Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017

I was lucky to be able to visit our learning center this week, even if just for a few days. Though I wasn't there long, I wanted to share briefly my thoughts on where we came from, where we are, and where we're going. Click to read Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017.


You can hear it when you call them
The slight tone of surprise and expected expectation
They birthed those who birthed you

The best part, by far, of my trip to India these past two weeks was how much quality time I got to spend with my grandparents (or "the grandies" as I quite enjoy calling them). I've realized I have this subconscious fear that as I get older, I'm going to become too something -- too modern, too "American," too progressive, too aloof -- to be able to relate to my grandparents anymore. This trip was such beautiful proof that absolutely the opposite is true. Graduating college and living in the working world (albeit for very short a time) has filled me with nothing but admiration and respect for the inspiring careers and lives of strength and courage these incredible humans are living.

Let's start with my Nanaji. He won't approve, but the word that constantly comes to my mind for him and his career is "badass." (Since I know he will look this up and don't want him walking away with the wrong definition, I'm going to say I define that as "distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating" (Random House, Inc.)).

Nanaji decided to tinker with a college career in engineering, and ended up retiring as the Chief Engineer of the Punjab Irrigation Department, shortly after I was born. Then, he decided to benefit from the irrigation and drainage systems he himself had built throughout his career, and retired to his ancestral land in Abohar to run a citrus orchard.

He literally just does this for fun; so he has something to do. I asked him how he learned about farming and he said he had just been exposed to an agricultural lifestyle from a young age and that's how he picked up the vocabulary of the farm...and the technical stuff he learned on the internet. His fancy new sprinkler system for the fields arrived in Abohar the same day I arrived in India -- so I was honored and pleasantly surprised that between the two of us, he chose to receive me!

Nanaji and I got to chat on the long drives from Chandigarh to Ludhiana and between Amritsar and Chandigarh, and I had the privilege of getting to see a few of the sites at which he was stationed at various points in his career. I absolutely adore these drives, and deeply cherish the assorted advice Nanaji always gives me about personal finances, moderation, and trusting in the universe to do its thing.

My Nani is genuinely one of my closest friends. I can't think of anyone else, fluent in the same English-Hindi-Punjabi melange we speak, who so wholeheartedly accepts and appreciates my antics. Whether we are spontaneously breaking into bedroom Bhangra routines, rudely spitting out citrus seeds at the farm, or muttering genuinely irreverent Punjabi commentary about strangers who irk us, we never stop laughing together.

I keep thinking that one of these days I am going to be a good granddaughter and give this queen the pampering she so deserves -- but she never gives me a chance as every morning she wakes me up with my favorite Nescafe drink and a pile of my laundry from the day before that she has decided to wash by hand. Every day. Who even does laundry every day?!

After my adventures in Ludhiana and Amritsar, I returned to Chandigarh and just debriefed with Nani for two hours. I kept trying to flag topics in my head that maybe I couldn't discuss with her or feelings of mine that she wouldn't be able to relate to, but as I continued to run my mouth, I was disproven time and time again.

Despite a knee injury (can relate), Nani carted me around running my frivolous errands until the last hour of my trip, and when I was leaving she said, "I'll miss you so much...starting tomorrow I won't have anyone to do things for!"

My Dadi is a stunning exemplar of strength and independence. She never graduated high school but started from the age of 16 to support my Dadaji in his long and celebrated career as a college professor (whence my passion for education and literature come). Her dream was to one day be the Principal of a primary school. I didn't know of this aspiration until after I asked her to be the President of Gyaan Ghar in 2008, at which point we discovered that coincidentally, this dream had become a reality!

In addition to overseeing the daily operations of this learning center home to 65 students from low-income families, Dadi also serves as Vice President for the local Senior Citizen Welfare Association (advocating for the rights and dignity of the city's senior citizens) and runs the Park Club Society (through which she has been working on transforming junkyards in the region into green urban spaces for upwards of 15 years). So although she lives alone at the age of 77, she is never without something to do, and constantly frequented by adoring community members seeking her counsel.

I skirted around trying to explain what I do at Living Cities with most people on my trip, but with Dadi I decided to go ahead and try it -- within three sentences (clumsily uttered in Hindi, no less) she had grasped our model more quickly than probably anyone I've tried to explain the organization to, including in English. She asked brilliant questions and then started talking about how we need to do more to bridge the intergenerational wealth gap between blacks and whites in America...at which point I was just too blown away to hear anything else she said.

I spent time at the dinner table last week asking Dadi to recite her story and Dadaji's, including all the places they have lived over their lives, which I audio recorded so I can go back and look each place up to document as much of the history and wisdom of my elders as I can.

One of my favorite quotes (by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) begins: “Play with a small child as you played when you were a child. Talk with an elderly person remembering that one day, you will be like them.” In the case of my grandies, all I can do is hope that this is true.