Sunanda Wagh was born the eldest of 5 sisters and one baby brother to the forest warden in Wai, Maharashtra, in 1945. The siblings were already a handful, but to add to that, her dad brought home an honest-to-God baby tiger whose mom had died. They locked up the front of the house and gave Tigger his own room.
Soon enough, she grew up, Tigger started trying to eat people, and everybody went to their natural habitats. She moved to Pune, and married my grandfather, Vasant Bodwadkar. Her natural habitat, it turned out, was the classroom. She became a science (and art) teacher at Huzurpaga School, Pune, then a school in Nashik. She cycled to work every day, kid in tow. In a saree.
So, she retires, right? And you expect her to do gardening? And focus on yoga? She did that. And she decided to explore – she walked all over Maharashtra, after crossing the age of 65. She walked to Pandharpur, she walked the Narmada Parikrama, she climbed up Amarnath. With the help of their pension fund, she and my grandpa have seen every state of India and quite a few outside, as well.
And how did she change the world?
She, along with her friends, made a small organisation which would go out and teach Adivasi children. She did that for about 10 years (she stopped going, says she’s old now). She would take kilos of books clothes and medication by bus, about once a week, teach those kids, and come home. Those books were gathered not only from Nashik – but through a concerted effort through friends all over the world. The kids she taught read Winnie the Pooh as well as Shivaji’s tales.
In her free time, she was still involved with local schools. She participated in and judged science fairs. She took craft workshops for women and girls of all ages. At Bhonsala Military School, Nashik, she took character development workshops and seminars, teaching self-confidence and sustainability to young women. She also taught them craft, the odd bit of gardening skills, and yoga.
In the interests of literature, she and my grandpa decided to start a library in their spare room. This, too, was celebrated with enthusiasm, and is a favourite local meeting spot. This meeting spot led to the creation of a community garden through citizens’ activism in Nashik, in a plot of land which had earlier been a waste dump. They were personally involved in its quick change.
She also decided to do some community service closer to home. So, they partnered up with the Civil Hospital at Nashik to deliver home-cooked meals for the persons accompanying the patient at his bedside. The patient gets food from the hospital. The guy with him gets nothing. So, every day, they prepare tiffins, deliver and distribute them in the hospital. They provide utensils, plates, everything.
What have I learnt from her?
Fiction gives us great ideas about unsung heroes. But it is only when we understand the back-breaking hardwork, the exhaustion and the occasional frustration, firsthand that we understand what it truly is to be one. There is no formal NGO or organisation created by my grandparents. But there are generations of alumni who remember them, who contribute to their endless endeavours and various causes. They donate selflessly, for they have been taught to do so.
Community service doesn’t have to be large-scale to be inspiring. It doesn’t have to be expensive. All it needs is respect and love for your community, and a sense of belonging, and a desire to see change. It does not need focus only on certain issues.
My grandparents have taken a rather lonely part of Nashik and have helped create an informal local organisation which cares for senior citizens, which provides for smaller needs, which is self-sustaining and forever changing the shape of the world in some small way. They have helped create a feeling of community in a locale where most of the residents are retired and have, in some cases, no close relatives left.
Old people have it tough, you know. At 21, you don’t ever think you’ll be 70, and that your hands will be wrinkled or your face will have liver spots. When you’re 45, you’re surprised. What do you do at 70? A lot of your friends are gone. So’s a lot of your family – at least, those of your family you knew at 45. There are fewer incentives to join in with any activities at all, at 70. Loneliness is a great burden.
Today, someone may get a meal, or an odd conversation because someone dropped by. Tomorrow, he might choose to pass it on. And for that, the world will thank him.