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How 5 Strangers Taught Me Life Lessons I’ll Never Forget

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By Kunal Arora:

An elderly woman places her ink-marked finger on her lips after casting her vote outside a polling booth during the state assembly election in Delhi December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX163BJ
Source: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

We all have some personal stories which at moments make us realise how valuable life is and how fateful we have been for living with grace and dignity. I have learnt enormously from those subtle avoidable instances which helped me shape my true colours.

I Am 76 And My Fate Tortured Me To The Limit

Life lessons from my old house help in Ambala working for us for the last 15 years

I was the most loved one in the family, my parents went to every saint and seer in Lahore and asked for blessings to get a child. It was after eight long years they heard the cry of a baby in the house. Before me, all were born dead. I brought good luck and fortune in the house and after me, the family was blessed with four more healthy kids.

I was the pride and honour of the family. There were very few girls in the town who went to the school and I was the one getting the best education. The illiteracy of my parents didn’t stop them from getting their children educated. My father was a gold merchant and one of the richest and respected in the city. I was always surrounded by books which helped me create the world I wanted. By the age of seven, I had studied what people study in their twenties. The wisdom provided by the books is invaluable and most of the decisions I have taken is from books.

People in my family had sensed bad omens and we left the country before bloodshed started in 1947. There was enough money to start a new business and the financial acumen of my learned father helped him establish a business in India. I continued my studies and experiments with the life. I was eight when we escaped the war and at 14, I was asked to marry. The illness of my father and Amma’s kind approach forced me to say yes. I never believed in fate before marriage but life showed me what power it holds over humans.

I didn’t know how to cook and had never even thought of trying it. My parents never asked me to clean the house either. I thought life would be same, my decisions, my books, wisdom, learning. But within a few years, my husband’s great business crashed and we were bankrupt. The big house was taken away by money lenders and we moved to a small hermitage.

There were no nuts for breakfast now, no meals for some days. By some means, we gathered money which helped in feeding ourselves. I decided to pursue a nursing course to have a better future but I couldn’t bear the cutting and killing of animals and that one wrong decision resulted in a big failure. I started working as a maid, washing utensils and cleaning houses. Every penny I earned was filled with my patience to bear the harsh and cuss words.

I am 76 now and I am still working for the betterment of the family. My siblings are rich and happy and I was the one most knowledgeable in the house. I have two sons but if I stop earning the family will fall. I faced domestic violence and still have the marks on my body.

Life never stops, we cannot escape, one can simply smile at every problem to make it powerless. Don’t let your wrong decisions power your fate.

Just 10 Rupees For Dinner

A couple with limited resource and their limitless gaze, a roadside incident in Gurugram

Their eyes showed thirst for the green fountain juice being poured into the glasses. They were old and skinny, maybe in their 60s. The lady looked extremely tired and traumatized, her sunken face and dried lips showed as if she was hungry from days. The man wore scars of hardship on his body and a muddy, ragged white shirt over it. Both gazed at people gulping the chilled liquid and putting empty glasses on the counter. They held on to  whatever assets they had in their life, a blanket, some utensils, and a few clothes.

The old man checked his pockets and took out 10 rupees. The couple looked at each other for a while, and the lady broke the silence, “We need to have something for dinner.” They looked around and decided to take a few chapattis and that was all the food they had.

A Street Outside Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah

When devotion is just practised inside holy borders, an incident outside the holy shrine

After the holy chants reviving the miracles and beauty of Allah, it was the time to let the seers rest and enjoy the night in the remembrance of divine and putting the requests of devotees upfront. Dressed in glittery sheets and images of Mecca printed on it, surrounded by red roses and millions of devotional threads, hundreds praying at the feet, looks like the door of heaven has opened and there lies the King of happiness showering blessings. A man in a white dress and grey waistcoat, a nicely embroidered prayer cap on his head closed the heavily decorated wooden doors. A huge stand was laden with incense sticks and the ashes appeared like falling stars. People were leaving with a smile on their face, some murmuring the ending prayers, some waiting for the last glimpse of the pir.

The street outside the Dargah saw the breach in devotion. Disfigured creatures waiting outside for the people to show their crippled limbs. A small girl whose face was burned, and had twisted fingers, blocked the way and asked for money. People who were lost inside gave her a ruthless expression, covered their face with a cloth and moved. Some asked Allah to have mercy on her as if they had nothing to give. She spoke nothing and tears came out of her eyes, she looked at the sky as if asking someone ‘are you happy now?’ Does aura of the door to heaven have boundaries? Is he only interested in those who can walk and offer a sheet? Does karma really play or it’s a myth?

A Fig Tree That Ate It All

Feed the needy, Gods already have enough. A holy tree in my hometown Ambala and a boy living in a small hermitage near it.

Rooted in the most narrow lane and about hundred years old, there was a great fig tree which mesmerized even the animals to stay close to it, embracing a big area with its wide and open figure and giving shelter to hundreds of birds. Considered as the most sacred and home to seven Gods, we were not allowed to plant it at home. It was said to possess a divine power to make any wish come true. The trunk of the mystical tree was covered with red threads which held the wishes of those who visited it. Every day hundreds of devotees surrendered themselves to the tree and placed eatables to charm the Gods, later consumed by stray dogs.

I went there with my wishes rolled in a red thread and a platter to lure the omniscient tree. Chanting mantras to put more power in the thread and thoughts, I saw a small child crying and staring at the food at the foot of the tree. The boy lived in a hermitage close to the tree. I went down on my knees and asked him what he wanted, he pointed to the platter in my hand. I surrendered my wishes to the hunger of a child and fed him with my hands. His smile was much more than what I would have gotten by tying a piece of thread to a tree.

Bewitching Black Eyes

A blind woman helped me find myself near Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in Delhi.

I was waiting for the bus. Cars were moving in and out and making crazy, irritating sounds, senses warmed up and vision illusioned. Weather painted the face of people with sweat. No bird, no creature, only humans moving around with a passive look.

With no voice and utter silence in her appearance she was sitting on the bench alone. A cloth covered her head and a stick guided her steps. The gracious face had a smile whose reason I was looking for. She was touching the seat next to her again and again, may be in order to touch who she was waiting for. I noticed her moving almost fifty times to find no one there but the smile and divinity on her face remained.

Mesmerized by her aura and patience, I was lost in her silence. The world around her was black but she could see it better than me, feel it better than me. I sat inside the bus but still wondered who she was looking for. Patience and tolerance were what I was missing and I found it through the vision of blind eyes.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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