Manorama (Dhar) Bakshi

Manorama Bakshi, is one person who does not believe in giving up at all. A person who likes to walk the right path and fight for not just her rights, but the rights of others, too. Born in a Kashmiri family, she is very attached to her roots and tries her best to keep Kashmiri culture alive, even while living far away from her place of birth.

Excerpts from an interaction with Rajesh Prothi.

After graduating in science from Kashmir University, your academic journey has been quite interesting and far removed from the subject you graduated in. Was this part of your destiny or was it planned? 
M. Bakshi: Destiny and circumstances have led to such a satisfying and interesting journey. Of all my six siblings, I was the youngest. My siblings had acclaimed academic records, like getting positions in the board exams or cracking the civil services examination, or even being the youngest doctorates. I was, however, more inclined towards communication, reaching out to people and extracurricular activities. As a child, singing fascinated me. So much so that I used to sit at the window and sing. I was so keen on being a singer that I cajoled my father to get me a sitar. But, I think, that was not my cup of tea.
My most precious memories are when I was told to participate in debates at school and at college  level . That was the time that I would put in my best efforts.  In a sense, the foundation for my future was being laid during those times.
In our family, studying science was a kind of a ritual. My father is still of the view that science as a subject improves one’s intelligence quotient. So, after finishing my graduation in science, I did a course in Journalism.

Whose influence shaped your career? 
M. Bakshi: My father is the epitome of inspiration and my mother instilled values in us. My father, who at that time was working in Doordarshan, was an author of repute; he had a habit of teaching us in a participatory way. As a regular feature, dinner was always followed by discussions on politics and history. That was the best time of the day when I would hear stories of Churchill, Hitler, Lenin, Marx, Margaret Thatcher, Subhash Chandra Bose, Martin Luther KingGandhi, Golda Meir and so many others. This kind of discussion would always give me an adrenaline rush. My parents were exceptionally good in parenting. My father would wake up any time during the night to listen to me, to rehearse with me when I had to participate in debates, and I would always see my mother preparing rotis for us, when we would come home from school. It was for sure a combined effort of theirs and my siblings which shaped my future.

What was the turning point in your life?
M. Bakshi: The troubled times in Kashmir, when we had to move from our own homes to rented houses in Jammu, where we were measured with the same yardstick – Migrants.

In Jammu, I got an offer to work in the Army School but it was not something meant for our family I guess, where everyone was either, a doctor, an engineer, a civil servant or a professor. My father gave me a pep talk to compete at the national level. While I was studying for competitive exams, I started writing articles for local dailies. Soon, I qualified in the Auditor Exam for AGs office, Bank Officer’s Exam for J & K Bank and a few other exams. But, destiny had other plans for me. I got  married. My father told me that if I were sincere and showed potential, I could click any time, and marriage was not a hurdle for those who have the determination to do something for themselves or for others. Five years into being married and two children to take care of did not dither me from continuing my studies., I ranked number one in marketing management from Goa Management Institute in 2004, also did my  Master’s in Public Administration. During the same time, I got a chance to work for the International Labour Organization Project ‘Tripartite response to HIV/AIDS’. I became instrumental in drafting HIV/AIDS policies for 12 Corporates and 286 members of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG). Also, I initiated a programme with the Miss Universe Organization and Fashion TV for the children of People Living with HIV (PLHA). Since then, there has been no looking back. I have worked on a UNDP project and also have experience of working on good governance projects like electoral and political reforms.

Today, I am working as CEO of Urivi Vikram Charitable Trust where I have to oversee programs and be involved in high-level decisions about policy and strategy of the organization.

Today, you are heading an NGO. What kind of challenges do you face in such a position?
M. Bakshi: As CEO/Director (OD) of Urivi Vikram Charitable Trust, I am the leader of a system which is very different, unlike most of the businesses where your duties are over when your customer is satisfied or when your policies are effective. Our work is accomplished when a ‘dropout’, underprivileged child, a delinquent, or an underachiever becomes a self- respecting, self-sustainable individual. One of the major challenges faced by NGOs is lack of adequate funds. It is really shocking that the rich, educated and big corporates give very less towards their brethren who are less privileged. Sometimes, we hire people for projects, and when the project gets over, we don’t throw the staff out. We try to raise funds to give them salaries. I have set standards, that of continuously looking for opportunities (fund possibilities), and anticipate crises. My aim is to build a team of high morale, battle ready and, real catalysts.

The best talent for our project is always an issue, more because of unavailability of funds than any other reason. Another big challenge we face like any other NGO is that of maintaining accountability and transparency. In our case, we have introduced checks and balances in our organisation.

Coming from Kashmir, a conservative place, what hurdles did you face in this part of the country which is more multi-lingual & multi-cultural?
M. Bakshi: Yes, I belonged to a conservative family, in a conservative place, but I was brought up by parents who were not gender biased. We had same rules for everyone in family. Be it my brothers or we two sisters. After the Kashmir problem, we moved to Jammu.  One of my close relatives advised that now we should not converse in Kashmiri alone but Hindi too, as otherwise, out of home, we would be looked down upon. But  I ensured that  every time I went out with them I always spoke in Kashmiri and in case someone would say we recognized that you are a Kashmiri because of your accent, I would proudly answer back , saying that was the influence of my mother tongue and if someone doesn’t  have one, they are adulterated. I have always tried to be myself, never tried to change my basic beliefs, derived strength from my traditions and believed in who I am.

You have done a lot of work in the domain of HIV / AIDS. What has been your experience?
M. Bakshi: In 2004, I came across an advertisement in a newspaper for workplace advisor on ILO project,“Tripartite response to HIV/AIDS”. I decided to go for an interview.The only thing I knew about AIDS was the prevalence estimates reported were over 5.7 million HIV cases in 2001 or 0.5% of our population was infected and my country was home to the world’s second -largest population suffering from HIV/AIDS . I really wanted to contribute my bit, be part of this ILO project. I am very fortunate to have been mentored by Syed Mohammad Afsar, who was technical specialist (HIV/AIDS) South Asia and national program coordinator India. He was a true leader and a one minute Manager. He has really influenced me professionally.

I was given charge of planning, managing and implementing an HIV/AIDS program for corporate / industries / hospitality sector or rather to mainstream it and make people and departments more aware and responsible. I was the focal point for the project. Every day I learnt something new; this work has made me more humble and has enabled me to think beyond text books This work has allowed me to look into dirty underbelly of India. This work has shown me that an activist is residing within me. It has helped me to be nonjudgmental. I contributed in the planning o PIP (third phase) for National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), compiled a booklet ‘HIV/AIDS policy guidelines for corporates’.  I initiated a mass awareness campaign with King Fisher, the UB group, to spread HIV/AIDS messages on their products across India.

In today’s hectic life, what efforts do you make to preserve you cultural heritage?
M. Bakshi: This is a fact that we live in a more global and technologically advanced environment. Our lives are hectic and more stressed out but still we need to preserve our cultural heritage, the values, and the rituals. I celebrate life , all that life has given me, my culture, my roots. Even though after migration things have changed, living out of my homeland has enabled me to not see colour, race, creed or ethnic diversities…I just see  people. I don’t myself know how much Kashmiri culture I have retained or passed onto my children. Recently, someone asked me which part of Kashmir I belong to.  My blood boiled, it is not the part it is my whole self, my soul and my heart that makes me a Kashmiri or for that matter an Indian and not just the portion. I am really proud of my origin, proud of where I came from, and pass on the same pride to my kids. To preserve the culture, I actively participate in my community events and make it a point to speak to or reach out to Kashmiris, be it a Pandit or Muslim, whenever and whereever I come across one.  I make it a point to travel to areas where there are more. I make it a point to speak in Kashmiri to my Kashmiri folks whereever I meet them even in the corridors of power or conference halls. This is also a fact that someone has rightly said “when in Rome you must do as the Romans do”. I always cook typical Kashmiri cuisine, be it hakh, dum aloo, roganjosh, mach, kalia, chaman for my family. Even though my kids are not fluent in Kashmiri, I make it a point to speak or answer in Kashmiri. I celebrate all Kashmiri festivals –  hareth, navreh, kshemavas, gaade baat , roopa bhavani hund doh, kava punim. Ironically, my children have yet to visit Kashmir and experience their culture and see their heritage for themselves. I make it a point that my kids are close to their grandparents, relatives and talk to them often.