The interview was about to end. We were through most of the questions. And then there was this little something I was drawn to ask. So far, she was comfortable with most of my rather awkward questions so I figured this one shouldn’t be a problem either,
“Has it been rewarding? The continuum of being a mother?”
She has two children, one only two months old and she has been back to work since the four weeks already. Khushboo Solanki Sharma is more than your average work-life balance mother.
“Oh! Yes! Immensely rewarding!” was her immediate answer. As if she was expecting me to have asked it. Getting deeper into the conversation, I ask what it has been like.
“I am thankful to god that I have never faced the kind of problems that my other friends faced during delivering their baby. But I have never let it come in the way of work. Of course motherhood has been an important part of my life, it has made me and shaped me in ways that I couldn’t imagine but it has always been a part of the larger narrative of life”
I take my flip flops off on the cold floor of her office and fold my legs back up onto the sofa. Two hands clasping the center of where my folded legs meet, the body rocking in sync with the neck in affirmative when someone tells me something I really connect to, that’s my listening pose. That’s when I say nothing, that’s when I turn into a sponge, the only goal being absorption.
What until 5 minutes ago looked like the end of a conversation had just lengthened itself for a while. You couldn’t say for how long in such cases, you could only hope it’s long enough for bonding and short enough to remain exciting.
“I was working till the last week even in the case of my first child. The same was the case with my second child. I have gone to client meetings when I was 7 and 8 months pregnant, all the way to Mumbai and Bangalore. My clients would be surprised I was doing that.”
Khushboo runs a design agency and her husband is an entrepreneur trying to build a platform for food discovery. They parallely also own a juice brand with over 5 outlets in Ahmedabad and 1 in Baroda. On contrary to the enterprising kind that they sound, Khushboo tells me how most of her life choices happened by chance.
“Everything comes to me. I never really set goals when I was back in college. There was nothing that came to me as a life plan and when you’re a girl in a Gujarati family, it’s becomes more difficult to set life goals that are independent of your so-called social commitments.”
She joined L&T Infotech soon after her graduation and then worked there for a some years before moving to Ahmedabad with her husband to set up Joules Juices, an outlet for juice lovers. All this while, Khushboo and her husband had both been an independent couple. Never the sort that fell back on their parents for support regarding any risk that they had decided to take for themselves. Which meant that at any given point in time, at least one of them would have to be the breadwinner of the family while the other struggles. This is when Khushboo rose to the occasion and took control of the ship.
“It has never been easy. I have met a lot of people in life who, when presented with a challenge, find ways to escape it, try explaining why it isn’t possible to wane out of the difficulty of having to make an effort.”
“While I was having my first baby, a lot of people came up to me telling me to take it easy, but my slowing down would mean everything would slow down and we weren’t at a stage where we could afford that. So I figured it out.”
“How?” was my immediate question.
“Well, there’s no protocol, you just do. You have 24 hours of your time to make it happen. Everyone has just as much. So you have to stack in more things into it. Reply to emails while talking to people, learning to control your team remotely, learning to trust people with things you don’t even trust yourself with. It all falls in place once you push hard enough”
And she does make sense. Once you throw every other possibility of chickening out, right out the window, you’re left with nothing but to evolve and figure out how you’ll make it through. When impossible is no longer a possibility, the best solution is your only possible outcome.
And I believe this applies to every other aspect of life and entrepreneurship in general. Innovation in itself is a business of the new, and the more connected a society, the higher is its inertia to change. To absolute change, not the change of ordering from Foodpanda to ordering from Zomato, but the change of texting friends about what they’re up to, to simply checking their Facebook profiles. That sort of change takes time and in this time, the universe will present you with all the reasons to stop because this change intimidates you as well. You’re plagued by the same fears as everyone else and true victory lies in addressing these fears, living with them, and having faith in the fact that if you truly believe tomorrow will be brighter, it will be. You can check out what Khushboo’s company is upto right here. I hope we gave you your dose of inspiration for today. We will see you tomorrow!
“You have to take an interview.” the voice on the other side of the phone said. “It’s a guy, Anant, Passing you his contact details and the primary profile”
“Alright”, I said in a slightly distracted tone and hung up. I wasn’t expecting much. I was under the impression that it was yet another bloke looking for publicity through the website and will bore me with an overly subjective diatribe about his work. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise.
On reading and conducting the interview I found out some astounding things about Anant and the way he works. Things that I feel, if not extraordinary, are at the least, amazing and noteworthy. So let’s get started.
The call begins on a fresh Sunday morning. He was in Hong Kong when I first called him.
“So, what do you do Anant?”, is the usual awkward ice breaker I begin with.
He reveals that he is 18 years old and is still in school in Hong Kong. Anant moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was 1 year old. Which meant that he grew up there itself. He, along with his mother, would regularly visit India, to a town near Coimbatore, in the southern parts of the country. The native language there was Tamil and his frequent visits every summer and winter made him pretty fluent with the local tongue.
Practically speaking, he grew up simultaneously at two places. One city has the most number of Rolls-Royce cars per capita and the other barely managed mobile phone connectivity in all places. There was always a stark difference on both sides and that difference, to a large extent led to a very balanced and proactive thinking that he grew up with.
Anant tells me that at an early age, around 13, he started working with CORD (Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development) for developmental activities that were happening in the villages near him. This is when he noticed that there was already a lot of developmental work that was happening in art, education and, healthcare, however, he saw one more pain point.
Due to an increasing influence of automation and machines in the goldsmith and metal working businesses, a lot of men around his village were losing their livelihood and having been labourers in these fields for a really long time, they had nothing else to look forward to. The women, on the other hand, had a very low level of industrial skills which made it difficult for the houses to now find an income.
This is when Anant stepped in. He was 15 when the thought first struck his mind and he started Thuni Seed. Anant runs a cafe back in his school in Hong Kong, providing kids with packaged foods and other items that aren’t directly available at the canteen. The profits out of this cafe are what he uses to fund Thuni Seed.
Thuni Seed is a sort of an angel investor for the cottage industries. They (well as of now it’s just him) provide small initial investments and business consulting for people who are in rural areas and have no idea how to go about the production of products and their sales.
The first business he ever consulted was a saree refurbishing business by a woman who happened to know how to do it. He helped her set up standard processes for quilting the sarees, get the right equipment for it and figure out the sales funnel. These are really small things when you think of it, maybe a few day’s job at the most but for those who have no clue about it, it could change their lives.
Thuni means cloth and Thuni Seed was chosen as a name because the fabric business was the first one that he ever helped set up. That same summer, he helped 2 more business set up, one of them was a cookie making business. The following winter, he set up 6 more.
“How much did it help them?” I ask him, curious to know the impact and along the way, passively ignoring the genuine effort.
“Well, I believe that anything I do can only be considered as helpful if it continues to exist even after I leave. So last winter when I went back, all three businesses were still running and were growing sales, albeit slowly”
It was pretty mature for an 18-year-old to have such objectivity for business. His idea of what needed to be done, what was sustainable and what wasn’t was clear as daylight. This is when I start to wonder. He is 16, lives in Hong Kong which has a pretty high standard of living and being in school would take him farther away from the compulsions of responsibilities. So why does he do this then? Why take the pain to being with?
His answer was simple and yet again, noteworthy,
“I always felt a deep connect with things back home. Yes, it did not have the comforts of an urban life but it had a calmness that I longed for when I was back in the city. People were more content with what they had back here and life was more about finding pleasure in the things that we had than about finding things that would give us pleasure.”
But the road to starting something like Thuni Seed wasn’t smooth. It did take a lot of research, to begin with, a lot of on-ground research for that.
“I started off by learning about microfinance, the volume of money that comes under microfinance, it’s market and, how easy/difficult it is for people in the rural areas to acquire and pay back on a timely basis. I met a woman who was into the business of making incense sticks. I asked her questions, lots and lots of questions. Parallely I kept researching on what others were doing to make such small businesses flourish.”
There was a determination in his voice. When he tells you he worked hard on something, you can believe him that he did. For once in my life, “are you kidding me?” was a legitimate response to some things, and the answer was usually no. “Act your age!” was probably the most frequent scolding he might here along with a slight undertone of concern given how he seems to always be acting 5 years ahead of his age. This is when we get more into the details of the first business that he started.
CORD, the organisation I mentioned before, has a very tight knit community of people in the rural areas. A community that looks after itself. Here he first started working with two women, Kavita and Maheshwari, who he helped set up a saree refurbishing business. He figured out how he could help them. They started with the sourcing of old/used sarees, assembling them, brainstorming their designs, putting them together, figuring out the pricing and, finally exploring and reaching to avenues where they can be sold.
This is when I ask him, didn’t you ever get told off because you were too young to give business suggestions? That’s when he reveals the secret to his success.
“I never tried telling people what to do, I was never instructing them like they do in the business of consulting. I always looked into what their needs were and figured how I could help them in tangible ways. It was always about getting things done.”
Anant one individual you’d love to follow. I am yet to follow up on how this summer break was for Thuni Seed but I am really stoked to see where he reached. Here’s where you can check it out.
It was the dead of night. He slept in his house with a really odd feeling. This wasn’t a normal day for Manan. His mother was at the hospital, taking care of his father who had been admitted because of a sudden illness. Manan had his 12th board prelims two days later. This wasn’t a usual night for the Desais. This isn’t a usual Chaaipani story either.
Manan Desai, the face and the mind behind The Comedy Factory, a small group of people who have taken the urban gujarati comedy scene by a storm, starts his story somewhat like this.
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”@chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]“It all begins with my father’s sperm.”[/inlinetweet]
And then goes on to tell me how his life took shape in the early years. Manan Desai, for those of you who don’t know, is a stand-up comedian. Known for his stoic expressions and amazing comic timing, Manan had been on my radar for a while now. I love comedy, particularly, stand up comedy. So when I saw a bunch of people trying to recharge the Gujarati comedy scene, I just had to go talk to them.
Manan is a fun guy to talk to but the problem is that it’s difficult to tell when he is joking and when he isn’t so this story might, despite my rigorous attempts, have it’s own faux pas, so please do pardon me.
He grew up in a not-so-well-to-do family. They lived in a house that was surrounded by chawls. This meant that their neighbours were uneducated and crass people whose way of life was something no one would want to go to. The house was small, so was his dad’s pay cheque and consequently, the things he could afford. While the father felt it was best to put Manan in a Gujarati medium school, the mother was adamant, he had to go to an English medium school. And this was a really good call. At least for the sake of pulling him out of where they lived and put him in a place where he could surround himself with better people.
This was important for more reasons than one. Manan describes his birth as follows,
“I was born to my mother when she was of the age of 40 and my dad was 45. The doctor said pregnancy at this age is really risky and that there is a chance that the child might be physically handicapped or intellectually challenged. Well obviously the latter was true. Parent teacher meetings were confusing too. People would think I have come with my grandparents which was really not the case. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]Children often have conflicts with their parents but mine were at a whole another level.[/inlinetweet]”
The conversation moves on. His school helped him befriend people from a more financially able background which meant an exposure to a whole new culture. Songs from the west, relatively liberal thoughts and a generally wiser world view helped him look at things differently. While a lot of his peers were into Anu Malik et. al., Manan dared to diverge into Backstreet Boys.
“The first song I ever downloaded off the internet was In the End by Linkin Park”, he recalls.
Well that was a first song for a lot of us. This takes me into the early 2000s nostalgia.
The summer break of 10th class was when Manan scored his first paying job as a cashier at the local cyber cafe. A job that allowed him to download as many songs as he could. He is crazy for music, really crazy. His playlist seems to have the most bizarre tracks of all so I am naturally driven to ask why where it all comes from.
“My father had the nation’s second largest collection of gramophone records! A whole room full of them and more tucked away in boxes that filled all the dead storage. Some of them so rare, people who made them used to come all the way from Bombay looking for a copy of their own work”
“Had?”, was my immediate response. “What happened?”
“It all got stolen” was his smirky response.
He has long seen the irony in it and the smirk is just a manifestation of the same. I don’t think it hurts anymore that it was taken away. Afterall, it wasn’t the most precious of all the things that he lost as a child.
Let me take you back to that cold January morning. The January we started this story from. Scratch back a little, the evening before. Two days to go for the prelim and Manan was spending way too long after movies, playing snake on the then-modern Nokia 1100. His father got angry at him, any father would. But 17 is an age where you begin to get confrontational with your father. He already had a huge generation valley between and the age old conflict to top it off.
One thing led to another and the argument got out of hand. Manan had a habit of leaving his house every time he had a fight with his parents. He would walk off to one of his friend’s places and sometime later his parents would try calling all of them to figure out where he was.
This time, the call wasn’t the usual. Something had happened to his father and he was rushed to the hospital. Manan followed. As the doctors kept a check at his father, he was asked to leave for home. His mother stayed back. This wasn’t a usual night.
“I came back home to sleep. My mother was at the hospital. I got a call in the middle of the night that my dad had gotten a massive heart attack and because the hospital we were keeping him at did not have an ICU, we were transferring him to another hospital. But when they pulled him out of the ambulance on a stretcher, I could see that the pulse monitor wasn’t reading anything”
I could feel his voice slow down a bit. This was a practiced narrative. He must have said this a thousand times now, to everyone who must’ve asked what happened that night. This was the moment his worst fears gave a hint of being true. You tend to remember these things, life plays itself back in quanta of highs and lows.
“They tried giving him electric shocks to revive him but they couldn’t. I lost my father that night.”
The music at the cafe we’re sitting at starts making less sense to me now. It was summer in Ahmedabad but I can feel my back dry up, spine, take a dip, and freeze.
He has his Prelims begin two days later and his mother had an eye surgery planned three days later. None of these things happened. Manan couldn’t give his exams right, failed all five, his mother couldn’t get her surgery done and lost one eye.
“I usually do this joke on my mother in a lot of shows. I say, ‘my mother is partially blind, she cannot see me happy’. Now you know that it’s not a joke.”
I give him a soft smile. I am not sure what the most appropriate response is in such situations. I have never seen a comic sad while he/she is not in character, but I somehow manage to meander my way out of it or maybe he just ignored my social inability to react to what he said, maybe he has ignored too many till now for this to be an exception. In either case, I retreat to my shameful safety and life, as it must, moves on.
“I started hating myself for everything that had happened”, he continues, “I kept telling myself Manan! The only thing that you were supposed to do was to set things right for your family. Do right by them. And you totally messed it up! And there was an overflow of regret, sorrow and detachment. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”chaaipani” suffix=”http://wp.me/p7eOCO-RN”]There were times when my mother and I would just look at each other and start crying. [/inlinetweet]It was the worst phase of my life.”
But comedy conceives itself in the realm where tragedy decides to flourish. He decided that if this is what his father him to do, to study, he would do it. A relentless study schedule followed in the next two months and he scored a healthy 72.5% in his boards.
“This was the first time after second standard that I scored 72.5% at a place. Even I don’t know how I did it, but yeah, I guess grief can push us that far”
After 12th was when he entered college and all the swag started taking form. Manan was always very active in his extra curriculars and college made sure he did it every bit. This is when Radio Mirchi called for auditions and his friends, who saw the talent in him, made sure that he gave one.
Jumpcut to January, 2007. This January isn’t as sad as the last one. At least eventually so. On the 3rd of January 2007, he broke up with his first love. In retrospect it doesn’t even seem relevant but the chain of events is pretty funny so I will keep it in. The 4th of January, he got a call from Radio Mirchi that he was selected for an RJ and that he would be trained for a month to become one.
The very next month, he met Vidya at the training for Radio Mirchi. Now is when the happy music starts to play. Now is when the spring winds start to blow the autumn leaves away and about now would be the time when this story turns around.
“A lot of people who I keep close to myself, are people who I see my father in”, says Manan as we talk more about how he befriended Vidya over a span of one month.
“She was selected for Radio Mirchi Surat and I was selected for Baroda, and the day we were leaving was the day that for the first time in my life, I saw a girl cry for me. That was the first time in my life that I got a warm hug. And I knew something was up.”
This was never a love at first sight. The first thought that both of them probably had when they saw each other for the first time was, “who the hell is the that?”
But things changed, for the better of course. After over 2 years of sadness, dejection, aimlessness and handling a rattled suicidal brain, Manan’s life was finally falling into place. Things that happened after his father passed away weren’t so nice, the devil is in the detail and I wouldn’t confront that devil but I can tell you that it was these 2 years where he decided to distance himself from everything negative in his entire life.
“I was extremely fragile and vulnerable at the time. If there was anything right that I wanted to do, I just had to make sure that I get rid of everything wrong around me, be it friends, family or, habits.”
“I stopped lying, I stopped pretending, I became the most honest, brutal and, on-the-face person I had ever had the chance of knowing and I think that played a huge role in making me what I am today.”
And I think that makes perfect sense. A comedian laughs first on himself and then on the rest of the world. Tragedy is the playground where comedy is born, where it learns to walk, a society however, is where it learns to run, jump and then, fly.
However sad the events in his life might be, they shook him to the core and forced him to rethink the way he wanted to live his life, the way he wanted to look at the world. It made him realize that we have only so much time and that if there is anything that we must do to live a good life, it has to happen now.
“My journey is from being a clown to being a comic”, says Manan as we talk about about how his career in entertainment took shape.
There was always a creative side to him. He was always that one guy you look forward to for cracking up the most hilarious gag. The creativity was always inherent in him. The shock of his father’s death completely changed the organisational or the industrial side of him. His creativity now had a more robust and sorted personality to channel itself through.
His tragedy sure wasn’t his comedy but it turned him into a person who could go on stage and say things with the kind of honesty that would roll you off your chairs. And Vidya continued to be an indispensable part of this journey.
All along after the first time they met, Vidya was the one person who always encouraged him to try new things in life, to push his boundaries and to give him confidence that he could be a better version of himself every next morning.
Manan married her a few years later and then started the chapter of what we all today know of as The Comedy Factory. And here is how it happened, the last leg of the story, at least for now.
“Vidya and I made a to-do list after we got married”, he says while munching on a french fry, “we all make to-do lists after marriage right?”
He looks at me as if asking for an approval. I just shrug my shoulders. I haven’t really been good at making to-do lists. Had I made one, this article would’ve come out earlier.
So, the to-do list, and somewhere on its 7th spot was stand up comedy. After the death of his father, Manan and his mother used to religiously watch The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It used to be their getaway, their little happy place where all they knew was a man talking into a mic, all they heard was a joke, all they felt was happy. This somehow gave him a really close affinity to stand up comedy.
Of course he was well aware and allured by the likes of Russell Peters, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld but this was comedy which had a very personal context. This is where he understood that most of the funny in a joke comes from how relatable it is. Understanding comedy made him like it, drew him towards it.
To top this off, Gujarat lacked a good entertainment scene to begin with. A dry state with the same kind of theatre playing since the last two decades and comedy being treated only as a whimsical outburst of stupidity, it was clear that we needed a revamp. The cities of Gujarat were craving for something that was relevant to the modern day and at the same time relatable. There was a vacuum and they had decided to fill it.
In 2011, they finally decided to do their first show, “I did a one hour set the first time I got up on stage” he explains how it went,
“I sucked. Really, really bad, probably the worst. Out of the 60 minutes that I did, at most, 5 were good.” I was happy he got this hiccup in his first show, many don’t realise it till their last.
“I cried like a kid for 4 days and Vidya kept consoling me that I was good”, he understood that he couldn’t go on stage alone and that he couldn’t be there for too long if he wanted people to find him funny.
What happened later is a story of The Comedy Factory, a team of funny people, who, like any other company, had their own amazing ups, disastrous downs, their fair share of politics, arguments, conflicts and resolutions. But the more important thing is that he found the comedian in him. That he understood exactly what he had to do provided he wanted to even marginally succeed as a comedian. And that’s what matters more than anything else.
The man was made. The structure was in place. What earlier looked like toothpicks was now all iron, the house just needed some paint, some work, some heart and soul put into it and then some age. While wines are the poster boys of all things that get better with age, I will take this man, and present him to you. Not as the funny guy you’ve known him to be, but as a man who decided to get his life back in order. The man who funnelled his frustrations into creativity and that someone you could always count on to bounce back.
They are, as of now, Gujarat’s most subscribed original content creators have an amazing lineup of comics and guest comedians who drop by for an amazing show quite often. It wasn’t easy to get to where they are and it isn’t going to be easy here on. But hey! That’s where the best stories are made right?
Even as we draw to a close, he makes it a point to tell me that whatever he is, he owes it a lot to the people around him. Mostly to the people to are with him, his team at TCF, his wife, his daughter (oh yes they have one and her name is Dhyana), and a little bit to the ones who left, some in good spirit, some not so much, but all of them gave him lessons to keep for a lifetime.
It was getting late. We wrapped the interview in a haste. A lot of stories half finished, a lot of secrets untold, a lot yet to be explained. This story has it’s own small voids, voids of facts and voids of emotions. But we will leave it to that. I will let you fill these voids the way you would want to. Go on, make this story your own. There is a creator in you no matter what you do. Bring that creator out, your life is littered with voids and they voids have an air of inspirations.
In the words of Aldrich Killian’s father,
“Failure is the fog from which we all glimpse triumph.”
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Stand-up comedy is one of those things that I’ve always loved, maybe ever since I was born but never realised I did until it was presented to me in that form. You know what I am talking about. There are always things in life that you love consuming, doing, or just observing, and then one fine day someone walks up to you and says, “Hey! That’s called graphic design” or “Hey! That’s called a user interface” or “hey! That’s stand-up comedy.” I have had such a revelation to all the three examples I quoted. Which meant that my happiness knew no bounds when I realised Zakir Khan had agreed to an interview with Chaaipani.
For a country where, at a point in time, the likes of Russel Peters, and George Carlin formed one end of the comedy spectrum, and Raju Srivastava and Sunil Pal, the other, indigenous, relevant and edgy comedy came at a cost. The cost of living in cities like Delhi and Mumbai where the live comedy scene was well set.
For people like me, dwelling from tier two cities, the YouTube boom of Indian stand-up comedians meant we finally got the content that we had no idea existed. And one of the pioneers of this content creation wave was Zakir Khan. Popular by his recent video of AIB Diwas and the phrase, “sakht launda pighal gaya”.
Zakir is to comedy what a cup of tea is to me. I wouldn’t die without one, I don’t have to like it every time I have it, but I still look forward to it every time it is presented to me. I never say no to a cup of tea, and more so to a Zakir Khan video.
So I took a deeper dive into his life to understand where the comic inspiration came from. Zakir was born and brought up in Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh where his grandfather moved to from Rajasthan. Belonging to a family of musicians, his upbringing made sure his taste in music was not only good but serious. “Ye music log mazeh ke liye bhi sunte hai kya?” (people listen to music for fun too?) was his usual reaction when he saw people enjoying music without knowing what went into making it.
“Music has always been my fallback in times when I had no other way to make money. My dad always told me ye to garebi ke laddu hai (the ability to play music is a poor man’s dessert), in the sense that when nothing would work their way, music would sure be a way to sustain themselves, and that too, pretty easily”
Our conversation makes way into his school days where he tells me that scoring was never really a problem, but he kept changing schools. From a boys school to a co-ed and to the next thereon.
“I was bullied as a child, owing to my complexion and the way I looked. I was a regular subject to verbal jibes and being made fun of quite randomly”
This is when we start talking of a phenomenon called L’esprit de l’Escalier or stairway wit. And I know that term because I have experienced it myself, a lot of times. I am sure you have as well. L’esprit de l’Escalier is the thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late for one. The phrase is used to describe a riposte to an insult, or any witty, clever remark that comes to your mind too late to be useful—when you’re on the “staircase” leaving the scene.
Zakir had so many of these that he eventually developed a wit of his own. A point, I feel was the inception of his creative and comic genius.
“These incidents taught me how to walk out of a situation without disavowing your obvious shortcomings, and how to wear your individuality as a badge and not as a baggage”, he adds to the narrative.
Zakir has a diploma in Sitar and is a college dropout. The answer I get when I ask him what he did academically.
“Yaar college mein rehne ka koi matlab nai tha. Classes hum attend karte nahi the, aur degree ze zyaada apni khwahisho se pyaar tha”
(There was no point of staying in college. I rarely attended classes, and wasn’t really in the zone of wanting to grab a degree. I had other plans for myself and I wanted them to triumph over other things)
Zakir wanted to become a radio producer, a dream that made him move to Delhi to an institute where he learnt the tools of his trade. This is when he recalls the feeling of alienation for the first time in life.
“There is nothing worse than feeling you don’t belong in a place”, he tells me as we talk about what Delhi was like.
Zakir did a radio programming course at ARSL for a year and then moved out in Feb 2009. Having survived Delhi for a year, he moved on to Jaipur for an internship. Ditching college, getting into radio and moving out of his comfort zone wasn’t something his family thought was best for him. Resistance was inevitable, but Zakir loved passion and his family far too much to create any conflict there.
“I stopped taking money from home after I got done in Jaipur. I didn’t have a job, but lied at home that I did.”
He kept doing odd jobs here and there, somehow managing a square meal a day. When he left Jaipur, he didn’t money to pay his landlord but to his astonishing surprise, the landlord just wrote it off, generously asking him if he needed money to travel back.
“I have always had the pleasure of meeting and being close to some of the most amazing people in life. The ones that taught me how add life in my years. The first was my dad and then a long string of amazing human beings followed and I couldn’t be thankful enough”
If you look at Zakir closely, you’d not find the move back to Delhi and the bankrupt determination as a surprise. He always believed in moving on. In the idea of never settling down to one big thing. The tickling idea of “what’s next” ha kept him afoot all his life.
“What’s next after Indore? What’s next after Delhi? What’s next after jaipur? What’s next after this?”
It was always about the next milestone in life, no matter how big the previous one was.
Zakir’s gareebi ke laddu, his Sitar playing skills kept helping him get enough money to get through the month while he lived with his roommate Vishwas in Delhi. It was pretty much like a family, whatever they collectively made, was spent in helping each other survive. This is when he tells me, “is gaadi ko chalate rakhne mein bohot logo ka haath hai” (a lot of people have contributed towards helping me keep going)
“So when people ask me how I am so down to Earth, I usually say bhai option kya hai mere paas?” (Do I even have an option?)
He adds as we talk about how he made it through his initial days. But hard work pays off. Soon he picked up a lot of different fields and started trying his hands at them.
From theatre to radio, to working at AIR, Zakir did everything he possibly could, became everything he could turn into.
“Friends from back home often asked me if I had visited the red fort, or Jantar Mantar or Qutub Minar, but I was never interested in those places. I was more into what the city truly was like. How do the trains work? What do people most look forward to. What do Aunties from Lajpat Nagar talk like? I wasn’t there to explore the city, I was there to exploit it”
This is when the story takes an upturn. In the one year that he did do everything he could, Zakir created so much value that now every company that denied him a job because he was a college dropout came to hire him. The tables had turned. The ball was in his court now.
“I scored an offer letter from every place that had rejected me. I was never going to work there, this was just for the sake of letting them know the cost of undermining talent. I eventually took up a job at HT Radio, a place I had never applied to before”
Vishwas, the Krishna to our Parth, suggested him to try for an open mic in Delhi.
“It was a small event in a cosy cafe in Delhi”
Which is when I asked him, “what was your first original joke?”
He giggles and replies,
“I have been writing jokes ever since I was a kid. Jokes in essence of course. I begin life in a boys school so I a near unlimited stock of tales that could make people roll on the floor, it was only a matter of bringing them out in the right way”
Later, was called to Mumbai as a writer for On Air with AIB, a news comedy show that attempted at giving India’s it’s own Last Week Tonight. Writing for a TV show was rewarding in all ways that one can think of but most importantly, it set the benchmark for the next big thing in his life.
Zakir moved out of Delhi at a time when the comedy scene there was at its optimum. Every show he did would end up in a standing ovation. The fright he had before getting on stage was same in the 100th show as it was in the first. And that served as a catalyst for performing well.
The anatomy of a joke is funny in itself because once the punch is out it no longer holds value. Which is why comedians have few repeating audiences if their jokes are the same, which was quite the opposite in Zakir’s case.
People kept coming no matter how many times I said the same jokes. I could see that the laughter in their eyes was not only because of the joke but also because of who was saying it. They weren’t just the fan of a comedian, what touched them was the honesty, the rustic and grounded feel, the innocence of someone who has completely accepted his individuality and state of things.
But the road to a series of standing ovations was not that simple. There sure were some downs. Quite a few in fact. But there was always this one thing that kept him going. The idea that it’s darkest before the dawn.
“You always look forward to good things happening when nothing is going right and then you take these examples of all the good times, and keep them with you for a time when you’d need them the most. I did just that”
His optimism is infectious if you talk for too long. It was almost 40 minutes into the conversation when this happened and this is when he opens the golden pot to success. Despite being one of the most loved comedians of India, Zakir believes it has nothing to do with talent.
I continue getting a life lesson in humility, hard work, and consistency.
But a story on Zakir would be incomplete if it’s not a story about Zakir and his father. A constant source of inspiration, Zakir’s father is someone he mentioned so many times in our conversation that I felt I should rather dedicate a separate section to him. And since you’re probably reading this on Father’s day, it’ll go with the flow.
I kept telling Zakir that his comedy was more about his honesty than about his jokes. That his jokes were not the center of his genius but his candid moments were. And his father has been more than a mere instructor in making this happen. All through the days when he grew up, his father made him realise that his self-esteem mattered just as much as that of people everyone idolised as gods. That his ability to do what he wanted to do was only limited by the extent of his imagination and that he was a fighter, the kind that never loses.
This father’s day, make sure you remember those sacrifices, those times when they worked a little extra, a little harder, came back to you a little later just so that they could see you a little happier. Not a lot. Just a little. Little enough for you, far more for them, knowing that they put a smile on your face, for one more day today.
Here’s wishing you all a happy father’s day and a short poetry by Zakir, to keep your on your feet, to keep working hard.
As I start writing this story, picking up the proverbial pen, I realize how comfortable it is for me to talk to the people around me because we share a common dialect. Talking to Pallavi Singh, I wondered just how helpful it is to be able to speak in a particular language especially when you’re not a resident of that particular country.
As Nelson Mandela put it,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
I begin by asking her to tell something about herself and she replies with, “I am a misfit, but a misfit who works.”
Pallavi Singh is from Delhi. She graduated in engineering and moved on to pursue psychology in Mumbai. She also has a diploma in French. She comes from a conservative family background where she didn’t have a whole lot of choices as to what she could pursue as a career. Doctor and Engineer, these were according to her parents, surest ways of ensuring safe and continuous income for the foreseeable future.
When Pallavi was 19 she wanted to earn her own pocket money. And there was no provision for a student to earn along with his/her education. Yes, there are internships but they don’t pay as much. She was studying French when she was in the second year of her engineering in Delhi. That is when the thought struck her.
“While studying french, the only time I really used it was in those 2 hours during my class. I felt I would be so much better at it if there was someone who could sit with me and talk to me in french.”
At that point, she realized, what if there were others who felt the same way about Hindi. Pallavi, who had never taught before, at this point, started teaching Hindi in a more comfortable and customized setting. One of her first students was a guy from Africa and his girlfriend. From there on, she never looked back.
Pallavi went on to pursue her masters in psychology from Sophia college in Mumbai. Her parents weren’t happy about her decision to pursue psychology, more so after she had a degree in engineering. She was inclined to study but she didn’t want to leave her engineering midway. She continued teaching even while she was Mumbai. That was her means of living and helped her cover the expenses.
Mumbaikar, this caught my interest.
“Which one do you think is better?”, I asked her before I could move on with the conversation.
“I, of course, enjoyed Mumbai. But it’s not home. It’s never going to be home. It’s such a chaotic place, it shouldn’t function but somehow it does.”
In the course of her journey, Pallavi has taught William Dalrymple(Historian). She contacted him on Facebook to wish him on his birthday, “Hey! Happy Birthday, I would like to have a piece of your cake while teaching you Hindi.”
She tells me that William Dalrymple has been in India since the late 80’s and he already had all the knowledge bank in place. She describes one of her experiences with him.
“Every time he used to visit a restaurant he used to see sabz-bahar and sabz hara bhara on the menu, which made him think sabz meant green.” She used to help him synchronize his ideas with the real world and help him put things into structures.
Pallavi doesn’t follow a flow of conventional coursebooks that are available ironically, a lot of these books are written by foreigners. These books translate a lot of words that aren’t used in informal Hindi usually like Mom and Dad translated to माता पिता. The eliminates these inconsistencies and provides her students with a more ready-to-use Hindi lesson.
She has had the good fortune to interact with a lot of people from various nationalities. She shared stories about a couple of her students.
One of her students from Seattle is here with her fiance and she doesn’t have many instances where she can use Hindi. So she regularly talks to her driver in Hindi about trivia, just as Pallavi wanted during her french diploma.
“One of my students was traveling by auto. Two passerbys stopped to ask for an address and the driver tilted his head and said he didn’t know. So she(my student) explains them the address in Hindi. The look of surprise on her face, she says, was truly rewarding”
Pallavi, who has taught over 500 students now, is already working with American, Spanish, Belgian and Australian consulates. She wants to expand her reach to more consulates and private clients. I presumed since there are so many tourists and foreigners in India, there must be many who help these consulates. But Pallavi clarifies that there are people who teach Hindi not because they want to but because they need to.
“It’s surprising and sometimes depressing but there are very few people who teach Hindi from the perspective of improving communication and not just teaching someone a new set of words and a protocol to use them.”
As I mentioned above, since there are foreigners working in India since ages, it is a little hard to digest that there is no one who has taken this up and taught them in an interesting way. Pallavi tells me that there are academic institutions who teach Hindi, but since people are working, they want it customized to their timings and needs, as opposed to studying the subject in a more conventional manner.
She doesn’t wish to expand and bring aboard other people for now. It’s such a personal skill and involves a lot of interaction, making your students feel comfortable, etc. So it very difficult for her to trust someone else with such a task who wouldn’t hurt the credibility of the work she does, which is why she would love to take it ahead personally as long as she can.
As someone once said, “We are the drivers of our own destinies, or in this case, driving instructors to help others drive so that they can reach theirs.”
This post is a part of Neer, a collaborative project by DCB Bank and Chaaipani to bring out stories of individuals and initiatives that are working hard and smart to save water.
90 lakh farmers have been hit with drought in Maharashtra this year. Over 14,000 villages have been declared drought hit and the toll of suicides keeps rising. Water scarcity isn’t news for Maharashtra anymore; not for people living outside Maharashtra either and there is little reason why I would indulge you in reading a bunch of numbers that go on to say how sorry a state some people are in.
But that’s not what we are talking about today. That’s something we never talk about, but in the race for grabbing eyeballs, we should also not forget to talk about that which is positive. So here is a small story about how one man can also make a big difference.
This year’s drought, as you know, has hit Maharashtra hard. Nasik, though drought prone, has seen such severe drought conditions that people have no water for daily use.
It was at this point that Kunal, working for DCB Bank, thought of taking an initiative to solve this problem. He suggested utilising the Bank’s CSR funds to help nearby villages that face a severe drought problem
Getting approvals from senior management was not difficult, as the situation is extensively documented and highly publicized. However, the challenge was to find water where there was none and find a sustainable method to make it reach the people who needed it the most.
The team zeroed in on the village of Seola, located 16 kilometers away from Nasik city. This 2000 strong village had groundwater as its only source as their local wells had dried up. The government is in constant effort of completing a project that lays an extensive pipeline that can deliver water to all the villages, but it is only half done.
Kunal contacted a nearby private water vendor who had his own logistics arrangements to deliver water. Local vendors normally charge anywhere between 750 to 1200 INR per tanker of water. This translates to enormous costs if incurred on a daily basis. But after some negotiation, cajoling and a mutual concern for those in need convinced the vendor, Mr. Ganpat Sahane to provide the tanker at just 450 INR.
This came as a huge relief. Coupled with the help of gram sevaks like Ravindra Nimba Jadhav and employees from the Bank like Sarang, Robin, Sailesh and, Rahul; the villagers of Seola have been getting 5000 litres of water every day that has helped them get through the summer. The tanker delivers water to a dry well every day that the people then come and use.
The honourable sarpanch of the village, Punjabai Bhoyir and the up-sarpanch, Kalpana Navle were also instrumental in making sure the water reached the people who needed it the most, first.
Though this is not a permanent solution as the CSR funds will get exhausted and the demand per person will go up; it is a small step towards helping the people of Seola. The story just goes to highlight that humanity is bigger than any problem we may face. The constant activity by the Bank in the region also inspired a lot of onlookers and well-to-do individuals to contribute towards the cause.
Several people came forward for the cause and the Gram Panchayat receievd ample help from several sources to solve their problem and can now consider helping nearby villages. The government also noticed the efforts and hard work of the peopleand has quickened its pace of work on the pipeline.
The Bank will continue to provide water to the village for 3-4 days. The villagers have collectively managed to set up their own water supply from a private vendor for a short duration following which the pipeline should be ready. As I talked to Sachin from DCB Bank in Nasik, he told me about how a very simple initiative from one employee brought the whole branch, and later a whole village together, to work after a common cause.
“We are really hoping that the rains will pour anytime in the next two or three days. The weather is changing and the difficulties are short-lived but we genuinely need to work on permanent solutions for these problems.” says Sachin as we talk about what’s next in line.
If you take a closer look at the numbers, 2000 people are surviving on 5000 liters of water every day. This includes cattle and livestock as well; pegging usage of water at 2.5 liters of water per person per day. We live in metros where doctors advise us to drink twice that amount in a day to keep our skin clear and we use close to three times that quantity while taking a hot water shower after a tiring day in our air conditioned offices.
The availability of water is a serious problem. Attempts like these are beautiful and noteworthy; however, they aren’t a permanent solution to the problem of water scarcity. These are the farmers who produce food-grains that we eat each day. Indigenous production of food saves cost versus importing it.
An environment friendly and agriculture oriented urban policy is the only way we have towards making in India empowered, again. So this world environment day, we request you to save a little more, think a little more and care a little more. We have only one planet, let’s preserve it.
If you know of individuals or organisations who are doing their bit to make every drop matter, and who you think have a story that should be told to the world, do write to us on contact(at)chaaipani(dot)com
I get tapped on my shoulder from the back only to be greet by a magnificent woman and her curls. It was the waiting lounge of the Radio Mirchi studio. Now for those of you who’re not from Ahmedabad, I would want to tell you that radio in Ahmedabad is huge. Really huge. And radio mirchi was a pioneer in the space of modern entertainment-focused radio in the city. So much so that I remember back in 2004-05, among the vernacular crowd, Mirchi had become a synonym of radio. Folks would walk up to some and say, “mirchi chaalu karne” can you turn on mirchi? (as in the radio)
And that fascination caught me as well. In a society where newspapers and biased news channels were the only source of information that mattered to the whole country or to the world, radio brought in a city specific infotainment that, in a way, allowed people to not be so worried on running into a heartbreaking news.
The most popular show and also the most important one, is the breakfast show which, a lot of people start their day with, the second one is the evening show during peak traffic hours. However, there is one show that is probably far more difficult to produce because of it’s timing. And that is the 2pm-5pm show. And the woman who makes everyday’s 2-5 worth it is the one we are talking about today.
Ekta Sandhir, born and brought up in Ahmedabad with roots in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh is one girl you don’t want to miss meeting. The voice behind Meethi Mirchi since the last 4 years and a pillar for the radio station she works at, I got a chance to talk to her yesterday.
This story also has layers. The life story of Ekta, and then then the story of Ekta herself. You’ll soon realise why these are important.
Her life began 26 years ago as someone who was so Punjabi at heart that there was an absolute absence of any affiliation towards the Gujarati culture.
“I was a no-gujju person all the way till I got into college. I was so desperate that I kept two non-gujjus as my best friends for 15 years”, is what she says when I ask her how she kept herself company.
Brought up on a healthy diet of love, values and good vibes, Ekta was the always-out-of-class and life-of-the-party kid while in school. College however brought a new use to this chirpy attitude. Organising events and extra curriculars took a center stage and with that came the opportunity to enter the business of voice overs.
“I reached the auditions, went yap yap yap and got selected!”, She bursts into giggles as she says this.
“Little did I know that it was just the first step towards a life changing journey”
Ekta is someone who has never lived a single planned moment in her entire life. Her radio shows are probably the most planned parts of her day which is good because it makes this interview way more interesting than it was already supposed to be.
The series of voice overs took her to the Radio Mirchi RJ hunt, a challenge she took up only with a preconceived notion of being so sure that she would be rejected. That acceptance of loss made sure she had nothing to lose.
“But Radio Mirchi had other plans for me” she says while moving on with the story.
I guess it was the state of having nothing to lose that actually made her win. The Ekta you’d listen to every afternoon isn’t an Ekta that comes on air with a baggage. She never sounds like someone who walks into the studio with a truck load of promises she has to keep. And that makes her fun to listen to.
Being trained by the best of the best in radio was a boon that came along with joining Radio Mirchi.
“I consider myself to be really lucky in that regard. I have always found myself surrounded by the most amazing people and I feel somewhere it’s the people around us that make us who we are and give us the space to explore our true worth”
Talking of people always brings us to family, sometimes in a good light, sometimes not, but always there. I ask her if no one in her family ever asked her to marry and she said,
“My dad once said, pehle jaguar, phir pyaar (first buy a jaguar, then fall in love)” and parallely recalls her mother once telling her over an evening cup of tea, “shaadi jab karni hai, jisse karni” (marry whenever you want to marry, whoever you want to marry)
With such parents, what more could you ask for but a motivation to use the freedom right.
It’s been four years in radio mirchi for her and the Ekta you see now is a very different person compared to the Ekta you would’ve met 4 years ago which is where her layers matter.
The bubbly woman, within her, packs an immense amount of substance and drive. The kind of motivation that brings you to wonder what you have been doing with your life for so long. She grew up with an avid collection of gazals, and Punjabi folk music. Moving houses meant shifting boxes and boxes of old cassettes and late night introspections were always accompanied by soft and scintillating music.
“Mitti se rishta na, bada haseen hai” (my bond with my homeland is amazing), she tells me as we talk more about what growing up was like for her.
“I was always drawn towards sufi and punjabi folk music and that has moulded me in more ways than one. Their love songs were like prayers and their prayers so soothing, you could possibly not find anything better to listen to at times when you’re down. Even today, I watch hours of Zee Zindagi, and listen to so many gazals because they bring me closer to where I feel my home is”
This conversation then takes us back in history. Ekta is almost on auto-pilot right now and I find it best to allow her to roam in those fields of prospective notalgia. Now I know prospective nostalgia is not really a phrase but I have this habit of making phrases up. So prospective nostalgia is the state of mind where you wish things were a certain way, very different from what they are right now, or what they have ever been, and then ponder upon it from a nostalgic perspective.
And her prospective nostalgia is beautiful, funny and, touching all at the same time.
“People go to Switzerland and Bali for honeymoons, I want to go to Pakistan”, is what she says after a good pause.
“That’s what I have told my mother, make sure you get me someone like that because I am going, come what may”
“Why?” was my predictable question.
“Because that’s where my home is.”
She says without the knowledge of where her ancestors migrated from and yet with the candidness of someone who grew up in Lahore. There sure was a contemplation in her voice. A contemplation about what this world holds and yet a determination to find out, no matter what it might be and, an odd garnish of confidence, that it’s going to be the best thing ever.
“I don’t believe in borders. I never have. Especially the India-Pakistan border. Because I have had a really hard time figuring out how the Punjab in Pakistan is different from the Punjab in India, because to be honest, it isn’t.”
And I think this explains her longing for a place she could truly call home.
“Five minutes more if you talk about roots, I will cry”, is what she says when I keep pondering over the idea of pre-partition India and how things were different.
“People often find this silly but my map of India has always been different.”
We slowly make our way back to music. And then back to present day and my conversations go on for a considerably long time about things that you otherwise might not find interesting. But there was one takeaway from Ekta’s story that I personally walked out with. Every minute that you spend interacting with your environment, the people, the things in it, they shape you, they make you and they transform you into another person every single day.
So be conscious of what you surround yourself with, keep your feet on the ground, your dreams in the sky, and your head level to what challenge you’re taking up next.
I hope this story made you feel a little more nostalgic, or a little happier than you already were. We hope to keep serving you such delicacies more frequently.
P.S. This article has two contributors, the first was Saloni Gandhi, who took the interview, and the second interview was taken by your truly. The content, conversations, and interpretations of the individual are a combined effort for both these better-than-thou personalities.
I hook myself up on my desk at 10:53 am in the morning to some good music before I start the first interview of the day with Gunjan. 11:00 am, I call her.
I was told that Gunjan is the brain behind Cossetbox.com, a period subscription box. What this means is that if you’re a woman, Cosset will send you sanitary pads, comfort food items and, and other goodies every month right before your periods begin. Which is a really fun way of sending yourself cute stuff for times that you know you’re going feel stressed in.
But I was in for a surprise. Here’s what happened.
“Where do I start from?”, was her question when I asked her to introduce herself for starters.
“Where were you born?,” I said, to help her out with a point where most things begin from.
“Oh all the way back there?”
“Nothing like getting the whole picture”, I said and allowed her the pause needed to contemplate about where she should begin from.
“So I was born and brought up in Bombay” she begins.
“Where in Bombay?” I interrupt.
“Well that’s not Bombay, that’s Thane”, the arrogant Bombay dweller part of me speaks up. We chuckle, take a moment to appreciate the broken ice and move with the conversation.
The Fathoms: Deeper layers, the sweeter ones.
Born and brought up in Bombay (ahem..Thane), Gunjan is one interesting personality. Working hard, I believe was a part of her DNA. As a young child she took up swimming and took it up in a big way. Thanks to the slightly lenient approach to stories that Chaaipani has, I was able to discover the side of Gunjan that was otherwise buried under layers of everything that happened after her college ended.
“I was a long distance swimmer and I have done pretty well I guess”
She begins her story as we explore more about her swimming accolades. Sprint swimming, the kind that Michael Phelps does and long distance swimming are two sports that require very different skill sets each. Sprinting is all about giving it your 110% percent in those 20 seconds while long distance swimming is something that shakes you to the core testing your stamina, your endurance and your sanity by making you swim for 12 hours straight.
The test of whether you’re fit to be a long distance swimmer starts from an event that happens along the coastline of Mumbai where you start from a point near Ali baug all the way down south to the Gateway of India. A 36 kms stretch covers pretty-much the complete coastline of Mumbai.
She would begin swimming this stretch at 12 in the night and reach the other end early in the morning. And this is just a starter. The Strait of Gibraltar is the answer when I ask her to zero down on the one long distance swim she would always remember for the rest of her life. Oh and by the way, we’re talking about the early and mid 90s here when she was still in school.
“The experience was mesmerising. I saw a turtle the size of a dining table and most of the marine animals wouldn’t bother as you passed by.”
Swimming in the middle of the sea is a far more exciting adventure than just being in a pool is what she explains as a hinge to her passion for long distance swimming.
“So what’s the most difficult part about long distance swimming apart from the physical endurance” I ask, just so I could know her a little more.
“It’s the uncertainty”, is the direct answer as if that was one thing she dreaded about it.
“We had no way of knowing how long we had been swimming, how far we were from the destination or what time it was. All we would have, was a boat ahead of us that would guide us in the direction we had to go to. If the tide would favour us, it would take say, 5 hours to get somewhere, if it didn’t, maybe 7, and if the tide was against us, the swim could be as long as 10 hours and rarely did we know what it was going to be like”
Gunjan is also a trained mountaineer and the receiver of the National Adventure Award, an award given by the Government of India and is only one level below the prestigious Arjuna award which is the highest medal of honor given to a sportsperson in India.
That makes her a person kick-ass enough for people like me to get off of our seats and give our fat filled bodies a little jiggle. Her parents would wake up at 4 in the morning. Her mom would cook her two tiffin to last her through the day, he dad would drop her to the swimming pool then return and then go to the office. She would swim for four hours every morning and then two hours every evening. And listening to her routine made me tired.
“They’re the directors of my life, I am just an actress,” she says explaining how it wasn’t just her who was into swimming, it was the whole family. Now that’s the thing about families, they’re not only a constant source of inspiration and motivation but are also equal stakeholders in whatever we achieve in life.
“Now that I have my own place in Mumbai, I really want to bring all my trophies but they wouldn’t let me. They consider those fruits to be as much theirs as they are mine and I do agree with them on that one”, Gunjan tells me as we make a move to the present day. Oh and before we make the jump to the present day, you might like to know that she participated in a swimming competition in Pune 6 months after the birth of her first child, and came second. What’s your excuse for snoozing the alarm?
The Surface: how everything led to today.
Cosset, Gunjan’s company, is something born out of her personal experiences and pain points. Periods were a difficult thing to deal with as such and the hassle of remembering to stock up sanitary pads well in advance was another headache. To top that was the social taboo that a lot of women face and even if you ignore that, it was an inconvenience for others to run around for your sake.
This is where the idea of a subscription box came in. And Cosset is about designing a whole experience around the purchase of sanitary pads. They also send goodies and comfort foods along with the regular supply that you choose for. Chocolates and cookies that help lift your mood up.
The internet is flooded with PMS and period jokes and as she tells me about the service, I can only wonder why no one did it before because it suddenly sounds like the most obvious business idea.
Cosset is also planning events around the general awareness about menstruation from people who are qualified to talk about it and parallel awareness programs.
As we talk more about what she has been up to, I realise that her early life with sports has taught her lot that she knowingly or unknowingly uses for running her company. The diligence, the discipline, being proactive, the persistence are all qualities that are a gift of her sportsman spirit.
Cosset started taking shape when Gunjan left Mumbai and came to Ahmedabad for a year when her husband was pursuing a year long executive MBA program from IIM-A. Leaving her job behind was a conscious decision she took in the backdrop of the fact that she hadn’t really been able to spend any quality time with her son since he was born. Mommy guilt.
But this move, and her constant interactions with the faculty and the peer group at IIM-A gave her the much-needed perspective to start a business.
Cosset has launched today and if you’re a girl, we encourage you to try it out right away. Actually you’re free to try it out irrespective of your gender but the value for money might vary depending on who you are.
The Take Away: some food for thought you can pack for home.
As we close to the end of the interview, I ask her, “what’s that one thing swimming taught you that you still find useful for your daily life”
She gives it a good long thought, contemplating and sorting the hundreds of lessons she learnt and then gives this very calculated answer,
“Patience. I think it taught be to be patient. Sometimes in life, all that you could really do is continue giving in your 100%. Anything else would be detrimental to your own future. So yes, that would be the one lesson that has helped me through thick and thin for all these years.”
After talking to her, I am now pretty sure I wanted to start training for a triathlon beginning tomorrow. If I do succeed, you’ll read about it right here. If I don’t, I will erase any evidence that I ever tried.
I had received an apology more number of times than I could count for something that wasn’t even her mistake. She was one person I knew had I to talk to no matter how late she was to the meeting.
We rescheduled the call for the evening and I geared up for a walk around the campus. The campus surrounding our office space is really pretty in the evenings when the sun decides to have some mercy.
I was to get on a call with Aradhana Iyer Vohra, an entrepreneur, a mother, a daughter and, most importantly a determined woman. Her story is interesting mainly because of her globe trotting and daring jumps from one field to the other and a fearless approach to the grand scheme of life and all this while caring for two of the most understanding kids you can find.
Her education happened in London after which she worked as a banker and later moved to India with her husband who was starting up a business here. With a parallel and brief stint in Singapore, Aradhana had her fair share of new places and cultures.
In terms of work, she moved from being a front office banker, to a finance manager, to an operations head all the way to now having her own start-up in bio-tech and preventive medicine which makes up for a really bizarre jumps. This got me more interested in how she managed to make the move and what really drew her there.
I move on to ask Aradhana what her company I SHIELD is all about, to get a perspective about the current state of things in her life.
“Very simply put, I SHIELD develops products with a proprietary technology that kills germs* and blocks allergies. Soft surfaces, as in clothes and bed-sheets are some of the most common mediums for infection these days and it’s our goal to provide people with a safer solution.”
Working on some of the most path breaking research on enhanced fabrics and managing a team of such diverse people that come together to make a product like this isn’t the easiest thing to do. And the journey that brought her so far wasn’t a flat road either.
My conversation with Aradhana was circular. There was a fixed time loop that we kept talking about and the more we talked, the more were the number of layers that were revealed. Two, to be precise. The first layer was that of a learning curve. A layer where I realised the effort she put behind getting where she is now.
Her early days as a an advisor were fulfilling as was the city of London and the life of a front end banker but then there was the rest of her life, one that was filled with a healthy dose does of business and hustling.
Layer 1: The Chronology
Aradhana comes from a family of businessmen and stronger businesswomen. Her father and mother collectively handle a sizeable construction and real estate business in Pune. This meant that she had always seen the people closest to her be in control of the things that happened to them. The sweet taste of a devil fruit that entrepreneurship really is, it gives you the enticing sensation of control while ripping you off of every second of sound sleep for at least some time to come. And she had seen it all.
Which is why she happily quit this well placed job when her husband Kaiesh was setting up a business back in homeland. Infact, if you’re a regular reader of Chaaipani, you’d remember the story of Zal Dastur, the founder and operations head for Lucep, a company founded over a drunk phone call. Kaiesh was the co-founder of Lucep and also the reason Aradhana moved back to India.
The move to India and later to Singapore led her to working with a small company that exposed her more to operations core to the functioning of a company and along with it came the first wave of challenges. Settling in wasn’t easy, especially when she had her first child by then. Having a supporting family always helped but more importantly it was the zeal to never settle into a complacent and parasitic lifestyle.
I am puzzled by now. Really puzzled. However passionate she did sound about the things she does now with managing the general direction of the company, I am pushed to ask how someone in hard core accounts and number play ventured into biotech and that too with such a niche on preventing infections.
Layer 2: The Family
This is when the story enters the next layer, family. Let’s understand how. Aradhana and her husband were contemplating moving back to India two years ago and as she was searching for fresh opportunities, she was contacted by the founding team of I SHIELD, to join them as a co-founder and help build teams that could execute the planning and production.
With two kids and a home on her plate, this came as quite a challenge. So what exactly was her motivation to take it up?
“I might sound cliched when I say this but it genuinely was just an attempt at providing our kids with a better world to live in. I always believed that we haven’t inherited this planet from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children. And I SHIELD just gave me a shot at contributing to that cause.”
But then of course, there was the question of family, and that of raising a healthy one.
“However far I go, however comfortable and cared for and well provided my children might be, I will always feel guilty. I think every working mother has this mommy guilt, all the time. A guilt that we don’t care for our children as much as we should.”
But Aradhana did not really face a crisis in terms for handling multiple responsibilities. Immense support from her in-laws and her parents meant that she had more time at her hands to focus on developing her business.
Her family stood as a wall while she battled another front of building a brand. Of course there were sacrifices, rich people have sacrifices too. The volume of sadness is often measured not by how bad a situation is but how far you are from it. I could hear her son walk into the room once or twice, and then quietly leave, which is when she would tell me,
[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”Read: http://chaaipani.com/2016/05/23/aradhana-ishield/”]“My children have a special way of adding joy to my day by randomly disturbing me whenever they feel like.”[/inlinetweet]
I could feel that there was a void, not the hollow kind, not even the “filled with all the wrong things” kind, but the kind that just wishes things were a little different, just a little better. The kind of void you have after being first in class but not having all the marks that were out there, the kind of void you get when you only narrowly defeat an opponent.
There is no sadness, never, but it just somehow lessens your sorrow with a very different shade of skeptical contemplation.
In the process of gathering stories, we meet so many women, day in and day out who have been rejected by the society for choosing their own path and being a circumstantial rebel. We have seen so many dreams shattered because of family responsibilities.
But when we take Aradhana’s story in the backdrop, we realize how even small contributions from the family in terms of moral and functional support go such a long way in helping a woman, or for that matter anyone, follow their dreams.
I say small contributions because both the parents and the in-laws of Aradhana are business owners leading an equally hectic and stressed lifestyle. This just tells us that the society changes one brick at a time. It’s the small but strong decisions that matter the most.
This is when I say, “it would be a blasphemy if I don’t feature your family in your story now”
And here we are. Aradhana’s story is a perfect example of how the right attitude, the right support and the right aspirations can help people around us achieve what they dream of.
With the backdrop of looking for mother’s day stories I was hard pressed to find one which displays the true pursuit of being a mother and does not over saturate you, the reader, with an unnecessary back-patting about how it’s the most difficult job in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore mothers, as they have taken up the feat of giving humanity one more chance at being right. Not all of them succeed, very few do, but that’s beside the point that I am trying to make.
I wanted someone who did not overrate motherhood and yet dignified it in a way that befits her individuality as a woman. I had been talking to Madhvi Kharade to get to know her story on her after I learnt about her beautiful work with HR solutions and a unique 13 module training program.
After our first phone call, her work impressed me more than she did, which was kind of a downer so I called in for a second phone call. This time, I gave myself strict instructions not to talk about her work, however interesting it might be for the geek inside me. And it did payoff. What happened next, has been summed up in the story below.
“I come from a family of really intelligent and supposedly well-qualified people, and you could guess that being an arts graduate wasn’t the most impressive thing to do.”
This hurts, because most of my life was spent thinking dumb kids like me had no future, because that was what I was told. My worldview was consumed by being educated just enough to know what I am taught and told is right but not enough to question what was asserted. And today as I sit across the table or a Skype call, I wonder how people so dull in school made it so big.
Madhavi is someone who faced constant criticism ever since her childhood.
“Sometimes they would only take my sister and my brother to social events, they did not want to face the question of, “aapki beti kya karti hai?” (What does your girl do?)”
Being an arts student in India is difficult, not only because it is difficult to produce tangible value out of art as a profession, that people would understand, but also because society until recently looked down upon them as outcasts. An attitude that cost so many people so many years of their lifetime and this by the way, includes yours truly.
This was also the reason Madhavi got married really early, even before her elder sister, the argument being, “I was an arts student and they felt that I might not get a good groom if I am too late to the party.”
She got married in the first year of her Master’s in Psychiatric Social Work, to a software engineer in Bangalore and her introvert nature added to the pile of social problems she was already dealing with. Bearing a child in the first year of their marriage,did not come as an easy situation to handle but there was a flame that kept her going.
Madhavi never took all the negativity as a something that would let her down. She turned it into motivation and kept pushing, in part with absolute vengeance, in part with faith that she definitely had something in her that made different, if not better, than everyone that ever put her down.
This also meant that her pregnancy came right when she was working on her project in the second year and she painfully recalls the account of how it would happen.
“In the middle of my pregnancy, I would go for a day-long field work and then come back home and cook. No one was concerned about the troubles that I was going through. My husband, just like my parents, was never thought I was someone he could introduce to his friends. We barely ever talked about my life. It was all about what he was up to.”
The passive shaming of character led to a vicious cycle of stress on Madhavi and she lost a lot of weight during her pregnancy. This also meant that her baby, at the time of birth, was underweight. She was stuck in a constant battle with her personal dreams and the measly and limiting expectations that society had from her.
“I would go to field work with a 2-month-old baby, but I never let that put me down. It was more of an inspiration. I did not want him to grow up in a world that I had seen.”
Pushing so hard when she had a husband who was so well placed, also came with its own challenges.
“People would often ask me why I did what I did when I had a husband who made so much money. They would frequently and unapologetically question my passion with the backdrop of making money. But that was never my goal. I wanted to live in a world where people did not have the problems that I did. Where the society was more concerned about what someone could do, than where they came from and that is what kept me going.”
After the completion of her masters, Madhavi did not waste time in moving on. She started working with NGOs in the social awareness sector with a very strong and focused research on depression in middle-aged individuals. With a zeal to work more on middle age depression, she decided to create jobs for people in that space since that was the only way they could get out of the cycle of social shaming. That’s how she got out of it, so it made sense that others could find hope too.
Starting a business meant a lot of challenges, specifically in a space that was already cluttered with a male dominated mindset. Finding her feet was difficult but so was diminishing her determination.
“Looking back, it’s a miracle how I actually started a company. I had no management experience, had no idea what marketing was all about or what business strategy meant. I just jumped.”
She got her first cheque within the first 3 weeks of starting her company.
“That ₹10,000 cheque meant the world to me. It told me that I was valuable to someone and that people would pay me for what I could do. I could see myself no longer being the girl you wouldn’t want to take to a party or wouldn’t want to introduce to your friends. I saw myself as someone who wasn’t merely a product of society but someone who could bring about a change. It was as much a matter of social change as it was about personal growth.”
This was when Madhavi started making monthly strategies. About how much she could afford to spend, how much she expects to earn, what her goals for each month were.
The journey wasn’t so easy here on. Madhavi also got the mandatory dose of people who would not believe in what she wanted to do or her ability to do it. A dose that every entrepreneur gets on their journey to some place they call home.
But now that I think of it, I feel it’s not a bad thing either, it sometimes acts as a filter. A filter for all the people who aren’t passionate enough for what they have set out to do. A filter to remove all the negativity from someone, to leave them with so little introspection space that they could only survive if they had an unwavering strength to do what they want to despite whatever comes their way. I think it’s a sort of next-big-thing churning process.
One of the main reasons she was put down by a lot of mentors, advisors and, investors was that they felt she was a woman and the corporate recruitment required one to travel so frequently that her social burdens would eventually force her to quit. And as we speak, Madhavi has made it her life’s mission to prove them wrong.
“I have been travelling like crazy recently. A lot of times, alone. All over the state and sometimes even to places where I end up getting back home by 2:30 in the night. I am not scared anymore. Because every time I feel like there is something I can’t do, I start seeing faces of people who told me I couldn’t. I start seeing them being proven right because of my inability and that is something I am just not ready to take.”
This when I sort of start getting bored of all the hardships. Not that I think it was easy for her, not even a bit. But it was so constant that my train of thought started wavering,
“Every entrepreneur always has people who put him/her down or don’t believe in their idea. But I am sure there would be people who supported you and stood up for what you wanted to do. Were there any?”, I asked her.
To which she tells me that the only person she ever found to be indirectly supporting her was the Sandbox head back then, Sandbox is where Madhavi and her company Train-DE are incubated.
Train-de is a start-up by Madhavi that focuses on training and development of fresh graduates and professionals to make them more employable in a traditional setup. What’s unique about her is that she has come up with a 13 module training program which makes people more employable in traditional business and helps get them out of the vicious cycle that the current system puts up for them.
“I have built a rapport with people. I always help them out when they need me in terms of career guidance or helping them through their interviews. And every time I put the phone down, I feel I have helped one more person get out of a condition way worse than mine. And honestly, that’s one reward I am always after.”
Madhavi’s business expanded more when she started assigning small-scale recruitment work to women she knew who could work from home. She would get employee requirements, forward these to her network who would have a more close-knit access to a talent pool of people who weren’t directly available on linkedIn for small companies to hire or afford.
As of date Madhavi employs over 35 women in her area alone who work as freelancers for her. “I have seen a significant change in them over the last two months since I started the program. The dull, bored and out of motivation faces have started finding hope that they can also win their own bread and they aren’t really the good-for-nothings that their families tell them”
“The smile on the faces of people who I have helped is the biggest motivating factor for me to keep going despite all the hurdles that I face. It makes me feel that I am not only helping them but bringing about a social change where people feel that they can actually take up challenges that scare them.”
And she is right. Our modern day society, in the name of meritocracy, has become a huge de-motivating factor at a lot of places. It’s a vicious cycle where a bad education system ruins the employability of a lot of the youth who then sit home and are constantly told that they’re not fit for the world. This guilt then internalises and pushes thousands into depression every year. A cycle that only breaks when they get some genuine and resourceful encouragement.
My conversation with Madhavi made me realise that, however bad the crisis might be and whatever may the cost be, true happiness comes to you only when you seek what you love the most and keep pursuing it relentlessly.