Hema Subhash – An amputee who carves wings for other PWDs to reach their dreams

An amputee who carves wings for other PWDs to reach their dreams

As much cliché’d as it is – let me begin with the age-old adage – “When life gives you lemons, you go make a lemonade out of it” For.. I am and will be, in dearth of words to explain how Hema Subhash, took the accident that made her an ‘above the knee amputee’ as an opportunity to ‘better the world for herself and others who are physically challenged.’

Our conversation was not an hour-long chat, neither was it an interview of any sorts – it didn’t take her more than a minute to form a camaraderie with me – a friend of a friend – whom she had never seen before. While crafting beauty is a god-gifted talent, spreading the art of finding beauty in everything is her self-made goal – and quite an infectious one at that.

On February 02, 2010, as Hema steps out of a bus, the negligent driver takes off causing Hema to fall and the rear wheels run over her left knee. Unfortunately, the excruciating pain did not make her unconscious as one would imagine or even hope for. She could see her bones and muscles dangling amidst the blood that was gushing out of her leg. While the people around were stuck in trance, she wasn’t..she held onto a person’s leg and begged to be taken to the hospital.

At the hospital, since the condition demanded it, the doctors had to ask her parents to sign the agreement that her leg could be amputated above the knee while she was sedated for the surgery. Her initial moments of recovery were far from being remorse or furious though she did go through each of these in different bouts and different periods. She was happy to be alive and she felt she never valued life or her body more. She remembers her conversation with her brother. “Leg is gone..but I’m here,” she said..somewhere in between the joy of getting the life back and the anxiety of dealing with it sans a limb now. Her brother comforted her and urged her to see this as an ‘opportunity to be stronger’.

“I’m not denying the moments of anxiety, self-pity, remorse, or anger. Even with the driver, I just wished he wasn’t that neglectful and that the system valued the life of the citizens better to be letting him go scot-free like that. He or his peers would not worry about the consequences of their actions as they know the way around the system. We are perceived to be the ‘better off’ in society and we are left with a meagre amount of 8 lakhs after filing the case and fighting for it for years. This is in the civil court. The high court case is still pending, and I could be blamed as by now I don’t see the point in pursuing much.”

“Help poured in from unexpected quarters and I’m grateful to each one of them. Linda – I had no idea that a total stranger could take you from the road and act with such compassion like she was your family forever – which she is now. Mindtree – I had worked with them for hardly 1.5 years at a junior level when this happened and both the Managing Directors – Ashok Soota and Subroto Bagchi came to visit me. It showed that they valued the lives beyond the so-called term of service or designations which is a rarity to find. Subroto even visited my home after I got discharged. They reassured me in every possible way – told me that my job would be safe until I recover and feel good to be back in office and my insurance was doubled.”

Such thoughtfulness in times of distress not just earns respect but inspires people who receive it to pay it forward.

Hema spent the next couple of months in recovery. She did undergo systematic training and had a physical trainer focussing on her fitness and diet. She realized that kind of support is not available in hospitals or elsewhere in India, but when she created that for herself, she knew she benefitted well.

“Each step back to normality was painful and with loads of apprehensions. There were moments when I wished one part of mine hadn’t vanished overnight or even that it appeared miraculously just like it vanished. There were crazy things I thought of like ‘cloning’ my leg or cloning me and taking one leg of mine. I even called up people and checked about it” – she laughs at herself as she says it. Apparently, it is doable – but the law is not in favour.

She was back to work, marriage and childbirth sooner than she would have imagined – of course each with its own perks and pain. While getting back to work for almost a year was a relief, travelling 3-4 hours in Bangalore traffic wasn’t. While it was a blessing to be accepted as is by your boyfriend, the sudden realization that an ‘able-bodied’ person is accepting a ‘not-so-able bodied’ for life, came with its own tensions. While childbirth like for any mother out there was a blissful experience, it brought with it the complications. But these were the first wee steps in her answer to the disaster.

The mishap and the situation could perhaps alter her situation, change her looks and disrupt the way she functioned – but never her plans. In fact, she had more to plan when you would think life gave her a little lesser to plan with.

In the brief period she got to take care of her baby, she realized the need to give others the kind of rehabilitation she went through in whichever ways she can. She kept reading up and searching for similar people and started small with a Facebook/Whatsapp group. “We were just five of us who were amputees and would meet up for a coffee” When they realized that the discussions and getting out as a group together boosted their spirits, they searched for other amputees across Bangalore to form a larger group.

They realized that as a group they had more energy to participate in public gatherings, take all the staring, shed inhibitions and jump right into the act. She slowly started getting contacts and friends and by word of mouth, the group expanded, and they started participating in marathons and cycling events across Bangalore. It is at this point that Hema meets Madhumita Venkataraman who heads the Diversity and Inclusion for Coco-Cola in the South Asia region. One of the earliest members, it was Madhumita’s idea to include people with all kinds of difficulties. This inclusion and wider participation gave way to the formation of a non-profit – OSAAT.

OSAAT (One-Step-At-A-Time) was formed with a vision: Provide systematic rehab programs for the disabled to return to life and facilitate social participation, friendship and inclusion. They had three parts to their program:

1.     Awareness & Advocacy – yoga workshops and disability awareness;

2.     Adapted Art – includes dance and theatre classes culminating in a public performance;

3.     Adapted fitness – swimming camps, marathons, cycling meetup, hiking event etc

In October 2015, they participated as a group in the Bangalore Marathon. It was the first time that in Bangalore, PWDs were participating in a public performance as an organized group.

On March 2016, OSAAT organized its first public event – 10-day free swimming camp.

The PWDs who joined OSAAT were from different walks of life and had different disabilities to cope with – but they all had one thing to say – that OSAAT has helped them come out of their cocoons and inspired them to celebrate the life and the ‘abilities’ they have got despite the disability. As I said, in the beginning, Hema’s zest for life is infectious. It is no wonder that from 5 to 60, OSAAT grew to a non-profit of 150 odd members within a couple of years.

As the accident took away one limb not only did she replace it with such ease and grace, but she carved one ‘wing’ for adventure sports as well! While gardening and mosaic designing is her craft which she parted to some in OSAAT, she got the adrenaline rush from trying things that were meant to be pushing her limits.

She does yoga, cardio and strength training everyday at home and follows a strict diet to be able to maintain herself well. “You have to find time regularly for exercise. Any impairment, you must compensate, otherwise, it leads to further complications, esp with conditions like amputation you tend to be prone to Osteoporosis, joint imbalances, spine dislocation if you do not focus on strength training. As I’ve gone through motherhood and ageing I must stress more on being fit.”

“As an exercise I love swimming and I can’t begin to explain the benefits it brings along. For an amputee, any other physical activity would require aids which would give vertical pressure to the hip-joint. While swimming takes your weight, it requires your muscles to move improving your muscle mass, oxygen intake and providing you with the right amount of cardio. I’ve tried swimming out into the Pacific Ocean – where the waves break, it is the hardest place for anybody to swim and even more if you don’t have two legs to stabilize yourself.”

She goes hiking with her family (5-6kms). Did rock climbing though it was difficult as the prosthetics kept slipping off the holes in the wall. Tried snorkelling twice. Went for Paddleboarding at Missions Bay, San Diego. And…did Sky Diving – in 2016, December – the day after the Disability Day when she jumped with another amputee who was the trainer.

The lemons were sour indeed, but her lemonade took the sweetness from her. If it had touched and inspired me to do things I was plain lazy to do just listening to her, it has transformed the lives of so many people with disabilities and changed the attitude towards disability in India. No twist of fate can amputate that wings she has carved for the many out there that have taken them to heights where all limbs and bones couldn’t take people to.

Nida Haji – Helming the Crusade against Cancer with Humour

Helming the Crusade against Cancer with Humour

The first time I saw Nida, she held her head high and walked in what I would call a ‘tomboy’ fashion, giving everyone an ‘I don’t give a damn’ look. I knew, standing there on the front porch of that office – that her gait and the fire in her eyes came from a storm that was weathered. 

I never asked questions and never heard beyond those two lines “Nida had cancer once”; “Nida had cancer twice”. I knew it would bias my interactions with her and she would hate that. I knew that much about “warriors from a wretched battle” – or so I thought.

She was there on my list when I started this series. And, whenever I came to her name, my ‘deservability’ meter (a term coined by my favourite actor) told me – maybe not now. Then, for my college paper, I went researching ‘grief’. While my bibliography had more than 30 references, I had watched more videos of individuals talking about how they dealt with grief/pain and turned it around to creativity, power, social work etc. I scheduled the call with Nida, imagining that I was ready. But, all those blogs, books, websites and videos of people from different parts of the world- they did not prepare me for the conversation I was about to have with her. 

In 2008, when she was 26, Nida was diagnosed with Bone Tuberculosis. Almost a year later, she found out it was a misdiagnosis, and the actual condition was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer. It is easier to recover during the early stages, but due to the misdiagnosis, cancer had progressed from Stage 1 to Stage 4b (last stage), and doctors informed the family that they thought it was too late for her, and that even a bone marrow transplant would not help. The family insisted on chemotherapy anyway. They started immediately, and after only three months of chemotherapy, in a repeat scan, doctors saw no trace of cancer at all in her body. She was apparently cancer free. It was so unbelievable that her doctors requested her to go to Johns Hopkins in Singapore to cross-check since such a recovery could only be called ‘miraculous’. Johns Hopkins confirmed that Nida was cancer free.  

Her first cancer episode was dealt with her family that included her parents, cousins and friends. At one point, 13 of them moved to a single house wanting to ‘celebrate’ the moments together. Her dad would ask the doctor to let things be transparent so that he could re-write his will accordingly! I bet the poor doc would have been as silenced as I was! Nida wrote out a word document, bequeathing things like her clothes, shoes and car to her siblings. They even split pantry items! Her cousins and friends joked around saying an Aries born can now claim to be a Cancerian too! During the aftermath of chemo, for her exercises, her dad revisited her toddler days and kept encouraging her with small rewards for walking a few hundred steps. Together, the Haji family made this episode of cancer a battle of positivity and humour. When people were talking about the ‘war on cancer’ and fighting cancer, Nida and family laughed their way through it. While doctors researched the potential of different medicines, the Haji family proved the potential of positivity. 

She would schedule her chemo treatments on a Thursday so that she would resume office on Monday. Not working from home or hospital – just in case you imagined it like me. She would travel to office and work, use the stairs as often as possible, instead of the elevator. At one point, she was losing a lot of hair and realised that her mother kept cleaning up behind her quietly, not wanting to upset her. Nida left for work normally that day, stopped by her salon and asked her hair stylist to “chop it all off!”. As she recollected those days, she said – “I never wore a wig. Never felt the need to. Yes, people often stared. I would smile back and think of myself as Sinead O’Connor!”. 

Nida met her husband Farooq in 2009 – the exact puzzle piece to fit the fun-loving Haji family. He nonsensed their wind of caution of the whole cancer episode with vows of ‘together in sickness and health’. Almost a decade, two childbirths, two countries and the second cancer episode later, he truly is the hero in this Shero’s life.

In March 2017, cancer re-visited, this time in the form of Breast Cancer. It is extremely uncommon for cancer to recur in a different form and that too in a person with no genetic traces of it, and for someone only in her 30s- but, we aren’t talking about commonness here!

If you search for the meaning of the word ‘cancer’ among many others, you will find “evil, blight, scourge, plague, rot,”. Nobody would associate anything but negativity.

That’s where Nida writes Herstory – by adding ‘positivity and erasing the plague from the word’. She says, “I was always asked the question – “Are you worried you have cancer?” I would reply – “No. Cancer should be worried; it has me!”. She mocked the disease, resuming work from the very next day of her treatment; sticking to as much of a normal schedule as possible, and giving cancer the same look she gave me in 2015 – “I don’t give a damn”. As much as I know her – she wouldn’t have skipped the “Frankly my dear” part of it either. 

Her second cancer episode once again had her family coming together, this time in the USA. A few months before she found out about the Cancer, Farooq and Nida had moved to the U.S. courtesy of Nida’s promotion at work, but the decision was primarily made for her talented tennis player son – Zizou. 😊 If you didn’t know it already, this is the kid who asked Roger Federer why he was nicknamed the ‘GOAT’ though Switzerland has very less livestock. It wasn’t just the sense of humour he got from his genes, but the passion for sports that runs in Nida’s and Farooq’s blood. Zizou has been playing tennis since the age of 3 and off late has been performing extremely well at the training camps and tournament circuit in the 10 and Under age group. He’s got Federer to make a pinky promise that he would continue till Zizou hits the field to play with him!  

“I never doubted that I would defeat cancer this time around because I had to be around for Zizou’s dream. He can’t turn pro without me cheering in the stands!” Her words just echoed the power of positivity and faith that says when you are passionate about your purpose; nothing can stand in your way.

There is another family Nida owes her strength and confidence to. Her ‘company’ which is true in both the noun form of the organization and the verb form of ‘being with her’ through thick and thin. Tavant Technologies – has always stood by her. Be it simple steps, like allowing the flexibilities she required during difficult times or larger commitments of helping her with her treatment finances; they were truly her ‘company’ through it all. She said with immense pride “each member of the leadership team called me personally and offered me help.” 

Nida joined Tavant in 2005, and she has been with them ever since. Her passion and persistence reflect in her work too. In a span of 12 years (2005 – 2017), she has been promoted six times based on her performance. Cancer, Chemo or Childbirth – she never left the table. A year after Zizou was born, she was promoted to Business Architect. Again, a year after her daughter Inara was born, Nida was promoted to Senior Business Architect. She was fast-tracked to a Director role in 2016. Her contributions to the growth of the company earned her a coveted spot on HousingWire’s “Women of Influence 2017” list. 

If the Haji family and Farooq define her story with humour and positivity, I have one for adorable little Zizou and Inara. “There was cancer whirling at your mother, with tight fists and cruel snarls, but your mom laughed, and cancer crumbled into nothingness. It is said that at any given battle, it is the victors who write ‘herstory’. And guess what? Your mom wrote this one – a story of the relentless pursuit of success with matchless passion. What will your story be?”

Helen McEntee – Minister/Member of Parliament (TD) at 26

MinisterHelenMcentee

I was shocked to hear Helen McEntee’s introduction as the “Minister of State for European Affairs” when she had come to our college. She looked like one of us – well – am too old to be in school – but she looked like the rest of them at college I mean. I was in for the next shock when I heard her speak. She was urging more young people to take up European Union jobs. “Nothing is impossible,” she said – and you could tell that this was someone who has indeed inserted the apostrophes and spaces in that word. 

I walked up to her after the meet, asking for an interview, she said she didn’t carry a card – ‘yea that was quite an expected excuse to elude from a minister!’ – imagine my surprise when she tore off a page from her notepad to write down her phone number! “Cultural Shock” is what I thought I got and then, my ‘Irish’ professor was equally startled to hear that ‘the minister’ texts me! I don’t want to digress much – but I must add this – when she got a few minutes late for the chat-up, she came ‘running’ and ‘apologizing’ all the way! And she walked me till the gate when it was my time to leave. Speaks so much of a person – humility does. “Until you have suffered much in your heart, you cannot learn humility.” – Thaddeus of Vitovnica.

It was touching to hear Helen McEntee’s entry into politics. On Dec 21, 2012, her father, Shane McEntee, took his life couple of days after his 56th birthday – for reasons unknown till date. Helen assisted him for about 3.5 yrs in his role as a ‘Minister of State for Food, Horticulture and Food Safety’. I remember the days following the ‘much predicted’ demise of my father who was 76 – blaming myself for a hundred things out there, wanting to work every minute of the day lest I go mad. I remember thinking that the anger is not going to go without killing me in the process. And I could so relate to her when she said – “I could spend the next 20 years being angry, but it won’t make one bit of difference. He was doing great work, and I wanted to take the baton from there and give his legacy my commitment, merit and ideas.”

Talking about her decision and entry, she said “it would be heart-breaking to see all the causes he worked for, come to nothing. The by-election was in March 2013 – giving me very little time for grieving – I had declared my decision less than four weeks after his death. It was like I had to gear up for moments of strength during the hours of tragedy” She had to campaign, visit the public and convince them of having the abilities to tackle what until then was the domain of people in their late 40s and 50s. She had to prove that her wit, honesty and hard-work will match up for the wisdom of age and years of experience her counterparts had. 

On 27th March 2013, just three months after her Dad’s demise, she was sitting there in the Dáil – making all sorts of trends! She became the first Fine Gael candidate to win a by-election with the party in government since 1975, and she was the youngest female (aged 26) in the Dáil when she was elected. 

But the success at the elections was not a happy ending of a story for her – it was just the beginning. Politics, without doubt, is a domain dominated by the experienced and mostly by men in Ireland as anywhere across the world. At a global level, Ireland ranks 89th for female political representation, with a poorer percentage of women in government than Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and more than 80 others. Within the EU, Ireland ranks 25th out of 27 countries. * Helen’s challenges were multi-fold. “People elect their representatives with a hope that they will voice their opinions. Ireland is the EU’s most youthful country, with over 40% of the population aged under 30. Of the 32nd Dáil’s 158 Deputies, there were just 5 of us under 30. The elected representatives should in ways resonate with the public.”

 “Everything has changed when we are talking about a new generation here – the way they think, communicate and behave. So, while we think it is important to have an ‘experienced’ 50 plus person to represent them, it is equally important to have someone as young as them with whom they can connect better. They should feel they have a say in the government.” 

Since the election in March 2013, she has had the privilege of serving as both, Minister for Mental Health and Older People and more recently as Minister for European Affairs. In her role as Minister for Mental Health and Older People, she chaired the government’s youth mental health task force working group. This was set up to increase awareness of mental health issues among young people and to identify how to best address these problems – continually striking at her goal to empower the young and educate the country better. More recently, since she took up her role as Minister for European Affairs she strongly advocates the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) which is a European Union (EU) student exchange programme established in 1987 to encourage cross-country education within Europe. 

She shuttles between colleges and schools encouraging the Irish youth to have a more active participation in the European Union, be it through studies or work. She focuses on initiatives which will train the young to avoid youth unemployment and promote their involvement in the European Union. 

She has launched the ‘Citizen’s Dialogue on Future of Europe’ – a forum to encourage all citizens to be politically active in the member states in dialogue with the Irish Government. “It is important for the young to be heard from whichever channels they are most active on – that in some ways is the way forward – you cannot stick to legacy mediums. They need to be encouraged to talk, and we should be reciprocating with the latest measures addressing their concerns– we need more of a young and educated workforce at the government to be able to bridge such gaps.” 

From running around and learning what people have learnt in 30 years or more in the system to start serious dialogues with 17-year olds – and managing it all being a woman – she has quite a task at hand. “It is not easy being a woman politician – there are a lot of things I’m grateful for. Paul (Helen’s husband) has an equally busy schedule, and he is very interested in politics. It makes it easier when he can understand and relate to my schedule as I travel crazy – for campaigns – almost fortnightly.”

But, as anybody who loves doing what they are doing – she said – “it’s all worth it. I take a break away every three months where I switch off my mobile and any communication channel and just relax – be it within the home or a home away from home! I come back refreshed and start running again. It is a privilege to be where I am, and as long as I’m honest and hard-working enough to earn the trust people bestow on years of experience, I’m good.”

She may be years younger to me – but she has shown me how resilience could make you rise like a phoenix from agony instead of crumbling to ashes. I don’t think she has to go around talking to the young to inspire them, if they so much as hear her story, struggle and success – that should take them far in their journeys. Every day, every opportunity a gift in itself, if we stay humble and keep striking at our goals it translates into the legacy we leave behind. You’re never too early or too late for that.

Vaishali Kasture – Proving and Pushing for ‘Female is the Future’

Vaishali Kasture – Proving and Pushing for ‘Female is the Future’

Most of the questions or concerns of women in the corporate circle are on the lines of –

How do you manage to create the work-life balance? Does your kid resent you being away? Is your family supportive enough? How did you overcome the societal pressure and step forward with career requirements as opposed to family needs? How do they look at you in office? Is it like how Katherine Johnson had to say in the movie Hidden Figures “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts”?

And, women would like to ask these to the successful women they see. But unfortunately, apart from the generic interviews and personal views that are opined through them, we don’t have access to answers or assurances as much as we would want to. Though there are these ‘open door’ policies we preach and propose to practice, there is this social stigma that the doors for the ‘not yet there’ people are ‘not yet’ open.

Vaishali Kature has probably pointed it out more accurately- “women need role models whom they can touch, feel.” “It is important to show them your vulnerable side, to tell them that you went through the same issues too.”

That was precisely why these words in one of her post inspired me to no ends: (She had posted about her marathon achievements and the learnings therein)

“So what’s the point? For someone like me – who had no athletic capability …I have come a long way. As I discovered and started enjoying running – it made all other aspects of my life richer and more meaningful. It made me a more honest person – I discovered that when you train for a marathon … time is a precious commodity…I stopped spending time on people and things that I didn’t love. It taught me that I have only one life.. and it’s my moral duty to extract the best out of every aspect – family, work and my passions.”

To me, her words project ‘humility, passion and most importantly – what is hard to find – a situation I could relate to coming from someone who is at a height I never dreamed of reaching! It was reassurance at two different levels. Yes, people who have achieved great heights had faced the very same issues I struggled with while they started. Yes, I may be late to start my journey, but ‘late’ is a relative term in each one.

When I wrote to her asking for some time to talk, I half-expected – ‘let me get back to you when I get time’, ‘Maybe later,’ ‘remind me later, please’? But I was admiring her commitment when I saw those emails on agreeing to it, proposing a schedule and being there for the conversation.

Her Story – having reached the zenith of excellence at academics and career, then taking a sabbatical where after trials and errors finding a 3rd dimension to life and eventually excelling at that as well – all at the age of 34.

Her marathon track records are out there; I would like to focus on the ‘work’ and inspiration part of the story. She credits her family and upbringing for having a head start in the career. Academic excellence was always the focus in the family – gender no bias. In her career, she has seen that her biggest male sceptics became her trusted mentors. Because from childhood, she never had the notion that gender could play any role in you reaching your full potential – that confidence in herself got her the confidence from her colleagues and bosses as well.

However, she realised that this was not the case with other women. She saw that women somehow belittle themselves. Either the fear of hurdles stops them from the first step, or in difficulties they don’t trust a man to help them out, and other women don’t step in either.

“Women with family consider it their sole responsibility – to be equally good at work and family. That is the mistake. Relying on a healthy support system and as Sheryll Sandberg says, making your life partner an actual partner is essential for a woman at work. We often underestimate our kids’ resilience and wisdom. I ask my 10-year-old if he wants me to stop work and be with him and he very clearly states to me that he would rather I worked. Coming out of the pre-conceived notions of your potential, the support systems you can summon when in need, your partner’s partnership in the family which eventually extends to each other’s career and your kid’s tolerance levels is important.”

“Also, Technology and flexible operating modes are rolled out to ensure work-life integration for all. The boundaries are blurring – it is about being available for your kid’s annual day and responding to that mail at the same time. I feel 10% of my job is to be the role model women are seeking. I give the time to the women who come to catch up with me. I love the 10-minute conversations I have with them. And only if women step forward to help other women can we tap into the incredible potential that our women workforce possess.”

A gold medallist from JBIMS, Managing Director and Country Head of Experian and someone who ‘experimented’ running at the age of 34 and a decade later has covered an excess of 20,000 km across four continents and ten countries – practically half-way around the equator. Vaishali Kasture’s story is not a Midas touch – but one of grit, perseverance and confidence.     

Success for her is not just about the winning streaks but passing the baton to the other women around her. To empower female founders, Vaishali, along with her friends have formed ‘Sonder Connect’ – a not for profit organization which aims to identify, nurture, and champion high potential women, equipping them with the tools they need to succeed through in-depth mentoring from international experts. Over the last one year, they have mentored over 50 female founders.

It is inspiring to see women succeed. But the actual inspiration that gives you the chisel in your hands and pushes you to carve out that perfect niche you were born for – are women who want other women to succeed! 

Her Story – First Technical Lady Officer in the Indian Airforce

Herstory and Sherotales

“The first six years of my career was for my country” – those words instantly inspired me. My surprise starts from the fact that they came from someone with whom I worked for almost a year in an IT company. Caught in the same old rigmarole of our day jobs, we had discussed anything under the moon but this! For various personal reasons -she said she’d rather not have her identity revealed – so what do we call her? Amelia? The word means ‘Industrious’ and this is one hard working lady!

Before we could start with her story, she said she had a shero whose story must be retold and that was her grandmother’s. In 1992, the Grandma who was in her late sixties, in a remote area in Karnataka saw this ad – ‘Lady Officers for the Indian Airforce’ and had this vision for her granddaughter. She called her granddaughter home to explore this opportunity. We are talking about a lady from the early nineteenth century grooming her 23-year-old granddaughter to enter a job which is known to be male dominated, which was understood to demand fitness levels, grit and commitment irrespective of the clock – those were solely and societally until then – a man’s capabilities. It is with a smile that I listened to this story of the grandma who envisioned not ladle but arms in her granddaughter’s hand.

It is not just the vision that one needs to appreciate, but her grit and persistence. When Amelia came home in a week’s time, Grandma realized that she misplaced the paper in which the ad appeared. She didn’t give up, she went to the municipal council library and searched for the paper with the dates. She then set her nephew to task by asking him to type out the application and was on her toes till it was posted. When Amelia got another engineering job offer from elsewhere, Grandma insisted that she wait for this ‘unique’ opportunity.

Amelia was called to Mysore (Service Selection Board -SSB) for medicals. The participants were in ten thousand and the selection process was for five days. There were personality and intelligence tests and interviews to determine suitability. Some tests were paper based while others involve group tasks or presenting to a panel of assessors. From the thousands of applicants after all the filtering process – there were 25 who were picked – and like her grandmother’s vision – AMELIA was there

True to her grandmother’s confidence and determination, in two weeks’ time, the telegram came from the Indian Airforce – “You have been selected. Instructions to follow.”

Back home, the old lady was prepared – she knew it! She had sourced a list of things that would be required for her granddaughter for the travel to the training center. She ensured that word-to-word of that list was purchased. There was ‘trunk’ mentioned in the list which was debated on by many in the family – a bag or a suitcase would do was the general vote – not for Grandma – she got the exact military trunk that was in the list. ‘

Now starts the Granddaughter’s story. To be one among the 25 who were hand-picked from among the thousands who had applied is a story in itself. The initial training was at Airforce Technical College (AFTC) in Jalahalli. After the induction period where they were introduced to the Airforce world, AMELIA had a 10-month training with a disciplined, chalked out regime. Their day started at 5 a.m. (which essentially means that you should get ready and be at the ground for practice by 5 a.m.) The daily activities included parade, arms drill, aeronautical classes, type training and sports. Dinner was served at 7, and lights were switched off by 10. You could be seen only in your uniform anywhere outside and any lapses or breaking of the rules were met with serious disciplinary action.

A revolution it was, as women were just being inducted into the Indian Airforce. As an officer, she had to excel in her realm, she had to win the confidence and cooperation of her juniors and she had to define a new space for the new gender in the male dominated air force world. At 23, she was about to redefine the workspace and work culture for the men who were aged anywhere between 22 to 55. True, this feat lasted only 6 years for her, but the changes that she and the fellow women brought about in that first batch of ‘lady officers’ inducted into the air force- was about to last for the generations to come. Exemplifying was her duty alone – at least in her camp – there was no women before to look up to – but there will be other women who would step into the space that she manages to define. 

At Pathankot, at the age of 25, she had 100 airmen directly reporting to her. “The Airforce prepares you for these – just that the methods are truly rooted in the ‘best lessons come from the toughest taskmaster’ philosophy of life.” – she said with a smile when asked how did you manage! 😊

Although men in the armed/air forces are the most chivalrous, they were just beginning to see women join the force, it took time for them to stop celebrating women as just the representatives of family life and domesticity and start seeing them as juniors, peers and seniors. There were men of 55 years of age reporting unto the 23-year-old women and couldn’t come to terms with that, there were men who were used to being chivalrous to women and couldn’t order around as they would a normal officer. Every day at work was a struggle to equate the terms ‘Lady Officer’ and ‘Officer’. They had to keep repeating the line “Treat us like officers first and ladies later” until it got etched in the minds of fellow officers.

She had to teach herself that she was an officer first and a lady later. She had met her fiancée at AFTC and they got married in May,94. Soon after, she was sent to Pathankot and her husband to Delhi. Coming from the Maharashtrian Hindu culture and wedded to a Himachal culture, rituals were important, colors were important. But, here she was, 21 days after marriage in the white uniform, sans sindhur, sans mangalsutra or any other trinkets for that matter. Toiling away at work, irrespective of the work hours, coz again, there was this ‘hidden’ task of proving the world that you were not the ‘privileged’ gender. From riding the bike at 2:30 a.m. for guard duty checks, to disciplining airmen on office etiquettes – she never stepped back as a lady, she would tell herself that “I wore the uniform knowing what I’m entitled to.”

The days before and after childbirth were not different either. She joined back after the standard 60 day leave and from the first flight which was at 4:30 a.m. to the last landing at 1:30 a.m., she had to be on the grounds, in uniform. In an age where breast pumps were yet to be invented or popular, it was a tricky business feeding her kid in between this routine leave alone the question of rest or her own care.

With her husband frequently being away on different assignments, she managed the baby with a baby sitter. There were situations like when her baby cut a finger in an accident and she couldn’t leave office abruptly. According to the protocols, leaves had to go through approval cycles. She had to fight for emergency leaves.

As an officer, ‘No’ was not there in her vocabulary. But the fight to do justice to the role of an officer, a wife and a mother caught on. Her husband was already a commissioned officer and her taking it up as well would mean different cities again. In 1998, when she was offered to extend her office for 15 years, she had to bring in the word ‘No’.

She takes pride to have served as one among the first women who stepped into the armed forces and who carved a space not just for themselves but for the women in the years to come. She still stays ready to serve the country in case of an emergency – ‘on my feet from the very next moment’ in her own words. She still gets a big salute from me to have taken the leap and to have strode with pride and perfection- in those six years of her life – a path which cleared the way for many women to follow.

Her Story – Prameela Nair

Her Story Prameela Nair

It is a very common saying that “an arrow can be shot only by pulling it backward”. Often when I come across some incredible/successful people in life – I get a hunch that their climb must not have been easy. There would be a story behind all this glory. A story of small steps, big falls, bounce backs, depressions, and determinations. And often, my intuition would be right.

Prameela Nair was a famous name for me, during my childhood in a remote village in Kerala. I’m talking about a place where all you can see around is paddy fields and ponds. There were very few houses and fewer people who were seriously occupied. You had business men, land owners, real-estate dealers – and the other section of people who were on the field toiling away.

I remember the wind being soft and slow and the life quite laid back during the couple of years I stayed there. One six-year-old came to a group of us and asked if he can see a “CAAA-www” – the US accent was beyond any comprehension for the village folks we were! I then asked around and came to know that this was the son of Prameela who is ‘working’ in the U.S. She had sent the kid home for a break as she was busy with her work routine. I can’t tell you how ridiculous that would sound in a village household in Kerala during the nineties. Some ridiculed, some sighed, and some others wowed like the 13-year-old girl in me. I had not stepped out of the south of India – and here I was hearing of the feats of a lady who lived across the planet.

Now what baffles me and might not yet baffle you is the fact that she wasn’t even a graduate when she left for the US. For all that I know, she didn’t know to speak English! When she landed in New York, in 1994, all of 23 years, she was a college dropout with a 6-month old baby in her hands. She is one example for the adage that goes “it is surmounting difficulties that make heroes sheroes” All the initial hiccups – of not knowing the language, not having any network or an idea to network, not wanting or able to depend on her husband’s salary (as it would hurt her own family’s ego), pushed her further to find her own ways to help her family in India.

After almost a decade later – in 2010 – what I hear is – this lady, from this remote village in Kerala – where a good shop, a decent school or a hospital is yet to arrive – has taken her entire family of two sisters, one brother, mom and the spouses and kids of all the sisters and brother to the United States! The fact is, she filed for all of them in 2000 – so I should say – she was prepared with all of this within the span of 6 years.

Today, she’s employed at the New York State Health Department for more than 15 years and owns her own property in the US. She has earned enough to fund for 3 families (husband, wife & kids) including green cards and air tickets for most of them and their expenses in the US till they settled down – within the span of 10 years. While everybody who heard that she took the entire family ‘Ponnemkunnath’ to the United States wowed at her commitment, I wonder how many knew what she went through to achieve this.

When she started, in the early nineties, her husband had a day job at the local school in New York and they stayed in a basement flat. Realizing that her husband’s salary would barely meet their rent and grocery needs, she started thinking of ways to earn for her own family in India. Her baby was her primary concern. The workaround she decided was to entrust her baby with her husband after he returns from his day job and then begin her job at a grocery store. Which means that she must take care of the baby and her own household chores and cooking till 5 and then go to work from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

At the store, neither did she know English nor was she great at handling cash and conversations with customers as required. So, she had to work arranging and managing the wares on the aisles and racks.

She very fondly recollects about the first 100 dollars she managed to save up with her salary 😊. She sent it to her dad and he distributed one dollar each to one hundred people around. However, she very soon realized that saving up the grocery store money and sending it home will not solve the crisis there. She had to buckle up, she was not sure how.

One random customer suggested that nursing jobs had better income opportunities and she went in search of courses that would help her in that direction. When she realized that studying and working – and a pregnancy on the way – would not give her first born the required attention, she sent him to stay in Kerala with her parents.

Soon after her 6-month course, which she managed to do with her grocery store earnings, she got into a hospital as a Nursing Assistant. Few months into the pregnancy, she would work 16 hours at the hospital, 4 hours at the store and allow herself a ‘4-hours window’ to get home, rest and refresh before the next 24-hours day began.

Every minute counted and paid and took her an inch closer to tick off the bucket list her dad had. She couldn’t, of course, take ‘him’ to the US. But it was his wish to see his family flying and she ensured that she did everything, invest every minute she got, to complete every dot in his wish list. 20 years after her dad’s demise, she tells me this, not with many words, but with the tone of her voice and the tears in her eyes. While I asked her as to how she managed to part with her 2-year-old son for almost a year, how she overcame the trauma she faced with the many other setbacks she faced – all she had to say was – “I had to bring them here and I had to ensure that they do not face the storm as much as I did.” That was the fire that fueled her.

Even today, she continues her routine of 20 hours of work a day. I ask her if the four hours sufficed to give any attention at all to the three children she raised in these years and she tells me that while she got home after her night shift, she would split the four hours and sleep in breaks, to ensure that leaving the kids to school and preparing their lunch boxes were always her responsibility.

I’m not sure if that amount of exertion is healthy.. But I know her smile lights up her face and she’s forever smiling. I know that today while she runs for work, she has her mom, her sister, her niece, to stuff her with the delicacies and love. She has her sons and nephews and brothers in laws to help her at the drop of a hat. And while talking to her – for almost the first time ever – within an hour, I realized that passion and determination can surely make you draw a map for yourself and create a world that is beyond belief.

As I thought of ending this with a quote – I had to do another strikethrough, to indicate that it is not just men but women too who had stories to tell and heights to reach. I hope with every story we live, create and pass on, my son will get to read more of such ‘original’ pearls of wisdom than strikethroughs – “The heights by great men women reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”