Friday, August 31, 2012

One family at a time we can reach and change India and the world

[caption id="attachment_16272" align="alignright" width="264"] The Spirit of Compassion by Raynor Hoff (1894–1937)[/caption]

Sweta Srivastava Vikram — Times and attitudes have changed drastically over the past couple of decades, along with burgeoning numbers of the wealthy, amongst Indians. Research and lifestyle trends show that my generation, people in their thirties and forties, are earning and spending a lot more than when our parents were our age. So, if we, the younger crop of Indians, have more disposable income, even if relatively, how are we spending it? Is it just on ourselves or are we striving to make a difference in the society? Is there a strong commitment to “giving back?”

In February 2000, New York Times published an article Return Passage to India: Emigres Pay Backwhich spoke about how wealthy Indian entrepreneurs, who enjoyed the technology boom in America, carried over the American charitable giving habits to India. They gave back to the country (and its institutions) that groomed them for their success in the United States. But despite the article in the New York Times, I have heard many complain that they don’t trust NGOs and organizations back in India—because of lack of transparency and other reasons—and feel unsure about the right avenues to give back. Fair enough.

I am no one to judge which cause is worthier—environmental, reduction in poverty, fighting diseases, empowering women, working towards children’s education versus funding elite institutions or big, cultural organizations, or organizing fund-raising dinners for congressmen; or what the preferred methods of donations are for donors. But I do think identifying a cause is important or else we might spend eternity waiting for that “one” to catch our eye.

Instead of trying to make momentous changes, we could start small. Charity could mean assisting someone who needs our help – identifying a need in our personal universe and acting upon it. Helping that one person who lacks the ability to provide the basics for himself/herself or their families. Philanthropy could mean building and supporting an individual’s dream.

For the purposes of one family at a time concept, the cliché, “Charity begins at home,” is worth considering. My mother’s sister (mausi) passed away three years ago. A few months after her demise, I made a trip to India to visit my mausa (mausi’s husband). I was prepared that this meeting was going to be emotionally difficult. Everything in his house looked the same from when my mausi was alive; just my mausi wasn’t physically present.

That evening, my mausa’s driver, Surinder, opened the door of the car for me. I have known Surinder from the time I was a kid, but I hadn’t seen him in a while. I conceded that a decade later too he looked the same: calm, loyal, grateful, humble, and diligent. But most importantly, he had this content energy about him.

Soon after he left, I asked mausa what was happening with Surinder. And if there was a reason for the indomitable glow on his face. That’s when my mausa shared that it was parental-pride showing on his driver’s face. The gratification brought about by Surinder’s son, Avkash.

Avkash, a bright child, always got good grades. But this young man was brought up in a low-income household with very modest means. To ensure he stayed in school and didn’t keep bad company, my mausi and mausa started to encourage Avkash really early on in his life. They promised him that if he did well in his entrance exams and secured admission in any engineering college, as it was Avkash's dream to become an engineer, they would bear the expenses of his education.

Time went by and Avkash grew more focused. Eventually he was old enough to take his Class XIIth exams followed by the ones for engineering. As expected, he did well on his entrance tests and was offered a seat in an engineering college. Avkash, with his elephant memory, didn’t forget my mausi-mausa’s promise. He uninhibitedly reminded my mausa of his monetary-commitment.

Mausa funded Avkash’s engineering studies and made available necessary tools like laptops and expensive books. But Avakash’s struggles didn’t end there. He grew up speaking no English, as is common in many low-income households in India where the kids study in regional medium schools. My cousin, Anisha, taught him the new, global language, so Avkash wasn’t lost in the real, professional world.

After Avkash graduated from college, it was time for him to put his education to use. My mausa’s son and my cousin brother, Vikash verma, the CEO of Bay Area-based Stokes, an advanced network technology company, hired Avkash for a job opening in Bangalore. The company flew Avkash down to Bangalore for the interview. This was the first time Avkash sat on a plane, wore a seatbelt, or used a washroom while in the air. But to his credit, he was unfettered. His humility shone through his bones as Anisha taught him social etiquettes and bought him a separate wardrobe for his office. Avkash readily learnt English and the bedside manners for office environment. The father-daughter played a key role in Avkash gaining confidence and realizing his dream. But Avkash too gave it a 500% when it came to dedication and effort.

When I asked Vikash how Avkash was able to cope up with the corporate world, he said, “Avkash has settled in well, is making recognizable contribution, and is making up whatever he has lacked in domain knowledge with sheer hard work. A good example is a recent episode where he slept at the office for three days at a critical stage of an important project.”

But before the conversation ended, Vikash emphasized, “The most important part of the story is that this young man has singlehandedly changed the fortunes of his entire family. The financial situation of his family; the prestige within their social circles; and the impact on other important events like his younger sister’s marriage have all likely changed for the better. It is his father’s dedication for 40 years that made it happen.”

Is it fair to say that even if all of us do not get the opportunity to bring about large scale changes on our own, like the Bill & Melinda Gates of the world, we could still make a significant difference to one human's life? Reach out to one family at a time and fulfill their dreams.

About the Author

Sweta Srivastava Vikram ( is an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, blogger, and educator whose musings have translated into four chapbooks and two collaborative collections of poetry; a novel, and an upcoming nonfiction book & a full-length collection of poems. Her scribbles have also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and online publications. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in NYC and teaches creative writing workshops across the globe.