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.
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.
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
Rural women in India have never had it easy, and the Covid lockdown has further increased their workload while leaving them financially vulnerable.
Text and photos by Shweta Bhandral
Past few months have been exceptionally brutal for India’s economy. With GDP contracting by 23.9 per cent from April to June, as many as 21 million salaried jobs are estimated to have been lost in the wake of the pandemic. The informal sector has taken a beating, and some economists have noted that the number of unemployed does not even consider millions of people who may have gone back to farming as jobs dried up in other industries. That has also meant a reverse migration from cities to villages in the wake of the sudden lockdown.
What does that bode for rural economies, families, and especially the faceless women in India’s villages, who are far less literate (58 per cent compared with 78 per cent men); earn only 60 per cent of male wages; constitute 42 per cent of India’s agricultural workforce and are yet not counted as ‘agricultural workers’; denied access to government schemes and property rights; and are instead themselves considered the ‘property’ of their fathers, husbands or even sons?
To understand the effect of lockdown on the ordinary village woman, I travelled to Turehti in Pathankot district of Punjab. Represented by Bollywood actor Sunny Deol of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, it’s a small village by Punjab’s standards. However, it is better off compared with many of the other 6.4 lakh villages in India.
Like most other north Indian villages, it has its fair share of patriarchy, caste discrimination and other repressive social structures. Marrying outside one’s caste or religion could very well lead to an ‘honour killing’ here, not unlike the autocratic rule of Khap Panchayats in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
Very few women from the 300 families residing here are involved in agriculture. They are mostly employed in domestic labour, while men work as farmhands, daily-wage workers or as drivers for school buses in nearby towns.
Once the lockdown began, these men sat at home doing nothing. I met Kamlesh, whose husband and son are both drivers, but Kamlesh and her daughter are the family’s only breadwinners since the past seven months. Kamlesh works as a cook and caretaker at the home of an old couple. Her daughter works as a tailor while doing her Bachelor’s degree at a local college.
Kamlesh worked all through the lockdown and was paid her regular salary. Several retired Army couples in the area need help for household and farm work. Their presence is a boon for the village women, who work in these households as cooks and cleaners.
“Lockdown has been hard for the family, but we managed well with my income, and my employers bought us ration,” says Kamlesh. “Now that things are opening up again, my son recently got a job as a driver. My husband is waiting for the local school to open so that he can go back to driving the bus.”
Her neighbour, Sushma, who is a homemaker in a family of seven, was not so lucky. “Since everyone was at home, life was tough. My daughter-in-law and I have not got time to breathe,” says the middle-aged woman sorrowfully (lead image). Managing fodder for animals, cleaning, cooking and keeping the kids occupied took up all her waking hours.
“We used up whatever little savings we had,” says Sushma, whose daily-wager husband is unemployed at present. Her son, also a daily-wager, was out of work for several months. He has only recently got work again.
Sulochna from the same village works as a cleaner in a nearby school. A widow, with two sons aged 20 and 21. Both her sons are educated till class 12 and are sitting at home waiting for a job opportunity.
“They would not go and ask for work as labourers in local farms or shops; it is below their education status,” says Sulochna, adding worriedly, “There are no notices for government jobs. They are hoping for something in Punjab Police or the Army, but nothing has come up in the past 18 months. Once they cross the age requirement, they can’t apply. The government should understand this.”
The first two months of lockdown were challenging for the family. Sulochna had to sit at home without pay. They managed with help from the neighbours and some ration that they received from the panchayat. Sulochna is now back at work earning just half of her earlier salary, but as she says, “Something is better than nothing.”
Moving towards the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), the plight of women is no different. Women in most households here run the show on all fronts, be it domestic and mental support or financially.
Just last month, news broke of how 250 women of Angrotha village in Chhatarpur district of MP laboured for 18 months to cut through a hill to reach the only source of freshwater in the village. There was no news of the men.
Over 500 km away in Kodariya, a village in district Indore in MP, I met Mangla, a 32-year-old widow who raised two children while working as a caretaker in Shaurya School in MHOW cantonment area, six kilometres from her village. Her son goes to college and the daughter is in higher secondary.
Run by the MHOW War College, the pre-primary school continued paying her salary so she had no financial crunch. But with schools going digital during the lockdown, her kids faced a huge setback in their studies as they have only one smartphone between them.
WiFi connections are either weak or not available in the village, and data is expensive since they consume more than 2GB with online classes, assignments and other activities.
Mangla expresses her concern: “Children in our villages are at a loss in this new system. We don’t have the gadgets, nor do the schools here have the infrastructure and capacity to teach online. How will my kids give exams like this?”
Her colleagues Kiran, Pushpa and Kamla are all in similar situations except they are married and have an extra unemployed mouth to feed at home. They could manage modestly through lockdown because the school kept paying them their monthly wages. In some of these households, the men don’t work at all; in others, they are daily-wagers who had no work for months.
The biggest setback for them all is the lack of jobs for the educated workforce. Most male relatives who moved back from the cities during the lockdown had nothing to do for months. These men refuse to take up small jobs in the village and instead have taken to drinking, smoking, playing cards or consuming substances.
The load of running the home has fallen on the women who earn from either their craft or jobs while putting up with abuse at the hands of their frustrated husbands or fathers. If the life of India’s village women was hard earlier, the lockdown has only made it worse.
Fashion artist Sharmila Nair’s new project links women’s emotions during the pandemic to the tradition of parents gifting almirahs to daughters.
By Shweta Bhandral
Entrepreneur and fashion artist Sharmila Nair’s latest project The Almirah is a fashion art installation that showcases the emotions, Indian women went through during the Covid pandemic.
“There’s a tradition in Kerala where the parents gift an almirah to their daughter at the time of her marriage. This almirah becomes her private property, one of her biggest assets that she inherits from her parents, and it stays in her life as a companion with whom she shares her happiness, sadness, fears, insecurities, and secrets,” says Sharmila, who is based in Ernakulum, Kerala.
“It is in the same almirah that patriarchal society interferes. The almirah stands as a metaphor for the limited public space women experience in a patriarchal society.”
Sharmila’s love for saris was ingrained in childhood. She started wearing saris while in class 12. Fascinated by her mother’s collection, she began to look closely at weaves, styles and textiles.
Simultaneously, even as a high-school student, her father encouraged her to take on summer jobs, which gave her good exposure in running a business, attracting consumers and delivering services.
After completing her education, she put both her passion and skill to good use. Sharmila began travelling across the country, researching and collecting saris.
It marked the beginning of her online sari brand Red Lotus. The first collection was put on sale on Facebook; it sold out in two hours.
But online sales were not enough; a desire to talk about issues troubling society was also brewing inside Sharmila. She decided to use her sari brand to raise social issues in artistic ways.
“I think artists through their art should also reflect contemporary reality rather than doing art for art’s sake. To resist, struggle, and pass on your vision to society so that society at large may benefit from your art – that is the highest reward and satisfaction you get from doing an art project. I have a personal inclination of transforming art into a public activity,” she says.
Sharmila began expressing her concerns with projects like the Mazhavil Collection. Transgender models wore her sari collection. The next project, 18 Shades of Black, talked about gender and colour discrimination; it received international attention.
The Almirah is a step ahead of earlier two projects. It combines fashion, structural design, solo-performance, still photography, videography, and poetry. The project aesthetically depicts the problem of mental health during the Covid lockdown.
Sharmila herself felt trapped during this period as her business came to a standstill. Her collection for the season had been sourced but was stuck due to logistics, and uncertainty about the future troubled her.
She explains, “I looked at my saris stacked away in my almirah and I began to think about all the emotions women are facing right now. I decided to depict these emotions through my saris. That’s how the idea of a woman inside the almirah occurred to me.”
Sharmila’s colour palette for the project was inspired by the saris in her own almirah. Each colour depicts an emotion, and every emotion finds an expression in our classical dance forms.
Sharmila chose Indian classical dancer Ramya Suvi to model her project. Ramya flawlessly showcased eight emotions: happy, sensuous, thoughtful, trapped, angry, frustrated, sad and powerful.
Photographer Ratheesh Ravindran captured Ramya’s expressive performance and Sharmila’s ideas beautifully in his camera.
The Almirah project began on Instagram and gained traction. Sharmila is now thinking of installing it in an art gallery so that people can take selfies inside the almirah.
She also plans to extend the campaign to public spaces under the title ‘Open the Almirah’ where people can donate items inside the almirah to those who need it the most.
With more people investing in health, these five women-led brands are creating a niche in the growing market of natural beauty products.
By Shweta Bhandral
Natural, organic, herbal, Ayurvedic, vegan – these are the terms you often see connected with beauty products these days. In fact, these products are driving growth in the personal care and home care market in India for the past several years.
Global demand for these products expected to rise in the coming years driven by people above 30 years of age. It is a fantastic opportunity for Indian beauty brands, which have the added advantage of a rich history of natural healing therapies and regimes such as yoga, naturopathy and Ayurveda.
Triggered by problems they had faced personally, these women set out to create beauty products that would be beneficial for human bodies, skin and hair and those that took a minimum toll on the planet.
THE MOMS CO.
Malika Sadani’s journey started in 2012 when she moved to India from London. Her daughter was a year old. Malika narrates, “When my daughter had her first skin reaction, I realised it was so hard to find great quality natural products that were safe and effective. I would often ask friends and family members to bring natural products when they came to India from abroad.” Malika soon realised that she was not the only one facing such issues.
Discussions with more than 200 moms revealed the shortage of natural mother and baby care products in the Indian market. “That was when the idea to create a brand that can truly be a partner to a mom’s journey into motherhood came alive in the form of The Moms Co.,” says Malika.
Launched in 2017 to address this gap of toxin-free products in the Indian market for pre-natal and post-natal consumption, and baby care, The Moms Co. works with experts across India, Australia and Switzerland.
In three years, this homegrown startup has increased its range across categories. They have face care, hair care, baby care and several other products. They also recently raised US $8 million in Series B funding from Indian and international venture capitalists.
Last month, they launched Ageless Expressions, a natural age-control range with actor Kalki Koechlin as brand ambassador. The product uses bakuchiol, a vegan alternative to retinol, for its anti-ageing properties.
Malika says, “People have become conscious of what they use and what is in their products, especially after Covid-19. Organic products in India, especially in the space of personal care products, have seen a resurgence.”
Most brands, even those that claim to be 100 per cent natural, mix chemicals in their products if they are producing the product on a mass scale, says Tuba Siddiqui. This market situation inspired the Lucknow-based entrepreneur to carve her career in the field of natural products.
After doing her Master’s in alternative medicine, Tuba wanted to develop completely natural and vegan products. Her family initially resisted the idea to start a business.
“My father was in government services; nobody ever did business in our family. Initially, there were questions, and they were sceptical about it. My sisters were my support system because they knew the scope of natural products,” says the 35-year-old.
In 2012, Tuba set up a production unit at home. She grew several medicinal plants and made her first product, a floor cleaner. She tells us, “I took the product to exhibitions. People showed interest in it. Family and friends gave good reviews and encouraged me. I aimed to create products from the earth that can go back to the earth. That’s how the name Mitti Se came about.”
Faakhra Siddiqui, Tuba’s elder sister who now handles strategy and social media for the brand from Hyderabad, adds, “We used a lot of natural things at home – reetha, shikakai and natural oils were not new to us. I appreciated Tuba’s idea because I supported the philosophy. I too used to think a lot about the increased use of chemical products. That’s why I decided to join Tuba in marketing Mitti Se.”
By this time, marriage was on the cards for Tuba. But that did not deter her from her dream. Her husband supported the project, and the Mitti Se range grew to include oils, soaps and home care products. The sisters wanted to be environmentally friendly as much as possible, even if that meant facilitating change in consumer behaviours.
Mitti Se products are minimally processed hence generate zero waste. All cleansers are low foam producing, so they use less water and the greywater is reusable and safe for plants. The packaging of products is biodegradable and can be recycled.
The founders have taken a social enterprise approach. “We hire mostly women from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds. They help us in making our products, filling, bottling, labelling and shipping,” Faakhra, 45, tells us.
Until Covid-19 struck, Mitti Se was selling its products via its site, organic stores and a few online portals. They continued to be part of trade exhibitions that helped them take the products to newer markets.
However, the pandemic disrupted their production for a month, but now the brand is back on track and has started selling on their website once again.
The brand is now aiming to launch a baby-care range. “We plan to keep our range lean while making the products multi-functional.”
Having worked for 15 years in Spain, Dubai and India and travelling to over 50 countries, Mumbai-based investment banker Sonia Sahni decided to start her own company of natural skincare products.
The idea of Ethiko was born in 2017 when Sonia had some skin issues while she was in Spain. The doctor prescribed steroids. Tired of short-term relief, Sonia took charge of her wellness.
She tells us, “I formulated serums and started using them. The difference in my skin was so evident that friends and family started asking about the products. They then started ordering for their family and friends, and that is how the business started growing.”
Sonia came back to India in 2018. She immediately began working on her brand Ethiko. By January 2019 she had the manufacturing and operations in place.
“It was tough finding suppliers of high-quality organic ingredients who would want to support a startup and supply small quantities. I got lucky as I found a supplier who turned out to be an IIT Kharagpur alumna, which is my alma mater too. It helped us trust each other,” she narrates.
Soon, she zoomed in on a plant in Ahmedabad to manufacture the products. Once operations and logistics were all set, Ethiko started selling its products online on their website from August 15, 2019.
The products are unisex and inspired by ancient civilisations. For instance, the skin-brightening range uses rosehip oil inspired by the Mayans of South America who used it to counter the harmful effects of the sun on their skin.
The oil-control range uses peppermint as used by the ancient Greeks for cleansing, while the age-defying range contains geranium, which was part of Cleopatra’s beauty regimen.
“I source my ingredients from all over the world – argan oil from Morocco, tea tree oil from Australia, and so on,” says Sonia. “Also, we launch products when our existing customers ask for something new. For example, our next product is pure almond oil, which was a customer demand.”
Ethiko is a bootstrapped company with a team of only three people, including Sonia. She is optimistic about the future despite pandemic-related challenges. In fact, these past few months of Covid-19 lockdowns have helped her digital-only organic skincare startup with improved sales and a level playing field.
Caroleen Gomez had been happily pursuing her dream to be an investment banker. But while studying abroad, she noticed that the sudden weather change did not suit her hair.
This troubled her and made her look for solutions in nature and Ayurveda. Once she returned to India, her interest in natural products gained momentum, but she kept it to herself.
“Parents generally get worried when you tell them that you are interested in starting a business instead of taking up a job. So, I took up the job I was trained for and started working in the finance sector,” shares the 30-year-old.
Along with her job, Caroleen started training with labs researching on organic and natural products. She studied the manufacturing process and understood the market.
She launched own beauty brand Rêvées Clive in 2018 with a range of haircare products, body oils, facial oils, handmade soaps, moisturisers, face mists and ubtans.
The brand uses ingredients like micro algae, seaweed, marine water, mud and marine plants, and turns them into clean, sustainable beauty products with biotechnology and encapsulation technology.
Their products, which are eco-certified and provide long-term protection, are priced Rs 800 onwards. “Anything natural, vegan or organic takes more effort to produce. Consumers today understand this and are ready to pay the price for a quality product,” avers the Delhi-based entrepreneur.
Originally from a small town called Surendranagar 125 km away from Ahmedabad, Manisha Gadani is a graduate in food and nutrition. The homemaker turned into a businesswoman only after moving to Ahmadabad for the education of her daughters.
Finding herself with a lot of free time, the mother of two took up a course in cosmetics and skincare, researched various oils and learnt techniques to create natural products.
In 2016, Manisha participated in her first exhibition with a range of soaps, lip balms, scrubs, lotions, and moisturisers. The response encouraged her to create a Facebook page for her brand Aarish, a name derived from her two daughters’ names.
“I found there was a lot of scope on Facebook, so I posted on groups and started getting orders from all over India. Locally, I continued with exhibitions too,” narrates the 44-year-old.
Manisha runs her business from home and makes all products herself. Her husband helps with brand promotions. The soaps are reasonably priced, starting from Rs 80. During the festive season, her gift packs are much sought-after. She shares, “Consumers, friends and family always pre-order, so my work is based on bookings and is customised.”
Her sales plummeted by over 25 per cent during the Covid lockdown, but Manisha is confident of gaining her market back. The Aarish website is in progress, and she hopes to sell her products on Amazon soon.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.