Monday, July 23, 2018

Looking for meaningful pastures in life

Kena Shree is the founder of the Manrav Foundation, which works for senior citizens and addresses their needs. Here's her story.


Early starts 
I'm chaos. 
I'm restlessness. 
I'm scars and bruises. 
I'm trials and errors. 
I'm everything but a subversive silence!

That is my small, simple story.

I was born to a family of famous academicians in Allahabad. Thus, when I think of my earliest cradle, what comes to mind is not a baby’s perambulator but a study desk full of randombooks. That is where my father, who was amongst first few pioneering Anthropologists in India and mother, who even today is counted as the most well-read person in the entire gamut of family generations, would lap me during my growing up years. It was a world of storytelling from them that I and my younger sister grew up in.

Right from early childhood, I had a nerdy rebellious instinct in me. Having a knack for inter-disciplinary knowledge, I kept exploring various forms of art. There was always an irrepressible desire to express opinions and thoughts and would not miss any medium to voice my rants. I tried my hands at a bit of this and a dash of that, and at something of everything. In fact, my mother was so horrified to see me handle multiple art forms with ease that she feared I could be perfect at none. Time proved that she was, in a way, right. I still struggle to juggle many musings at the same time.

I got trained in ‘Kathak’, and Indian classical vocal reaching up to ‘Prabhakar’ certification from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, water colour painting, besides  joining ‘dramatics’ at Bal Bhawan at a tender age. This is where my journey in theatre started. Theatre was just the kind of freedom of expression I had been looking for. Sweat, toil and hard work with long hours of script writing, improvisations, play rehearsals, stage setting and even prop making, made me a better and more organised human being.

Meanwhile my school, St Mary’s ConventInter College – Allahabad, nurtured me further to become a literature enthusiast and helped me hone my skills as an orator. During these days, I represented school and my city at various state as well as national level debates and public speaking contests. In the hindsight if you see, it had actually set the stage for me to becoming an argumentative Indian already.

Completing higher studies in Human Resource Management and Development from the University of Allahabad and having cleared UGC NET examination at the same time, I was all set to get into academics. Life had some other plans though. To test the corporate waters in HR, I joined NTPC Limited, a Government of India Maharatna, and it has been thirteen years since without any looking back. I was felicitated with “Meritorious Award” for exemplary performance in the Executive Training by the then Minister of Power, Shri Sushil Kumar Shinde. Eventually, lot of other awards also fell in my kitty, one of the significant mentions is “Outstanding Woman Corporate Director” by FICCI FLO this year in April.

At NTPC, I worked for first five years at a thermal power project located in Unchahar, Raebareli and then moved to Meja Thermal Power Project, a greenfield construction posting for next five years. I moved to the Northern Region Headquarters at Lucknow in May 2015 where I currently work as Senior Manager (HR).

Apart from regular office work, I also contribute as a facilitator, speaker, consultant, trainer and visiting faculty in many prestigious forums, including various Engineering and Management colleges and the IIMs.

Amidst the fan faring of growing up, I met Priyank when I was just fifteen years of age. The common chord of theatre, Hindi kavita and art brought us closer and we gradually got inflicted with the love bug, eventually marrying each other. Our family got bigger with two girls, Kaeya (thirteen years) and Katya (eight years) gracing our love life. 


The birth of Manrav Foundation  
We co-founded ManravFoundation in 2013 endeavouring to take care and help the disowned elderly, aged destitute people, un-cared for widow/ers and victimised seniors.

It owes its genesis to Late Ravi Prasad who envisioned the target in his 70s, arranged the first finance and who wanted to immortalise the love which he and his deceased wife had for philanthropy. Before the wings of dream could take off its due flight, Ravi passed away in the hands of terminal old-age illnesses. During his last hours, the only people who were near his bedside to take care were, again, people as old as he was, his nearest support group. The only ones who held his hands the last time were not his blood kin but helpful strangers. In his last hours, he had set the final stage and passed on his dream to the chosen few who have now taken it upon themselves to work "as far and as much as they can" in creating that little difference in the lives of the elderly around.

The NGO’s struggle has begun. With budget constraints and lack of manpower resources, we have been moving very slowly. Also, our outreach is limited to local region so far.

This year, we plan to expand our team, work on the website, collaborate with other non-profit organisations on similar issues and introduce a cultural community in Manrav where the elderly can work together on creative projects, and pass on to our generation their brilliant repository of experience.

Little time and lots to do!

The journey so far

I could be storytelling an entire night, one after the other, sharing anecdotes that have shaped my life, for there are so many. Stories make up my life. From stories that inspire to those that conspire, from stories for kids to tales for the athirst, from stories that can be penned down to those that be dramatically narrated! I have one for each occasion. But I’ll stick to your blog’s dictum and mention just two conspicuous ones that have impacted my being.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed for a suspicious lump in right breast which was life threatening. Without even having got the time to sit back and ponder over the sudden mishap, I was put through the series of rigorous medical rites. The Head of Oncology at Max Cancer Hospital, Saket, New Delhi asked me to get admitted right away. Mammography, FNAC, MR-M, Core biopsy, all followed one after the other. After a gruesome phase and body ripping apart, the oncologist performed repeated surgeries in consecutive years. Still under follow-up and close observation of the oncologists, I’m glad I had a tete-a-tete with life too close, too soon. I realized that every single day is actually long enough to move one step closer to love and dreams. If it is not now, it shall be never.

At this juncture, I also realise how valuable and worthy life is!  How precious people are! Good life is important but being alive is more important! Be grateful for every breath that you take. For the things you take for granted, someone else is praying for.

The second most impactful part of the life began when I forayed into the world of writing, blogging and storytelling, something that had got deeply ingrained in me during my growing up years. The scene got better when with barely a few write-ups on board up on my blog (www.kenashree.com), readership soared. Feedback, personal letters and appreciation began flowing in not only from the country but from readers abroad. Soon after, I was writing for several prestigious forums like The Huffington Post, Women’s Web, Cox and Kings India, India HR Live, The Times of India and Amar Ujala Kavya. The literati circle was generous enough to count me in and I became an integral part of forums like Lucknow Literature Festival, the Times Lit Fest, TOI Books, The Poetry Club, Tape a Tale, Sanatkada, SahityaAdda, Repertwahr Theatre Fest and other literature and art centres. I am now doing my bit that may be of least significance to the world but which keeps me happier.

In the year 2015, Times of India moved a campaign called “Write India” which was a hunt for 11 next gen authors of the country. The moment I read the prompt by author Ashwin Sanghi, I knew I had a story and character right there. Within 48 hours, I prepared the storyline that finally made the cut through fierce competition. My first moment to global attention! The entry, a short story titled “Cherimoya” got published in the prestigious book at a glitterati ceremony at Times Lit Fest, New Delhi as well as St. Regis in Mumbai, with the book launch by renowned writers like Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian and Amish and the loving TOI team led by Vinita Nangia. One of the takeaways from the campaign was mentoring by a panel of India’s bestselling authors. A year later, another story “A Star in the Dark Sky” made it to Readomania’s book ‘The Twilight’s Children”.

Meanwhile, I have also been exploring the various tenets of storytelling, a lost art, very dear to my heart. From dramatic narrations on stage to telling stories to children in customised workshops, from Hindi protest poetry on streets to Corporate Storytelling in training workshops, and from holding the stage for celebrities (like Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Zeenat Aman, Piyush Mihsra, Zeeshan Ayyub among others) to getting taped for online YouTube storytelling, this is one expanse that brings newness in me with every next performance.

Challenges 

The biggest challenge that I face in day to day life is to juggle with too many tasks at the same time. With working full time as a senior Corporate professional, my duties and responsibilities in the office has grown multiple times. Often, my work day would begin at nine in the morning and end up by ten in the night. Tasks assigned would be sensitive in nature and being people’s manager, it would become even more critical. I would lie if I’d say it never gets on my nerves. 

Yet, I’m not ready to let go of the other musings in life --- writing, storytelling, theatre ---which make me who I am and keeps me happy. This apart, I need to run household errands and play a dutiful mother to two girls who not only need my attentive time but also look upto Priyank and me as panacea to all their problems. In our home, we don’t just play the role of parents or children but as a team working together to help each other reach our goals.

I push forty-eight hours into a day, work beyond my comfort during weekends, and keep pushing my physical and mental limits. I cannot think of a single Sunday in last few years on which I have laid back at leisure or socialised guilt free. I have understood that is the only way how it can work for me! There is no shortcut to hard labour.

Also, with every growth milestone in life, there is a continuous restlessness within oneself to be able to take charge of both the achievements as well as the failures, with humility and grace. No wisdom or competence is good enough if it makes someone feel belittled, in writing, workplace or in personal life. If ever there is a choice between being right or being kind, choose to be kind. And that is one quick and tough revision I remind myself daily!

What drives me to keep going? My rebellious instinct, the insatiable need to question the status quo and inability to cave in to herd following. There are always better and more meaningful pastures in life, only if one is willing enough to look for it.

The lives of senior citizens today

You tapped the issue spot-on. Sadly, in our country, the reality is even worse.

The percentage of the elderly in India has been increasing at multiplying rate in recent years. The share of population over the age of 60 is projected to increase from 8 percent in 2015 to 19 percent in 2050. Undoubtedly, therefore, relatively young India today will turn into a rapidly ageing society in the coming decades. The UNFPA report 2017 mentions that the population 80-plus will grow 700 percent with a predominance of widowed and highly dependent very old women.

To understand why old aged population is a deprived category, we need to understand the fabric of ageing in India. Population ageing is a global phenomenon. However, few inevitable deterrents in their healthy living are:-
  • Income insecurity that comes with old age. The BKPAI survey data indicates that 26 percent of older men and around 60 percent of older women do not have any personal income.
  • Migration of younger working age persons from rural areas leaving the older lot to fare alone in their native place takes a toll on them.
  • Loss of spouse in old age bring in more vulnerability in later years. About one fifth either live alone or only with the spouse and hence have to manage their material and physical needs on their own.
  • With advancing years, the incidence of acute and chronic morbidities increases, and sadly, the cost of the health care during old age appears to be very high.
  • Disability becomes a major concern, seriously limiting functioning in daily life and hence increasing the care-giving burden.
  • Activities of Daily Living (ADL) are the basic tasks of everyday life such as feeding, bathing, dressing, mobility, use of the toilet and continence, where they begin to require assistance.
  • Old, vulnerable and frail persons, dependent on others for their daily needs, are routinely abused, neglected, and exploited. How ironical that the perpetrators are generally family members, relatives, friends, or trusted caregivers!

Having said that, it is unfortunate that developing countries can’t afford a social security system. We do not have a fair economy that can create a social security fund that will take care of the old.

Although government has envisaged several measures like The National Policy for Older Persons (NPOP),Integrated Programme for Older Persons (IPOP), National Programme for the Health Care of the Elderly (NPHCE), National Old Age Pension schemes and Annapurna scheme, special tax and railway concessions, how far are the senior citizens are aware of them and actually use them is the big question.

We do a lot of talking, have a blueprint with us, and even present statistical reports year after year but little has been put to determine the outreach of such measures, let alone, their fruitful implementation.There are ignorable checks and balances and almost no follow-up of the programmes’reachability to individuals, especially with the low literacy rate in India.

The functioning and conditions of old age homes are abysmal.Rampant cases of elderly neglect, abandonment and abuse go unreported as a result of poor social and community support systems.

Despite the CSR policy as a mandate, we also have not been able to leverage the power and pockets of corporate sector in this area.

I feel youth empowerment is seen as an asset. What is put in towards nurturing the youth is seen as potential to reap results in future in the building of country’s smart workforce. It is where both, the glamour quotient and measurable tangibles lie. On the contrary, geriatric care is seen as just a coping mechanism for a minor section of the society and to put it harshly, a liability which may not yield as much tangible or presentable results. Unless the government or non profit organisations put in their best foot forward, it is unlikely that senior citizens would get their due attention.

How can we make a difference? 
The moment you conceive a thought like this, a helping hand has just started with a snowball effect.
We understand that in the fast moving and fiercely competitive world, it is difficult to take out time for a cause like this. I will not even judge the will or intention of anyone not being able to extend a helping hand. It is tough to cope with one’s own complications, how and why must we even expect them to foray into an even more complicated zone?
Yet there are simple ways, small changes in our lifestyle, that could actually go a big way to help the elderly in our community. It could be as easy as taking a daily bath. Here is what you could do to support the elders around you:
  • Prepare a directory of important phone numbers, like nearby clinics, hospitals, ambulance, police, fire, plumber, electrician, etc. and pin up in the room of the elderly at an accessible place. Simple, isn’t it? But you could actually be helping them in a big way by just doing this.
  • Just once in a month, schedule a coffee session with them. Listen to what they have to say, their stories, concerns;Share yours and that’s it! You would have shared with them a camaraderie they were long waiting for.
  • Stop by and visit even if it is for a few minutes. You will be surprised at what difference it would make in their day.
  • Check on them when the weather is bad.
  • Pick medications for them.
  • Make an emergency pack and keep with them.
  • Offer to join them in their shopping spree. Or play board games with them.
  • And most importantly, if you learn about any senior citizen abuse or harassment, connect them right away to the statutory body concerned, Elderly self-help groups (ESHGs) or an NGO working in this area. 
  • Be aware and make them aware!


If you want to go one step further, consider these:-
  • Adopt a grandparent. An old rickshawala, a houemaid, a nanny, an old school teacher or someone from the neighbourhood. How lovely is it to be having more grandparents around!
  • Organise a community activity for them.
  • Volunteer at an old age home or geriatric care centre. Just invest your time in a planned manner.

Little things that one can do would actually get them a day’s smile. What can be more fulfilling!

If you know someone senior who needs help, connect them to us at Manrav Foundation (manrav.ngo@gmail.com) or to any of the forums listed here as a one-stop helping guide -
Agewell Foundation
Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI)
The Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology (CMIG)
EkalNari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) working for the welfare of widows and single women
HelpAge India
The Guild for Service, an NGO
The Sishrusha Health Management Trust
The International Longevity Centre-India (ILC-I)
Dementia and active ageing initiatives of Nightingale Medical Trust (NMT), Bangalore
Janaseva Foundation
Silver Innings (SI) is a for-profit social enterprise
Sulabh International’s working with the widows of Vrindavan