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Old age, new job

From creating e-books to teaching street children, organising blood donation camps and filing RTI applications, senior citizen volunteers in Mumbai are finding a new purpose to retired life. Dhamini Ratnam writes.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2009 00:28 IST
Dhamini Ratnam

When we call to fix an interview with her, Shobha Mathur, 64, is predictably online. You can tell by the tone of her voice that she is busy and seldom brooks interruptions. Yet, if you persist, you will, in time, hear her chuckle and call herself a “computer potato”.

Shobha Mathur is a homemaker. She is also an educator, an Internet geek and a woman with very little patience for the word ‘cannot’. Keen on “getting some work done” she became a volunteer with Karmayog, a non-profit organisation, to create content for e-books. And has helped create a Standard V English textbook for disadvantaged school children and several online modules for senior citizens (both available on the Karmayog website (www.karmayog.org/hobbies).
Mathur’s commitment to spreading knowledge — she recently did a piece on how senior citizens can surf the Net safely — has helped many. But she’d sooner direct you to her 83-year-old neighbour, Suhasini Khosla, who volunteers at a school for slum children, than accept any praise for her own work.

Khosla, who has known Mathur for over 13 years, brushes away such comparison. “She writes the books, I teach them,” she says with a disarming smile. Frail yet remarkably active, Khosla has taught Maths, English and Hindi for the Asha Kiran charitable trust since 1999. Every morning at 7.30, before the nearby shops open, children aged 4 to 14 gather on a pavement for lessons and breakfast. Four other teachers, including an 84-year old freedom fighter who only goes by her first name, Sukanya, assist Khosla.

Mansukhlal Ruparelia may have a relatively tame past, but the 76-year-old is well known among his peers for his crusade against the apathy of the BMC and the state government. Since his retirement from the Indian Railways Personnel Services in 1992 Ruparelia has fought to get more buses added on certain routes in Mira Road and Thane for the benefit of senior citizens in the locality. He has taken up the issue of separate queues, again for senior citizens, with Maharashtra’s chief postmaster general, and goaded the Mira Bhayander Municipal Corporation to carry out repair work on roads and streetlights. At present, Ruparelia is fighting for the implementation of the National Policy on Older Persons issued by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 1999. But his one effort that perhaps spreads the most cheer is his Laughter Club for the elderly, in Mira Road.

For Mathur, Khosla, Sukanya and Ruparelia, a retired life means more than marking the day by meal timings and TV programmes—there is a lot of work still left to be done, and they are more than willing to do it. Some volunteers, like Sheela Chitnis (67), currently the national secretary of the not-for-profit Multiple Sclerosis Society of India, are driven by their own circumstances and want to ensure others don’t face what they did.

Others, like Yashwant Govind Deshpande (70), an honorary social worker associated with Sushrushra Hospital, Dadar, simply see this work as part of their daily schedule, like the early morning cup of tea and hour of yoga. Deshpande is involved in the hospital’s community outreach programme and helps organise blood donation camps in various city colleges.

“I wanted to make sure other care- givers didn’t go through what I did,” says Chitnis, whose husband was a multiple sclerosis patient. Problems of money, expensive medication and free physiotherapy sessions were overcome with ideas that still have Chitnis shaking her head in disbelief. Whether it was approaching pharmaceutical companies and “telling them to have a heart” or creating a certificate of merit for students of physiotherapy who would treat multiple sclerosis patients for free, Chitnis and her team figured it out.

“If you have to,” she says, “you do it.”

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