Sunday, January 21, 2018
Vipul Shaha, Urban Ashram, Pune
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Shaheen Mistri, founder of Akanksha and Teach for India shares her inspiring life story in a first ever SpiriTED Talk at The Uraban Ashram, Pune, India
It turned out to be an evening full of spirit, energy and inspiration as Shaheen walked in at the Urban Ashram to interact with a group of 30 people who had gathered to hear her life journey and understand what it really means to serve and make a difference. While words fail to capture the experience, here is an attempt to summarize those precious 60 minutes of a heart-to-heart conversation with Shaheen.
“The Power of an Instinct”:
Shaheen lived in many parts of the world and had extremely privileged and sheltered childhood. Poverty and Inequity were not part of her world. She was, however, always very captivated by children. As early as from the age of 12 she regularly volunteered to work with children. It was always children who were in some special need—visually or hearing impaired children, autistic children or orphan children. Her happiest memories from her childhood come from those times she spent while working with children.
Shaheen studied all across the world in different schools—American, British and even a French school but never in an Indian school. During summer breaks, she would visit her grandparents, who lived in Mumbai. A week or two in Mumbai every year, and she would be happy to return back to her own comfortable life abroad. It was one such short holiday trip to Mumbai, when she was 18 that would change the course of her life forever.
A chance encounter with some street children at a traffic light in Mumbai and a strong inner instinct to stay back in India led Shaheen to call up her father in America and convey her decision. Completely taken aback, he challenged her to get admitted into one of the top 3 colleges in Mumbai. It was September then—three months after all the admissions were closed. Determined to seek an admission, Shaheen sneaked into principal’s office at St. Xavier’s College and literally said these very words: “Father, my life is in your hands.” And it worked!
“I am an Indian. I have never known what it really means to be an Indian, to live in India, to do something in India. I want to stay. It was a very flitting but a very deep instinct that I had. Luckily, most the instincts we have, they happen and they go and we move on with our life. But that particular one, I acted on.”
One of the first things Shaheen did after getting into St. Xavier’s was to try and understand the city in a different way. She followed a news reporter for a few months wherever he went. It offered her a glimpse into the life on the ‘other side’—jails, police stations, courts. It also took her to one of the large urban slums in Mumbai. She was struck by the potential, the resourcefulness, the courage, the spirit of life and happiness despite all the odds.
“I didn’t understand how people could have so little and yet be so happy.”
There, she met a girl her own age called Sandhya. She sat with her just out of curiosity trying to understand her life. While Shaheen knew no Indian language, no one in the slum community knew any English. As she sat there, some kids surrounded her. She tried to teach them a few words of English. Notwithstanding the fact that she had no clue of what it meant to be a teacher, Shaheen enjoyed herself with those kids. She decided to regularly visit those children and teach them new things. Thus began her first classroom in the slum community. It eventually led her to consider getting those kids to a school and provide them with a wider exposure and a happy, safe learning space—where kids can just be kids, be naughty and enjoy themselves and maybe learn something along the way.
She approached nineteen different schools asking them to provide her with a space for teaching less privileged children—only to be turned down for no good reason. That was an important early lesson in her journey—“The most difficult thing in the world is to change mindsets” she admits. It was an appeal from the heart and once again her famous line—“Father, my life is in your hands” which came to her rescue. The 20th school she approached finally agreed to her request. That was the birth of first ever Akanksha Center in Mumbai. One centre after another, Akanksha has grown over the past two decades in Mumbai and Pune serving to over 4000 children in slum communities. In 2009, Shaheen took the next big step in her journey by launching a nationwide movement called The Teach for India (TFI). Only three years into the program, today over 400 teachers are serving in municipal and under-resourced classrooms across Delhi, Mumbai and Pune touching over 16,000 children’s lives. The TFI model aims at recruiting the best and the brightest young minds to solve the ‘puzzle’ of education inequity. Shaheen and her team of dedicated ‘crazy’ youth—as she likes to call them--have been working relentlessly to keep the wheels of the movement turning faster and in the right direction.
Reflecting on her journey of working with children from less privileged backgrounds, Shaheen draws some important life lessons:
“It really is the opportunity that sets us apart. There is no difference between me and that child in the slum except the difference of opportunity.”
“It teaches you the greatest humility. It taught me that there really is very little that you can change. But it also taught me at the same time that what I really can change is myself and there is a lot of power in doing that. And there is a ripple effect.”
“Everything is about human connection, if you know your kids (students), if you understand your kids, then other things can happen.”
“If we think of how really big problems have got solved historically, there have been leaders who have been committed, who have been bright, who have been passionate, who have worked relentlessly to solve those problems.”
The power of Giving: Shaheen shared the story of one of her favorite Akanksha kids—Latif and how he sacrificed his own life for the wellbeing of his grandfather.
The power of Belief: “Just say yes no matter what! If someone throws a hundred problems at you, you can find a hundred and one solutions. When everyone else has given up on a child including the child itself, the power that a teacher can have with his unconditional love and belief in that child can be extremely transformative. It is often easy to get someone to do something much more difficult than something incrementally more difficult.”
The power of the Little Things: “I don’t believe anymore that there are big miracle solutions. I think that there are enough of the little things that are going to cause the big miracle solution. In a world that is so difficult to live in, where each one of us has so many challenges just being nice makes such a difference. Do I notice the things that are special in the people that are closest to me, the people around me?”
The Power of Doing things Yourself and talking less about them: The analogy of the Mirror and the Glass. “If you have a problem, you always have a choice: you can pick up the mirror and reflect and believe that the solution is within you. If you pick up the magnifying glass, you believe that the problem is something external and it becomes bigger.”
Every word she spoke came from a deep inner conviction and a life-time of dedicated service. Shaheen closed the session by urging the gathering for help and support in whichever way they can. As an immediate expression of our sincere prayer, we closed the gathering by holding hands in a circle and chanting three times: “Loka Samasthaa Sukhino Bhavantu”—“May all beings be happy.” The gathering was truly blessed by Shaheen’s presence, who made the time to come down to the Ashram and share her incredible life story--despite having just flown in from the US and not having slept for the previous two days. We wish Shaheen and the movement a great success!
--Vipul Shaha, Baramati. February 09, 09.
We normally like to share our stories of joy, happiness, achievements and progress. Today, I write you on a rather sad note. My great grandma passed away a couple of days ago. I feel that her story ought to be shared so that it may inspire others as it continues to inspire me.
‘Maa’ as we used to fondly call her, left for heavenly abode at the age of 96. For a Jain, it is highest achievement to be able to leave this body while in a state of complete consciousness, peace, zero craving and aversion and out of pure voluntary will. The Jain philosophy believes that one who masters the art of dying masters the art of living. It aims at breaking the bondage that arises from the cycle of life and death. We call it ‘Sallekhana’. Maa approached her death with utmost calmness. She was chanting Jain mantras right until the last moment of her life. Since Diwali last year (Nov 08) she had been taking only liquid diet and was gradually reducing her intake. A day prior to her death, she was given a ‘Niyama Sallekhana’--a self rule that binds a person to one place. A few hours before her death, she accepted a ‘Yama Sallekhana’—a voluntary renunciation of possessions, and food of all kind (including water). She was determined not to take any modern medications except select Ayurvedic ones. Her resolve was so firm that when just two days before her death, she was put on an artificial oxygen supply, she refused to take it. Since long ago she had told the family members about her wish that she does not want to be hospitalized come what may.
Of many things that make her an extraordinary human being is the fact that despite all the prosperity and wealth in her family (she was married into one of the most famous gold merchant families of Maharashtra—the Sarafs of Baramati), her life was all about simple living and serving others. She, at a young age of 23, along with her husband took the vow to observe Brahmacharya—a voluntary observance of chaste life and control over senses. An equally remarkable is the fact that she observed more than 2600 absolute fasts in her life—that is almost one tenth of her life was spent without taking any food—not even water. No need to say that it requires tremendous willpower and self-control.
Her life was a living example of an ideal practitioner of a religion. An aura of love, compassion, self-less service and peace surrounded her. It was almost a divinely experience to spend even few moments in her presence. Starting the day at 4 am, regular practise of meditation three times in a day, taking only one meal in the afternoon, no food after the sun-set, absolute fasting four days in a month, regularly reading the Jain scriptures by herself....are but a few aspects of her life that show her discipline and devotion. All her life, she served others—those in need, her grandchildren (who lost their mother at a very early age) and most importantly the countless Jain monks who came by her town. Even at this age, she preferred to cook her own meals and contribute in the household chores. The Jain community in Baramati held her in high respect and sought for her wisdom on various matters of community and religious engagement.
To me, her life remained somewhat mystique. Personally, I do not follow Jainism the strict way that it should be followed. I do follow the normal simple rules of vegetarianism etc. but I could never fully understand the practices and principles with which our 'maa' used to practice religion. I am sure they have a deep meaning. What I do understand is that rare are such extraordinary human beings to find in these times of inner and outer turbulence. Religion, for her, was a way of life, an expression of humanity in every action. What inspires me about her is the amount of faith and discipline put in every little thing that she did. I only pray for the courage to live up to the legacy which she has left behind.
Monday, October 30, 2017
Vipul Shaha, May 30, 2009
‘When you wish upon a star…all the dreams that you dream come true.’ I had always dreamed of personally meeting Amir Khan—not so much for him being a film star but being the person that he is. His role as a teacher in Taare Zameen Par, particularly, had a deep impact on how I perceive the ‘small world’ of children and the crucial role of a teacher in shaping young lives. Sometimes, dreams come true unexpectedly sooner than we could ever imagine them to. And so it happened this afternoon when Amir Khan stepped in a class full of Teach for India fellows like me--my dream had come true and it seemed unreal for a moment! The two hours of friendly interaction that followed will continue to inspire me in my new role as a teacher and as a human being. Here is a brief attempt to capture what Amir had to say on education in India.
An average student in his school days, Amir did not know what to do with his life until when he developed an interest for dramatics and filmmaking. Amir did not continue his 'formal' education after completing his class XII. Being a stubborn and determined person that he is, he defied all the concerns that his family expressed about his ‘extra-ordinary’ decision. He firmly told them, ‘I was only having a good time so far, my real education begins now!’
Amir has done an extensive amount of research on child psychology, children with special needs and the education system for his movie TZP. He spoke of the four basic emotional needs of every child and that of every human being: security, trust and faith, dignity and love. Amir spoke at length about how each child is special, has his own pace of learning, abilities, areas of strengths and weaknesses. He urged us (to-be teachers) not to force education upon a child and let the child be his own natural self and happy. When asked about what he thinks as the purpose of an ideal education system, he responded with firm clarity—to enable and empower a child to deal with life in a happy manner, to be curious, to ask questions and to communicate confidently in whichever form suits him the best. Once provided with right skills, tools and mindset, the child will be empowered to define and choose his own path in life.
Amir posed an intriguing question--why is it that if a child is not doing very well in sports, arts or music, it is considered okay, but when it comes to mathematics and science, everyone must master it all? Referring to societal obsession with stardom and race towards the top, he mentioned how not everyone can be a film-star or a cricketer, but there is a 'hero' hidden within every child, which needs careful nurturing and attention. Amir values everyday little successes of ordinary human beings more than the extraordinary success stories of a few. 'If you can cheer up the mood of a grumpy conductor on a bus, who might have had a bad day, you are successful!'. Redefining the idea of 'success', Amir said that success depends upon one's core being and happiness.
Not undermining the importance of a child's academic progress, Amir endorsed and spoke highly about the need for ‘creative teaching’--by making learning an exciting process. He compared the role of a teacher to that of a film director. Just as a director facilitates the process of filmmaking by trying to bring out the best in each character, a true good teacher facilitates the process of learning by bringing out the best in every child and inspiring every child to bloom. Drawing example from his own self, and why he makes only a few films, he said ‘if only you have a story to tell, you will tell it well.’ Each day when the teacher enters the classroom he shall be so excited to ‘tell his story’ that he will put in fullest of his energy, belief and patience to deliver knowledge.
Amir cautioned us not to be judgmental towards our students and make every child feel very special. Building an emotional bond with each child is important. Amir placed his emphasis on ‘creating good human beings’ at primary school level. This will naturally result into a society that grows up to be a more responsible one, he believes.
Amir signed off by sharing his own dream—‘I have a dream that one day in this country the tide will turn—that parents, educators and society will move away from forcing competitive spirit on innocent young minds and start instilling in them the value of caring for others.’