Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sarita Vaidya - Spreading the Light of Education in Slums

"She transformed a community on her own, singlehandedly. Despite the fact that she had to walk as much as 6KM everyday to reach her slum-school. Six years and she is still willing to work as hard as possible to spread the light of education in the lives of a forgotten  section of our glorious society."
Meet our real-life hero (sic) Sarita Vaidya, a slum-teacher who taught slum kids for six long years and helped a community understand the value of education in life. And she is still going strong. 

She started her journey on a December day when a social activist contacted her to be part of this noble cause. Sarita's husband had undergone a surgery and they were fighting a long 'land-battle' in the court where nobody but the lawyer(s) win. 

She had to support her husband, her son, and her daughter. Despite all this she said yes. She agreed to be a part of the campaign because she had seen little kids in her neighborhood growing up to be roadside-romeos because they didn't study. Many students would drop out of the school after a couple of sessions. She had to personally visit their houses, pull them out of the house, and then make them sit through her study sessions. On top of that drunkards wouldn't spare her. She was often mistreated and teased by the drunkards. But she marched on. 

When she started in 2006, problems and a shabby classroom was all she had. Add to it alcoholic fathers and cacophonous mothers. Even kids weren't interested to be inside the classroom but you can't blame them. 

Her first challenge was to convince parents to send their kids to the classroom. What started with 2 kids soon became phenomenal success. Not only kids but their parents too joined in.

Imagine a classroom where kids and parents are studying together. Sounds cool doesn't it?

But if you have to manage such a classroom on your own, it isn't easy. 

Sarita called for volunteers, many people joined in and then left too. But she fought her long battle alone. She has helped many kids complete their school education. Few of them even joined college and graduated successfully. 
In her own words, " I expect more people to step up and take education as their career. We all complaint about the education system claiming to know its problems. If we keep mum and do not show the path then things will remain the same forever. If one has faced the problem and knows the right way to fix it, then the best way is to step up and provide a solution."
Dedication and hard work are synonyms with Sarita. When I met her and conducted an interview with her for a regional newspaper, she was busy with her kids. Her classroom was shabby, there was more kids than the space in the room.

But the room was glowing with the light of faith and belief. Her kids were the happiest school-going kids I had ever seen.

Living up-to a challenge is something we all can learn from Sarita. She has indeed relished the challenge of life.

This post is my seventh entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bus Painter who was awarded Padam Shri

“I used to paint buses. I started at an early age. And then I fell in love with colors. I never thought that I would win an award someday, let alone a Padam Shri.”

Meet the PadamShri  Awardee from Himachal Pradesh, Mr. Vijay Sharma from Chamba.

I met Mr Vijay in the year 2012 while I was trekking in the Chamba Himalayas. I was just glancing through a newspaper cutting and there I saw his photograph. The newspaper cutting read , “First Himachal Artist to get a PadamShri Award.”

That's how I got to know him and eventually meet him. 

I interviewed him for a Regional newspaper in the same year. [Read here]

His father served as a driver with the State Transport department. He used to often take his son along on his long drives across the state. A young Vijay was once spotted by a Senior Officer writing on the route boards during one of these journeys. He told his father that your son is God Gifted. He knows playing with colors. You must motivate him to carry on his colorful little tricks.

Who would have thought back then that this guy would win the prestigious Padam Shri award one day?

He never had any formal education. He dropped out of school to bear the burden of his family. His professional life started as a clerk in the State Transport Department. He slogged halfheartedly in the department but soon he realized that it was going nowhere. He couldn’t leave the job because he had a family to support.

He continued his painting work in his little workshop back home with a hope to find out a way one day. And as they say, “Fortune favors the brave.” His fortunes too changed when a Young IAS Officer spotted his paintings. He immediately asked him to drop everything else and focus on his paintings only. A special post of an Artist was created for young Vijay in the ‘Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba’.

Padam Shri Vijay Sharma at Chamba Museum
Now life looked bit colorful but the struggle was far from over. His real challenge had just begun.

Without a formal education, establishing yourself in the world of art, that too without a Godfather is not easy. 

But Vijay was in love with colors. He marched on and soon he was living a dream life. He attended many International Arts and Culture Workshops abroad that made him an Internationally Renowned artist.
Today he trains people not only from India but from across the globe. Last time I paid him a visit, he was training a young foreigner girl who had been his trainee for more than a year now.

Mr. Vijay Sharma is an exemplary personality who made his way to the top from ground level. Even today when he can indulge in commercial activities he has dedicated himself for the promotion of Chamba Arts and Crafts across the world.

“I love colors and stories one could tell using them. I want to paint more than to be a painter.” said Mr. Vijay to me.

In House Workshop of Mr. Vijay in Chamba 
Mr. Vijay has relished every challenge that life has thrown at him. He is indeed a real life inspiration for me.
What I understood from his story is that one must stick to his dreams and then there’s no need to bother about anything else, no matter what the world says.

What did you learn?

This post is my sixth entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign

Rise of the Garbage Girl | A Real Life Story

We know about Steve Jobs. How he started a company and later got kicked out of it just to come back a couple of years later to perform even bigger role. It all sounds like a dream, Bollywood Style. But it did happen. 

And another similar incidence happened in the hills as well. I was lucky to witness this one.

Jodie Underhill, popularly known as the Garbage Girl started cleaning up the streets of Dharamshala during her visit to India in the year 2009. She liked the place but not the garbage spilled all around it. Rather than cribbing about it, she took up the job of cleaning the streets. She started out as a One Woman Army; motivating kids about the importance of garbage management. Soon she was joined by like minded people; some foreigners and few Indians.

I got to know about Jodie in 2011 when I met her during one of my trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. I wrote an article about her in and also interviewed her for a leading regional newspaper. [Read Here]

She started out her NGO called Mountain Cleaners and continued her good work with part-timers, volunteers, and full-timers, as and when they came to her. Her NGO even participated with the Kings XI Punjab in the IPL Dharamshala matches. Soon her NGO was a popular brand. Volunteers started pouring in. Even funds were not a problem anymore unlike the first few years when she was really struggling to get funds.

She even got few people onboard to expand the NGO, which meant expanding the scope of work and spreading the awareness to a larger audience.

Now this is what you call a dream come true. Don’t you?

But then I did mention Steve Jobs in the beginning of this post. The new board members managed to oust her in no time. After she had given all her youth to Mountain Cleaners, she was no more a part of it. But Jodie wasn’t going down easily. Halfheartedly she left India with a promise to come back.

You can read the gut wrenching piece she wrote when she left Mountain Cleaners. [ Read Here]

Why and when, she didn’t know. But deep inside she knew that India wouldn’t let her go. Not like this at least. After working for a while in Clean Up Britain in England,  the Universe conspired again and she got a call back to work in India again. Not with Mountain Cleaners but with Waste Warriors in Dehradun.

She founded Waste Warriors to start afresh. To keep India clean and green. She picked right from where she had left. No regrets, and no surrenders.

If life is all about Relishing the Challenge, then nobody knows it better than Jodie Underhill. 

Many volunteers who had worked with her in the past joined her in her new endeavor. Here she is back in India, starting from the scratch again. Getting off the ground for a startup is always difficult. And many people relinquish their dreams in the initial phase mostly.

But not the types of Jodie Underhill. They surely know the art of fighting.

Jodie Underhill is an inspiration.

This post is my fifth entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign

Relishing the Pakistani Challenge

The Challenge: Traveling solo to Pakistan, Crossing Border On Foot

How is it like in Pakistan? Do they bomb each other all the times? Do they all look like Taliban? Is it safe for Indians? Did you meet Hina Rabbani Khar?

That’s what people asked me when I came back from my visit to Pakistan in November 2012. Before that they asked, “Why are you going? Where are you going? Don’t talk to people there. Keep our eyes and ears open.”

And when I told my parents that I had decided to hitchhike from Attari to Lahore (29 KM), they were flabbergasted. Now with so many questions thrown at me from all the directions, even I started to doubt my decision.

Walking across the border alone, does that sound a sane idea? I knew this was once in a lifetime opportunity for me. And the best way to see Pakistan and its culture was to travel like an ordinary fellow. Indo-Pak trains and buses are luxury affairs. Escorted by security personnel with stoppage only at two points made no sense to me.

The decision had been made. I was ready to Relish the Challenge of traveling solo to Pakistan and feel alive and awesome about it. But the question remained how to do it.

As I was going for a Youth Conference, getting a VISA was not difficult for me. However, crossing on foot surely was. I asked other delegates of the conference to come along with me. Nobody wanted to cross on foot. Moreover, they also advised against the idea of walking alone in Pakistan.

There is an old saying: “If you do travel conventionally, you will miss most of the fun.” And I did not want to miss any fun. Not one bit. On foot permission was granted and after seeking the blessings of Baba Nanak at the Golden Temple I embarked on a journey of lifetime.

Those 29 Kilometers from Attari to Lahore reminded me of Amrita Pritam’s poems and Manto’s stories. Bhagat Singh’s war cry against British Empire kept ringing in my head. This land once was a part of the Great Indian civilization.

And Pakistan is not all about bombs and guns. It is also about M2-Motorway, one of the finest highways I have ever seen in my life. Delhi – Chandigarh Highway is 250 Kilometers and it is covered in 4-5 Hours. The Lahore – Islamabad M2 Motorway is 358KM and it takes 4:30 Hours flat to cover this distance. Pakistani food, culture, and even their driving habits resemble ours. It’s hard to tell the difference between Lahore and Old Delhi.

Islamabad – Rawalpindi reminds you of Secunderabad – Hyderabad. People love riding on pavements and scaring the hell out of the pedestrians. Bribing and faking American accent is common on both the sides.
And If I may add, visiting Pakistan once is not enough. There are so many aspects of a Pakistani society that are yet unknown to younger generations across the border. Nankana Sahib, Hinglaj Shakti Peeth, Shaheedi – Jor Mela; the list is endless.

I did Relish the Challenge of visiting Pakistan on my own. Crossing on foot made me popular at the conference too. Now again, I am waiting for my opportunity to visit Pakistan. Probably, the disturbed region of Balochistan (Hinglaj Shakti Peeth).

Hitchhiking in Pakistan. My first Lift!

All this reminds of Anurag Kashyap, the modern age dynamic director of Hindi Film Industry. Once when questioned about his struggles and challenges he graciously replied, “The challenge lies within. When you have realized that you don’t have to do things for others but for yourself, struggles soon disappear and you start relishing every challenge that lie throws at you.”

Come April and I hope to walk in the mud volcanoes of Balochistan.

What will you do?

P.S. I did not meet Hina Rabbani Khar as I was busy doing something far better. I stayed at the border for a night, on their side.  

This post is my fourth entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Washed Out Bridge Challenge

The Challenge: Manually lifting a Royal Enfield across a washed out bridge at Pangi Valley

Himachal Pradesh is a hilly state and there are many regions in Himachal that can (arguably) be called the remotest in the country. One such region is the Pangi Valley in Chamba district of the state. Now the travel bug that bit me in 2009 took me to the Pangi Valley in 2012. There are three road approaches to this valley; Sach Approach (200KM), Kishtwar Approach (500KM), and the Keylong-Rohtang Approach (300KM). Sach approach is the most difficult one but the shortest one.

The Challenge

We had gone to the Sach Pass in 2011 but couldn’t go beyond it because of extreme weather and unfaithful roads. In 2012, we decided to hit the Rohtang approach via Manali. After fighting hard against the weather and bad roads, we managed to reach Killar, the headquarters of the Pangi Valley.

However, there was a minor problem. The bridge that served as the lifeline of this road had gone away last night. Flash floods had wiped the road away. Although BRO and GREF was employed there but it wasn’t possible to go with a motorcycle across the bridge.

At the first sight, we decided to let go and cancel the trip. But then there is something special about the Himalayas and its people. They live in the harshest conditions and that makes them strong, mentally and physically. There were Pangwal laborers (natives of Pangi valley are called Pangwals) who assessed the situation on their own, inquired about the weight of the motorcycle, and concluded that it would take 5-6 men and 20 minutes to get to the other side.

We were in a state of shock. All I could see was a gorge beneath. But optimism of those Pangwals made us hopeful.

Optimism, you see is contagious. And in the Himalayas, pessimism never survives long. Now was the time to accept the challenge and relish it. The GREF Major deployed at the site gave us free hand. “Use my men and my equipment. You are the in-charge now”, said he. Within moments strategy was put in place. And the strategy was simple, “Don’t look down. Keep Pushing.”

Amidst all this tension I managed to turn on my camera on video recording mode. A couple of Pangwals volunteered to hold the camera for us. Now the real mission started. The first hurdle was a huge rock angling towards us as if asking us not to mess with it. The second hurdle was to get down the slippery slope while balancing the weight of the motorcycle. 180KG of steel is not an easy thing to handle, especially when its engine is turned off.  The third hurdle was to push the bike towards the road.

The Pangwals did a fantabulous job. They said 20 minutes but the job was over well within 15 minutes. The job was done. The expedition was still alive. The feeling was awesome. And we did relish the challenge.

We could have turned back and that would have been a safe option. But accepting a new challenge head-on is what life is all about. And when you are willing to walk an extra mile, even the Universe conspires with you.

This post is my third entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Relishing the Challenge in the Himalayas

The Challenge: How to enjoy trekking in the Himalayas after losing track and walking in the wrong direction for 13 Kilometers.

“This is Rahul from Creativeland Asia. I would like to talk to you regarding another Cinthol Campaign. Is it the right time to talk?” Rahul spoke in his graceful voice over phone.

I looked around. It was about to rain. Me and my friend were en-route a mountain pass, 3500 meters above the sea level. We had lost our way.

“Yeah Rahul. This is a good time to talk”, said I.

Then Rahul went on with his stories. How Alive is Awesome Campaign was a huge success. Why did they choose Virat as their brand ambassador for ‘Relishing the Challenge Campaign’. I listened but could not understand a thing.

It’s not easy to concentrate when you have lost your way in the Himalayas. Especially when you realize that you have walked 13 kilometers in a wrong direction. Did I mention that we were 13000 feet above the Mean Sea Level?

We were en route Waru Pass (14000 feet) that connects Chamba to Palampur region. Both these destinations are popular tourist spots but not much is known about this mountain pass. Nobody but the shepherds use this pass. Every year scores of shepherds cross this pass during summers. Their cattle graze in the Himalayas while the shepherds play flute and talk to the mountains.

It all sounds fancy but it isn’t.

Before We Lost Our Way!

We lost our way because there were no trail marks. After walking aimlessly for 5 hours we couldn’t figure our way out. But then there is saying in the Himalayas, “When you are lost, follow the shit.” Sheep shit to be precise.

Shepherds camp at several places before settling finally at the grasslands. If you find no grasslands then follow the shit. It always leads to a better place. And this is a Golden Rule in the Himalayas.
We walked down a steep slope and spotted a Power House. It looked close but it actually wasn’t. 

And this is second rule of the Himalayas. “The mountains and the clouds always appear close. Never underestimate the distance. Never overestimate yourself.” We made the mistake of underestimating and overestimating simultaneously. We walked another 5 KM dragging our feet. Finally we camped at the Power House.

And then we were told that Power House Station was the point where from the trek actually starts. And the Power House was connected to the main road. So effectively, we had covered only 6KM after walking for more than 15KM. Soon it started raining adding more to our misery. We couldn’t complete the trek. Or rather, we couldn’t even start the trek.

When We Completely Lost It!
And then comes into picture the third rule of the Himalayas. You have to be patient with the Himalayas. These mountains have been waiting since times immemorial for someone to scale them. They can wait for another summer. We have to incorporate that quality in our lives. Relishing the Challenge of trekking in the Himalayas is an ‘Alive and Awesome’ experience. But you have got to be patient.

You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in the Himalayas.

We couldn’t complete the trek but we visited another interesting place dating back to the Mahabharat Times. Temples submerged in the Pong Dam. These temples remain drowned underwater for more than 10 months in a year. Only for two months these temples come out.

Probably missing the trek was meant to be. The Himalayas will wait for us. The temples will soon go down. And they wouldn't be visible after a week, at the most two weeks. 

A lesson well learnt!

What We Relished!

This post is my second entry for Cinthol’s Relishing the Challenge Campaign