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Managing a talkathon

BHUMIKA K.
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PASSIONS Usha Prasad overcame disability from a stroke to organise over 650 talks consistently every Friday for senior citizens of Malleswaram

Speech therapy of sortsUsha PrasadPhoto: Bhagya Prakash k.
Speech therapy of sortsUsha PrasadPhoto: Bhagya Prakash k.

It’s not easy to organise talks. Sound as simple as it may, only someone who’s organised 650 talks straight, week after week, for 12 years would know. Ask 60-year-old Usha Prasad, who’s been voluntarily organising the Friday weekly talk since January 2000 for the Nightingale Elders Enrichment Centre (NEEC) in Malleswaram.

A homemaker, Usha suffered a massive stroke six months after her third daughter was born in 1986; a tumour in the heart was the cause and she also had to undergo an open heart surgery to have it removed. But the whole scenario made her lose the use of the left limbs of her body. She also had the responsibility of looking after her aged in-laws. “I became depressed and dejected. I had always been a very active person, full of enthusiasm. But now I couldn’t even move about much. In 1999, Radha S. Murthy, the founder of Nightingale and a friend, coaxed me to do something voluntarily at NEEC. After some reluctance I casually said ‘let me see if I can arrange a talk for the senior citizens’. Since January 2000, the ball’s been rolling,” recounts Usha, with a smile.

When she started off, she tried to pick speakers and topics that dealt with issues of old age. “But the listeners slowly became jaded. That’s one thing you must understand about senior citizens — they want to be younger and live with a young spirit. They wanted something to widen their knowledge,” says Usha. And so followed a string of speakers — doctors, engineers, environmentalists, journalists — all gracious volunteers themselves too. S.G. Vasudev, Shashi Deshpande, Maya Rao, Ramachandra Guha, Prem Koshy, Prakash Belawadi and many others have spoken at this forum. Most of the speakers she tries are cold calls, after reading up about them because they are in the news, or because someone else she knows recommended them. “I’m pretty persuasive and always manage to get them,” she says, beaming with pride.

They’ve had a centenarian come and talk to them, so have Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia’s parents. They’ve had talks on anything ranging from Zen to wild dogs in the Mudumalai, Indian English, terrorism, Roerich’s art, elephant conservation, organ donation, off-shoring and its impact on India, women scientists of India, poetry reading, humour in advertising, patent laws, search for extra terrestrial intelligence… Usha has meticulously documented each Friday’s speaker and topic, and says she tries not to repeat speakers. There have been many a time she’s been “ditched” in the last minute, but Usha says she’s always managed to keep some other speaker on stand-by mode.

While NEEC has over 250 members, about 50 attend the Friday talks regularly, says Usha. So she decided some “marketing” was required — “I researched the speakers, did a synopsis of what they would speak on, and then sent out a mail telling people how the talk would benefit them.” The only thing that can possibly keep them back from the Friday talks is the weather or a crucial cricket match, she laughs! “And they always ask me ‘Where do you get these speakers, Usha?’. That, and the beaming smiles I get at the end of the talk, drives me to do more.”

This coming Friday she has two speakers coming in to discuss the Nirbhaya issue and hopes to involve the senior citizens in a discussion even on the legal aspects.

Whatever happens, Friday 4.30 p.m. is non-negotiable, as far as Usha is concerned. No personal commitments are made for that day, that time. Each time Usha went to the U.S.A. to be with her daughter, she fixed appointments in advance, had a person on standby to coordinate things, so that not a Friday Talk would go amiss. Usha credits her three girls and husband Prasad for constantly pushing her to go on.

“I just wish anyone else who’s in my position takes inspiration from what I’m doing. I never thought after my stroke that I would be normal again. This opportunity to organise these talks has been so therapeutic for me…” she signs off.

Usha can be contacted on ushapra77@gmail.com

This column features people who veer off the beaten track.

BHUMIKA K.

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