Prajnya, a not-for-profit initiative, is involved in innovative research projects on human security, gender concerns, peace and reconciliation… Swarna Rajagopalan, its founder-trustee, talks about how these efforts will help catalyse social change

She walks me into her office — a small area blocked off her living room. For nearly a decade, this narrow strip has been a crucible for a set of ideas meant to usher in violence-free womanhood. Groups of volunteers have fanned out from here, carrying resolve and reams of material to make that change. Here, Swarna Rajagopalan, founder-trustee, Prajnya, sits me in a chair. “I wear several hats, which one do you want me to talk about?” she asks courteously. We talk of them all, but it's an unannounced game that we play: she, smoothly placing her replies away from herself, me pulling focus back to the circumstances that shaped her mission. Ours is a friendly joust.

“I do academic writing,” she begins, pointing to a wall of books behind her. “I contribute bits and pieces for other people's books.” They are about human security, gender concerns and re-distribution of authority, but equally about feminist peace-building and reconciliation. To her, women's issues are about freedom from fear and want. “All these things intersect.”

Special interests

Research and academics are her special interests, but active participation in social issues is family tradition, she says. “My mother, her sisters and cousins volunteered in the Seva Dal in Mumbai, and I followed my cousins when they marched against the Mathura judgment.” A story she loves to tell is about how her great-grandfather and grand-uncle, job-seekers themselves, established an education society in Burma after watching illiterate loaders from Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh being short-changed in wages. “That is the touchstone on which I grew. We learnt to speak up, do what we could as public service.”

Research projects, rallies, multi-track programmes on women's issues — she's been there, done that. At some point, she felt the tug to do focussed research, outreach and network building, and knit these together as a cohesive campaign. Prajnya would provide the platform. “In 2007, we started a life-story project, profiling women, archiving stories and photographs of women in public life.”

A word that began as a pronunciation test now stands for an impressive range of innovative programmes: I attended one on newspaper reporting of sexual harassment and another on cyber-crimes against women. There are inter-collegiate quizzes, presentations (to beauticians/nurses), round-table seminars and Prajnya-supported theatre productions on women's issues, besides the hosting of Hollaback!-Chennai, a global platform against street sexual harassment. Prajnya's 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, flagged off in 2008, co-opts civil society organisations, corporates and educational institutions to conduct programmes between November 25 and December 10.

Swarna sees Prajnya as a group of hunter-gatherers of information, hope-to-be traffic police. Can't do heavy-lifting, she says, “We have no competence when it comes to services, counselling and providing legal help.” But what she does is fundamental — nudging people to think about the issue. “For help to be effective, women must feel they need it; they have rights.” Volunteers organise community cafés where they chat with apartment complex/neighbourhood residents about aspects of gender-based violence. During 16 Days Campaign-2013, with help from five corporates, Prajnya distributed 8000 copies of women's helpline lists. She works with a sense of purpose, but won't “measure my journey like a Five-Year Plan.” The work is thought through, but the focus is on process. “Change will be infinitesimal to start with, and slowly things will begin to happen.”

In that makeshift office, she finds space for summer interns, visiting research scholars, but “in five years we should have a place of our own.” It will run small programmes, have people working full-time, others making use of the resources. She hopes her peace education programme gets going. “It's very close to my heart.” She is also expanding the Prajnya community, connecting it to people in India and abroad.

Puzzles and kutcheris

Is there life outside Prajnya? Oh, yes, “Prajnya and I are separate entities,” she says, adding ruefully, “but immersed in work, I have felt alienated from myself.” She has discovered jigsaw puzzles on her iPad, would love to read/write for fun, and attend kutcheris. “I have layers of being and my professional life is much more professional than Prajnya.”

It's a life based on strong conviction. “I get to do interesting and useful things and I feel grateful for the people and experiences that make up my life,” she says. “If you are that lucky, you have to give back.” She adds quickly, “Acknowledgement of good fortune and privilege must be governed not by guilt but a sense of responsibility.”

Small setps, big impact

- We no longer tell stories about families. Children should hear of the experiences of the elders not as a lament, but as a saga of survival.

- Staying on this road is sadhana, tapasya. After the exercise I ask: Did I put in everything I had?

- Peace education contains ideas like: Are we inclusive? What are we doing to teach our sons? Does he know: “No means no”?

Helplines: prajnya.in/chennaihelplines.htm