Mumbai

A life more ordinary

A mix of team work and individual attention makes a world of difference to the 'students' at Om Creations Trust.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Bulti Das is 24. She comes from a family that struggles to get by. Her mother works as a domestic help, her father is a cook at a restaurant, and her younger brother takes up jobs that emerge around festivals, like making clay diyas and Ganpati idols.Ms. Das has recently got a job.

She starts her work day at around 9 a.m., when she takes a bus from near the family home in Worli to King George Memorial Infirmary in Mahalaxmi, where many non-government organisations have offices and workshops. There, Ms. Das spends her day making table lamps, wind-chimes, paintings, colourful cups, bowls, ceramic candle-holders, gift bags and many other things.Her mother, Geeta Das, takes great pride in her having a job. This might seem surprising. After all, in the economic strata in which the family lives, women far younger than she is — even young girls still in school — often work and contribute to the family income.But Ms. Das lives with Down’s Syndrome (DS), and is also hearing- and speech-impaired.

The syndrome is a result of a genetic anomaly which can result in mild-to-moderate intellectual disability (what the USA’s National Institute of Health calls ‘cognitive delays’). People with the syndrome also have distinct dysmorphic facial features, and may also have other birth defects including heart-defects and digestive abnormalities. There is no cure, but there are treatments which can temper the severity of its effects. For most with DS, though, living a ‘normal’ life, being self-reliant is not easy. As with many people with learning disabilities, people with DS often wind up being confined to their homes by well-intentioned families.No wonder, then, that her mother is so proud and happy. “She has become very intelligent. She can travel on her own, tackle routine tasks, and also keep an account of her daily expenses spent in travelling and other things.”

Productive lives

Ms. Das’s job is with Om Creations Trust (OCT). She is one of 57 women who work there. Their ages range from 22 to 60, and all of them live with DS. OCT takes orders from shops and companies to supply them with products which they choose from a menu of 175 items, originally designed by Om’s team with occasional inputs from students.

Aside from artefacts, the list also includes breads, chocolates, and made-to-order meals. The product list is fluid and growing, as OCT creates new products based on requests from its buyers. The women work to a brief to bring those designs into reality (or cook the recipes). In return they get a monthly stipend.OCT is a social enterprise that aims to “provide employment and a life of dignity to mentally challenged and differently-abled women.” It aims to help them integrate into society’s mainstream, earn an income to sustain themselves. It has branches in Mumbai Central and Bhuleshwar; across the three current facilities, they have 70 pupils (as they refer to the women they work with). OCT will soon open its own 12.5-acre residential compound in Karjat, with various facilities for the differently-abled, including a skill-development centre, an art village, hostel and an amphitheatre.At the Mahalaxmi facility, which The Hindu visited, the bond between teachers and students is clearly visible.

Akshay Puranik, who heads the food department, says, “If we don’t come for a day, they get worried about us, and ask us so many questions when we come back. It’s the same when they go somewhere with their parents, we miss them too, and when they come back they tell us how much they missed being here.” Project coordinator Archana Mehta, calls the women her children, and tells stories of the grand times they have had together on trips to Mysore, Pondicherry, Jaipur, Goa and many other places. “Everywhere we go, people are amazed to see them so well-behaved. Our hotel manager in Pondicherry gave us one day and night’s stay free, just by being amazed at their manners.”The women mostly have mild to moderate DS symptoms. Most have done a four-year vocational development course from S.P.J. Sadhana School, which works with differently-abled children. For those who have not received prior education or training, the trust trains them and helps to overcome that gap.

Aside from what they do at Om Creations, some of the pupils have found other ways to express their individuality. Shakti Varma, for instance, is an athlete who has won medals in sprinting; Sheetal Kadam is a swimmer; Afreen Shareef likes to sing in her spare time. When this reporter visited, the pupils were excited about a marathon run and picnic they are going to take in January 2017. Zainab Saif, who at 55 is one of the older pupils, is particularly looking forward to the outing. She is beading a wind chime with Ms. Shareef; chatting away, the two thread together colourful ceramic birds, beads and bells.

Innovate for good

Radhike Khanna started OCT in 1991, after completing her doctorate from a U.K. university. As part of her course, she had done a case study on nine women with DS in Mumbai. With encouragement from her mentor, Dr. Khanna started the foundation from one of the women in her study.

She says it was difficult to find a place in South Mumbai, but the foundation’s trustees helped her to get space in King George, where the foundation moved three years later.Soon, the products started developing and buyers were attracted to them by their story, quality and competitive pricing. Like Ankita Kapur, 35, a mother two, who says her young ones can’t get enough of Om’s chocolate chip cookies. “I have been buying a lot of their products, and I also gift them to my friends and family. The story behind them makes them even more special, and it makes me feel good to know that I am helping someone suffering from a disorder.”

Corporates and companies also buy products from the foundation, and many work with it as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility projects.“The challenge on how we can help them is on us educators,” Dr. Khanna says. “We want to give them their dignity, and push them above the poverty level. In our 30 years of work we have had a 93 per cent success in making them earning members of the society.”

Living with dignity

The stipend the women who work at Om make isn’t much. Some parts of it do get used up with, for instance, some of the women needing to be accompanied in travelling to and from the centre, with what’s left kept as savings in their bank accounts.For the families of the women who work at Om, the benefits far outweigh the costs.Radha Ryan, whose daughter Ilavani works at Om Creations, is a housekeeper. “We live in a rented place — and the rent is very high — and with other expenses like electricity and water included, we find it difficult to get through,” she says. But she is happy to see the difference in her daughter.

“She knows how to speak to elders and to those younger than her. She can speak in English too. I can see that her future will be better. She gets to travel to places where we can’t afford to go.” Shobha Mugdar, who also works a housekeeper, finds it difficult to manage her household expenses, but says that she is content for her daughter, and the progress she has made. “My daughter and I work together to keep the house going. My husband passed away 12 years ago and we face many difficulties, but I feel happy when I see the work she is doing.

”As for Ms. Das, when her day at Om is done, she takes the bus home, getting there by around 6.00 p.m. She plays a bit of cricket with her brother, helps her mother with the domestic chores, has dinner with her family, then watches television until she is sleepy.It’s an ordinary life, nothing special. But in so many ways it’s a better one than she and her family could have hoped for.


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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 12:58:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/A-life-more-ordinary/article16710341.ece

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