This article is a part of The Better India’s ‘Best of 2020’ — A list of 60 awesome changemakers recognised and honoured by The Better India this year. This is a celebration of remarkable people who exhibited courage, grit, passion, innovation, compassion and above all else, humanity. Find out all about them here.
That the year 2020 has been difficult is a universal truth – for most of us it was spent cooped up indoors as the pandemic raged outside. Specifically, it was particularly difficult for our senior citizens who had to be literally under house arrest, since they formed a part of the vulnerable population being impacted by the novel coronavirus.
Despite all that, some senior citizens chose to venture out and continue to work on things that brought them joy. The Better India (TBI) followed up with some of our favourites from 2020, whose strength, hope and positivity inspire us to look forward to a brighter future. As they show – it is never too late to start something amazing.
Godawari Dutta (93)
Godawari Dutta is a recipient of the Padma Shri in 2019 for her contributions in preserving the traditional art form of Madhubani and taking it to the world stage.
Life has been anything but kind towards Godawari Dutta. Born when the birth of a girl child was frowned upon, married at an early age only to be left abandoned by her husband with a small child to look after to then having sold her paintings for a few meagre rupees. “It is my love for Madhubani and unconditional support from my mother that helped me get through every challenge,” she says to TBI.
It was sometime in 1960 that Bhaskar Kulkarni, an aide of India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who first stumbled upon the beautiful Madhubhani paintings during a trip to Bihar. A colourful painting depicting the Mahabharata’s battle landed on Indira Gandhi’s desk after it grabbed Kulkarni’s attention. That painting belonged to a 20-something, Godawari Dutta, after which there was no turning back for her.
When contacted by TBI, she says, “It has been a difficult year; especially for children and elderly like me. I do hope that the new year brings with it some good news and happiness. We could all do with some cheer.”
To read her inspirational story, click here.
Babulal Gandhi (91)
Because of the tireless efforts of people like Babulal Gandhi, you and I can enjoy the food we eat. Today, thanks to his efforts, the once-barren land of Phaltan in Maharashtra’s Satara district, is a flourishing burst of green, with over 22,000 trees. He has built the forest so that it consumes 50 per cent less water and every acre fetches him a profit of Rs 40,000. Isn’t that commendable?
After growing conventional vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains, Babulal experimented with unconventional cultivation. He dared to grow watermelon in a dry region like Satara, and despite being ridiculed by everyone around him, he succeeded. From mangoes, bamboo, custard apple, sugarcane, sapota and Jamun to leafy vegetables, the combination of intercropping and drip irrigation has resulted in a green food forest on land once infertile.
On the day I call to inquire about him, Madhvi Gandhi tells me that Babulal is at the farm and would return in the evening. When asked whether the novel coronavirus outbreak has impacted them, she says, “We are anyway isolated, given that where we live is like an island. We have had very little interaction with those from outside and through the lockdown period and thereafter have managed to continue working on the farm.”
To know more about his fascinating journey, click here.
Sharada Choragade (62)
At an age when people are planning their retirement, Sharada was thinking of ways in which she could find herself a job and support her family. Despite struggling herself to make ends meet, in 2004 when she started her own food stall, she surprised everyone by capping the price of food she sold at Rs 2. It was only a few years ago that Dosa Ajji, as she is fondly referred to, decided to increase the price to Rs 10 a plate.
She says, “There have been days when my son and I couldn’t even afford a single meal, and I know what starvation does to your mind and body. I didn’t have any support for the longest time, but once I was in a fairly better position I wanted to try and help others in the hope that It could make a difference. Besides, I started the stall to serve fresh and hot dosas to school children and labourers, and had to ensure that it was affordable for them.”
Even through the difficult months of lockdown, Sharada survived and continued to work hard. To read about her story in detail, click here.
Harbhajan Kaur (94)
An entrepreneur at 90 – now that’s a headline that is sure to grab your attention. It was a chance conversation about life with daughter Raveena Suri that led to the creation of a brand – Harbhajan’s. In just four years of its existence, the brand has found support from industry stalwarts like Anand Mahindra and even Bollywood biggies like the Kapoors. Mallika Suri, Harbhajan’s granddaughter spoke to TBI and says, “This year  has been hectic for her [Habhajan]. Various seasonal products like gur ka halwa and pickles were introduced.”
When asked about the brand’s growth, Raveena says, “More than the monetary aspect, the fact that mom [Harbhajan] is so much more confident now is what I see as growth. The same lady who wouldn’t sit in a group because she was shy, has been giving interviews, and speaking to her clients about feedback etc., which in turn, has transformed her life.” If being an entrepreneur is a dream that you nurtured but decided to put aside, here’s just the inspiration you need to get going. Don’t let your age be the reason you don’t try.
Read this motivating tale here.
Padmam Nayar (100)
This centenarian, a resident of Pune grooves to Malayalam rap, enjoys painting and looks forward to her video chats with her children and grandchildren. If one were to live to be a 100, then it should be a life that is meaningful and enriching. Even at this age, Padmam is very meticulous about her work and sets herself a target to work for three hours. When asked why, she says, “I enjoy this, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
It was only in her 60s that Padmam decided to convert a log-time hobby into a business of sorts, thus proving that there is never any age limit for starting something of their own. It is not every day that you get to have a conversation with a 100-year-old. Padmam is yet another inspirational senior citizen who defies all stereotypes that society has conjured up.
To read her story, click here.
Pappammal (alias Rangammal) (105)
Pappammal, a resident of Thekkampatti, Coimbatore is 105 years old and even today insists on going to her farm every day to tend to it. I will give you a moment to let that sink in before I proceed further. Over the last century, Pappammal has lived through two World Wars, India’s Independence, multiple natural calamities, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s as alert and sharp as she was when younger and answers all my questions with great clarity of thought.
A student of agriculture at Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) she recollects the then Vice-Chancellor referring to her as ‘pioneer farmer’. “I do not remember a class or session in which I did not ask a question, and soon everyone knew me and started liking me,” she says with a chuckle.
Her parting words to me were never to let age come in the way of achieving one’s dreams. “Age cannot be the barrier for anything and always remember that there can never be a substitute for hard work,” she says. Coming from a 105-year-old, it’s a piece of advice we cannot ignore.
Click here to read more nuggets about her phenomenal life story.
Deepak and Manjari Buch (72 and 65)
This couple who are residents of Ahmedabad up until the novel coronavirus pandemic struck would spend close to six hours each day with students of grades 3 to 10. Deepak was a former employee of the Gujarat State Finance Corporation until 2004 when he retired and in an attempt to spend his retirement years in a meaningful manner the couple decided on providing education to those bright students who did not have the means to attend a formal school.
In 2005, they started an organisation named Dada-Dadi ni Vidhya Parab to provide coaching to children and youth from low-income families free of cost. Over the years more than 1000 students would have benefited because of the work that this couple has been putting.
When asked how the pandemic impacted their work and the students, Deepak says, “Since everything went online during this period; we started providing the students with recharge vouchers for them to be able to continue attending their online classes. Close to 35 students benefitted from this.”
The couple also contracted COVID-19 and spoke about how they are now on the path to recovery. “Stay safe and continue to maintain physical distancing,” says Deepak as we end our call.
To read more about their story, click here.
Kamakshi Subramaniyan (92)
How much would you be willing to step outside your comfort zone to bring about a positive change around you? For Kamakshi, a resident of Chennai, activism came by accident to her. A stretch of road surrounded by fallow land in front of her home in Besant Nagar started it all. Being near the beach, Besant Nagar was one of the most pleasant and decorated neighbourhoods to reside in. However, the road gradually turned into a pathway to hell as people unabashedly used it as an open toilet. Dead animals were buried in the adjacent plot of land, and waste was being dumped regularly.
Not one to turn away, Kamakshi paati (as she is fondly called) took up the responsibility to set the wrong, right, and made futile appeals to authorities over and over again, only to be met with irrelevant excuses from the other end.
For almost three years she went from pillar-to-post to get this sorted. Finally, after persistent appeals and protests, she earned her first victory as the corporation officials beautified the road and built a roadside park. The park was presented to paati as a gift on her 80th birthday by the then Commissioner of Chennai.
Over the years, paati has continued to work for the betterment of Chennai, and even at this age does not hold back on getting to the streets to demand whatever citizens deserve.
Her courageous story can be read here.
Renu Gupta (63)
Renu Gupta, a resident of Delhi, found a unique way to deal with the empty nest syndrome – she dived into community service and started finding ways to keep herself busy. When her children got married, got jobs, and moved to their own homes, she saw an opportunity in all the extra time she had on hand now.
Over the last decade and a half, she has silently worked towards transforming little pockets of spaces into beautiful green patches near her home in Delhi. Just after the lockdown was lifted, Renu was back to working on getting an empty plot of land near a city Gurudwara cleaned up and in just five months, she has managed to transform the once barren completely land used as a dump yard into a beautiful green patch.
When I asked her why she keeps going, she says, “It’s so much fun – to see this transformation come alive right before me.” “I do not feel old or weak, ever, only because I have so many things to do,” she says cheerfully. Renu is a stellar example of how one need not occupy any position of power to make a difference.
Click here to read about the work she has undertaken.
Nanda Prusty (102)
For seven decades, Nanda Prusty has been a teacher. Popularly known as ‘Nanda sir’, what’s incredible is the zest that he has for teaching even today, all these years later. While he cannot remember the year he started teaching, he is lucid in mentioning that he started before India got her independence.
With no school or infrastructure in place, Nanda started teaching under a tree. He says, “I like children. Teaching gave me happiness. I wanted the kids to grow up and become good human beings. So, my intention was too valuable to be compared with money. I didn’t charge a single penny.”
So far, Nanda sir has not taken any help from the government, nor intends to do so in the future. “Why should I take help? I taught them for free all these years, so why should I avail any facility now? My only intention is to educate others. That’s all I need. I will continue teaching the children as long as my health permits,” he says.
Click here to read about his incredible journey.
It is believed that those who live a long and healthy life have a mix of good genes, diet, and regular exercise – while all this is true, studies also suggest that having found meaning in life is another key component to a long, fulfilling life. We wish these inspirational senior citizens many more years of change-making.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)