Driving down the dusty and pot-holed streets of Gurgaon isn’t much fun at the best of times and not something one does for enjoyment. And yet my face broke into a wide grin as I listened to the radio. 98.3 FM. The RJ was asking Delhi to vote, not for political leaders, but for citizens who had made a difference to the city. The quiet, unsung heroes of the city.
The RJ was describing a particular individual. And not merely as a quiet hero, but as someone truly special. The radio host spoke about Sonal Kapoor. The Founder and Director of Protsahan, a social enterprise that uses creative education and art innovation to empower street children and young adolescent girls.
Raising the volume, I listened attentively. Although I had volunteered at Protsahan for many months, I did not know that the understated young woman whom I had met was a microbiologist and had an MBA degree too, or that she had bypassed the glint of money and a career in the corporate world for something that was closer to her heart. And in doing so had touched many, many lives.
I first met Sonal at a conference earlier this year. I had watched mesmerised as a troupe of semi-professional dancers performed, lost in the moment, their joy apparent and their confidence contagious. They danced and swayed to the tune of a beautiful song on the stage towards the end of the conference that was happening in the heart of Gurgaon.
So what made this unique, some of you may wonder. It was the I-Inspire Conference and the audience comprised of women leaders and corporate biggies. The room was full of high achievers, each one special in their own way, yet all eyes were on this little troupe of girls. The girls spoke about their love for dance in perfect English and with an impeccable accent. The quiver in their voice as they took the microphone to speak about Protsahan betrayed their emotions and excitement. After the performance they posed for photographs with panache.
That was the day I decided to become a volunteer with Protsahan and to use my skills as a writer to teach them to put together stories on issues that mattered to them.
On my second visit to Protsahan, I looked around and saw a sea of smiles, bright eyes full of life and optimism that I had not seen in the part of the city that I live in.
I asked them to talk. They giggled, laughed and chuckled, sharing little anecdotes. They were just little girls without a care in the world until Farah raised her hand and bossily hushed the rest of them. “We would like to write a story on child marriage,” she said.
I looked at her for a nanosecond and said, “But it has been abolished in India!”
She looked at me for a long minute, and said, “Not quite! My friend Pinky was forcibly married to a much older man because her parents owed him money, which they could not pay back. I want our parents to know through the stories we tell that this is not good. That my friends and I want to study. We want to play, we want to dance.”
My face burned as I realised the chasm that separated us. And not the distance in kilometres that separates my part of the city from theirs. The distance was of lives and daily experiences.
On another afternoon, we spoke about dreams, about hope, about desire.
The squealing, happy faces hid tough lives.
“I want to be a model, I love clothes,’ said Laxmi.
“I write,” Sonia told me, bursting into a poem.
“And I want to be a policeman,” said Farah, as the class burst into peals of laughter. “Woman, woman,” they pointed out.
Undeterred, she continued with fierceness that none of us could miss. “I will lock up men if they drink and beat our mothers,” she said as the class went quiet and I look out at the setting sun.
The shining smiles concealed much trauma. The guard falls now and then when weaving a story. One of them spoke about the physical violence meted out to her by a drunk father, a daily wager. And the rest nodded when another child talked about more sordid and sad facts of her life.
“Dreams have no language and have no boundaries,” I told them, gently taking a child’s fist. Opening her fingers as the rest watched, I softly repeated, “Your destiny is in yours and so is your life; hope and dreams make the world go round.”
“I want to be a teacher like Sonal ma’am,” said another girl with finality.
And whether Sonal wins Radio Mirchi’s contest or not, the work she does and the spirits that she uplifts, is an inspiration by itself.
~ Ratna Vira
Ratna Vira is the Founding Director of the DBCO Forum for Women
[Names, other than that of Sonal Kapoor, have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals]
Protsahan is a Delhi-based social enterprise that uses creative education and art innovation to empower street children & young adolescent girls (http://www.protsahan.co.in)
I-Inspire is an amazing inclusive leadership conference for women leaders organised by Biz Divas. A confluence of ideas, a convergence of thought, celebration of the spirit of diversity and entrepreneurship. (http://www.i-inspire.in)