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The IRS Officer Who Feeds the Poor When Off-Duty

When she isn’t at work, Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax, Mumbai, Dr Megha Bhargava organises health camps, food and school kits for underprivileged kids.

By Shweta Bhandral

The 35-year-old Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax, Mumbai, Dr Megha Bhargava radiates enthusiasm and energy. Having cleared her first civil service exam while working as a doctor, she got posted in Nainital cantonment under the Indian Defence Services.

“My belief and commitment towards selfless service to the nation come from working with the armed forces,” she says. In her second attempt at the civil services exam, she got the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), and after training in Nagpur, she has been posted in Mumbai since 2015.

Megha Bhargav

Despite her career success, something was missing. “There was a lot of satisfaction in terms of how we at IRS are contributing to the national exchequer for building the nation but what we can’t see is the direct impact of it. This is the missing link,” says Megha, noting that 41 percent of her city-folk live in slums.

“I began to think that there was more to my life than looking into balance sheets of corporate houses. I believe that my story should resonate with the person I believe I am and my place in society.”

And so, supported by her sister, a health professional, and her mother, a retired school principal, Megha got out of her comfort zone to work at the grassroot level for health and education. While her sister Dr Ruma Bhargava founded the NGO Samarpan in 2016 and is the trustee, Megha became its driving force and roped in several doctors and civil servants on board.

The NGO provides essential health services in the interiors of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. They conduct diagnostic and treatment camps in villages, mainly treating nutritional deficiency, skin disorders, eye problems and conducting awareness sessions on hygiene and nutrition.

Megha adds, “Topics of menstrual health are still taboo, and girls miss school or drop out after attaining puberty.” To counter this, Samarpan conducts regular sessions for adolescent girls and provides them with biodegradable sanitary pads. They also provide ‘Adhyan Kits’ to encourage children to go to school, including shoes, bags and stationery.

Megha’s NGO organises meals, stationery, bags, shoes and biodegradable sanitary napkins for schoolkids

With COVID striking the nation, the Samarpan team tied up with government bodies, companies and citizen groups to serve home-cooked meals to daily-wagers, migrant labourers, tribals, old-age homes and orphanages across four cities. In all, they have served 5 lakh cooked meals, distributed 25,000 milk packets and dry rations for a month to 25,000 families.

Megha believes that people have to be brave enough to care: “Significance in life doesn’t come from status or any position of power. It comes from serving. It is in giving to others that we find meaning.”

First published as part of a three-part series ‘Power and Passion’ on women bureaucrats in eShe’s June 2020 issue

Teaching, Healing and Creating Joy with Their Art

Pottery isn’t just about making functional or decorative products but also an avenue to heal and create beauty. Two potters weigh in.

By Shweta Bhandral

Digging your hands in clay, spinning the potter’s wheel, and finally dipping your pieces in colourful glaze to form creative designs. Pottery is not just a source of livelihood but also an activity that many people use to heal and grow.

Psychologists believe, pottery or working with clay is a useful tool to overcome depression and anxiety. It is meditative too. Potter and educator Neha Ramaiya would attest to this with her own life.

Pottery not only helped her come out of depression, it also opened doors of opportunity for this Mumbai-based 42-year-old. A graduate in ceramics, she healed herself with pottery before she started teaching ceramics. Her own therapist referred clients to her.

Pottery by Neha Ramaiya, Mumbai

Enthused, Neha (lead image, left) went on to pursue higher studies in clay therapy abroad. She came back to India to start teaching ceramic-work at a few colleges in Mumbai. Alongside, she came up YellowSpiders Pottery, which, by 2012, made a name for itself as a school for pottery-making.

Neha shares that it had been a fascinating time for ceramic craft until the pandemic struck. Many pottery studios came up, with the government promoting local art and ‘Make in India’, the profession is finally flourishing.

She points out, artists could concentrate on design and innovation because sourcing material is now easier.

Neha says, “Ceramic work helped me to take a step back and look at things objectively. If something breaks, I look at it with detachment. I see loss in this way: if I have made it once, I can make it again and probably better. The same rule applies to life.”

Priyanka Joshi, Pune

Pune-based artist and potter Priyanka Joshi also talks passionately about the human relationship with ceramic. The 33-year-old says, “It’s fascinating to look at how pottery subconsciously affects us in our daily lives. It absorbs our memories with every touch. It creates objects from stories, desires to be fulfilled or memories to be relived. In the end, it becomes part of us.”

Priyanka was introduced to pottery in school, but it was only in her last year of graduation that she decided to pursue her hobby as a profession. Her parents were not very happy, though, and were wary of her idea, but she did not give up. While learning from several artists herself, she started teaching ceramics to autistic children, tailor-making sessions for them.

The work with special kids was focused on hand-building the pieces. Priyanka set up her studio in 2016 to teach ceramics to teenagers and adults as well. Around this time, she began to design ceramic collections too, while teaching remained a good source of income. The lockdown in 2020 disrupted it all.

Priyanka Joshi’s mother initially opposed her career as a potter but now backs her to the hilt

Earlier, when one spoke of pottery or ceramics in India, only four spots would get a mention: Jaipur blue pottery, Khurja pottery, Chinhat pottery and Auroville Pondicherry pottery. But new generations of artists are pursuing it as a profession and setting up their studios all over the country. From healing through pottery to creating designs that are their own, they draw inspiration from all around.

“I love trees, nature and the elements. The craft is so involved with the earth, fire and the other elements – water, air – that it grounds you completely,” says Neha. With her studio finally set to produce collections, Neha is using social media to help her reach out to potential customers. In fact, she began using Facebook to promote her work as far back as 2010, and she credits the platform for helping her make YellowSpiders Pottery famous.

Neha Ramaiya overcame depression through pottery and went on to study clay therapy; she now helps others heal

Being an educator and artist who has been in the profession for 20 years, Neha opines that with the growth of studio pottery, artists should help local potters. “For the sake of growth, we should not only employ local craftspersons but also make sure that they get their due and that the craft doesn’t die.”

Priyanka agrees with Neha on this. As a youthful traveller, she even draws her inspirations from local artisans and their designs. She likes to be fluid and flexible with her creations.

“My current body of work reflects my love for the landscape I grew up in, the Middle Eastern sun, sand, mountains, and sea, along with awe-inspiring human-made creations. Woven into my pieces are elements inspired by art and architecture that I have encountered during my travels – from the ancient terracotta vessels depicting stories and love of life to the opulent baroque churches, mystical gold mosaics, graceful stucco work and delightful swirls of colours applied by skilful hands,” she tells us.

With the lockdown putting an end to classes with children and adults, Priyanka is building her collection for sale

With no classes due to the pandemic, both potters are focusing on their online presence. Priyanka, who used to make limited sets just for showcasing to students, is now focusing on building her portfolio for e-sales. She is also experimenting with and learning new techniques.

With both her parents by her side – her mother as friend and critic and father looking after the accounts department – Priyanka aspires to exhibit her collection at art galleries. While Neha, being the introvert she is, is focusing on promoting her studio via social media and make collections on order.

First published in eShe’s October 2020 issue

The Story of India’s Community Libraries – Spurned by State, Struck by Lockdown

Public libraries have been low on government priorities in the past few years; now COVID is threatening our few brave community libraries too.

By Shweta Bhandral

There was a time when India had a robust system of public libraries. However, in the past few years, more than 5000 public libraries have shut shop. Maintaining a public library is a state subject, and each state has its own priorities.

For example, going by a 2018 survey, the government of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of more than 200 million, supports only 20 rural libraries, while the government of Kerala, with a population of 34 million, supports around 7,600.

That is why it has mostly fallen to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around India to take the initiative and launch community libraries taking books to sections of society that most need them.

The Community Library Project (TCLP) in Delhi is one of the most robust of them. What started in 2009 as a book club now serves 4,000 children. TCLP has four branches in Delhi-NCR that give free access to books to everyone. TCLP is also a learning lab that follows the best practices of the trade and trains librarians and teachers.

Mridula Koshy

Its director Mridula Koshy says most people in India limit the use of books to learning and knowledge, which is not their only purpose. The celebrated author says, “When we read a book, we imagine other cultures. Books help us in thinking and exploring our curiosity. We also acquire some facts from them, but thinking is most important.”

Along with its reading room, storytelling sessions and workshops, the library has an empowering system of student councils, which motivate younger kids and help the librarians run the centre. Mridula, 50, believes that civic institutions like libraries can mediate between citizens and the government, or citizens and the marketplace. That’s why they are essential for the fabric of our country.

“Different communities require different interventions,” adds Lakshmi Karunakaran, the program director of the NGO Hasiru Dala, which works for the welfare of waste-pickers in Karnataka.

Children at Buguri library

“The waste-picker community that we deal with needed multidimensional intervention, so we thought what’s better than books and an art room?” says the 37-year-old, who initiated the Buguri community library project in 2017, and which now has three centres across the state. Issues like child marriage, drug abuse and domestic violence are the biggest challenges of this community. That is why there was a need for day-to-day engagement with its children.

Along with reading room programmes, discussions and borrowing books, the Buguri library also conducts creative art therapy sessions for kids. A significant impact of the library project has been a change in how children are viewed in the community now. The library has a Book Box that also travels to locations without centres for conducting reading sessions.

Children reading books in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

Inspired by the work done by the Delhi and Karnataka community libraries, 34-year-old Kolkata girl Ruchi Dhona left her corporate job to set up a similar project in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. After a trial project in 2018, she went to Spiti in 2019 with a grant from Wipro, taking her project Let’s Open a Book to every school in the valley.

The challenging terrain and sub-zero temperatures make it difficult for civil-society organisations to carry out interventions in such areas, and Ruchi has been a lone soldier running the show in Spiti with some help from the Meenakshi Foundation.

Ruchi Dhona, founder of Let’s Open a Book project in Spiti

Serving 600 students now, Ruchi says, “The idea is to build a culture of reading among children. The focus of the initiative is government primary schools, where we begin by setting up small libraries, followed by working with the teachers to help them understand how to use these books and how they can engage the children. We are helping to revive the local public library as well.” She wants to inspire children in Spiti to write their own stories.

With COVID and lockdown, however, all these fantastic projects have taken a big hit. For Ruchi, the biggest challenge is internet connectivity. She says, “These are quite challenging times for community libraries since these spaces are not just about physical books but also one-on-one interactions. All of us are finding ourselves in completely uncharted territory. The best bet is digital.”

Living in Dharamshala, since Spiti banned entry for outsiders, she is now creating audio and video books and sharing them with children in the valley via a local volunteer.

Lakshmi Karunakaran, trustee and program director, Hasiru Dala and Buguri

Though connectivity is not an issue in Bangalore and Delhi, the Buguri community library and TCLP are facing a lack of digital devices, and the fact that their members do not have the money to buy data plans.

Buguri has started to connect with their community via conference calls. Children who did not have a phone could join their friends for a read-aloud session. Lakshmi and her team created a play Maya & Thoonga to spread awareness about COVID amongst the children in the waste-picker community. Their creative healing sessions are also now being run via calls.

Each centre has a WhatsApp group to stay in touch with the children of their area. The library also started a podcast in four languages on a local radio channel called Radio Active, which helped connect with children and even parents without mobiles or internet.

Buguri community library in Bengaluru

The constant threat of coming in contact with the virus while dealing with medical waste; being marginalised by society; the withdrawal symptoms of having no access to substances; escalating domestic violence, poverty and hunger – the problems amongst the waste-picker community increased several-fold during lockdown.

Lakshmi tells us, “There is an even stronger need to enable access to books for our children now. We started sending out a reading and activity books with every ration packet that we distributed.”

On its part, TCLP concluded that during lockdown, the libraries had two crucial responsibilities: first, to continue to provide access to quality reading material; and second, to act as a centre for information that members and their families desperately need as most TCLP members are part of the migrant community who live in Delhi.

A library at Khurik School in Spiti Valley

They have 10 WhatsApp groups for sharing audio and video stories with their members. This online library is called ‘Duniya Sabki’ and the student council members, librarians, teachers and volunteers contribute to it. Stories and articles for all ages are regularly uploaded on TCLP’s Facebook page, YouTube and on their website too.

Still, as Mridula puts it, “An online library can never be a fraction of what a free physical library can be. The latter brings multiple people and multiple interests into multiple engagements in one location. A digital library can only ever be an addition to a physical library.”

During this lockdown, the distribution of food took over every other need. Charity from all over went into supplying ration. TCLP staff also did some relief work in collaboration with other NGOs despite the fact that one of their significant funders backed out.

Teachers accessing library books in Spiti

Unhappy with the turn of events, Mridula says, “People’s right to food security, which is a right of citizenship, cannot be met by non-profit organisations distributing ration or by resident-welfare associations cooking food. These are commendable and necessary efforts, but today charity has reached its limit, and incredibly the government has still not been called out for their failure to meet citizens’ needs. The current thinking that only ration relief needs to be funded and all other needs are to be viewed as competing interest is going to hurt the very people it purports to help.”

Research shows that the longer children stay out of school, the higher the risk that they will not return. Mridula tells us, “Our library is planning to open in a minimal way because to continue to stay closed puts our members at increasing risk.”

The Buguri library has also taken a few steps towards opening. “As the lockdown eased, with parents moving out to work, we saw a drop in the engagement in online classes. So, we continued our work through a hybrid model with small group contact sessions keeping in mind the safety requirements. That way, we can have a deeper engagement with children,” says Lakshmi.

First published in eShe’s September 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

Survey Result: Did Relationships Become More Equal at Home During Lockdown?

By Shweta Bhandral

The COVID lockdown created unprecedented crises in people’s lives. Naturally, intimate relationships have been impacted as well. With families constricted within homes for long periods, domestic helpers unavailable, schools closed and children stuck indoors, and adults working from home, the load of housework has also gone up.

eShe conducted an online survey last month to find out how marriages and families had been affected in the lockdown, with a focus on gender-based division of household responsibilities. Questions were multiple-choice, with some of the questions having space for ‘other’ answers. Giving names was optional.

We asked if gender stereotypes were reinforced – of women being “caregivers” and men “breadwinners”? Over 40 percent of respondents believed they were. “We Indians never seem to learn,” wrote one of the respondents, a man in his thirties. “I think a pandemic makes it worse because the so-called males don’t end up doing any kind of work. At least during normal times, they go to work and contribute by earning. So, no, I don’t think it encourages any kind of equality.”

However, 37 percent felt that stereotypes were not reinforced, and see hope for change. One of them, Pratibha, who is in her forties, wrote, “As both of us set up our work desks in two corners of the same room, we both started seeing what the other person goes through in their daily work schedule. We ended up being more understanding, helpful and thoughtful of each other’s needs. Lockdown has only strengthened our relationship.”

Read on to know the rest of the survey results.

These lockdown months have taken a toll on women in more than one way, whether they are professionals or homemakers. While talking to my close friends or cousins, the sentence I heard most was, “I don’t want to do anything for the next 24 hours and want to just shut myself in a room.”

Shubhonita Chatterjee, a working mom, shares her experience: “It has been incredibly stressful trying to juggle kids, office and home in the past few months. Managing timelines has been a daunting task.”

Aparna Jain, author and leadership coach, adds, “Women are doing a lot more emotional and invisible labour because they are at home.” On top of that, she says, instances of domestic violence have gone up globally.

Psychologist and therapist Dr Shambhavi Alve agrees: “For many, the lockdown has proved to be nothing less than a curse; being locked up with the abuser and finding nowhere to escape can result in extreme trauma for these women.”

She adds that even if they are not subject to violence, working women have faced extreme stress during the lockdown. “The situation becomes even more taxing if she is the only earning member or a single parent,” she notes.

But Shambhavi believes that, sometimes, women need to introspect. “While we conveniently blame men for perpetuating gender-stereotypical beliefs, women equally share these biases. This often holds them back from asking for help from their partners,” she says.

One survey respondent, a woman in her thirties who said her relationship became worse during the lockdown, simply replied with a crying emoji in the opinion box. 😭

There are, of course, instances of men being more cooperative during the lockdown: 55 percent of respondents said that men were doing more at home than before.

One woman in her fifties wrote, “Because of my previous breast cancer and my being a decade older, my husband takes the risk of all shopping and errands. He’s been creative, attentive and thorough, and I think he’s even enjoying it! I’m definitely enjoying the downtime!”

Priyanka Mehra, 36, seconds that: “My husband does not believe in stereotypes; we do all household chores together. Sometimes, in fact, he is more involved as I go to the office and he manages his business from home.” Priyanka has a son, and she believes that we need to teach boys from the very beginning that housework is equal responsibility.

But not all men have been as proactive. Aparna points out, “Much of the cooking and cleaning by men during lockdown was performative for social media, replete with funny captions. Did it bring about a change in their mindset or habits? That is yet to be seen.”

Another issue women raised was that men need to be ‘requested’ to do housework. Entrepreneur Alpana Parida says, “Women have it ingrained that household work is their responsibility. Men won’t touch it unless asked specifically. This habit didn’t change even one bit in lockdown.”

Student Tvesha Jainn, 21, notes a generational divide in division of labour: “I live with one younger couple and one who is older. The young couple is getting closer because of equal involvement, whereas the elder couple’s relationship is getting worse because the men of the previous generation seem to be more patriarchal and expect the women to do the work.”

Three in four survey respondents, however, share that women in their families are still doing more housework than men, even if men have been stepping up more of late.

Marketing professional Priyanka Tiku Tripathi points out another aspect of the lockdown: the physical confinement in compact Indian homes. “I dread to think about smaller dwellings where families live in much tighter spaces through the day. I am sure it leads to frustrations, high mental pressure, aggressive behaviour and abuse.”

Her fears are not unfounded. Almost 63 percent of respondents faced or came across mental-health issues in friends and family during these months. Besides the physical, financial and psychological stress, not to mention fear of COVID, the pressure of being together 24/7 has created its own problems.

“Having family members always at home and in our face is making the scenario worse and women irritated! I was happier when we were both busy in our respective office spaces and had to spend only a couple of hours in the evening together. Too much of anything becomes unbearable!” wrote a woman in her thirties.

Another one in her forties wrote: “[The issue] is about compatibility and patience, which the lockdown has tested; 24 hours of togetherness is not humane!”

But there is always reason to be optimistic. “Since partners are together 24/7, there is more opportunity to see, appreciate and empathise with the other’s workload. If there is compassion and understanding in the relationship, it will encourage more equality in sharing the workload,” wrote Sanju Muttreja, who is in her sixties.

The best news of the survey was that marriages and long-term relationships largely became better (50 percent) during the lockdown, or else reported no difference (40 percent).

Less than 10 percent reported things becoming worse. Though their experiences are heartwrenching (“I wish no one should face what I faced,” wrote a woman in her twenties), on the whole respondents showed hope for more equality in relationships.

“Lockdown is giving an opportunity to reset and refresh every aspect of our living life. Gender parity can’t be left untouched. We will see a softer, empathic and a more balanced relating,” predicted a woman in her forties. We leave you with some more ideas expressed by the respondents in the survey.

Do you think the lockdown experience will encourage more equal relationships?

  • “It should. It’s high time we all realise that the female gender is not synonymous to househelp. Cooking and cleaning should be basic responsibilities of both.”
  • “It will only encourage equal relationships in partners who have been raised already without predefined gender roles. To most others, it will hardly make a difference and will anyway go back to where it was pre-lockdown once all this is behind us.”
  • “When job opportunities are limited and there’s no domestic help, it’s obvious which gender will be forced to give up their jobs and do what needs to be done at home. I’m afraid this pandemic will have devastating results for the emancipation of women.”
  • “I don’t see why we need a lockdown to have more equal relationships. That should be the case irrespective of the circumstance. Respect and equality are the cornerstones of any relationship, and the pandemic has only emphasised that. If that’s missing in a relationship, then the quality of the relationship is anyway on a downward spiral.”
  • “When everything is back to normal, I wish men don’t go back to saying ‘domestic work is not my job’. This is not the normal women want to go back to. Yes, husbands have stepped up and have started contributing to the domestic work but I see that it comes down as ‘help’ to the woman and not as equal participation. This is worrying but at least now they know the physical and mental pain that a woman takes in making the house a home. We need to make sure these learnings are not lost and we do not have to wait till another COVID happens for things to change.”

Lead representative image: Anastasia Shuraeva / Pexels. First published in eShe’s September 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

Cheer Up Your Home During Lockdown with Ideas from These 4 Instagrammers!

Lockdown has kept us all home, so why not use the space to express one’s creativity? These four Instagram influencers have some brilliant ideas!

By Shweta Bhandral

These four interior designers and Instagram influencers have cool ideas to brighten up your home and add a bit of creative fun to Lockdown 2020!

KRUTI BADIANI, NOIDA

Based in Noida, NCR, home-decor stylist Kruti Badiani launched her Instagram page three years ago as a collection of memories of her creative work. Slowly, as the page gained followers (1.2 lakh so far), the 33-year-old began to showcase her love for plants, gardening, and home décor regularly.

On @MyHomeVibes, she now also shares content to inspire followers and runs contests. Kruti feels that interior design reflects one’s inner self, and is an extension of one’s personality. She wants to help people turn houses into homes with her ideas. The mix of trendy colours and earthy details in her apartment is fascinating (lead image and above).

PREETHI PRABHU, BENGALURU

Preethi Prabhu started blogging about interior decor in 2009. Her Insta page @preethiprabhudotcom, launched in 2017, was an extension of her Facebook community of decor enthusiasts. “It became a platform for me to put out my decor content, share my experiences, teach others what’s worked for me and do things that I am passionate about,” she says.

For instance, a special series on Indian art or a DIY activity of block-printing walls inspired many children and mothers stuck at home. Preethi regularly shares ideas with her 1 lakh-plus followers on how to brighten up little corners of their homes with earthy Indian settings and colours.

KAJAL YADVENDRA TYAGI, MUMBAI

Mumbai-based interior designer Kajal Yadvendra Tyagi started showcasing her work on Instagram in early 2019, and that too only after her friends encouraged her to do so. Her page @Kajal8212 is for people who want to design their own space and are seeking new ideas. Kajal shares product reviews and recommendations of different brands so that her followers can make more informed choices for their own homes.

The 37-year-old designer and digital content creator believes that designing one’s house is a therapeutic and fulfilling experience. Her page focuses on design with utility, a popular concept in big cities.

VAISHALI A GANI, BELGAUM

Over a year ago, Vaishali A Gani tweaked her personal Instagram page to share her passion for interior design instead. The followers on @homevisiontoreality grew as the 38-year-old offered general ideas for turning any space into a beautiful, warm and happy home. She says, “I spend my time doing what I truly love. And interacting with followers on the platform encourages me.”

The Belgaum-based designer has been doing collaborations and Q&A sessions as well. Her page has plenty of ideas about colours and combinations, be it with plants and planters or decor and lighting. She also shares DIY activities like warli painting on pots and lamps.

First published in eShe’s July 2020 issue

5 Couples give #CoupleGoals

What’s the biggest test of any marriage than to be stuck together for months during a pandemic, re-negotiating relationship rules and personal boundaries? Five couples tell us how they fared.

By Shweta Bhandral

While HR managers focused on team-building exercises to keep the work wheel moving from home during lockdown, most did not incorporate ‘home’ into their new system. The pandemic has not only triggered anxiety about disease, death and job loss, it has also had the side effect of disrupted family systems. Lawyers in China and India have already reported a rise in divorce cases and queries. Marriages the world over are being put to the test. We spoke to five couples on how the COVID-induced lockdown has affected their relationship.

AASHKA & BRENT, GOA

TV celebrity and entrepreneur Aashka Goradia married Brent Goble in 2017, after which Brent moved from the US to India. Along with her TV work, Aashka, 34, began working on a makeup line called Renee Cosmetics, while Brent, 33, pursued yoga. In 2019, he launched his yogashala Peace of Blue in Goa, while Aashka shuttled between Mumbai and Goa promoting both their brands.

The year 2020 began on a high note as Aashka shot an ad campaign for her brand and Peace of Blue grew stronger. Then, COVID derailed plans. Luckily, Aashka and Brent were together in Goa when lockdown began in March.

As Brent puts it, “Our relationship has had to adapt, period. Our attention that had been focused on outward success turned inwards during lockdown. We would talk things out, sometimes take time to be in separate parts of the house if needed.” Aashka adds, “We have no rules in our relationship. There is complete freedom because that is essential for growth. But yes, there is discipline.”

To keep restlessness away, they do yoga, solo and together (lead image). “We practise close to two hours in the morning. We are also doing online sessions with students,” says Brent. Developing content for their brands also keeps them busy. Aashka adds, “I think we have nearly exhausted everything on the streaming TV channels. We also read a lot, and I particularly found a new passion for the writings of J. Krishnamurti.”

RADHIKA & RAVI, MUMBAI

Radhika, 40, and Ravi Kaushik, 45, look after a radio station and a TV station, respectively. With the entire media industry going into digital management of production and on-air processes during lockdown, the couple has had a hectic work-from-home life. Eventually, however, it improved their personal relationship.

Ravi says, “We have become more appreciative of each other’s work. The fact that both of us are tackling major issues and doing heavy lifting for our organisations led to both of us respecting each other even more.”

Radhika adds, “After 15 years of marriage, we had begun taking each other for granted. But now we have discovered things about each other that we were too busy to pay attention to during pre-COVID life. We are best of friends.”

Life at home is even more demanding when you have an eight-year-old to entertain through the day, without stepping out. The family has set some basic lockdown rules. Radhika tells us, “It’s a rule to not fight at all. We create funny family videos, cook food, watch TV, and even exercise together. All this keeps Arav also occupied.”

The couple believes that giving space to each other during this tough phase is also very important. “Let the other person be and do what makes them happy – that is our mantra,” says Radhika.

SANGYA & BHUVAN, NEW YORK CITY

Married four years, Sangya Sharma, 33, and Bhuvan Khanna, 34, both work in IT companies in Manhattan where the lockdown began in March. Bhuvan narrates, “For the first few days, there was a lot of panic buying and getting enough supplies of essential items. Getting good masks was a challenge. Once we had enough stashed away to last us a couple of months, it was just about hunkering down and waiting for the curve to flatten. One solace was that we were in a city that has enough resources.”

Being used to doing their house chores themselves, they did not face any domestic difficulties. Sangya says, “The bottom line is that you do whatever it takes to support your partner, and it’s always both ways. We play on each other’s strengths: I do what I’m good at, and he does what he’s good at.”

Lockdown gave this ambitious couple more time to talk about their future. “We had interesting conversations that brought us even closer. It got us going on things we had been putting off due to everyday work pressure,” says Bhuvan.

Sangya adds, “We never hang up on each other, we don’t walk away from each other, and we don’t sleep with an unresolved argument.” If anything, the lockdown has made them feel stronger and more confident about dealing with tough times together.

CAROL & LIONEL, MUMBAI

Lockdown did not change things much for Lionel Andrade, 65, who is retired. But it took away a part of his wife Carol’s life. At 70, Carol is dean at SPICE Institute, Bandra.

The initial days were tough for the senior couple, who have been married 38 years. As Lionel puts it, “Carol was behaving as if the world would end if anyone sneezed. It was the uncertainty we were fighting. There were no parameters within which to define our experiences, hence the fear.”

As the days passed, Lionel continued to manage household tasks, finance, attending to grocery requirements with the added responsibility of sweeping and cleaning, while Carol took to cooking and dusting. She says, “Our understanding of boundaries and a new view of each other appeared.” Not being able to meet their son weighs on them, but they talk to him and his wife every day. They miss church but do pray together for 45 minutes daily.

As a couple, they believe that talking and sharing is essential. “Once your fears are laid on the table, they are easier to handle,” says Lionel.

Carol adds, “Lionel is much more matter-of-fact about this whole experience. He grounds us both in common sense and refuses to get over-excited about anything.” These soon-to-be grandparents affirm that lockdown has made them appreciate relationships much more.

PRIYANKA & KRANTI, DELHI

Lockdown has been a time of discovery for Delhi-based journalist couple Priyanka and Kranti Sambhav. Kranti, 42, admits that it has helped him shift his mindset: “By doing the housework or daily chores, I am not helping my wife. I am not doing her a favour.”

On her part, Priyanka, 40, is now focusing on the family. She says, “In all these years of shoots, studios and anchoring, this is the first break where I am running the biggest show of life: my household. I am spending time with my son and husband with no hurry to reach anywhere. We are working out together, planning meals. I also found out that my husband makes better paranthas than me.”

Priyanka quit her job in 2019 to launch her own venture. She was busy establishing her brand Kaam Ki Baat when COVID struck. It worries her that Kranti is now the sole earning member in the family but the couple believes that they must face the situation and improvise. Kranti says, “It has given us more clarity in terms of priorities. We have started asking, what is more important and why?”

Their 11-year-old son Kabir is finally getting all their attention. “In 16 years of marriage, this is the first time that the family is together 24/7. Every household chore has become a family task. Whether setting up the camera or cutting vegetables, we function as a unit.”

First published in eShe’s July 2020 issue

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS IN EDUCATION

With education going online parents now are becoming equal partners in teaching their children. It is challenging for a lot of them. On the other hand, Teachers have lost that physical connection and opportunity to build a repo with every child. I share my experience and ideas of how we can win over these challenges. 

By Shweta Bhandral

Why do I have to learn this: how is it going to help? Why are there so many word meanings in this chapter? Why do you want me to write things?

These are some very basic ‘WHY’s that I get to hear from my daughter when I teach her. My answer, to most of them, often was ‘if you want to get a job and earn enough for yourself, you need to study.’

Her school still follows a system where the focus is more on syllabus rather than curriculum. It the same case with most of the schools in India. A few though are trying to change now with everything going online.

Every teacher today is trying to find out a new way to connect with her students. As a teacher myself, I also reflected and evaluated, Which got me to a concept called ‘The teachable moment’ I had learned about it while doing the ‘Teaching for learning’ a commonwealth run course on Coursera. After a question-answer session with myself, I realigned my style of teaching. Teaching online is a different game, and these COVID months have driven everyone to put up their best. I focused on getting each students attention with me all through my class.

There are three critical steps – Connect, Extend and Challenge, these are the core of teaching. It helps to breakdown each session/class into practical, theory and repeat. This process can happen several times during the course. While teaching theory, again while practically doing it and once more before finishing the session. Things like Extempore, quiz, games can help you stay connected with students.

Following this practice of Connect, Extend and Challenge my answers to my little one have also changed. Now, whenever she asks me why I have an answer that satisfies her. She did ask me yesterday about why are word meanings essential? I told her ” because words will help you her express yourself better.”

Getting involved with the children in their activity and process of learning is extremely important as a teacher and a parent. Being with them helps you understand the capabilities and abilities of each child.

Discussion on ideas/issues with students, knowing what they think? How would they approach a problem? How would they want to learn a particular thing? Helps you guide your child better.

If we make all learning Socially, emotionally and intellectually relevant, by having an open discussion, children understand things easily. While discussing pick up points and elaborate on the topics that are part of the curriculum. I do this a lot in my sessions and with my daughter, and the result is nothing but good. The children are now expressing themselves better, and their constant participation has increased the level of interaction in class.

Another essential part of the Connect, Extend and Challenge process is Listening. Be it a 10-year-old or a 20-year-old they want you to hear them out. As they gain confidence in being heard, you will get the required attention. They will reciprocate by ‘listening’ to you and become friends. Being a friend, I think it is one of the most significant achievements as a parent or a teacher. 

Roleplay by making them teachers in some sessions is also an exercise that worked wonders for me. The pear group responds well, and I get a platform to build on. Learning from peers not only help them understand but also make them want to learn more. Healthy competition grows, alongside team spirit and the ability to understand that there will be friends who will know more and that we can learn from our pears too.

The only challenge here is to find that one child who would be interested in being that teacher, it’s not very tough though, you will find that one excited fellow in your class, just be on a lookout.  

Kids have a lot of energy; it a challenge to make them use that energy, especially with so many gadgets around. One thing that works here is to give them practical work to do, also work on methods that will help them move, chat, discuss, reflect, display and express.

Meet Women Pilots on Evacuation Mission

Meet pilots Daisy Chacko and Aakanksha Verma who are part of India’s unprecedented worldwide evacuation operation Vande Bharat.

By Shweta Bhandral

The frightening possibility of contracting COVID-19 did not deter Daisy Chacko from standing up for duty. She grew up with the ambition of becoming a fighter pilot. Indian Air Force had not yet opened its doors to women fighter pilots when she passed out of flying school, Daisy joined national carrier Air India. Daisy always loved a bit of adventure.

The 36-year-old volunteered for the Vande Bharat Mission, a massive evacuation programme to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to the pandemic-induced lockdown.

On May 20, she flew the long Mumbai-Riyadh–Kannur Vande Bharat flight as its captain, leaving her overwhelmed with the sense of solidarity. Unprecedented situations call for extraordinary missions.

Captain Daisy Chacko (R) with her co-pilot Duhita Reddy

“People said they were proud of us. They blessed us and were genuinely happy that a young woman flew them back home,” avers commander Daisy who also flew the Abu Dhabi-Ahmedabad-Mumbai flight as part of the mission.

Interestingly, India has the highest number of women pilots in the world. Though it only 1092 licenced female pilots compared with 8797 male. This 11 per cent ratio is much more than the global average of 5 per cent.

 The likes of Daisy are part of this legacy. In fact, it was Air India that broke the glass ceiling way back in 1966 employing its first woman pilot. “More than five decades later when I joined, this is one profession where there is equal pay and respect for professionalism,” says senior commander Aakanksha Verma, also 36.

Captain Aakanksha Verma

Aakanksha got her student pilot licence at age 16, even before her driving licence. Her father was her inspiration for her “focused approach” towards building her career, she recalls. “Dad in uniform was captivating for me. In class 2 we had to write a paragraph on what we want to become, and I wrote ‘Main ek mahila vimaan chalika banna chahti hoon (I want to be a woman pilot)’,” says Aakanksha.

India launched the Vande Bharat Mission on May 7 to be executed in three phases by Air India. The second phase started on May 16 and will end on June 13. During this period, the country will fly back 32,000 Indians from 47 countries in over 160 flights. In phase three, private airlines will be roped in. Both pilots were in-home quarantine when we spoke to them, which is mandatory after Vande Bharat flights.

Captains Minaxi Tayal and Aakanksha Verma

Mumbai-based Daisy, married to a pilot says she did not think twice when this opportunity struck for her to volunteer for the mission. “I have no children, no old parents living with me, and because I was involved in a lot of relief work in Mumbai during these lockdown months, I had no fear,” this ‘COVID warrior’ explains.

When Aakansha decided to volunteer for Vande Bharat, her 86-year-old grandmother got worried. It was her mother who encouraged her to be part of it. Aakanksha flew to Bangladesh and back on May 9.

Captain Aakanksha Verma’s Vande Bharat flight to Dhaka

There is very little interaction between pilots and passengers, but Aakanksha found the feedback from the ground staff in Dhaka heartening. They told her about how relieved the passengers were on seeing the national carrier land, she says. “All their (passengers’) anxieties disappeared and they knew they were safe and finally going home. Onboard I could feel gratitude and a sense of relief on their faces,” she notes.

Meticulous procedures are followed on evacuation flights. The process can be time-consuming so as to ensure safety. Both the women pilots eShe spoke to feel that the frequent training they are given to upgrade their skills came in handy during this mission.

Captain Daisy Chacko

Daisy is enamoured by the role of doctors and nurses in this pandemic. “Hats off to health workers. It is a Herculean task to be in PPE and work for hours,” she states. Aakanksha agrees, “I have a lot of gratitude for doctors and nurses who wear these suits day in and day out. It’s difficult to breathe in those suits.”

Vande Bharat Mission, once complete, would have brought back 259,001 Indians from 98 countries. Among the ones who have registered, 28 per cent are workers, 25 per cent students, professionals 14.5 per cent and short-term visa holders such as tourists 7.6 per cent. Priority to fly back home is given to those with compelling reasons, like job loss, medical emergency and senior citizens.

Captain Daisy Chacko with her crew

Asked about the financial viability of the local airline business, Daisy and Aakanksha hope the industry will ride out of the bad times gradually. These pilots feel that it is time to accept the ‘new normal’ and open the skies in a phased manner. “The industry was already in bad shape, and so it is time to move forward. New rules are in place, lesser people will travel, but we have to restart,” says Daisy.

Aakanksha believes, “With only one-third of the fleet back in operation, it’s going to be a wait-and-watch situation. A new travel protocol for passengers and crew, to be followed during the pandemic is out.” She adds, “It’s never too late to get back on your feet.”

First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

“There Is Polarisation, Intolerance… It’s the Best Time for Humour” – Satirist Naomi Datta

Former broadcast journalist Naomi Datta used her snarky, irreverent online persona to launch her own brand of satire.

By Shweta Bhandral

Radiant smile, quick wit and her one-liners on everything from politics to Bollywood – these are what one remembers after meeting Naomi Datta, author of How to Be a Likeable Bigot – A Handy Guide for the Savvy Survivor, a humorous take on life in India today. But being a satirist is a second career for Naomi, who was a broadcast journalist until a few years ago.

Born and raised in the beautiful Khasi hills in Shillong, Meghalaya, Naomi came to Mumbai in 1999 to pursue mass communication from Sophia College. She always wanted to be a TV host. “I come from a small city, and it is a big deal there to have someone anchor on a national news channel,” she says. And so she worked hard to land an opportunity at one of the best TV shows of that time, The Amul India Show on TV18. Soon, she was producing and hosting her own show.

As Naomi lived her dream, broadcast news took a strange turn, with anchors shouting from the studios, and the focus shifting away from reporters on the ground. Disillusioned, she quit television to move towards the entertainment world, and worked as a creative director and writer for shows on MTV, Star World and Netflix. 

Humour comes naturally to Naomi, which is why her writing is also full of satire that makes you smile. She didn’t plan her first book, as she tells us: “I was in-between jobs and a bit disgruntled with Indian TV. I started writing a short story as a gift for my best friend. The story kept developing, and in four months, I had a novel, a satire called The 6 PM Slot. I got signed up by Penguin Random House.”

Naomi Datta with her two books

The book was appreciated but Naomi was not ready to be a full-time writer yet. For eight years, she continued to write satirical pieces, columns and even worked on projects with production houses as social-media strategist or creative director.

“Over the years, I was active on Twitter, and an online voice and persona developed – snarky, irreverent, sharp and yet not offensive. I realised that people enjoyed my commentary through Twitter or my columns. We also live in weird times – there is polarisation, intolerance and general toxicity. I thought this was the best time for my brand of satire and humour. It holds up a mirror to you but makes you laugh at the same time. We don’t do much satire in India – people often don’t get it. I feel I do it well, and there is an audience for it. Therefore, the book.”

Naomi’s second book How to Be a Likeable Bigot came out in December 2019 to very positive reviews. It is a collection of satirical essays on everything from corporate brown-nosing to mummy politics to armchair bigotry. Her publisher wants her to start work on the third one quickly.

So, what is the 42-year-old writing next? “I am currently locked down at home like everyone else! I want to write twisted, funny short stories about a post-Corona world. Human behaviour fascinates me endlessly. My friends are always worried they will end up in my books, and they will and have. And because my default setting is satire, it is mostly not flattering,” she says.

“I have a few ideas – when I finish washing, cleaning and cooking, I will write.”

First published in eShe’s May 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl

School @ Home: The Pros and Cons of Online Schooling

With online classes becoming the new normal in education around the world, parents, students and teachers weigh in about the challenges and opportunities.

By Shweta Bhandral

“Someone has entered the group, they are removing kids from the class, you have to come here,” Sasha, my 11-year-old, shouted for me to check what was going on in her online class before the teacher came in. The children were in panic mode, or perhaps excited, all the microphones and videos were on, and a surprisingly healthy discussion was taking place. Who could this be? Why would they be doing this? Is this cybercrime? They went on and on with their arguments and counter-arguments until I told them to run a virus scan on all their computers and inform the class teacher.

Online education is de rigeour in the days of the COVID lockdown, from small towns in India to the world’s most prestigious universities. While this appears to be the best solution in the short-term, there are various pros and cons that have already become clear in the past two months of the lockdown, especially in a developing country like India.

THE CHALLENGES

Just a few days into lockdown, Arambh School in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, asked its teachers to explore and identify an online platform. Subhi Malhotra, 40, who teaches English from grades three to six, found that the task wasn’t as simple as it sounds, and some teachers took up to a week to understand the process. She adds, “Not everyone can afford computers, headphones, broadband connections and the other devices one needs in this kind of setup.”

Neither are all teachers tech-savvy, trained to embrace change, or understanding of the needs of introverts who sit quietly in class. In addition, lack of private spaces in Indian homes could be a major hindrance to such classes for both teachers and students.

Connectivity and bandwidth issues have emerged as the biggest challenges in the Indian scenario. And while many kids genuinely do not have the resources required, many others happily use it as an excuse to skip class. Bandwidth issues are also forcing schools to keep the video off, which means that the teacher has no clue if the child is sitting and listening in the class or playing online or offline games, or using the internet for other purposes entirely.

At this nascent stage, training is needed to build online etiquettes – such as muting one’s mic, sitting at a spot with minimum background movement, chatting in the chatbox while the class is on, and so on. The class size also needs a re-think. A class with 40 or 90 students becomes just a monologue by the teacher.

“Online learning is not going to work if it replicates the classroom – monologues are not the way forward,” says renowned education strategist Meeta Sengupta. “Online is an egalitarian medium, and teachers will need to create lessons that are about listening more than about talking.”

Long scattered timetables have also increased the screen and sitting time of the child, which is physically harmful and mentally tiring. “Though we are getting to interact with our teachers and schoolmates and finishing our syllabus faster than normal, I don’t think it’s a good idea for our eyes and health,” says my daughter, Sasha, whose head starts to ache after a point.

Twelve-year-old Avi agrees: “The timetable sometimes has too many continuous online classes, which makes my eyes hurt, and sometimes the timetable has too many offline classes, which become boring.”

After all, a child’s education doesn’t end with textbook syllabi but includes all the other aspects that school provides: the friendship of peers, the attention of adults and a hands-on learning experience. Ten-year-old Raipur schoolboy Arjun says, “Going to school is much more fun than sitting at home. I miss my friends.” Sitting in one’s home may also make children lazy or laid-back, or alternatively, frustrated at their lack of resources. 

THE OPPORTUNITIES

But there are multiple positives to be spotted as well. Most children have taken to these classes like a pro and even help their teachers to conduct class peacefully. They are happy to upload their assignments on the Google Classroom, and with online worksheets, teachers no longer have to spend hours and days on correcting hand-written copies.

Aditi Grover, 44, who teaches entrepreneurship and retail to high school students in a public school in Delhi-NCR, affirms that the experiment had been successful for her senior classes. “These students are mature enough to understand the medium, its advantages and challenges. For subjects like IT, web apps and entrepreneurship, it is a blessing in disguise as the concepts can be explained better by features like screen sharing,” she opines.

Schools that were lagging in technology had no option but to pull up their socks, and even government schools have gone ahead with digital transformation.

Teachers have shed their inhibitions, adapted new technologies, and now better understand the world in which their students operate. Assignments are now given keeping in mind the availability of resources at home, which is making the teaching process more relatable and practical.

Meeta Sengupta

With most teachers being women, some effort is required to adapt to the new work-life imbalance, though. A senior teacher from a public school in Mumbai shares, “Teachers are working 24/7 these days, dealing with their household work, taking classes, understanding technology, making audio PPTs and assignments. Those who are good with technology are helping their peers catch up.” It’s a new normal, for sure.

Post-lockdown, Meeta suggests schools focus on best practices for health and safety first, then focus on safe spaces for genuine learning. “We have seen that the world managed well without an intense focus on exams and results – let us bring learning to the fore and push exams back to their proportionate spaces,” she says, adding that this may just be an opportunity for course correction.

“Education is about safety, care and progress, but we gave that up and ran children through the same assembly line regardless of safe mental spaces to grow, or care for personal potential,” Meeta says. “Everyone cannot and must not progress into being the best photocopier of them all. This is the time to reframe, redraft and rebuild our ways of learning and teaching. Our pause gives us a chance to turn our faces towards the sun again, towards authentic learning.”

First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue

Syndicated to MoneyControl