The silver lining in Chennai skies

Age or illness has not dampened the zeal with which some of Chennai’s senior citizens are working to create a better life for others. Swati Amar meets a few such individuals in the city who are setting sterling examples in how to savour life to the fullest, through sharing and giving!

Commencing her teaching career in Indraprastha College, New Delhi in 1970, Uma Raman chose to continue her calling even after she resigned as the Principal of Naval Public School, New Delhi in 1997 and relocated to Chennai. She is currently an education consultant in English Language curriculum planning, teacher training and the creation of English language teaching materials. 

“I started writing textbooks while in Delhi but when I moved to Chennai, that became my main work,” says Uma. She has authored a number of widely-used textbook series in English. Recently, she was a member of the committee for revising the English curriculum and textbooks for the Tamil Nadu government.

Uma also helps Bala Mandir Kamaraj Trust with their English Language programme in an advisory capacity and takes classes in spoken English for their teachers. She feels that since most higher education is in English, learning the language will be an advantage and will also help people move ahead in their careers.  Presently, she is involved with a group of rural schools in Maharashtra, working out lesson plans to guide teachers and to improve proficiency in English for those in rural areas. 

While Uma is working on improving employability, 76-year-old S Raghavan, who retired as Director of Indo Burma Petroleum in 2005, decided to focus on India’s agrarian crisis and farmer emancipation. A team of dedicated professionals have volunteered to help him organise this activity.

Raghavan’s submission is that small and marginal farmers, comprising nearly 95% of the farming community,  have not benefited from government policies. The small, marginal and semi-medium farmers who live with fragmented land holdings, lack essential resources for cultivation and marketing, and are in perpetual debt, which renders them incapable of conducting farming independently and sustainably. He has conceived of a business model that can transform agriculture into a sustainable and profitable occupation. The model is based on pooling of petty lands owned by small farmers and collaboration with entrepreneurs to create a legal partnership.

“The farmers bring land and labour, while the entrepreneurs have the capital and enterprise. This can bring all four factors of production together for optimizing the business,” says Raghavan, “In a tribal village, in Yavatmal District in Maharashtra, 30 farmers have agreed to pool their holdings, aggregating 174 acres.  A team with expertise in organic cultivation, production and marketing is available and we are on the threshold of registering an LLP soon.” With a business plan and a financial plan ready, he and his team mates are in the process of raising funds for the project. 

“I came home after my visit to St. Louis School and tried to walk with my eyes tied. I couldn’t walk even ten feet!” says J V Ramani, Managing Trustee, Help the Blind Foundation, Chennai. “Then I realised if visually impaired students could function with the kind of independence we enjoy, and if they were given the opportunity for higher education, how much they could rise.”

Ramani’s posting to Bank of India in Hong Kong, first exposed him to social causes – he helped through fundraising and hosting doctors who came for training from Shankar Netralaya. Later, he moved to a top position in BNP Paribas which gave him many opportunities to network and raise funds for a few hospitals in Chennai. On relocating to Chennai in 2010 after retirement, he volunteered for marketing efforts at a spiritual publication. In 2013, upon the request of D K Patel, Founder, Help the Blind Foundation (Hong Kong) he joined their Chennai office to scale up their operations. 

Since its inception in 2010, Help the Blind Foundation had been involved in developing infrastructure for the visually impaired, such as class rooms, hostels and libraries in educational institutions. But after Ramani joined them, the Foundation shifted its focus to providing university education for these students through its sponsored programmes — a long-standing wish of founder Patel.  They have now partnered with 20 colleges in 12 states of India. So far, 6094 scholarships worth USD 1 million have been disbursed. 1659 students have graduated out of which 198 are post graduates. 90% of the beneficiaries are from rural areas and 40% are female students.

“I was clueless when I first stepped in. Now this has become an obsession,” says Ramani, “Whenever our students shine, it gives us a lot of satisfaction.” 

Meeting Rajam Subramaniam is sheer delight, as her effervescence rubs onto you. For someone who lived in Delhi for 28 years and worked in her father’s company dealing with computers and computer peripherals, and later moved to Mumbai when her husband got transferred, she has taken to Chennai like a duck takes to water. Rajam moved to Chennai to seek treatment for her husband. She became a member of the Crafts Council of India, Chennai, but was not able to devote time as she was running from one hospital to another due to her husband’s multiple health complications. After his demise in 2002, Rajam started working for Crafts Council, setting up computer based infrastructure, organizing exhibitions and competitions. She held posts first as joint treasurer and later joint secretary. Personally, she promotes some Toda women from the Nilgiris by either buying or marketing their handmade bags, shawls, stoles, scarves, bags, cushion covers etc.  

Rajam, along with nine others, is a part of the core group of Udhavi Foundation , started by Sabita Radhakrishna.  The volunteers offer help to senior citizens who are registered with Udhavi, taking them to hospitals, or even meeting them for a chat. Rajam is also a part of a knitting and crochet group that meets once a month and makes duvets, baby blankets, bed covers etc. Besides, she prepares and sends meals to her 86-year-old neighbour.

Rajam does all this and more with a smile that seems permanently etched on her face. One would find it really difficult to believe that she is a breast cancer survivor who has had a lumpectomy and 25 sittings of radiation in 2006 and was on medication for five years! 

Yet another woman who battled chronic ill health due to asthma is Vanjula Vasanth, 78. For the past twenty years, without fail, Vanjula has been going around the city of Chennai collecting Dhal, Oil and Sugar every month. The DOS (Dhall, Oil, Sugar) Vinay Scheme commenced its social work activities in 1999 when Vasanth and Vanjula moved to Chennai after his retirement. Vasanth, late P N Devarajan IAS and a few friends came up with the idea of collecting dhal, oil and sugar — the basic kitchen requirements — for charity homes for orphans, old age people, destitute women and children with special abilities. This DOS scheme is an extension of “pidi arisi” scheme started by His holiness Chandrasekarendra Swamigal of Kanchi Kamokoti Peetam. 

Vanjula used to go around by bus and knock on the doors of  houses to ask for Dhal, Oil and Sugar. Those who hesitated in the initial years now wait for her arrival. “From the 1st to 15th of every month, I visit houses and collect materials,” says Vanjula who takes an auto now. Vasanth packs the materials for distribution to about seven different homes based on their needs. Donations are handed over to Devarajan’s daughter, Jayanthi Karthikeyan who heads the main centre and takes the responsibility of distribution to various other homes. 

Vanjula’s daughter-in-law pitches in whenever possible. Vanjula knows her activities will continue even after her, as her granddaughter tells her, “Grandma! After you, I will continue this service activity, isn’t that so?” “The pain of my struggles disappear when I see the smiling faces of the inmates of the homes that receive our materials,” says Vanjula with satisfaction. 

These seniors and several others are involved in contributing to the betterment of their fellow beings and making the world a kinder place!

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