children and teach them new things.  Thus began her first classroom in the slum community.   It eventually led her to consider getting those kids to a school and provide them with a wider exposure and a happy, safe learning space—where kids can just be kids, be naughty and enjoy themselves and maybe learn something along the way.

She approached nineteen different schools asking them to provide her with a space for teaching less privileged children—only to be turned down for no good reason.  That was an important early lesson in her journey—“The most difficult thing in the world is to change mindsets” she admits.  It was an appeal from the heart and once again her famous line—“Father, my life is in your hands” which came to her rescue. The 20th school she approached finally agreed to her request.  That was the birth of first ever Akanksha Center in Mumbai.  One centre after another, Akanksha has grown over the past two decades in Mumbai and Pune serving to over 4000 children in slum communities.  In 2009, Shaheen took the next big step in her journey by launching a nationwide movement called The Teach for India (TFI).  Only three years into the program, today over 400 teachers are serving in municipal and under-resourced classrooms across Delhi, Mumbai and Pune touching over 16,000 children’s lives.  The TFI model aims at recruiting the best and the brightest young minds to solve the ‘puzzle’ of education inequity.  Shaheen and her team of dedicated ‘crazy’ youth—as she likes to call them--have been working relentlessly to keep the wheels of the movement turning faster and in the right direction.

Reflecting on her journey of working with children from less privileged backgrounds, Shaheen draws some important life lessons:

“It really is the opportunity that sets us apart.  There is no difference between me and that child in the slum except the difference of opportunity.”

“It teaches you the greatest humility.  It taught me that there really is very little that you can change. But it also taught me at the same time that what I really can change is myself and there is a lot of power in doing that.  And there is a ripple effect.”

“Everything is about human connection, if you know your kids (students), if you understand your kids, then other things can happen.”

“If we think of how really big problems have got solved historically, there have been leaders who have been  committed, who have been bright, who have been passionate, who have worked relentlessly to solve those problems.”

 The power of Giving: Shaheen shared the story of one of her favorite Akanksha kids—Latif and how he sacrificed his own life for the wellbeing of his grandfather.

The power of Belief:  “Just say yes no matter what! If someone throws a hundred problems at you, you can find a hundred and one solutions. When everyone else has given up on a child including the child itself, the power that a teacher can have with his unconditional love and belief in that child can be extremely transformative.  It is often easy to get someone to do something much more difficult than something incrementally more difficult.”

The power of the Little Things:  I don’t believe anymore that there are big miracle solutions. I think that there are enough of the little things that are going to cause the big miracle solution.  In a world that is so difficult to live in, where each one of us has so many challenges just being nice makes such a difference. Do I notice the things that are special in the people that are closest to me, the people around me?”

The Power of Doing things Yourself and talking less about them:  The analogy of the Mirror and the Glass.  “If you have a problem, you always have a choice: you can pick up the mirror and reflect and believe that the solution is within you. If you pick up the magnifying glass, you believe that the problem is something external and it becomes bigger.”

Every word she spoke came from a deep inner conviction and a life-time of dedicated service.  Shaheen closed the session by urging the gathering for help and support in whichever way they can.  As an immediate expression of our sincere prayer, we closed the gathering by holding hands in a circle and chanting three times: “Loka Samasthaa Sukhino Bhavantu”—“May all beings be happy.”  The gathering was truly blessed by Shaheen’s presence, who made the time to come down to the Ashram and share her incredible life story--despite having just flown in from the US and not having slept for the previous two days.  We wish Shaheen and the movement a great success!