The star of her own story

Zainab Cutlerywala, an ex-fellow, and mentor, pens down the story of her journey with PUKAR, beautifully articulating how she assumed new roles along the way and painting a vivid picture of the transformation in her life and the way she sees it. 

A daydreamer,

A nocturnal worker,

A small-town girl in the magnum opus called Mumbai,

A dietician,

A barefoot researcher,

Or a fellow, who is trying to make democracy work better by assisting the municipal corporator in asking the right questions.

I am Zainab Cutlerywala and I have never had a perfect introduction because it’s always changing.

But the one thing that has remained constant in my life is research, it’s a habit I picked up from my 2 years of formal involvement and years of ongoing informal engagement with PUKAR.

I still remember the time Dr. Mala Pandurang, Vice Principal of Dr. BMN College, my alma mater, pushed me to enrol for PUKAR’s Barefoot Researcher Fellowship Programme. I am so glad I took that leap. This journey has played an instrumental role in who I am today.

If I were an actor, then my journey would be one long play, where my role has changed through the years.

From only a speaker to also a listener

During the youth fellowship program, the most important transformation in me was the improvement of my listening skills. While a good speaker needs to be confident, have a command on the language and good delivery, a good listener must pay attention, be patient and have a sponge-like readiness to absorb what the other person is saying.

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From pure inquisitiveness to a deeper self-exploration

Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”.

Before the fellowship, I had never sat and thought about my life the way I did during my residential orientation programme. Each one of us was made to write our autobiography. I don’t think it had crossed our minds: it was so important to know yourself in order to find out what you wanted to know. Learning about myself informed my curiosity about the world.

There is a fine line between being straightforward and being rude, speaking your mind, and implying what you think is right. I would often get defensive when people didn’t agree with my point of view, but even that has changed. I have learned to accept that I can not always be right and there are multiple ways of looking at every situation. I have now put forth my point of view as exactly that; I always say, “Mujhe aisa lagta hai…” (This is what I think).

From living by a structural method to accepting and valuing an interactive method

When you have completed a research fellowship program, and ‘Research Methodology’ features prominently in your academic syllabus the year after, it makes you realise the value of interactive sessions. A subject as intriguing as research needs an equally interesting method of delivery. Through interactive workshops, we learned the entire process of research. Not only did this polish my skills as a barefoot researcher but it also enhanced my life skills. The fellowship successfully converted skills into habit so that the research came to us naturally, so that ‘critical thinking’ was not just a term we used but a way of life. Budget management, time-management, teamwork, equality, transparency in interactions were all fruitful lessons learned.

Barefoot Researcher to Alumentor

When the alumni-mentor component was formalised, my role changed. I enrolled myself for a totally different role and process, but it still felt similar. Filling forms, being interviewed, it was all so familiar. But I knew that this role would bring an additional layer of responsibilities with it. I could feel the anxiety building: would I be able to fulfil my role? I didn’t my drawbacks to have any kind of influence on the group. In one of the discussions with the other mentors, I realised that we had a tendency to view the journeys of the fellows in the same light as our own even though each journey was unique.

And when my role as a mentor was about to come to an end, I wasn’t sad like I had been towards the end of the fellowship. Because this time I knew that my relationship with PUKAR would sustain the test of time. They would always push me to grab opportunities. Who could have thought that being from a science, non-Marathi speaking background I would get a spot on the Praja Fellowship centred on governance where the first language is Marathi. But like a guardian, PUKAR motivated and supported me through it. Completing the fellowship made me feel pride. The skills I had picked up as fellow and mentor came handy while interacting with the municipal councillor and assisting with research.

I will forever be grateful and indebted to my super cool facilitator, Rohan Chavan, calm advisor Sunil Gangavane, the forever motivational Anita Patil-Deshmukh and PUKAR for bringing out the qualities I didn’t know I had in me, and for pushing me constantly to learn and be better.

For years, PUKAR’s ex-fellows kept returning to the fellowship in informal capacities, generously investing their time and energy in guiding the succeeding batch of fellows. In 2016, these efforts were formalised through an exciting collaboration with the Sinha-Kikeri Foundation, Chicago. The alumni mentor or as it is commonly referred to, Alumentor (alumni as mentors) component in the Youth Fellowship Program officially creates a space for ex-fellows like Zainab to actively engage with current fellows and guide them through their research. It also provides them with a monthly stipend to help manage expenses in relation to the fulfillment of their roles.





A learner for life

It’s a mildly warm afternoon. The megaphone on Platform 1 of Sion station crackles as a lady’s voice announces that the next train to Ambernath will be arriving shortly. Monday blues and the hour on the clock have commuters entering and exiting the station in melancholic swathes. Siddhesh Ratnamala Madan Suryavanshi, however, glances eagerly at his watch, as he awaits the familiar clanging of wheels pressed between a string of 12-bogies and serpentine tracks: in other words, his ride to Ulhasnagar.

Meanwhile, in Ulhasnagar, the children’s home is abuzz with excitement. Eleven boys, in particular, are restlessly anticipating their workshop, questions swirling in their heads: What will we learn today? Are there any exciting activities in store? When will Arvind Dada (a term of respect and endearment for an older male, someone you may see as a brother) and Siddhesh Dada get here? It seems that Siddhesh’s eagerness has travelled faster than him, it is mirrored in the eyes of these boys. And it’s hardly surprising. As children who are either orphaned, have single parents or require the support and protection of the government for other reasons, they have lived on the margins of the margins, their imaginations confined within the walls of the home, and the fellowship may very well be the only breathing connection to the universe outside.

Once on the train, Siddhesh finds a seat next to the window and parks himself there. It’s going to be at least another hour till he reaches Ulhasnagar. He fishes a slim book out of his bag and begins reading. The goal is to finish one book every time he travels to and back from Ulhasnagar, which means that a fair few books have seen the beginning and end of their journeys with Siddhesh in the past six months. Since September last year, he has been mentoring the group, ‘Children See Dreams’ – the one made up of 11 enthusiastic boys under the age of 16  – in their research on the status of children’s homes in Ulhasnagar.

A Youth Fellow in 2016/17, Siddhesh and his group examined the freedom to access the internet for college-going girls. Even before that, Siddhesh was associated with the NSS (National Service Scheme) in his own college and as a volunteer with Akshara and other NGOs through which he worked with kids in under-served communities. A 22-year old science graduate, passionate about articulating his thoughts on socially relevant issues through poetry, Siddhesh expresses a growing interest in the development space. Evidently, his thoughts match his actions.

He says, “I love to travel, I don’t like to sit idle”, as an explanation to why the long commute to Ulhasnagar every week doesn’t faze him. “I don’t think of it as work, I think of it as an adventure.

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As a student, I was limited in the ways I could work with communities, but now I have an opportunity to work at the grassroots. I enjoy my time mentoring the group. My experiences as a fellow mean that I can give them useful tips when they’re stuck. As a mentor, I have an added set of responsibilities but this only helps me grow. I can learn and earn at the same time, and I think that’s a great combination.”

His involvement has definitely provided Arvind Sakat, a facilitator on the Youth Fellowship Program, tremendous support; he vouches for Siddhesh’s work ethic and dedication. Arvind elaborates: “Siddhesh can handle the group alone. We have seen him do it a few times, he steps in and assumes the role of a facilitator when required. The kids always want to make sure that he will be present for the next session.” It would be safe to say that it’s this budding leadership quality complemented by an analytical bent of mind, and a humility when it comes to learning that make Siddhesh popular with the Ulhasnagar kids.

Siddhesh alights in Ulhasnagar. He makes his way out of the station, the book still in hand, and hails an auto to get to the children’s home. About 20 minutes later, his auto comes to a stop, and he steps out. He sees the boys waving out to him. He smiles; it’s time for him to tuck his book into the bag and focus on the book of the world that is vast and infinite and always open, revelling in the knowledge that learners like Siddhesh will never stop reading it.

For years, PUKAR’s ex-fellows kept returning to the fellowship in informal capacities, generously investing their time and energy in guiding the succeeding batch of fellows. In 2016, these efforts were formalised through an exciting collaboration with the Sinha-Kikeri Foundation, Chicago. The alumni mentor or as it is commonly referred to, Alumentor (alumni as mentors) component in the Youth Fellowship Program officially creates a space for ex-fellows like Siddhesh to actively engage with current fellows and guide them through their research. It also provides them with a monthly stipend to help manage expenses in relation to the fulfillment of their roles.


Ziddi, ziddi, ziddi, ziddi armaan. Ziddi, hum bhi yahaan.

A few months back, Manali Sherkane was on a mission to collect every morsel of information about the UK; she wanted to consume each tidbit about its weather, its people, and the culture. Securing admission at University College London (UCL) isn’t easy, but Manali had accomplished it. But to actually pursue the degree, getting a spot was a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. So she had worked hard to receive a government scholarship that would cover all her expenses – travel, tuition fee, living costs, and accommodation. The preparation had turned into a mini-research project. It was par for the course, given Manali’s penchant for research, which was cultivated in 2014 as a fellow on PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Programme. Starting September, Manali was going to attend UCL’s Master’s Program in Clinical & Public Health Nutrition.

Except that she didn’t.

Call it a masterstroke of Murphy’s Law (which states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), if you will. The rules of the scholarship scheme changed at the last minute, rendering Manali’s grant void. It was too late to apply for other schemes and private fundings. Processing the event meant unpacking her own feelings of dejection while packing up her excitement. It entailed days spent indoors toying with self-doubt, questioning fate and avoiding people who presented a possibility of asking the same question: why didn’t you go?

“I avoided social gatherings because everyone wanted to know what had gone wrong. I was upset. I had waited a year for this. I thought of it as blow to my career.”, Manali shares. At 22, she felt left behind in the ‘race’ – one where her friends had already completed their post-graduate education. She wondered if she had been too stubborn, trying to catch dreams that may have been beyond her reach.

It was her family’s support that helped her tide through. While giving her the space she needed, her parents and siblings wanted to make sure that when Manali got back on her feet, she wasn’t battling old demons. Manali says, “My mother helped me understand that there is no common race for all. I have my own journey.”. That realisation was a critical turning point for her.

The goal had been to strengthen her research skills, be it through university education or otherwise. Now Manali had closely followed the work of Dr. Shobha A Udipi, Professor & Head, University Department of Food Science and Nutrition, Department of P.G. Studies & Research In Home Science, S.N.D.T. Women’s University. Dr. Udipi was essentially a mentor who could satiate Manali’s hunger for learning. So she approached the professor-researcher and landed herself a research internship at Kasturbha Research Society Medical Research Centre (KHS – MRC).

“I am happy. Discovering this possibility means I will still fulfil my aim of learning research from experts this year”, she explains. 

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She still plans on applying to UCL next year but seems absolutely comfortable with the idea of that not working out. As a soft-spoken, keen learner, Manali has been an exemplary Youth Fellow, and then an alumni-mentor on the Youth Fellowship Programme. It is her determinedness, quiet resolve, and eagerness to learn that become her biggest strengths in the face of a storm.

“Education is what matters in the end. If I don’t have resources for university education, I will find ways to be resourceful. If there is no opportunity, I will create one. But I will not stop learning. I have realised that failing to receive a degree is not a failure, but failure to stop learning is.”, she concludes.


The programme is a masterclass in understanding the value of alternate education, and well, Manali has spoken like a true fellow. The show must go on. 

Spinning the (inter)web of change

Keen and nimble, Vedant’s fingers move with purpose across the computer keyboard. The 14-year old lives in Khadkoli village, District Palghar with his parents. Until a few months back though, the internet was a faceless entity for most teenagers in the village. It was like a family friend you grow up hearing about, but haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet.

Curiosity built over a long time, which explains why the workshops on E-Governance under PUKAR’s IFA-EGFA (Information For All, E-Governance For All) project became such a hit in Khadkoli. At these workshops, the E-Sevaks introduced governance-related concepts, initiatives and terms. It was a two-fold strategy – to familiarise villagers with governance lexicon and induct them into the world of online governance by actualising the availability and access to the internet. With healthy equipment and a robust internet connection, E-Seva Kendras were set up for increased time and cost efficiency as well as convenience.

Every Wednesday, at 7pm, women, men and children would wind up their day’s chores and head to events organised by E-Sevaks. At these events, villagers were encouraged to use the internet facilities at E-Seva Kendras to pay for utilities, procure land records, Aadhar Cards, voter identification cards etc. Awareness among the village’s population regarding governance spiked. To sustain this interest and translate the awareness to practice, the E-Sevaks came up with an ingenious plan. They mobilised a group of teenagers in Khadkoli – 14 to 17 year olds – and started computer classes for them. The E-Sevaks were confident that the children had a hunger to learn which would mean quick uptake, adoption and application of what was being taught in the internet class. The idea was simple – tying together the villagers’ newly acquired knowledge about e-governance with the freshly developed internet skills of the children.

Says Vedant, “I learnt a lot about government schemes from the E-Sevaks. Mr. Amol Mudekar taught us computer basics – using keyboard shortcuts, word processing software, and navigating the internet. The E-Sevaks – Jayesh More, Namdev More and Anita More – explained e-governance to us.” The E-Sevaks’ efforts are already bearing fruit, with these children actively applying their learning in day-to-day life.

Each of them has found a way to spread the knowledge – Rupali, 16, has helped her father and other villagers procure their land records online; Nikita, 17, now knows how to create an email account and has assisted her friends in making one too; Priyanka, 16, has done her bit by helping villagers fill up forms to get their Voter Identification cards; Saroj, 17, is willing to talk about his internet gyaan with people and has learnt a great deal about the Aadhar Card.

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Computer and E-Governance Education in Khadkoli

For Vedant, the change has manifested in different ways. “I helped my dad pay the electricity bill online the other day, and my mother in finding out more about gas subsidies. I share what I learn about e-governance with my friends as well. For instance, my friend Karan lives in Kude village, and he has also begun helping his parents out with bill payments. I am indebted to the E-Sevaks”, he concludes.

The internet permeates lives in the urban space today. We use it to book transport, check the news, connect with friends, do business, share information, watch movies and play games. For every activity that is part of our daily routine, the internet has something to offer. It dominates our conversations, and our lives. However, in villages like Khadkoli, where the internet is making its presence felt only in the recent past, it is truly exciting to see how the children are using it as a means to an end rather than the end itself. And to think it all started with a small innovation by the youth we know as E-Sevaks. 

Enterprising For Good

What if you had to travel 25kms to get hold of your Aadhaar Card? What if you had to wait 3-4 months for it to arrive by post? What if someone brought it to your doorstep and saved you all the time, money and energy?

In Sakhare and Nagave villages of District Palghar, a simple idea has managed to do exactly that for the villagers. For more than a month now, E-Sevaks under PUKAR’s IFA-EGFA (Information For All, E-Governance For All) programme have been organising camps to create awareness about internet-based services for generating Aadhaar Cards, PAN Cards, checking Satbara Extracts, gas subsidy statuses and procuring electricity bills.

Through this process, those who do not have Aadhaar Cards and those who need to rectify errors on their existing cards are being helped. Even after generation, each applicant would have had to wait for a rather long time to get a physical copy of the card or travel a long distance to get it. When cases of villagers who needed their cards on an urgent basis started cropping up, the E-Sevaks decided to do something about it. Their brainstorming gave birth to a rather practical solution, but innovative none the same.

Villagers with their freshly printed Aadhaar Cards

They collected the receipts from the villagers in question, 63 to be precise, and made the trip to their respective Talukas. Colour printouts of the Aadhaar Card were obtained, the cards were laminated and carefully delivered to their rightful recipients. Money was collected from the villagers only for the cost of printing and they paid up happily. Hemlata Vaze, a resident of Sakhare, said “There was an LIC Policy for which I needed to submit my Aadhaar Card. The E-Sevaks in my village recognised my need and very promptly had the card delivered to me – printed and laminated! I would have had to travel 25kms for this and now I don’t have to. The E-Sevaks are doing a great job and it makes me really happy that this is happening in my village.”

The heartening aspect of this entire endeavour is the fact that the E-Sevaks went beyond the description of their roles to do something for their community. One of the real measures of change is sustainability and this act is proof of the lasting impact created by the IFA-EGFA project on these youth. “Having an Aadhaar Card these days is essential. Without it, the work of villagers was being obstructed at various places where the Aadhaar was being asked for. That’s why we decided to have them printed. I believe it is our responsibility as E-Sevaks to try and address the needs of the villagers in whatever capacity we can. My training as an E-Sevak has pointed me in the direction of active leadership.”, says Rahul Jadhav, an E-Sevak in Sakhare.

One small act has added time to the days of several villagers and erased a few creases off their foreheads. It is an innovation that deserves appreciation and acknowledgment because true to its name, the IFA-EGFA programme has created a cadre of youth who are ready and willing to bridge the digital divide.

Research Becomes Labour Of Love for Child Labourers

A small yet eye-catching poster flutters on the blue cloth lining the Bal Kamgar Virodhi Sangathana (BKVS) stall at PUKAR’s Annual Exhibition and Graduation Ceremony. It reads: “Only the worst thief would steal someone’s childhood”. A quote that unfortunately holds true for millions of children across the globe, especially for the 7-member group of BKVS.

Made up of 16-18-year-olds, the BKVS group is part of PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program and has recently completed its research on the realities of child labourers in 3 West-suburban communities of Mumbai. The young researchers also invest a substantial amount of their waking hours working as catering assistants, electricians, garland-makers and sales people.

Their experiences of being employed as children and their association with Prayas – Ek Koshish, an organisation that works in the child rights space have perhaps, been the catalyst in their choice of topic. Although one could be pragmatic while evaluating their decision of selecting this topic, it takes courage, a whole lot of passion and a sense of impartiality to attempt to study, unlearn and learn about decades of wrongs that you have been at the suffering end of yourself.

All members have either discontinued education or are pursuing it alongside their jobs to support their families, a reality that is not betrayed by their shiny, happy, faces. When they came onboard the fellowship, they brought with them an approach dictated by prevention and abolishment of child labour. The research process, however, has made them look at the issue more holistically and recognise its complexities, especially in the Indian context.

Through its research, the group has made an effort to unravel the layers that cocoon child labour and challenge their own notions to see the bigger picture. Investigation of the impact that child labour has on children’s education and their lives has revealed that long working hours leave the respondents with little or no room to pursue studies. One of the most poignant findings of their study is the ‘circle of poverty’ – with most children’s parents working in the informal sector, the monthly household income hits the ceiling at Rs. 30000, not a significant amount for families with a strength of 4-7 members. Some households have fewer members due to the death of one or both parents, some have grievously ill members and this exacerbates the financial situation of the family in question. Such unfavourable conditions force children to drop out of school, and seek work in the informal sector, thus ending up on the same road as their parents and completing the vicious circle. Unfair wages, abusive bosses and zero leaves add to their woes and have left the members thinking if the circle can be broken, for these respondents, and for themselves.

19095687_1341850522536778_5775669035048243662_oThe findings thrown up by this study are also echoed by the members of the group. Sunidhi*, 18, goes to school while being employed as a garland-maker, a job she took up a few months back. She says, “I didn’t think I’d have to start working so young. But my family is going through a severe financial crisis and I have no option but to bring money home”. The fellowship improved her critical thinking skills, and she is now in a position to intervene when her parents have a spat, and she sees this as a silver lining in her life. For Raunak*, 16, work became a part of his time-table 2 years back, and as an electrician, he tries to contribute to the modest family income – he adds to make up for the subtraction that found its roots in his father’s accident and inability to work. Doing research has made him more confident and helped develop a positive outlook to deal with life’s curveballs.

Kasturi*, 18, has been working for the past 10 years and has recently secured a job to manage sales and inventory at a handicrafts store. Her mother (who is HIV positive) and she have had to work extra-hard to repay the loans taken to clear the medical bills left behind after her dad’s demise recently. Working when she should have been in a classroom proved to be hugely detrimental to Kasturi’s performance in Class 10, and she quit school thereafter. However, the fellowship has made her resuscitate her plan to study further. She says, “I used to always think that my mother would be embarrassed of me being a ‘10th fail’ but now she talks about me and my research with pride, and that makes me happy. The fellowship has awakened my desire to study further and make her prouder.” Kasturi’s statement is hugely encouraging because education carries the hope of protecting future generations from exploitation.


*Names changed to protect privacy

Note: India ratified two crucial International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions- Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment only this year. While the move is a definite indicator of progress, it is also a significant marker of how much work still needs to be done for child labourers to have access to better childhoods.

A colourful revolt

  “Hamari saanson mein aaj tak woh hina ki khushboo mehek rahi hai”

(The smell of henna from many moons ago is still embedded in every breath I take)

Sitting in her cosy home, Ashish Shigwan reminisces about childhood. She recalls crushing leaves from the nearby henna tree and applying henna on her hands. It’s a vivid memory brought to life by powerful storytelling. It leaves you feeling heady, the scent of the natural dye lingering on as she talks.

With a certain fondness she dives into the past, flashing light on ways she passed her time as a kid – playing with dolls and kitchen utensils, plucking blades of grass and flowers, and running after butterflies as her male classmates indulged in cricket, nurturing their machismo and calling her names because she didn’t join them. At home, no one suspected anything amiss. Belonging to a Hindu family, she had had her ears pierced – a fairly common practice among men. So even if she wore an earring, it wasn’t something ‘to worry about’.

Born in 1987, Ashish a.k.a Lavanya (she prefers ‘Ashish’ as it manages to create a more lasting impression on people when they see her wearing a saree, makeup and using a conventionally masculine name) identifies herself as transgender today. She says that words like ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ held no meaning for her growing up, but she had begun to realise she was different. That realisation, she now knows, was significant, even if it could not be defined or labelled back then.

Around Class 9, social gatherings became a strict no-no for her. Her voice hadn’t cracked unlike other boys her age and when she used the parameters of their pubertal changes as a way of measuring her own, things didn’t add up. Their broad shoulders, manly gait, and a certain spike in confidence that comes to some during that peak in adolescence became a constant reason for playing the blame game. She took turns shifting the compass from herself to her parents to The Almighty. Why couldn’t He have made her like the others, she wondered, always with resentment.

Society has a funny way of noticing the absence of people even though it might never acknowledge their presence. Questions began to trickle in about why she was staying indoors all the time. The house became her safe haven, even if it felt like a prison sometimes. Her body certainly felt like a prison, one she seemed desperate to break out of. She wore her sister’s frocks, her mother’s sarees, bangles, makeup and tried on their footwear. One day, her mother walked in on Ashish wearing a saree. She was shocked and unable to say a word.

That night, however, there was a showdown at home. It was the beginning of a series of arguments where her mother would indict her father – first, for not being able to take charge of the situation as the man of the house, and then later for not being able to ‘fix’ their son. Ashish’s father instructed her to behave like a boy, almost as if it were something Ashish had been putting off for a long time. All her toys were thrown away and the make up she had stowed away in her cupboard was discarded.

A fresh diktat was passed and all her actions came to be monitored, like doctors trying to study the symptoms of a new patient. “How I talked, where I went, who my friends were, they kept a tab on everything. I felt like a criminal. All this time, outsiders made fun of me, now my own family was persecuting me. When people start pointing fingers at us, we think we are wrong and think we are a burden on everyone”, explains Ashish.

Word spread quickly and people started arriving at conclusions – Ashish had become feminine because she hung out too much with girls and played with girls’ toys, or maybe she had been raised with too many women in the household. Who knew, and more importantly who cared enough to speak to Ashish herself? Ashish says that the phobia around alternate gender identities or sexual orientations is born when people see someone different from them and feel threatened.

The fear on that end plays off the fear experienced by the individual and it’s a vicious cycle. “It took me an 8-year revolt, losing friends and family to accept myself. People had always associated transgenders with fun and sexual pleasure. Dealing with them wouldn’t be easy but the bigger challenge was telling the world who I was and that if they couldn’t accept me, it was all right. I decided to live life on my own terms”, says Ashish.

It was 2002 when Ashish moved out. Her mother had given up after a failed attempt at counselling, and her father, still expecting a miracle to convert Ashish back to a man, showed his support by arranging for her accommodation. He came around eventually, but her mother never did.

After Class 12, she started doing part-time work to support her independence. A computer agency that she worked at let her go without paying her. Her next job as a ward boy at a hospital meant night shifts and early-morning college, but she adjusted. When people called her names like ‘gud’, ‘maamu’, ‘chakka’ (pansy), it fractured her spirit but she held on for dear life. Stones were pelted at her and mid-air they transformed to rocks of self-doubt; she felt like she had to trudge uphill with this weight alone.

Eventually, she befriended a group of transgenders and met Amma a.k.a Nandini, a transgender hailing from Lucknow. The group convened at Amma’s house every evening, she played the dhol and everyone sang, danced and made merry. Ashish learned that was Amma was bringing money into the house and that’s why she hadn’t been ostracised. Ashish thought to herself, “To gain acceptance, we have to become society’s need”.

Ashish invested her time accompanying Amma to the functions where she danced and made money. She saw the love and adulation Amma got wherever she went. However, it soon became clear to her that culture and religion were forces powerful enough to make people fear and revere those they otherwise shirked and neglected. All the respect Amma received was a result of this fear of God, it was borne out of necessity rather than want.

Tracing her steps back to the first time she wore a saree publicly, Ashish recounts, “During the Yallama festival, we had to travel to town for an event. I was nervous but feigned confidence. Once I got on the train, the anxiety made way for happiness. It was a liberating experience. This was the real me, I had been a slave to society all this time, and after 18 years, it felt like I had finally won the war against myself.” Her conviction increased tremendously after this episode, she began getting out more frequently during the day draped in sarees and oozing a devil-may-care attitude, conquering the apprehensions of running into family members.


Ashish gleefully shares details of how she and her friends carried out mini social experiments, buying tickets to enter public spaces, and seeing how the authorities reacted to their presence, trying to enter temples just to see what happened. Sometimes, cops passed lewd comments at them; but Ashish had decided to not break the law – she always urged her friends to buy train tickets by saying, “If you can spend 200 rupees on a lipstick, why can’t you spend 10 rupees on a train ticket?”.

This inherent itch to do the right thing is a quality that Ashish is unwilling to part with. Ashish studied law and is an advocate today. She does legal counselling in cases of domestic violence and protection of child rights on a pro bono basis. She also runs an organisation called Prayas – Ek Koshish where a small and dedicated team works with child labourers, their parents, women who are HIV positive and people of sexual minorities. This year, one of the groups on the Youth Fellowship Program has come to PUKAR through Prayas.

Ashish’s association with PUKAR dates back to 2012. She was on the Youth Fellowship Program 3 years in a row, working with women and men on trans issues while addressing misconceptions about her identity amongst the group members. Even after completing her stint as a fellow, Ashish has continued to be a regular feature every year, taking time out to guide fellows in their research.

There’s a warm glow on her face when she talks about PUKAR. “The Youth Fellowship created opportunities for us to connect with people, it gave us a platform to build awareness about our identity and we made friends at PUKAR”, she says.

When the topic of transphobia, homophobia and biphobia is broached, she says that acceptance cannot come from sympathy, it has to come from a feeling of being equal. Even though we see a buzz about transpeople on television, social media and in movements around the world today, she says complete acceptance will take time, but change is a process of nature and maybe 100 years later, the efforts will bear fruit.

Talking about her work, Ashish says, “Parents are worried. When we try to mobilise children, all their myths come out to play, they wonder if we will convert them. We have to build confidence and trust, and assure them that their children are safe with us. People might support or reject us, but we shouldn’t judge anyone till we know their level of awareness and access to information regarding gender identities.” By now, it is clear that Ashish has imbibed and successfully implemented the values of democracy, participation, critical thinking and passion from her experience as a fellow.

She thinks trying different strategies might be the answer – advertisements, rallies, videos, films, comprehensive sexuality education in colleges? She believes if the youth can be captured with the right messages, the future might be brighter than it has been for some of her companions.

Even though times are better for transgenders now, Ashish talks about lost love, broken relationships, families torn apart, lives ended, and closeted identities as a result of the stigma riding on the backs of people who belong to sexual minorities or have unconventional gender expressions. She says that if the law protected them, maybe more stories could have had happy endings.

Talking about happiness, colours have always been a positive influence in Ashish’s life, from the colour of Henna on her palms as a child to the attraction to colourful clothes and people. By challenging the politics of fear, she has chosen the colour of expression over the blackness of rigidity and conformity. Colour symbolises change in her life, it represents her identity as a source of empowerment rather than shame. And as long as it does, Ashish will not stop soaring.

“Jahan kahin tha hina ko khilna, hina wohin pe mehek rahi hai”

(Every spot that was destined for Henna to flower, Henna has made that spot fragrant)

Note: The lyrics are borrowed from a Noor Jahan song called ‘Hamari Saanson Mein Aaj Tak’. The lyricist, however, is unknown.