“We have been working on various issues for a long time, we don’t really have expertise on adolescent issues, so we would really like to collaborate with you to work with adolescents at our school”
This was the first conversation we had with the director of Nirmala Deshpande Sansthan, an organization which works in Panipat for more than 25 years. Though people take immense pride in sharing their impact, the amazing work they do and how they are superior even in the social sector, this was the most humble thing we heard because it meant that they are open, they are able to see what’s missing and they want to put in efforts needed to improve the situation.
Sahas as an organization thrives and believes deeply in the collaboration, because the change may begin with one person but sustainability and longevity of change depends on more than one person with the same intention. And that’s what we witnessed right from the moment we reached Panipat. As we settled down at Ram Mohan ji’s home (yes he offered his own home for our stay at Panipat), the conversations were just so fluid-
“Did you see the portrait behind you? Do you know him? And can you guess how old is this painting?” asked Ram Mohan ji
“I don’t know him! Is he important personality? May be some years old” I said without much thought, probably not interested.
And that’s where all the walls, little bit of judgments, and awkwardness melted as he started sharing that the portrait belonged to the famous activist, Urdu poet and writer “Hali Panipati” which is way older than one could imagine (before independence era) , he recited his famous gazals on his ideals of women, nation and Independence. I was taken aback, whatever I presumed about him, he was exactly opposite- I was impressed beyond words because though he is a famous Supreme Court lawyer and director of an organization, his love for books, poetry made me connect to him instantly. This was followed by him explaining the long beautiful history of Panipat beyond the wars which we had read in the history books.
“So, we had this land, we thought to construct rooms so that they can be put on rental, there were lot of laborers here living. I used to come here and see that people fed street dogs with bread crumbs and many a times they left those crumbs. One day I saw few kids took those bread crumbs instead of dogs. This changed something, I started teaching these kids, in the construction area. Initially kids hesitated, but then they started coming. And that’s how we converted that building into the school for the street children most of them come from minority communities like Muslims, Dalits etc . I feel education is a powerful tool of change, it comes from my own personal experience. I am what I am because of education and I am sure these children can reach wherever they want to with this education”
And that’s where our collaboration found its new meaning, because both the organizations started their work from personal connect. For past 2 years we have been working with organization led by inspiring and head strong women, this was our first endeavor with a man leading an the collaborating organization, and unknowingly I end up watching how he conducts himself in his home. And again I was not disappointed, because I could see how Ram Mohan ji and Krishna Kanta ji complemented each other, be it as co-directors of the organization, or how they both had say in the Hali Apna school or at home. They took turns in cooking, when Kanta ji was unwell, he made breakfast, chai and even dinner and interestingly we were not treated as Trainers or guests- it was very fluid and mutual that we ended up helping each other which doesn’t happen so easily!
What I also appreciated that the integrity of values that he spoke about which was quite visible in both his personal and professional life, the way he has brought up his children is an example how one should treat their children specially in a country like India where the parents believe that controlling their child’s life is loving them without giving them the opportunity to fail, rise and make decisions for their own. And this is also visible in the school, where adolescents came up with sharing their personal experience with much ease during our workshops all regards to the space that school has built for them.
The name of the school also has an interesting history, where students engage in “Sarv dharma prayer” they know holy prayers from each religion with the meanings which even the brightest student from a high fi private school wouldn’t be aware of! This is definitely a ray of hope in current times when there is so much hatred going on in the name of religion and caste!
Apart from all the beautiful things, we actually got all support and there was immense sensitivity to our needs for creating safe sharing space for adolescents to engage in the workshops under various thematic! There was lot of curiosity and enthusiasm in both Ram Mohan ji and Kanta ji as they wanted to know what would happen in today’s workshop, or how are the kids responding? Also on the issue itself which facilitated more conversations rather than interference.
For us, this collaboration was way different from all our previous experiences, generally adolescent program needed one and half month since we could do one workshop in one week, here we did 2 workshops in a day; then also in the beginning and between breaks, we get to meet lot of experienced and interesting people who have been in and around this school for long period of time. This helped us to get the perspective around gender issues across generations – that these issues existed before, how they engaged with them in their times and now they find it easy to have more open conversation with younger lot like us.
What was even more interesting was the work relationship that I shared with Ram Mohan ji, we both gelled together on writing a lot, so as soon as the workshops used to get over both of us worked on the write up to be send to press for publishing in the newspaper. There was huge adrenaline rush, considering that I engage in writing blogs, taking my own time to let the stories seep in and then write them other day, here I was writing immediately post workshop pushing myself from my comfort zone challenged by Ram Mohan ji’s brilliance. This connect over writing lead many more conversations and common likings so I remember him saying over Tea, “Both you and my elder daughter are same. She also never say no to Tea, with only one difference that she makes it and you don’t”
And honestly I loved this ease, there was no discomfort probably after a long time I had real conversation with him. On the other hand, Mona and Kanta ji bonded over their love for cooking- they really experimented and fed us with different delicacies. There was co-learning happening at so many level which led us to find a common ground and that actually reflected in our work.
It seemed that our work didn’t end till we sleep as we had numerous late night conversation from work, to volunteers, to organizational structure, to love, marriage, history and politics breaking the barriers and stereotypes that older generations (heart felt apologies to both because both of our lot more younger and vibrant than Me!!) are difficult to talk to.
I won’t mind saying it loud and clear that in these 2 years of work, this collaboration added so much value and knowledge to our work :-) - this is one of the richest experience where we not only gave a piece of ourselves but received so much from them!
Not to forget the way Nirmala Deshpande Sansthan expresses gratitude to the people they engage with- there was an inaugural ceremony where we were felicitated and formally introduced to the adolescent participants along with the entire school and again the closure was beautiful beyond words :-) We were honored with the books which has translations of Hali Panipati's poem (one of my cherished collections now)
It was an experience of intergenerational connect, integrity of values, of co-learning and inspiring each other and of mutual respect! I remember him saying, “Both of you are damn strong! I don’t know where we would have reached with this if either of you would have worked with us”
With smile, I nodded! So I would end this by expressing my deep heart felt gratitude, love and respect to most amazing Ram Mohan ji, Kanta ji, Hali Apna School and Nirmala Deshpande Sansthan for collaborating with us :-)