Arunachalam studied aircraft maintenance in the Philippines. Mariya, a child widow, is now doing her residency at Apollo Hospital. Two lakh such success stories in the making, because of Uma and Muthuram's efforts.
Jayavel, a farmer’s son from Nellore migrated to Chennai with his family when a drought rendered their farmland and their lives, absolutely barren.
But Chennai was just as unforgiving — the family wound up homeless on the streets, resorting to begging to make ends meet. To make matters worse, his father died, and his mother, in turn, found recourse in alcohol.
The cruel turn of events led Jayavel — uneducated and unguided then — to turn to begging. He was blackmailed into indulging his mother’s newfound vice lest she committed self-harm. He would work and beg through the weekends to make enough money to buy her alcohol, just so he could focus on his goals and find employment during the week.
When Uma Venkatachalam and Muthuram Narayanaswami, of the NGO Suyam Charitable Trust were introduced to him, their community was untrusting and tagged them as government stooges who would dupe them of their time and effort, and strip them of their hope. They refused to let them into their homes, but the couple did not back down. They frequented the hamlet and convinced Jayavel of their intentions. They eventually made a movie on him, Pavement Flower – a film that struck a chord with the masses and helped them raise enough money to fund his course in automobile engineering at Cambridge University.
That is the beauty of Uma and Muthuram’s story – they may have lifted two lakh people out of abject poverty and illiteracy through the quality and scale of their NGO, but each beneficiary was made to feel special, like their stories matter personally to the duo.
When Uma Muthuram was 10, she was already taking ninth grade mathematics because her mother (who was in fact, her aunt who raised Uma all alone) was a government school teacher, who served the needy for sixty years. “In fact, whenever she was assigned a higher class, she would come and learn Maths from me. She taught me how to learn from everyone, irrespective of their age, economic background, caste, etc.” she says.
This experience also allowed Uma to chronicle life at the fringes, as she regularly interacted with the students of her mother’s school that resided in slum areas. “This inspired me to take tuitions, and I started working for people on the streets for various causes – from education, organising blood donation, and eye checkup camps over the weekends to volunteering at hospitals etc.”
Uma came from a long lineage of noble citizens who had dedicated their lives to the service of others. “I even received a lot of support from my neighbours and classmates and the teachers at Ramakrishna Mission,” she recounts.
Uma was an academic topper too. She went on to procure no less than 10 degrees and certifications in the fields of mathematics, science, education and management – namely BSc Maths, MSc Maths, MBA, MSEM, PGDCA, Sahitya Ratna in Hindi, BEd in Hindi, Sanskrit, a PhD – but at the same time, kept up her volunteer work.
Muthuram, in turn, has known Uma since they were five years old. As Uma got involved with social work from a young age, Muthuram would also pitch in as much as he could. In fact, the duo, along with another friend, started a small fund wherein they would pledge Rs 10 out of their pocket money every month to help the underprivileged.
Muthuram went on to study B.Com, M.Com and MS, and worked mainly in finance and accounting, in various capacities including management, in a career spanning 15 years before he decided to join Suyam full-time in 2006. He quit his job a month before his wedding to Uma, informing his bosses that his calling was to be a social worker.
In 1997, when Uma was pursuing her MSc in Mathematics, she heard the harrowing tale of a 16-year-old boy, Mahalingam, from a village in Tirunelveli, who was working in a bronze lamp manufacturing unit to support his family. In an unfortunate accident, his food pipe and respiratory tract were ruptured by molten bronze. The government hospital in Tirunelveli sent him home without proper treatment, with a food pipe down his throat.
Without sparing a second thought, Uma took him into her home and frantically searched for a doctor who would agree to treat him free of cost. Finally, a Dr JS Raj Kumar of RIGID Hospitals in Kilpauk, Chennai agreed to spearhead his treatment, which would require 13 surgeries. Uma did not leave his side till his treatment was complete, and even cared for him in her own house, from where he appeared for his 12th-grade exams.
When she took up the case of a five-year-old boy and saved him from being sold off by his father, Uma realised that the slums were filled with such harrowing tales and that she must find an all-encompassing way to alleviate their misery. In her eyes, education was the answer – it would not only sensitise them but also equip them with all the tools necessary for a better future. And most importantly, bring all those in need in closer contact with Uma, so she could personally see to their progress. This was how the Suyam Charitable Trust came into being in 1999. She also started two Montessori schools under Suyam – Siragu Montessori School in Avadi and Bharatamatha Nursery and Primary School, in Vyasarpadi.
For starters, both schools focus on concept-based learning – like window-based interactive science concepts, roof-top science concepts, and propagate and inculcate a zero-waste lifestyle. “My children are my creative inspiration – observing them and seeing how they want to run, fly – we started a different assessment and methodology system,” says Muthuram.
They roped in educational-inventor J Robinson and became the first school to employ most of his revolutionary learning techniques – like the eight-pattern notebook that is used to write in different formats — spirally, vertically, zigzag, etc. to make learning interesting, and the mind stimulated. His other innovation, icono-write, a unique technique that combines words and pictures to make art, has also been adopted into the curriculum — making it the first school to do so.
“We are working with orphaned children, children of single parents, nomadic tribes, beggars, rural children, first-generation learners, AIDS victims – it all works through word-of-mouth. Luckily our own students and their parents have helped convince their friends and communities to join. But this has not always been easy. So many parents of beneficiaries don’t know the value of education. We have to really convince and counsel them. In 20 years, we have seen all sorts of people protesting – they’ve broken our cameras, drunks who would not allow us into their homes to talk to their wives and children,” she notes.
Through her continued work with nomadic tribes, she came to learn about their problems when it comes to access and recognition, and is now lobbying for 500 families to get their ration cards, voter IDs, houses to live in, and lastly, the Nomadic Tribe or NT status and reservation through government.
“They form one percent of the population and live in society unrecognised. Getting them listed as NT after SC, ST categories, will bring this marginalised community to the fore,” she says. Two of their children got their SC certificates, and 60 other students in colleges and universities have graduated in the higher categories.
Suyam works at all levels — I, body, family, society, and all ages – from 0 to job level. In that regard, SIRAGU Montessori School has educated 1,500 children so far, and Bharatamatha has benefited 2000. They also have a SIRAGU Home for the needy, which has fed 150,000, and lastly, they have helped 500 students pursue higher studies in India as well as abroad, through career guidance, and counselling, and funding. Uma was felicitated as a ‘True Hero’ by Merck Pharmaceuticals.
“We want to create Nobel laureates. I have dedicated my whole life to this – I was not interested in doing any other work. All the money I earn, I dedicate to the trust,” she says.
Having said that, garnering funds and finding volunteers who feel strongly about their work still remains a challenge for the couple. “We run pillar to post for funding. There are so many good-hearted people in India - little drops have made this mighty ocean. Finding good professionals to teach the ICSE syllabus in this set-up is another big challenge. We need people from India who feel strongly about bringing change at the grassroots level, who want to stay and work with us,” Uma explains.
“I handle the finances at the trust, while Uma takes care of the daily work. We run on daily donations. And right now, we need more financial assistance than ever because supporting higher education is a much more expensive affair, especially sending the students abroad,” Muthuram adds.
Success stories like Jayavel’s make the good fight worth fighting for. Another student, Arunachalam went to the Philippines to pursue an Aircraft Maintenance course, and Kala is studying physiology. Mariya, previously a child widow, is now doing her residency at Apollo Hospital.
“All our children are doing well, and want to come back as trustees. That is what makes me the happiest,” she says.
In order to make any contributions, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them on 8148151987/ 914442826303, or transfer the amount to:
Suyam charitable trust
IFSC CODE: ICIC0006031