“God forbids multiplicity for women in our society” says Kalki Koechlin in her recent video, ‘The Printing Machine.’ By extension, there is nothing more beautiful than sneaking a sight of the forbidden, and I had the pleasure of meeting someone who embodies this flawlessly. A woman who found a way to use her inherent compassion to dedicate her life to others, and, at the same time, summons her inner passion to chase her own dreams. Gowri Ramesh has spent her lifetime lifting others up from being victims of circumstances – first, by advocating bringing about normalcy into the lives of children with disabilities, and second, by practising the same normalcy she preaches while suffering from cancer herself.
Growing up in a traditional south Indian family in Mumbai, the entrepreneurship mindset never made an entry into Gowri’s household of bankers and teachers. But being the youngest among five siblings, Gowri wasn’t used to taking no for an answereither.
Following the footsteps of her father – a philanthropist and Freemason – she also started out early on at 17, volunteering as a teacher to young school children, at first to earn some extra pocket money. But her father gave her some advice that shaped the rest of her life. “He told me I must use my life to touch another’s. And I must render my services for free, and work only for goodwill. It will pay off,” she recalls.
Gowri worked in many fields. An economics graduate, she became a German-language translator for large MNCs back in the 80s, but moonlighted as a Carnatic singer performing at college festivals and various other events.
But life was to take an unexpected turn. She got married and shifted base to the Middle East, and had her first child. It was during Diwali, her son’s second, when he got burnt but didn’t bat an eyelid in pain. That was when she chose to get a second opinion. The doctor told her he was autistic. A diagnostic centre insisted that ‘the child is anancephalic – a child without a head.’
Gowri says, “I didn’t even know what it meant. I had to look it up! The psychiatrist said to methat he’s a ‘special child’. Parents would start asking me, ‘What is wrong with your son, is he abnormal?’”
She recalls the times when as a mother she would just shut down. “This was until the realisation came to me that my son was simply different, not better or worse than any other child. All I must do is raise him like any other child. I decided to simply go with the flow, and handle his condition one hurdle at a time. If he was doing poorly at school, I had to find out why his grades are low. If he was getting bullied, I would have to go talk some sense into the parents and children doing so. When I was in full acceptance of the challenges God had reserved for me, that enlightenment extended even to my son’s life,”she adds.
Gowri went on to study about autism and children with special needs and got herself a degree in special education
abroad. Soon, parents of other differently-abled children would come up to her and ask her how she managed to be so positive, and that’s when the idea to take her maturity and knowledge to the mainstream and offer formal help struck her.
Gauri began shuttling between Dubai, where her husband and daughter are, and Mumbai, where she moved with her son. The move was conducive to her son’s growth and development,what with him cracking admissions to Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s and on his way to becoming as much a maestro as his mum, in Carnatic music.
Meanwhile, she knew she was onto something big with her idea to help other children with disabilities. She teamed up with another mother, Reshmy Nikith, whose child had endured a similar ordeal, both united by a strong belief in inclusion. Together, they set up a trust and built Little Hearts Foundation for the differently-abled, with the sole aim to get them mainstream school-ready, so that they grow up in the society, rather than having a community of their own. The school’s curriculum includes sports, arts, music as well as academics, to help the child find his strong suit early on, even if he doesn’t have a grasp on academics.
“Since there had been zero to negligible awareness before films like Taare Zameen Par, the need of the hour was to tell parents that their children fit somewhere, and that they do have a place in society,”Gowri explains.
With a 5:2 student-teacher ratio, the school endeavours to handhold the children at a tender age and give them intensive attention, so they don’t get left behind. With 25 children, and a 100 percent pass over rate, the school is set to open a second centre to focus on the employability of slightly older differently-abled people.
With the success of her centre, Gowri wanted to move back to Dubai for the long haul. But fate had one last test to inflict upon her. Just when she was about to make the move, she collapsed at the airport. She woke up to the knowledge that she had colon cancer.
“I took this on as the next big challenge in my life,”she says. Gowri started undergoing treatment, all the while summoning a new-found determination to fight the cancer off. “Seeing my children excel, I was very driven and motivated to survive just to be with my family again,” she adds. For a span of two years—six months of which she was bedridden—she went about her life the same way. “I would hold my staff meetings so I was never kept away from the proceedings at the centre, and read my favourite fashion magazines when I needed to entertain myself,”she says.
Today, it has been two years since she has been declared cancer-free. Her efforts and spirit were even recognised by the Hiranandani Group of Companies on Women’s Day 2013 as a woman achiever, and by the Rotary’s Innerwheel Club on Guru Purnima 2013, as “The Best Teacher”.
Right now, as she stands completely satisfied with her social endeavours, Gowri is at the cusp of the second most significant chapter of her life: entrepreneurship and making a career in fashion.
Starting afresh and going back to your basics in college is no mean feat at the age of 47, but Gowri, meeting me a day after the convocation of her Entrepreneurship Management course at Welingkar’s, tells me there was no place she’d rather be, and nothing else she’d rather be doing! She is, perhaps, the best example for how one never stops learning and yearning for new experiences, however old one is.