Two Roles. One Identity.

Every day, Gauri Sawant’s mother juggles between the household chores, her work in a government-run Day Care Centre, and also ensures that her daughters excel in their academics and extra-curricular activities. She works round the clock from dawn to dusk, leaving no stone unturned.  IMG-20160610-WA0004

After her husband’s sudden death in 2000, she was required to essay the role of both, father and mother, to her then school-going daughters. “It wasn’t very easy for her. Besides looking after the home, she had to also pay all the bills and manage the family’s finances single-handedly,” says Gauri, who completed PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers Fellowship in 2015.

As a part of the year-long fellowship programme facilitated by PUKAR in collaboration with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation and GN Khalsa College, Gauri and her friends dug deeper into the lives of single parents living in Mumbai. “I was already aware of some of the struggles. Through the study, I was overwhelmed to know that not every single parent was sulking or engaging in self-pity,” said the 21-year-old Microbiology graduate, adding, “They had embraced their independence.”

Through a series of interviews with single parents, the group looked at the ways in which single mothers and fathers had responded to divorce, widowhood and the underlying societal pressures. Interestingly, for some women, the independence brought with it freedom from years of domestic violence and dominance. Their study also highlighted the ways in which the single parent revisited existing definitions of parenthood, challenging existing taboos associated with remarriage and divorce. “Some of the single mothers we interviewed said that there were moments that they missed having a companion. However, on account of family pressures, couldn’t give marriage a second chance,” says Gauri.

An interesting dimension of their research was anIMG-20160611-WA0006 interview the group did with an Andheri-based transgender. The transgender was looking after a young boy she had adopted. “But society continues to misunderstand her intentions. People believe that she is taking advantage of the child despite the fact that she was educating and attending to the child’s every need,” adds Gauri.

As a way ahead, Gauri believes that it is critical to become more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of single parents. “It is important to help build their skills in order to make them financially self-sufficient. They need to be able to regain their confidence,” says Gauri. “This could also be backed by counseling sessions to guide them through their grief and societal pressures.”

Here’s to all the single parents, who wonderfully double up as both, mother and father, to their children.


Setting up a new Platform

On a hot sunny afternoon in 2010, in a packed Churchgate-bound local, two commuters replace their white canes with a flute and a little drum as soon as they are on board. Over the next few minutes, as the fast train makes its way through bustling platforms, the visually impaired duo begins to sing old songs and traditional folk numbers. They ask for money in return, but they receive indifferent and annoyed stares instead.

Cut to 2015 — The stage has been set. The banner has been laid out. The guitar, harmonium (referred to as peti) and ektara have been tuned. As the curtains are drawn, a thunderous applause follows. The energy in the room is infectious.

The next few minutes are pure musical bliss- old film songs and traditional folk numbers are performed on stage. Little boys and girls in the audience are thumping their feet to the beats of the dholak.


Switching platforms- from the packed railways to a packed auditorium- was a journey that was steered by a group of young Mumbaikars in September 2012. The group, Swaradhar (meaning ‘with the support of music’ in Marathi), comprising an engineer, lawyer and writer among others, brought together the city’s unseen population: visually challenged musicians performing in local trains. The group got on board the PUKAR ‘Barefoot Researchers for Better Communities’ Fellowship local in June 2014. At the end of a year marked with interviews, focus group discussions and heated debates, the group succeeded in systematically chronicling the life and everyday struggles of the talented musicians.

“The biggest learning from our research was to know that even as the other commuters in the local thought otherwise, none of the musicians thought of themselves as beggars,” says Mayur Pethad, who was a part of the research study. “They were artists, who were using the train as their stage.” The study also highlighted the musical tradition of the families of the performers and their domestic struggles. In several cases, according to the group’s findings, the musicians had been pushed out of their own homes owing to their blindness. Despite the everyday hardships, the group identified that the performers still carried aspirations of making it big in Maximum City.

The research study has opened new vistas for the group. With media attention and appearances in reality television shows, the group has now been able to scale up even its work on ground. While until 2014, Swaradhar performed in just about five shows a year, over the past year, the group has performed in more than 15 events including college festivals, social gatherings and weddings. The highlight of the year was a meeting with Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan, on a reality show.

With more opportunities coming their way, and a more distinct understanding of the struggles, experiences and aspirations of the musicians, Swaradhar is creating a new lifeline for this invisible bunch of Mumbaikars.

From Fellow to Facilitator

Until a year ago, Rajkumari Nimbale was seated on this side of the classroom. She took down notes, raised pointed questions, fought her examination fears, and engaged in mischief as her professor turned his back on the class.

Cut to the present, and the tables have turned.

The blackboard has replaced the notebook; and chalk, her pen. She steers discussions and speaks eloquently as Class 7 and Class 8 students of Sewri Cross Road English Medium School located in central Mumbai listen to her with rapt attention. Rajkumari is a PUKAR alumnus, who has been affiliated with the organization since April 2012. She is currently facilitating discussions on sexual health, violence and menstruation in classrooms as a part of PUKAR’s ‘Journey Towards Dignity’ programme.


She began her journey as a Youth Fellow, undertaking research on a tribal community settled in the outskirts of Mumbai City. Her enthusiasm and passion for research and to social sciences drew her towards pursuing another study on the various facets and practices of masculinity. It was this study that enabled her to identify with PUKAR’s guiding principle, ‘research as a means of advocacy’.

“It was for the first time that I began understanding ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as a sociological concept, and not merely as biological species,” says 23-year-old Rajkumari, who holds a masters degree in endocrinology. She flaunts her self-assured smile when she mentions that she is only the fifth individual from her village in Solapur to have completed masters. “Among the women, I am the first generation learner,” she adds.

For Rajkumari, her study on masculinity opened new avenues and developed her understanding of gender beyond the binaries. Through interactions with the group of young women from Mumbra studying menstrual taboos and hygiene concerns, she became more invested in the various practices of gender. At the end of the year-long fellowship programme in 2014-15, Rajkumari began undergoing rigorous training at the PUKAR office in gender practices by focusing on sexual health, violence and menstruation.

“While addressing teenagers, one cannot speak about sexual health and hygiene in a fully serious manner. There has to be a mix of interactive games, discussions and audio-visual elements,” says Rajkumari, who was guided by another PUKAR alumnus Jayashri. “When it is interactive and fun, the girls begin to talk and share their everyday experiences of abuse, exclusion and habits,” she adds.

In Rajkumari’s case, this transformation from fellow to facilitator brings with it a new set of learning and understanding. “During our introductory class, we had asked the students from the Sewri School to draw any natural object or being, which best described their personality and identity,” recounts Rajkumari. “I was very surprised to see how children drew butterflies, mountains and trees, and shared their reasons.”

With a topic that is often perceived as “sensitive” and “controversial”, Rajkumari has been combating myriad hurdles to make young girls to start conversing about menstruation. “Menstrual taboos are an outcome of cultural and societal norms. There is no scientific rationale,” says Rajkumari. “It becomes all the more important to emphasize on the need to combat these long-accepted myths and practice hygiene during the period,” she adds.

The struggle to overcome myths and age-old customs is no stranger to Rajkumari. “My grandfather had insisted that I be married at the age of 12 years. There was a lot of pressure,” she rues.

Had it not been for the support from her parents, Rajkumari, in all likelihood, would have never made it to either side of the classroom.

Re-exploring the ‘Familiar’

It was in the narrow by-lanes of Baiganwadi slum in Govandi that Sheeba Khan grew up. The old uncles and aunties, vegetable vendors and kirana shop owners had always been familiar.

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Rearing to go: PUKAR alumna Sheeba Khan

But it was probably for the first time in 2010- at the age of 24- Sheeba re-explored this all too familiar neighbourhood with a new lens and a new fix as a PUKAR Barefoot Researcher.

It was in the tapered alleyways of the slum that communal conflicts perpetrated domestic violence. An alarming number of young girls dropped out of schools after their parents didn’t want them to “study too much”.

“I really wanted to do something for my community; for the women in particular. I belong to a very large family, and it was quite a challenge for me to pursue my academics,” says Sheeba, who completed two Fellowship cycles with PUKAR from 2010 to 2012.

Going from lane-to-lane, household-to-household, and family-to-family, Sheeba along with her friends set out to document the various gender-based practices of discrimination in the realm of schooling and education. The reasons were way too many including the overarching notions of bias towards the sons, the fear of not being able to find suitable grooms for daughters, lack of safety besides other infrastructural problems such as absence of sanitation facilities in the school premises. “Even though it has been a few years since we documented our study, our findings and interviews continue to be as relevant. Even today, the young girls continue to fight these everyday battles,” adds Sheeba.

In the Advanced Fellowship Cycle, Sheeba decided to explore the challenges faced by community women, who were a part of an inter-religious marriage.  “For such women, the challenges have always been one too many. Right from convincing their parents to adapting to an all new culture, deciding the identity of their children to fighting orthodoxy and outdated rituals, it has never been easy,” says Sheeba.


The Early Days of Change: Sheeba (centre) with her group from the PUKAR Youth Fellowship Programme 

Crossing one barrier at a time, Sheeba has come a long way through her two fellowship cycles. The skills she honed and the confidence she gained have enabled her to script her own life’s story. She currently works as a supervisor at Niramaya Health Foundation, engaged closely with the anaemia project. “As a catalyst during my fellowship days, my friends’ parents used to send them to the PUKAR office in my name. It took me weeks to convince them,” says Sheeba, adding, “This ability to engage with communities at the ground level has helped me grow into a more confident person.”

As she packs her bag, ready to go back home after a long day at work, she says, “The Fellowship taught me that if you set your mind on doing something, nobody can stop you…”

“…Change will automatically follow,” she adds with a smile.

When the Camera becomes mightier than the Sword

From the poor working conditions in dumping grounds, challenges in obtaining ration cards and the plight of not having a health centre in the neighbourhood- video volunteer Maya Khodve’s camera has helped document people’s voices, experiences and struggles.


PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers met with video volunteer Maya Khodve (standing fourth from left). The session was peppered with insightful discussions, experience sharing and learning.

In a space where the mainstream media has yet to set foot and bring the voices of marginalized locals to the fore, Maya’s effort has helped in pushing the envelope, one video at a time. “The camera is small in size, but is an extremely powerful instrument,” said Maya, while interacting with PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers. The fellows, who are researching the relationship between caste and occupation through the lens of members of the Valmiki community, met Maya at her residence in Nashik. Her life, the youth fellows said, was a textbook.

“She has overcome so many struggles. Right from getting married at a very young age, having to take up a job after her husband suffered from an accident, and then, combating societal threats, Mayaji has never given up,” said Animesh, a second year student of Botany and Zoology at GN Khalsa College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Matunga. “In fact, these experiences only motivated her to continue the onward journey,” added Neha.

Animesh and Neha are a part of the year-long fellowship programme facilitated by PUKAR in conjunction with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation and GN Khalsa College.

In a city like Mumbai, where the mentions of ‘caste’ are rarely heard or where textbooks theorise the existence of caste into four paragraphs without talking about its presence in our everyday lives, the experience of traveling to Nashik and meeting with Maya, the fellows said has been that of both, learning and unlearning.

“When we watched the videos shot by Mayaji, we realized the deep rooted existence of caste in even deciding one’s own occupation. There is only a certain community, which is engaged in manual scavenging,” said Ragini, adding, “Of course, it is not always a choice. There is a larger institution at play.” Of course, it will take several years and collective efforts to put an end to these forms of social exclusion, but Maya’s efforts of documenting and voicing these stories, the fellows believe is a big drop in the larger ocean.

The interaction with Maya also brought with it lessons for the group to work together as a team. The fellows recounted Maya’s experiences of dealing with the more powerful men in her society, who kept objecting to her work. They called her names, threatened her, and did their every bit to make her stop her work. “It would have been really easy for Mayaji to secure a better paying job or work in a bigger city. But even after all these years, she has remained rooted and dealt with every oppressor,” said Sakshi. “This was an important learning for us as a group. Mayaji never made herself a victim of circumstances,” said Reshma, adding, “She was a survivor.”


Links to Maya Khodve’s video volunteering work:



Opening the Little Window

As she stood on Platform Number One at Grant Road Station, little did Anjali Patel know that she would be coming face-to-face with one of her biggest fears.  As a part of the data collection process, Anjali
along with her group members from PUKAR’s Youth Leaders as Changemakers Fellowship programme were on the lookout for fearless respondents.

It was their search for self-identified transgenders, which brought them to a neighbourhood that they had been told, time and again, to steer clear from:


“Since I was a little girl, my parents had warned me about the red light area and how unsafe it was,” says the 19-year-old, adding, “Prostitution was a bad word that none of us had the courage to even

Accompanied by members from the ‘Sunshine’ group, Anjali walked around the streets, conducted interviews in the neighbourhood and documented interviews that she deemed as “bold”.  It was towards the end of the day that the youth fellows from GN Khalsa College, Matunga even found their own little pockets of ‘safety’. “I didn’t tell my parents that I was in Kamathipura, fearing that they would order me to walk out of the fellowship. But this experience was a revelation at so many levels. I felt safe and free,” says Poojarani Pandey, 19, another group member.

For the two Microbiology students, the real challenge did not lie in speaking up in front of an audience at a conference, a meeting or a workshop. It was in fact, much closer to their own realities- their own drawing rooms. “We had previously never initiated any discussions on homosexuality and transgenders. Some of these subjects were even considered taboo by our family,” says Poojarani. “Our questions were answered by our friends,” added Anjali.

However, armed with a research topic on family acceptance of transgenders, the fellows engaged with literature and first-hand experiences of community members. This knowledge gained soon became the little window that they opened even in their own homes. “My father was very uncomfortable when I told him about the selection of the topic. However, with every passing week, he realised that I was becoming more socially aware,” says Poojarani, adding, “…I am less embarrassed to speak about the ideas of sex and gender with my brothers now.”

For Anjali and Poojarani, who refer to themselves as “best friends”, the process was far from simple. But they found their own ways to negotiate their locations. “All our learning through the process of this fellowship was based on a great level of understanding of the subject and the topic. Thus, even when we were discussing the transgenders’ community, we broke it down to sub-communities, and dug deeper to refine our own understanding,” says Poojarani.

In fact, it was this very simplified and sensitive approach that they adopted during the fellowship, which enabled them to involve their family members as well. “Words such as ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are very big and complex words. In order to involve my family, I had to explain these terms as experiences and not just words,” says Anjali. And it is this process, she adds, which has also strengthened her relationship with her mother. Recounting one such experience, Anjali mentions how she pursuaded her mother to watch the play ‘Ek Madhav Baug’, which is based on the relationship between a mother and her son, when she becomes aware of his alternate sexuality. “We had never discussed homosexuality at home for 18 years of my life. It was a different feeling to actually have my mother seated next to me, learning and unlearning with me,” says Anjali.

Her smile speaks louder than her words.

On Board ‘Change Express’

At an impressionable age of 10, Pavan Mishra set foot in Mumbai- the large metropolis, the dream machine. Accompanied by his family, Pavan moved in from Aruha city in Allahabad with bag, baggage, fears and aspirations in tow.

“It was a new life. Back then, I didn’t even have the confidence to freely speak with girls,” says Pavan, 21, who recently completed the PUKAR Youth Leaders as Changemakers Fellowship Programme. His group, comprising students of GN Khalsa College, Matunga studied the challenges faced by single parents in Mumbai. The research as well as his year-long experience of the fellowship facilitated by PUKAR in collaboration with Gunvati J Kapoor Medical Relief Charitable Foundation, Pavan says, were even challenging for him from the word go.

“When I got to know about the fellowship, I actually thought that it was a job,” says Pavan, flashing his dimples. “It was the first interview that I gave and cracked. I was very happy and excited,” he adds. Over the next few weeks, Pavan attended a range of workshops in the office, engaged in discussions and made contributions to ongoing debates. “In the beginning, I used to be very timid and kept to myself. However, as discussions on gender and identity got tabled in the workshop, I started expressing my opinions and experiences,” says the third year Chemistry student.

For someone, who has been born and brought up within a rather patriarchal setting, Pavan says, it has not been easy to replace some of these rituals with his learning from the eight months spent on the field and in PUKAR. For instance, during the course of his fieldwork, Pavan interviewed women, who had been widowed or had divorced their husbands. “Their stories moved me. I was aware of the difficulties faced by single parents,” says Pavan, adding, “However, I was not aware of the gravity of these problems.” He explains how some of the women had to endure taunts of family members and the society, while they were already grappling to get their finances in place.

The biggest learning however, Pavan says, has been the changes in his own interpretations of gender and gender norms. “I come from a society where women are not allowed to work outside the confines of their home. However, I am very certain that the woman I marry will be allowed to study, find a job and remain economically self-sufficient,” says Pavan.

Clearly, for Pavan, the journey on board this Change Express has just begun. “I take tuitions for school-going children in my free time. I have begun to spread the word among them,” says Pavan, adding, “We will make this society one day,” he signs off.