By Megha Bajaj
Meet a bunch of extraordinary ordinary people who, inspired by love, have reached out and helped those around them
Heroes live among us. We can see them, hear them, and be inspired by them. In fact, look within, maybe a hero is closer than you ever believed.
In all probability, he has brushed an elbow with you on a packed street. Or was she the one you sat next to in the theatre? Wasn’t he just behind you in the supermarket? So ordinary, so commonplace… and yet a hero. The people you will read about below, have never made media flashes – no TV channel extolled their greatness, and yet, in their own right, they are extraordinary. Everyday heroes, I like to call them. For in becoming heroes, they did not lose their ‘everydayness’; they did not become intangible or inaccessible to the common man, but rather while living among them, they crested their ego and touched the lives of others.
Did you, like me, dream of making a difference? Did you too look at Gandhiji and Mother Teresa with tremendous awe? If yes, you probably felt the same pangs of frustration. These legends led such idealistic lives that their greatness becomes a hurdle for people like me, bound by weaknesses, and a will-power subject to temptation. I admire these history-makers, but the gap between them and me is too far to be crossed right away. What I need, for now, is a peek into lives of those around me, those seemingly ordinary people who achieve extraordinary feats while jostling with their jobs, bosses, deadlines, families and responsibilities. Their acts seem do-able, their lives live-able.
This article is a tribute to those numerous nameless, faceless heroes who show that to make a difference, the desire to help is enough. They need no accolades, yet it’s important to write of them as each tale has a teaching, each incident, an inspiration. Read on to get motivated.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” – Helen Keller
Age No Bar
She was 85, and looked it. With a bent back, a limp in the left leg and a squint in one eye, Jayanti Desai didn’t look, in any way, like a hero. Residing in Mumbai, she spent most of her days praying and caring for her grandchildren. Often, after her puja, she would get up with a feeling of great discontent. She would say, “I feel God is asking me to serve Him. But I do serve Him; I pray all day, is there something else He is trying to say?”
She soon found out. Her granddaughter was hospitalized for typhoid. The time when her little patient would be sleeping, Jayanti would hobble around the corridors of the ward, and make friends with patients. She especially enjoyed sharing stories with kids, and her woes with her age group – whether it was about aching joints or the favorite topic, daughters-in-law! Jayanti enjoyed the two weeks in hospital so much that she was sad when it was time to go back. And inspiration dawned.
For the next 10 years of her life, Jayanti went to various hospitals for two hours daily. Since she was too weak to volunteer as a nurse; all she would go and do is offer comfort to patients. She had a soft corner for kids having cancer. She would sit with them for several minutes, taking their tiny hands in her own gnarled ones. She would tell them such interesting stories that for those few minutes, the kids would forget the IV tube sticking from their veins or their pain. She seemed to understand the value of touch and would be patting different people for hours, cooing to them that they would be fine. Her favorite line was, “Take a bet you will live longer than me.”
At 95, Jayanti left for her heavenly journey. Her immediate family was abroad, but the hall was filled with grateful patients. The most touching of all scenes was a little boy, bald with leukemia, sitting close to her body, patting her limp hand, and saying, “Don’t worry, you will be all right.”
Gifting a Future
Sister Rosamma George is a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary order based in Mumbai. It was just another day, five years ago, when she went to Grant Road station in Mumbai to meet a friend in the suburbs. As she stood in the line for a ticket, a few dirty looking children staring vacantly, caught her eye. Impulsively, she asked them where their parents were and they pointed to a few women. Sister went to them and asked, “Where do you stay?” And they gestured toward the station. She asked, “Which tribe do you belong to?” With an ashamed expression, an older one whispered, “We are the Pardhi people.” They refused to communicate further.
That evening, a very confused Sister Rosamma looked up the Pardhi tribes. Why was their own identity a source of such embarrassment to them? She soon found out. The word ‘Pardhi’ originally means ‘hunter’, and that is what they were until the British took over the forests for commercial purposes. Jobless and homeless, the Pardhi men committed petty crimes to survive. The British branded them criminals. Even today, the stigma continues, and they could find no job in their own villages.
About 50 Pardhi families have made Grant Road station, their world. Vada pav is their food, the dirty pavement is their bed, and selling knick knacks is their livelihood. Sister Rosamma began by going to the station, and interacting with the women. After days of constant meeting, they began to trust her, and spoke to her openly. Trust, although difficult to win, was only the first of the many challenges.
Not a single child from the Pardhi families at Grant Road studied in school. Their days mainly consisted of begging and fighting. Sister Rosamma asked the women, “Do you want your children to lead the same life you have led? If not, you must send them to school.” Initially resistant to this alien concept called education, they gradually relented.
It was a momentous day for Sister when a young mother came up reluctantly and asked softly, “My Kiran is a very hardworking girl. Put her in school?” Not wasting a single day, Sister immediately spoke to the principal from St Anthony’s school, Byculla, and got Kiran admission, paying her fees through her own congregation of renunciates.
The families suddenly started seeing a change in little Kiran. Among the other unkempt children, she stood apart in her new uniform; while others fought, she sat in a corner going through books, and soon to everyone’s amazement, she was able to recite the entire alphabet! This became too much for the other mothers to bear, and soon, much to Sister’s delight, over 20 mothers wanted their kids to study in school. Kiran’s mother, on her part, wears a huge proud smile, and shares, “Other kids may get educated, but who will forget that it was my little girl who started speaking full English.”
Father Michael Gimlet, who is responsible for the German Catholic community in India, met Sister Rosamma at a prayer, and was interested in her work. He shared, “I too wanted to contribute in some way. I ran in the Mumbai Marathon, 2005, and raised Rs1.5 lakhs for this wonderful cause.” With this added support, about 50 more kids were put in school.
A few of the kids weren’t able to cope, or were brought home by their parents. However, nothing discourages Sister, who remains enthused by her interactions with the little scholars. Kiran tells her, “I want to become a doctor”; eight-year-old Ravi says with a toothless smile, ‘When I grow up I will become a child, since I never had a childhood.’
More people have joined hands with Sister Rosamma. Next year onwards, certificate courses will be developed for Pardhi adolescents at St Xavier’s College and they will be taught by the college students themselves. These interactions, the principal believes, “will have a positive impact on both groups.” Sister Rosamma is happy. Her gift to the Pardhi people is something that they never ever had before – a future.
Get in touch with Sister Rosamma on 9869958370
Eyes speak. Twenty-three-year-old Kriti Shah’s (name changed) brown, slightly moist ones say, ‘I care’. She calls them her mother’s eyes. Last year, she lost her mother to cancer, but she is not complaining. Not anymore, at least.
Six months ago, a depressed Kriti came home from work, missing her mother more than ever. She realized she needed to do something constructive with her time, to lessen the pain. A search on Google showed her that there was an orphanage/ hospital close to her house, desperately looking out for volunteer help. She called the person in charge, and it was decided that she would invest two hours a week nursing the little ones.
The place smelled of spilled milk, soiled nappies and dust. And yet, what brightened it were the sudden smiles of the infants, and their consistent cooing. As Kriti held a little one in her arms, she knew she was experiencing a ‘defining moment’. She shares, “It was just beautiful. Holding that little bundle of life, I realized that that I could not lose myself in the death of someone so close to me, for life was all around me.”
She also realized the importance of touch. She grew up listening to her mother’s heartbeats; holding her father’s large, warm hand while walking. So much touch, so much love; yet she had so many insecurities. What about these orphans, who got the nutrition to survive, but not the touch and love to live? She started hugging each kid, a practice she still continues. She lets them hear her heartbeat, allows them to feel the warmth of her body, pull her hair and touch her cheeks.
Most of these babies will be adopted. None of them will ever remember that someone came and took care of them, but that does not matter to Kriti. All that matters is the giving. The heartbeats. She was unwilling to get her real name written as she feels it may create ego in her. She wants to remain a nameless source of security for these children. A child gurgles as he sees her, and holds his arms up. He knows it’s his turn for a nice, long, warm hug.
Get in touch with Kriti, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Can a dream to teach kids of the footpath, on the footpath, ever become a reality? Is it even possible to collect people of all ages belonging to various professions – vets, journalists and MBAs, and unite them for one cause several days a week? “Yes!” is Shubangi Swarup’s reply.
Having worked for NGOs, including the UN, made 25-year-old Shubhangi realize just what was ‘not working’ in these social communities. She disapproved of the formality of the organizations, the form-filling required, and sometimes, the distance created between a volunteer and the one being helped. For instance, one may sponsor a child, without ever meeting them. What mattered for her was that both the receiver and giver should be transformed by their interactions. Consequently, she started a small get-together of friends at Churchgate station, in Mumbai, to teach street kids.
This small initiative has grown into a full-fledged centre. It was simple, actually. Seeing one child being taught by ‘didi’ on the footpath attracted more pupils. ‘Students’came in scores, bright-eyed, barefoot. Passersby stopped to ask. And slowly, the circle swelled.
Hamara Foothpath, the name given to Shubhangi’s initiative, today consists of over 20 volunteers meeting thrice a week for two hours on the footpaths to teach kids. The method is through games and drawings. The execution is done with love, and one sees shabby street urchins perched happily on a volunteer’s lap, or clinging to their neck as they learn.
Fun is part of the curriculum. Like the recent trip to the circus. Ten thousand rupees were required. Shubhangi sent out an e-mail forward asking people to contribute. Amazingly, donations poured in, and soon the ‘circus day’ arrived! The air was palpable with excitement as about 65 kids, volunteers, a few mothers and a dog (one of the kid’s pet) wove their way to the colorful circus. Saraswati, a young mother, predicted – and was thrilled when her predictions came true – that the elephant skit would be about one elephant falling ill and another injecting him. She had seen a circus when she was nine! The next trip is to the zoo, and the kids are so excited, they can’t stop ‘monkeying’ around.
No formal classroom. No chairs or tables. And yet everyone involved is learning some of the most important lessons of life: compassion, empathy, and simply the joy in giving selflessly.
Log on to www.hamarafootpath.org to know more
The Lawyer of Life
Criminals know him. Police commissioners know him. Law breakers know him. And lawyers know him. Mumbai-based Ajay Bajoria is justifiably memorable. Only a tenth pass, Ajay knows the Indian Constitution better than most lawyers who have studied it for years. He knows every loophole, and he also knows every plug for the loopholes. And he uses his knowledge only to help those who are in the right, and have no other means of helping themselves. The most influential of men are sent back from his doors as he tells them, “You have several resources for winning the case, unlike others. Come to me if nothing else works.”
From cases involving illegal poaching of land to murder cases, Ajay has solved them all. Till date, he has not failed a single one of the nearly hundred cases that have come to him. A cloth merchant by profession, Ajay invests his morning and evenings in helping people with his legal expertise. He takes no money for his work, and sometimes, even ends up spending for people.
I would never have believed men like this exist outside movies, if it were not for a personal experience with him. Last year, my uncle (father’s cousin) who stayed with us at our apartment in Nepeansea Road, Mumbai, illegally sold his part of the house to the landlord. The house has a common entrance and common rooms. It’s a consolidated house, of which a part cannot be sold. It was done on the sly, and we found out about the transaction only when my uncle’s luggage was packed, and he was all set to go. Not only did we feel stabbed in the back, but were at a complete loss as to what to do next, as the landlord made it amply clear that he wanted to buy our part too at a paltry rate.
When we disagreed, the expected threat calls began. Imagine my father’s distress when a caller said, “We will kill your family members.” Even the police in our area had been bribed by the landlord and refused to take any action. Days were filled with fear. We sought lawyers who were charging lakhs of money, yet seemed to have no confidence or clarity. We were drowning until an uncle introduced us to Ajay.
His first step was to write a strong letter to the Commissioner of our area, explaining the case and stating that his own constables were bribed by the landlord and were refusing to help us. The second step was to collect all the legal documents to prove that the entire transaction was illegal. A case was filed. Ajay is nothing if not eccentric; he would often yell at my dad for being ‘too good and innocent’. However, the realisation that he had our best interest at heart made us go with his sometimes brusque style of working. Things fell into place and the pressure was soon on the landlord. In a few months, we got the amount we deserved, and have recently moved to our new apartment at Malabar Hill!
We tried to give Ajay some money as a gesture of our gratitude, but he was resolute in his refusal. He said, “If I take money from you, it would mean I am working for you. But it’s not me, it’s God. And I want to remain like a hollow flute, through which God can play His tune.”
Ajay Bajoria can be contacted on 9324702393 for help.
Stray Acts of Kindness
“Given a choice between feeding dogs or marrying a man, I would any day choose the dog.” And that is exactly what Bimlesh Navani did. What began as a compassionate act to feed a few dogs outside her office, has today become a movement that feeds over 200 stray dogs every night in Chembur, a Central Mumbai area. She hasn’t got married as she wonders which man would accept her 200 ‘children’, and her responsibilities towards them. Each day, this dog lover cooks 80 kilos of food. The grateful dogs respond with wagging tails and wet doggy kisses.
She begins her work at 11pm and finishes only by three in the morning. She says, “When I used to feed dogs in the evening, several people would stop to comment, and I would end up wasting time. Secondly, dogs can get a little aggressive when being fed, as they feel someone may take their meal away. To avoid accidents, I choose late night.” It’s quite a sight to see a lone woman wandering about in the dark, feeding dogs. She has no fear, as the dogs are her bodyguards.
Bimlesh’s love for dogs has met with much resistance. She has had trouble with neighbors who view these dogs as a nuisance. Her society secretary allegedly hired two men to beat the dogs, so that they would run away. Their plaintive cries sent Bimlesh in a fit of rage, and she filed a FIR against him. In fact, she smiles proudly as she says she has got quite a few of those who beat the dogs arrested. She adds, “This planet is as much theirs as ours,and we cannot mistreat them.”
Chandrika, another Chembur resident, has adopted ten street dogs and feeds them regularly. Her maternal instincts are evoked every time a dog is sick or in danger. Bimlesh and Chandrika have become friends over their common love for dogs. Gradually, they are convincing more people that animals harm only in self-defence, and that we need to create a more caring, sensitive society for all beings. Kudos to animal lovers who teach us a unique lesson in compassion.
So many heroes all around. Need we look further for inspiration?
Bimlesh can be contacted on 9224798768.
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