Nagrik Dialogue

Change is Constant , Changing is a Choice -Stories Of Changemakers

-Series by Sandi Saksena

Age is just a number and octogenarian Usha Malhotra is living proof, the multifaceted educator for 31 years, social worker ,tarot card reader and beauty Queen !

“Retirement is about change and change is something that I decided to accept as gracefully as possible.

Change the world by being yourself”

Recalling her memories,  she shares  ..

As child  I remember those pre- partition days in Quetta, Balochistan, growing up amidst  the gentle strong pathans,specially, she recalls the man who came home daily to deliver eggs!I  remember the grape vines and a stream like Hanna with beautiful clean water flowing over the pebbles. The  school where I studied Urdu and wrote on a Takhti, a wooden plate on which we wrote with Kalams, (wooden pens) spilling ink wherever they could find a clean spot!

Little did I know how my world was going to change.The nightmare of the Partition of 1947 changed everything. I recall my father’s very close friend, Anwar uncle rushing into our home in the middle of the night and huddling us all to safety back to his home. The  silence of the night was shattered by the sounds of  gunshots, men, women and children screaming in panic and fear. After spending a few days in Anwar uncle’s home, when things started to get too dangerous for him and his family, we were shifted to a refugee camp. We spent about a month in the refugee camp till my father, a barrister at law, managed to fly us to Delhi and from there we went to Shimla.

This was my awakening my journey of kindness and empathy. I also realized that kindness and cruelty go hand in hand.

In Shimla,I attended the prestigious Auckland House School. A school of great tradition and culture where I made lifelong friends. I am still involved with Auckiites of various age groups. I also  attend Auckland House reunions whenever I can, the recent one last month which was of course, online!  I graduated from the famous St. Bede’s in Shimla so I am what we called a ‘Bedian’ later, I attained my Masters in Social Anthropology from Punjab University. It was during this time that I got very involved in the culture and plight of women eventually leading me to do my thesis on the role of women in Himachal. This journey of mine developed my cultural, emotional and pensive nature.

On a lighter and social side, evening out with my elder brother and sister lead me to be crowned Miss Punjab.For decades, the shy me hid the fact that I was once a beauty queen. Its only of late, when I’m in my 80s that I have opened up about it . 

My marital life has been blissful,  a doting husband and  3 wonderful children!

What was it to be a teacher?

Teaching at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, was a wonderful journey for me. My background in Anthropology gave me a deeper knowledge of children. I had the privilege of spending many years under the tutelage of the illustrious educationist late Mr. Din Dayal. I spent 31 years in Delhi Public School, Mathura Road eventually retiring as Senior Mistress which is Vice Head Mistress of the Junior School .

My love for children kept getting deeper and stronger. During the course of teaching at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, I met two little girls who had also come to study there. Upon enquiring about them, I found out that they were from an SOS Home that has orphanages throughout the country. I was so moved by their plight that I went to the SOS Village that they came from and got permission from them to allow the two little girls to spend every alternate weekend with my family. Thus started a new journey for me inculcating kindness and a sense of empathy in my three children. Needless to say,  my house was completely topsy turvy every alternate weekend with five small kids under the same roof. This ritual continued till all the five children were married and off!  

CLT, Childrens Little Theatre was a very integral part of my life at Delhi Public School. It was for children from Kindergarten to the 5th Standard. We inculcated in them a sense of dramatics and the art of drama. I continued on with Childrens Little Theatre for many years even after retirement.

You strike me as an adventurous person, plunging right into challenges and taking  action!

Yes!  I am what I am today because of the influence my school and college had on me.

As ateenager I was always passionate about taking up new challenges perhaps it’s the dare devil side of me! I recall running wild in the Simla valleys in search of blackberries I loved blackberry jam which my Indo American mother would make. I also loved her home -made apple pies!

At the tender age of 13-14, I recall an incident when a truck full of rocks overturned and critically injured a labourer working there.I jumped into this disastrous situation,  immediately took control, made the crowds move back giving him space to breathe and got him a glass of warm milk from my home. I remained with him till the doctor arrived.  My presence there saved his life that day!

My zeal for humanity and kindness has just continued  to grow and  manifest itself in different ways  I have been an avid blood donor since the age of 14, regularly donating blood to the Red Cross till I was close to 50 and due to health reasons was advised to stop.

Today in this pandemic I have found other ways to help.During this  period of world disarray and lockdowns last year I decided to do my bit for the under privileged by making home -made liquid soap as well as masks and distributed them to the downtrodden.

As a high energy person always busy and active what was it to retire after 31 years of  teaching?

Retirement for me meant the beginning of yet another chapter of my book of life. I decided to take on the various challenges retirement offered, in my stride.

It was very difficult in the beginning after having taught for over 30 years. I felt a void, a vacuum but some-how  I knew, I was the only one who had to fill the void .My better sense prevailed and I realized that age was nothing but all in the mind!

After having lead an extremely active life, I did not want to stagnate wither away and disappear into the twilight .

You are as young as you want to be. In order to avoid stagnation, I decided that I must reassess, realign and reinvent myself.

Retirement is often portrayed in a negative light where in matter of days you become a has been!Retirement makes a person incompetent is this a myth or reality?

On the contrary retirement brings with it a vast plethora of experience, knowledge and social skills that take years to build. Just the way a good wine gets better with age, people ripen with age and experience and have more to offer the world.

We can and must  remain active and healthy,  take up meaningful work that ignites ones passion, give back to society in whatever way possible .

Retirement or no retirement is irrelevant in staying relevant.The main thing is that one has to have a healthy mind, a healthy body and be financially independent.

I decided that along with CLT, Children’s Little Theatre,I needed to do more to stay relevant.I became an active member of Quota Club which is based in the US,the primary and only focus is CSR. This is a social upliftment organization, the objectives being to provide free education to under privileged children, organize blood donation drives, eye donation camps, provide food and other relief materialswherever it is needed. I submerged myself  into my new – found activities with passion and pride  continuing to do so till date.

This inculcated in me a change and adaptability to my new circumstances and to my new work. I realized that each of us can make change, can adopt and adapt to what is up for grabs at various stages of life. Going into a decline or staying strong and focused on a path with clarity is an option given to each one us and it was for our choosing what we choose from it.

Retirement  gave me the time to focus on other CSR initiatives as well. I was lucky to find a friend before the pandemic struck who enabled me to pass the crisis stage by sending meextremely educative links on online engagement , thereby introducing me to the SDG- Sustainable Development Goals work happening in the world. Their Global initiative, SDGChaupal immediately encompassed me in its fold. I enjoy listening every bit intently into all the SDG webinars and zoom meetings learning, developing contributing!

The SDGChaupal has taken on its shoulders to reach each and every village, spread awareness about education and improve lives in rural areas. Since I got involved with them I have been studying the various other groups like Social Story which  works  for the welfare of the  people. The way the SDGs look after the under privileged has struck a very deep cord within me and, I help them in whatever way I can by campaigning and championing their causes. I am also a Proud SDG Ambassador pushing the cause empowering communities enabling localization of SDGs .

What is your advice to those facing retirement and those who are leading a not so ‘happy retired  life’, Should they change , Can they change?   

I recommend and I strongly feel that staying healthy, busy and financially independent after retirement is prudent for everyone.

God through his given wisdom has enabled me to plan and take care of my financial needswhich  has helped me to remain financially independent.

This in return, has helped me in volunteering and doing a lot of social activities for the under privileged.

Society and families also treat you as an equal, valuing your inputs and advice. Take appropriate decisions,Each of us must plan in order to avoid financial dependence at any stage of life.

Be sociable,I have also been very active in maintaining social contact with my friends and family. More so since I retired.

Join a society or a club,I am fortunate enough to have memberships of some clubs which gives me the opportunity of meeting interesting people and making new friends.

Retirement whether pre or at any other time does not mean that you stop working!It  means you take up new challenges, give back to society and look after yourself.

Stay relevant be involved,  learn new skills .

Author Sandi Saksena is Head ‘Family Matters’ at Echelon Advisors and Management Consultants
CSR Advisory Board ActionAid Association
SDG Global Ambassador, Advisory Board Nagrik Foundation

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