Jyotsna Suri

Jyotsna Suri, managing director of Bharat Hotels Limited, epitomises perseverance. She is the perfect example of what women can rise up to, in the face of the toughest challenges. An English Literature graduate from Delhi University, with no training in hospitality, Jyotsna, was a homemaker; a mother taking care of her four children before she started managing the hotel business with her husband- Lalit Suri. She faced various challenges along the way- her husband was incapacitated for two years due to a surgery; after his recovery she took over additional responsibilities from him when he became a Rajya Sabha member and eventually after he passed away, she had to consolidate everything and prove the naysayers wrong, who claimed that the business wouldn’t run. She rebranded the hotel and is now counted amongst the top 50, of the most powerful women in the country.

Dr Suri, is not only a force to be reckoned with, in the hospitality sector but has also been a staunch supporter of her children. All four of them are involved in the business. Her unflinching love and support for her son, Keshav Suri, who is a LGBTQ activist, led her to perform with him at his first drag show.

I chanced upon her words recently and it amazed me how little we know the people we grew up around! Her daughters studied in C.J.M and the youngest one was a batchmate of mine. I remember her as a sweet, polite girl. We never moved in the same circles, so I had no idea what was going on with her! But when I read Jyotsna’s article, one got thinking about her, what her life must have been like, what ‘privileged people’ look like to the outside world but what goes on in their lives, is the same, sometimes more complicated than what goes on in yours or mine.

Much can be learned from Jyotsna Suri, not just for her own achievements; strong mothers, they show their children and the rest of us, how women can get up, multitask, build empires and fix any problem, inspite of the odds.

The Riderni- Preetpal

Moderator of the Riderni, Delhi Chapter
Preetpal is the mother of two fur babies.
She rides a Royal Enfield Desert Storm.
Preetpal, learnt how to ride from her partner, who is in the merchant navy around three years, ago.
A mental health professional, she counsels and enables young adults to solve their teenage issues.

Women’s Day Ride Organised By LetsRyde

If you think, ‘ women can’t ride bikes and they are each other’s worst enemies!’, think again. These women will shatter that belief. Not only do they ride like the wind, they cheer each other on. This year, one wasn’t in the mood to celebrate womankind. Someday, the past year, will become what artists do with their feelings, turn it into a body of work. But somehow, one bumped into this incredible bunch of women, thanks to Amit Saini from Lets Ryde Academy.

One attended the motor cycle riding workshop, which entailed learning how to pick up the bike if it fell and learning how to walk with it. That of course did not qualify me, for the ride to Leopard’s Trail, which was organised, yesterday. This was done in honour of women and was called The Women’s Day Ride.

‘Let’s break the stereotype’, is Amit’s favourite line, that he repeats, constantly. It seems to work because women from all walks of life, attend these classes. Abha, who led the ride, is a doctor and the owner of a BMW bike. Someone, with an infectious laugh and camaraderie that trickles down to each member. She held court, effortlessly and made everyone comfortable.

Tarana, a 34 year old, Muslim woman, will shatter your belief that the women of her community are suppressed. She works, rides and does as she pleases, while keeping her head covered, laying to rest, the idea, that women’s strength and independence can be gauged by the size of their clothing. Anita, who was just about to graduate from the academy, is all excited about riding to Ladakh, bro! From air hostesses to directors, to advocates to wives who bought Royal Enfield’s on a whim because, ‘they loved how it looked’ are all learning at this academy in Gurugram, that has been running for the past few years. So, if you feel the need to break the shackles, do check out their classes.

Shehla Rashid Shora

Jnu Student, Shehla Rashid at the launch of her political career in Srinagar. From being at the forefront of the student agitation calling for the release of Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar, to taking a stand about the human rights violations in Kashmir, Shora was well known for her activism before joining the Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Movement.


Gauri Lankesh



EverydayWomen Plate 1

This year for Women’s day, at a 100 pieces of me we celeberate the everyday women. Women I’ve encountered during my travels, in harsh terrains, in male dominated industries, just going on with their daily lives with all the strength they can muster. As captions are quotes about womanhood by famous women.

”Motherhood has a very humanising effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials”-Meryl Streep


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Gulnaaz Khan, Acid Attack Survivor

Gulnaaz how old are you? Can you tell me about the incident?

I’m nineteen years old. I was returning from college one day and a boy threw acid on my face.


Why would someone randomly do that? Did you know the guy? 

Yes, I knew the boy. He had sent a marriage proposal to me which I turned down and even my parents refused to this union. He was furious and that’s why he threw acid on my face. He said,” Meri nahin to kissi ki nahin.”


Acid Attack Fighter Gulnaaz Khan

Acid Attack Fighter Gulnaaz Khan

When did this happen and did you file a case against the offender? 

It happened on the 29th of November 2014. The judgement is still pending.


Who supported you through these trying times?

My parents stood by me. Both my Mother and Father do a lot for me. Other than my family, an outsider who has been supporting me, for the past five months is- Megha Ma’am, Megha Mishra. She has been helping me with my treatment and my medication. She’s associated with ACFI. Even Shaheen Ma’am from Make Love Not Scars has been supporting me.


When something life altering happens, we lose many things but we find the strength to survive it. Did you find yourself becoming a stronger human being?

Yes! When the incident took place I went crazy, completely mad. I couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen to me. But when I saw what it was doing to my Mother, I pulled myself up. I told her and myself, that everything will be fine! I had to be strong for her. I’m the eldest and and I have two sisters and a brother who are younger than me. I had to be strong for them and because of my family I became a stronger person.





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Archana-Acid Attack Survivor


Can you tell me about the incident Archana? When, where and how did it happen?

It happened in 2008, in my village in U.P. There was a guy who was living opposite my house. For four years he was after me. He never said anything but one day in 2008, he just suddenly came to my house and threw acid on my face. He had already consumed poison before he came over and after he flung the acid on my face, he died. I didn’t get to know anything, since I was unconscious. This happened at around four thirty in the afternoon. My father rushed me to a hospital in the city. It was only at around 10.30-11.00 at night that I regained consciousness. We never knew what to do. We never even filed an F.I.R.


What happened after that?

There was a lot of damage. My parents left everything and started staying in the hospital with me. Then we took a room on rent and continued with the treatment. I never returned to my village after the treatment.

"I wondered why anyone would want to marry a girl like me?"-Archana Thakur, acid attack fighter.

“I wondered why anyone would want to marry a girl like me?”-Archana Thakur, acid attack fighter.


What do you do over here?

I don’t work anywhere, I’m a housewife. I got married last May.


How did you meet your husband?

It was an arranged marriage. My parents got us married. He is my Aunt’s (Bua) daughter’s, brother-in-law. The families spoke and my husband’s brother came to see me. He agreed to the marriage but I was weary. I wanted my future husband to see me first. I wondered,”Why would a guy agree to marry a girl like me?” So he came over and he never asked me about anything. He just said I like the girl. But I was very suspicious. I said to my mother, “I don’t know what ulterior motives have lead him to agree to marry a girl like me.” I was very hesitant, so my parents agreed to wait. I just needed him to know that my body was burnt so that he wouldn’t say anything later. We started speaking to each other, over the phone. That’s when I informed him that my legs and my chest were burnt. He was ok with everything.


Are you happy after marriage?





Soni Sori

Soni Sori a tribal teacher who was accused of being a courier for the Maoists, was raped and tortured in custody in 2011.

Soni Sori, a tribal teacher, activist and now a politician, was accused of being a courier for the Maoists. She was raped and tortured in custody in 2011.

This February she was attacked by three unidentified men who threw acid on her.

This February she was attacked by three unidentified men who threw acid on her.

Soni Sori at Aath March Saath March, Jantar Mantar.

Soni Sori at Aath March Saath March, Jantar Mantar.









Sushmita Ghosh

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“Puja is very special for us Bengalis. We buy new clothes, dress up everyday and stay out as late as possible. I live in Chittaranjan Park and have been putting up this stall for the past seven years. Though, it’s not Calcutta but it still feels like home.”-Sushmita Ghosh, 35 year old Bengali Woman

Pratima Prabhu



“My parents started a small business in Delhi  and therefore, we migrated from Calcutta to Delhi when were just children. I have been living here ever since, but unlike most other Bengali’s I don’t stay in Chittaranjan Park. My home is a little further away in Govind Puri. I have been putting up this Jaleni stall for the past ten years.”- Pratima, 45 year old Bengali Woman.





At home in Ballimaran.

At home in Ballimaran.


I never enjoy getting on a plane. If I can, I always prefer driving, to my chosen destination. But driving to Kashmir during the floods was not an option. It was on my flight back to Delhi from Srinagar on the 14th of September, last year that I met her. Arshi was a bubbly, seventeen year old, Dilli 6 ki ladki, who spoke nineteen to a dozen-about the floods and about herself. Being the youngest of six siblings, she knew how to hold my attention. I soon became ‘aapi’ and of course, I was totally enamoured by her charm. After all, she loved Ghalib, too. 

Recently, I caught up with my little spitfire at her home in Chandni Chowk and strolled through Old Delhi. Here, are excerpts from the conversation.

Do you feel pressurized to wear a hijab?

No! It’s my wish.

When you step out of Chandni Chowk, do you ever find people staring at you?

Yes, but it doesn’t make me a difference.

What do wish for young Muslim girls, such as yourself?

First, we should be independent. We should be allowed to speak our minds, freely not only at home but outside, as well.

Do you consider yourself to be independent?

Yes! I do. Mein kissi ke dabaav mein nahin aati. I move freely. I do what pleases me but I try to be good.

Can you tell me about your experience during the floods in Kashmir?

I was really excited to visit Kashmir. There was a family wedding in Srinagar and my sister and I reached there on the 1st of September. The wedding got over on the 4th of September and on the 5th the area, Batmaloo started submerging in water. We were evacuated from smaller houses and moved to taller buildings.  It was very difficult to get through the night. There was no electricity and it was really cold. Hum bahut pareshaan the lekin, Allah se dua karte rahein. Then Allah helped us and after a few days we returned home.

Did the neighbours help?

Yes, the roofs were connected with planks, so first we shifted to a neighbours house and then as the water receded we moved back to our relatives. When it had receded to our waist level, we walked through it and caught a flight back to Delhi.

What do you like to do?

Mein speech me sabse aage hun. I participate in a lot of debates and competitions. I have many participation certificates and have won many prizes. I love to dance and my teachers love me because I am freedom.

Plus, you love reciting poetry. Do you want to recite something?

Yes! I love poetry. Hame kyaa maloom tha zindagi itni anmol he dosto. Kafan odh kar dekha to nafrat karne wale bhi ro rahe the.














Mridula Koshy

Mridula Koshy

Writer Mridula Koshy

Writer Mridula Koshy

Notification- the image from this post has been copied by another blog. Though they have given me the credit (to advance their SEO) it has been used without my permission. Duly note that these are not commissioned photographs, therefore the copyright lies solely with me. For any usage, please send me an email.


Monika Singh

Monica Singh

She didn’t want the bandages to get prominence during the shoot. ‘‘I don’t want this to be the face of me!’, stated Monica. For someone who has undergone more than forty surgeries, the pain (bandages) is what she would want to show the world, I would assume.  But Monica Singh, is not a regular girl. She’s a woman who has paid the price of hurting the male ego by politely rejecting a friend’s proposal.

Unrequited love drove the friend to throw a bucketful of acid on the face he so admired; leaving Monica with 75% burns on her body.  She could only get through the terrible pain of having her skin peeled off without anesthesia because of her father’s love.

A decade later, Monica is still trying to pick up the pieces but with great aplomb. ”When I die I’m going to ask God why he did this to me? He better have an answer ready or ‘somebody’s gonna get hurt real bad”’, she bursts in peals of laughter as she quips, Russell Peter’s famous line. A graduate of National Institute Of Fashion Technology, she’s all set to go to Parson’s for an Associate Program and Make Love Not Scars, is helping her achieve that by collecting funds for her.

Monica Singh-Acid attack survivor

Monica Singh-Acid Attack Survivor

Here are excerpts from our conversation. 

I’m not going to start by questioning you about the incident. Rather, I want to find out from you -what have the past ten years been like?

It’s not been hard, fighting all the time, struggling all the time. It seemed like everyday, I was going to war. I never felt myself normal. I never went anywhere without makeup. Of course, I had to loose a lot… compromise a lot.  I had to accept somewhere that this is who I am and had to start loving myself as quickly as possible, so that people could start loving me as I was.  I started believing that if I was happy and I loved and accepted myself, then people would accept me and love me back.  I customized myself to believe that if people were staring at me, I would tell myself that it was because I was looking pretty.

What strikes me about you is how different you are from most people. Not because of the way you look or due to what has happened to you. But because of you’re,’I’m not a victim’ attitude. Where does that come from?

That’s there because I’m blessed. I have had the unflinching support of my family and friends. My mother understands my pain. But other than that it’s also because I never stopped dreaming. Just because something terrible happens to you doesn’t mean you put yourself in a box.  One has to continue to dream. Despite, what happened I kept setting goals and I kept trying to achieve them. I continued studying and working. This helped me to overcome my sorrows about being an acid attack victim. I don’t think that I’m a victim anymore- I’m talking like a normal girl; I’m walking like a normal girl. I’m seeing things and doing things, so I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor! My outside may be ruined but my inner strength is there to get me through it.

How has the incident changed your relationship with men? Are you a bit weary?

I don’t trust easily, now. I don’t judge people but I’m a bit weary after the incident. But there are good people around and I don’t want to forgo them because I’m a little bit bitter. What has happened is in my past, I’m trying to live in the present and focus on my future. The only way I can avenge what happened is by building a beautiful life for myself- not by hurting the person who hurt me or by punishing other men for it. It’s difficult but I have to remember  that the person who nursed me back to health was a man (my father-he passed away last year) and the person who stands by me is also a man (my brother).


© Text and Photo by Saadiya Kochar.


Read Further. Shirin Hasrat talks about Ria,  the founder of Make Love Not Scars.
She was a study in contradictions.For those who looked at her superficially she was a rebel without a cause, who broke every rule in the book and whom the school authorities had written off as a trouble maker.For those who cared to look below the surface, here was a sensitive, vulnerable young girl, lost in the maze of teenage angst, looking for an anchor. A bleeding heart looking for love in a world too busy to care.
I connected with her initially because we shared the same birth date, and later because in her I saw reflected my own adolescence….lost, floundering, seeking stability.Today that rebel without a cause is spearheading a very worth cause, ” Make Love not Scars.” This is a support group for acid attack victims who are not only scarred physically, but  for those who are at the receiving end of a great deal of emotional trauma, shunned by those they have loved and trusted.I am immensely proud of this enterprising young lady, and I would like to request my peers not to be judgmental of this generation who may be sporting tattoos or Mohawk hair do’s but have their heart in the right place.
This interview was made possible because of our guest blogger Shirin. To know more about her click on the link below. The search for guest bloggers is on. Volunteer. 


Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila apears before the court on the 28th May 2014.

Irom Sharmila sitting in the police vehicle outside the Patiala House Court.


'The Iron Lady', being captured by the press as she leaves the court.

‘The Iron Lady’, captured by the press as she left the court.


Protestors outside Gate No 1 of the Patiala House.

Protestors outside Gate No 1 of the Patiala House.


Irom Chanu Sharmila, appeared before the Delhi court yesterday, May 28th 2014. Sharmila who has been on a thirteen year long fast for the repeal of AFSPA, in 2006  went on a fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar – faces the charges of ‘attempt to commit suicide’. Each year she is released, as under the law she can only be held for a period of a year, for this offense but then gets rearrested due to her continual fast. The Iron Lady told the court that she was fasting for the atrocities that the people of Manipur are facing, for repeal of the draconian law- Armed Forces Special Powers Act and  denied trying to commit suicide.”I love my life very much”, she stated.









She caught me by surprise…this one. I would have never guessed that this struggling model, with a typical haryanvi accent- that made her feel like a misfit in a modeling class; was actually a constable at the Tihar Jail. A chat with Sarita who never told her classmates what she did for a living.

What made you get into this profession? What was your parents reaction?

I’ve always wanted to join the police force because my father was in the same profession. Just took an exam, cleared it and here I am. Initially, my father wasn’t against the idea… he didn’t think it was a ‘nice job’. But my mother was happy because she thought my daughter has a ‘sarkari naukri’.

Do you come from liberal set-up? What do the other female members in your family do?

No, I come from a conservative family. My mother is a housewife and my elder sister is a teacher.

What do you feel about working in Tihar? How long have you been working there?

I’ve been working for four years. It’s just a job that’s why I’m doing it.

But there are many jobs that one can do? Has anything good happened to you on the job?

In most jobs one has to work. Over here I just have to take care of the inmates. Everyday, something happens due to which I regret working here. The people we spend our time taking care of don’t respect us. They abuse us and sometimes even physically assault us. A number of times I have been physically assaulted because I’m doing my job honorably. Once, at the ward where I work I confiscated some mobiles. The inmates turned against me and I had to run away because fifty women came to assault me. I can’t really say that anything good has happened to me, here and after a while I will quit.

The Model

The Model


Have you complained to anyone about the physical assaults?

I did complain to the head of department but to no avail. If we make the slightest mistake or there’s a mis-happening due to one of the constables, immediately there’s an enquiry. But if anyone misbehaves with us or beats up no action is taken. I have written an email to NHRC but nothing. I don’t discuss these matters with my parents because that will just upset them.

What are your aspirations in life?

I want to be famous and famous for something good. I want to do something for myself where I gain some respect. Me chahtee hu ke jab me maru to aisa na maru , ke kissi ko bhi pata he na chale! I want everyone to know who I was.



'India mein bole ke stand up comic hein to sochte he ke bhand ho. In India you want to say I'm an accountant!'

Neeti Palta- ‘India mein bole ke stand up comic hein to sochte he ke bhand ho. In India you want to say I’m an accountant!’


            Neeti Palta

I can’t even imagine this one meditating. I’m sure she sits in a class pretending to do so, with one quip after another running through her mind jostling to come out! Well,  what else can we expect from Delhi’s, ‘funny girl’? But this, ”The men in my class aced it…. I guess the state of thoughtlessness came naturally to them.” This is Neeti Palta being polite! Now don’t get me wrong. All her bits are not just about men in general or Punjabi boys in particular. Neeti’s routine also comprises of her view on current affairs and Indian parents. If you’re an Indian woman: you’ll relate to her witty remarks about our lives. But if you’re a man, I just have one suggestion to make- as a precautionary measure don’t wear pointed shoes to any of Neeti Palta’s shows!

Excerpts from a chat with Neeti Palta – stand up comic and the screenwriter of the eagerly awaited Bollywood film, ‘O Teri’.                                                                                               

From an advertising job,to being touted as ‘the female stand up comic’ in Delhi – your journey has been quite transformative. After establishing Loony Goons and doing shows pan India; what was it like to be sent to Australia? How different was the experience at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which is considered to be the third largest comedy festival?                                           I had an amazing experience. It was the Melbourne Comedy Festival, after all. I had never seen such a festival forget being asked to be a part of one. There were orange flags everywhere. It’s the largest cultural event in Australia. There were so many wonderful shows at multiple venues. All kinds of comics were there- the stars as well as the non stars, local as well as international ones. I was just happy being there.

How did the Aussies receive you?                                                                                                                                                                 The finals were organised at the Townhall. The largest audience I have performed in front off. There were probably eighteen hundred to two thousand people. It was the full shebang with the opera balcony and all. Since the festival was nationally televised; after the show when I was traveling there were Aussies who told me that they had seen me on the tele. I was the inaugural winner at the festival. It’s so different there. During the festival I was wearing a batch which said participant. People appreciated the fact that I was a comic and a participant. India mein bole ke stand up comic hein to sochte he ke bhand ho. In India you want to say I’m an accountant!

So how did you manage to get your first big break in Bollywood with Salman Khan?                                                                      Umesh and I wrote the script of O Teri and thought that we should try to make this. So we approached Pulkit Samrat. At that time Fukrey hadn’t released. When he read the script he said he wanted to show it to ‘Bhai’. And suddenly I’m face to face with Salman Khan. I was quite calm about meeting him. He was shooting at the time but he still spent two hours with us. When he was leaving he called up his brother-in-law, Atul Agnihotri and just like that everything was decided. The shooting took place in Delhi. From a small budget film it became a medium budget film. Salman Khan even gave a press release. Now we are just looking forward to the release!

© Saadiya Kochar 2014



I met her at a women’s conference and assumed that Nandita was just another beautiful Bengal tigress who excels at the work that she does. But that’s not who she is – well, not entirely. Her world is a melting pot of various cultures: her paternal side is Kashmiri Pandit, her maternal side is Punjabi and her husband is Bengali. Her life is an amalgamation of experiences which have been passed down through generations.  As an individual having studied Mass Communication and having worked in theatre from a young age has given her a multi faceted personality. This convergence of various cultures and experiences can be seen in the jewelry which she designs.

In conversation with Nandita Atal Bose about Burnt Sienna and her very interesting childhood. Burnt Sienna is a company that supplies jewelry to 28 stores in India and to seven in the United Kingdom.

How did you start Burnt Sienna?                                                                                                               The first company that I started was called Sia, which was more a labour of love than anything commercial.  I worked with artisans and held exhibitions. But Burnt Sieena was a business idea with a very strong creative flavour. In it’s case the commercial angle was extremely important. Burnt Sienna started as a jewelry company, wedding jewelry was the idea: though we initially started with metal and then gradually went into precious stones.

At one point were you into leather jewellry, as well?                                                                                                                                   We started with metal because at that time we had funds only for metal and leather. Since there was a constraint and I had been burnt earlier we decided to become the best in metal and then move up the ladder. After metal, we moved onto silver. That line was called Silver Sienna. The funds that we got from Silver Sienna were used to start Aliya Diva which was silver with gold plating. Then we got into fine jewelry. Everything basically fed into each other. I would give myself eight month-long deadlines to make each line work out.

You seem to be very ‘with it’. You’re one of the few who started marketing on Facebook when it was still in it’s nascent stage in India. How did your Facebook journey begin and what are the future plans for the company?                                                           We started in 2005 and by 2008 recession had hit world over and there was basic gloom and doom. Almost overnight we lost six of our local stores. Almost at the same time Facebook was becoming popular. So we decided to use it. At the moment we have a very strong online presence of over 45,000 people.  Burnt Sienna is a company that makes jewelry for corporate women. We are starting Siena baby which is jewelry for children.

Now on a personal front, you seem to have had the most interesting childhood. Can you tell me about growing up in a family which was a melting pot of cultures and experiences?                                                                   .                                                                                      My childhood was very interesting. I was born in Calcutta. I am half Kashmiri and half Panjabi. My mother is Panjabi and my father is Kashmiri.I grew up in Calcutta and when I was three I moved to Guwahati. Moved back to Calcutta finished my college and then came to Delhi to do my Masters and then I started two companies. When we were growing up in Calcutta and then subsequently in Assam we would come to Delhi every single year to meet both maternal and paternal grandparents.  There was a very strong Kashmiri Pandit influence which enveloped all of us at a very festive time.  So you did see a lot of layering of social festivals in a wedding scenario and it was fascinating for a child to grow up in that environment. Both my parents are extremely liberal. Possibly my father is a little orthodox. My mother spent a lot of time in England when she was growing up. I grew up in a family where smoking and drinking wasn’t taboo for women. I personally don’t drink and smoke but that’s just a kink. It was a wonderful place to breathe and grow as children.

So obviously there was no opposition when you wanted to marry a Bengali man.                                                                                  Yes, there wasn’t any. My father just asked me if I was sure and that’s it. I wasn’t very young when I got married. I was already 28. My parents gave both me and my younger sister a lot of space to choose our professions and our husbands. I married a Bengali and my sister is married to a Muslim man. So in a way my family is not really like a typical Kashmiri Pandit family. Many of my cousins have married outside the community.






© Saadiya Kochar 2014


 Sufi Singer, Zila Khan

Zila Khan

First Encounter- Srinagar (2002)

Zila Khan-First Encounter- Srinagar (2002). 

“Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhaar,
Jo utra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar’’- Khusrau



Sitting in front of a picture I took of her, in New Delhi.

Zila Khan, Sufi Singer-Sitting in front of a picture I took of her, in New Delhi.

I jumped in to drown and when I drowned I went across the barriers of fear. In 2002 I went alone to Kashmir for the first time. At the time it was still considered to be unsafe. But I guess God works in mysterious ways. I guess I was destined to go there, to meet Zila Apa and to fall in love with a place I would be hung up on for all eternity.

There she was on the bank of the Dal Lake dressed in white. A lady I didn’t know. She seemed so pristine, untouched by the world connected only with the Almighty as she sat there singing surrounded by a group of musicians. I remember being so utterly in awe of her connection that my hands shivered as I made the pictures.

At the time I had no idea that she came from a lineage of generations of musicians and that she was the daughter of Ustad Vilayat Khan, the sitar maestro. That she had been a homemaker and had a little boy. I had no clue that she was a famous Sufi singer or that making pictures of her at that moment meant that I would get to work with her extensively for over a decade.

All I could see was someone who could move me to tears. Apa said to me once that when she sang a Sufiana Kalam, she reached a sublime state and the purpose of singing in front of an audience was to help them achieve that. Even after hearing her live umpteen times she still manages to make me reach that state!

Zila Apa

Zila Apa


They say after a certain age our faces become roadmaps of the lives we’ve lead. Looking at Merry’s face one can never imagine the life that she’s lead. In her 60’s, she comes across as a chic 45 year old, with an inexplicable joie de vivre.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with the Director of AFA; an Ashoka Fellow, about her life.

How did you get into the area of special needs, particularly autism?
I was working in the field of special needs after college. But never thought of it as a career. I only got into it full time after my son received a diagnosis. Though not right after. Initially, I was trying to find out more about the condition. To learn what autism is all about. But I kind of got into it full-time 25 years ago.

Twenty five years ago where there a lot of places where one could find information about autism? What was it like for you at that time?
When Neeraj got the diagnosis, which was more than 25 years ago, there was no place a person could turn to. People really did not know what autism was. A handful of places knew about Autism but they did not know what that really meant- what a person with autism was really like? What were their needs? What were their strengths and difficulties? When I started out there really was not there anything in the country on Autism.

Was it very difficult to lead a normal life at that time? There are a lot of people who have a victim complex and yet when I look at you, you come across as a normal happy go lucky person. It translates into the organization you run and the relationships you have with your co-workers. Did you ever feel like why was all this happening to you?

Initially before I knew Neeraj had Autism, I did find life very difficult because I could not understand why I was not able to do the kind of things and be the kind of mother that other mother’s were. I kept thinking that once he’s a little bit older he would outgrow all of this. I just thought that maybe my son was a little slow and that was all right with me. But when he was diagnosed with Autism, I would say that for a month I was in a bit of a daze. For the first time I realized that the life that I was leading was going to be my life forever and that was a bit of a shock because till then I had thought this was going to change. I never thought why is this happening to me because I know that nobody has a perfect life and perfection is a very relative thing. The other difficult bit was after the diagnosis I wanted information about how to help my child which that was absent. It was like being thrown into a void and not knowing what I could do to help my son with something called Autism and you just sit with it. That inaction was what I found really hard to deal with.

Merry Barua at AFA.

Merry Barua at AFA.

So what did you do after the diagnosis?Initially, I went to the American Library and the British Council library in Calcutta, where I was staying to read up on Autism. There was nothing there. So I called up a friend who was a doctor in the U.K and told him about the diagnosis and asked him to send me some literature. He sent me a book, which when I think back now, was very basic. But it was like clutching at straws, having something to hold on to. Even internationally there were only a handful of books that had been written about the disability. It was only in the 80’s that the awareness spread at least internationally.
There were three instances that changed it- One was that in the U.K Dr Lorna Wing who was also a parent talked about the ‘triad of impairments in Autism’ and that made us sit up and think about it. The second was the film Rainman with Dustin Hoffman which did an exceptionally good depiction of a person with Autism. However, not all people with Autism are like that and not all people have special skills like Raymond Babbitt did. The third thing; a very important one which I did not get the benefit of till another 6 years later, was a book called ‘Emergence: labeled Autistic’ by Temple Grandin. She was the first person with the disability to write a book on what it was like to be autistic. When I read her book for the first time I thought, is this what my son experiences? For the first time I started to understand Neeraj. These were the things that began to change the world in the late 80’s.

Was diagnosis also harder because of the large spectrum?
There are a lot of people with autism who in earlier times use to get a diagnosis of intellectual impairment. Even now what happens to people who are in two ends of the spectrum, they get misdiagnosed. The very able ones get misdiagnosed as stubborn, willful or arrogant people. There is a serial called Big Bang Theory and the character of Dr Sheldon Cooper (it’s not mentioned that he has aspergers) is described on the Internet as a person who plays the role of an arrogant physicist. That’s it! A lot of the able ones get this kind of diagnosis. However, those who are on the other end of the spectrum get a diagnosis of intellectual impairment. In India, definitely a lot of people even now are not receiving the correct diagnosis.

Did you ever try sending Neeraj to school? What did you think of the schooling system?
Initially, Neeraj went to a nursery school before he got a diagnosis. All he would do is walk around the class and walk around the playground. He wasn’t learning anything there. The school was happy to keep him but they also said this is what he does and we don’t know what to do with him. I tried various things in between and then put him into another mainstream school. Neeraj does a lot of flapping of the hands, so a person from this particular school said to me that he was very violent and they couldn’t keep him. So mainstream schooling did not work out. Now, someone like Neeraj would have been permitted or maybe not! Since he had a lot of challenging behaviors- like shouting, throwing things etc. He attended four schools before I got myself trained and opened up Open Door.

With Neeraj

With Neeraj

Was this hard on your marriage?
I wouldn’t say Neeraj was hard on our marriage because my life had become Neeraj. Especially, when your child has very challenging behaviors you’ve got to really focus. I was the primary care giver, I was teaching him communication. I was teaching him to develop a social understanding. So I wouldn’t say that was hard on our marriage. For most families (not all), the mother ends up being the primary and the only caregiver.

Where did you receive your training and why did you decide to go for it?
After the age of ten Neeraj’s behavior became fairly extreme. So life was very hard at that point. All the reading that I was doing made me realize that people by and large did not understand Autism. I wanted to help change this terrible trap that we had got into; we were hurdling towards a phase where I wouldn’t have been able to help him at all. That’s why I went for a training to the Sun Rise program, which people found fairly controversial ( I didn’t). They used a lot of structure, behavioral principles etc. But the most important thing is that it was based on a very strong respect for the person with the disability. When I came back I worked with Neeraj using these principles. When I saw the changes I decided to work with another young person, who needed help. Realizing how important structure was in their life, I went for another training to ‘Division TEACCH in North Carolina’. Open Door started as an experiment and then it just took off. Now, it’s not so much a school as it is a place for training; it’s a place for developing strategies and a place for sharing.


Noor Enayat Noor Enayat

”I have always felt afar from my surroundings. And then there are the hours…the hours that I can’t overcome…the hours that are a loosing battle…hours that never end!”- Zoya

Zoya’s thoughts make me uncomfortable…they prick a little at my heart. Her loneliness seems so familiar, she feels like a kindred soul. But then Zoya is just a made up character she writes about on her blog , insists Noor. There’s a vulnerability about Noor that is hidden behind her tough exterior and almost boyish charm:the ease with which she can make me blush would put many a men to shame.The intense look on her face when she champions for women’s rights, the impeccable timing with which she recites Urdu prose, the passion with which she protests against rape online, successfully hides the palpable pain of ‘Zoya’.

So as Rehana Kausar and Sabia Kamar made history this year – by going against the Islamic Sharia and being the first Muslim Lesbian couple, to get married in the U.K. Here in the subcontinent, I chat with our very own non-conforming Muslim woman- Noor Enayat.

Can you tell me a little about yourself:your religious identity as well as your sexual preference?
I am a Muslim by birth, by choice I follow no religion. I believe in God but I don’t believe in any religion, whatsoever. It’s the spiritual versus the religious conflict.
Professionally, I’m a brand consultant and on a personal front I am a lesbian.

When did you realize that you were attracted to women?
I started realizing I was more attracted to women when I was 14-15. Couldn’t really deal with it, so had a boyfriend at that time. I went to a coed school and then from that went to an all girls college and suddenly it was like wow! So many of them around! Okay they come in all shapes and sizes. There are no men around so one has to pay no attention to them.

Was it hard coming out?
It was hard coming out to the family despite the fact that I belong to a very progressive one. In a country like India, it is a very big taboo.


Was it harder because you are Muslim?
No my family does not believe in any construct of Islam other than, ‘islam ka matlaab hein insanayaat.’ It’s just that my mother felt guilty because she thought that maybe it was because of her divorce. We had our battles… for years we talked about everything else other than the women I was with. My grandmother was the most open-minded and accepted all my girlfriends with open arms.But now my mom has come around. I wasn’t allowed to tell my brother about it for the first three-four years. But he always knew and now we give each love advice.

Are you afraid of ending up alone?
I know I am going to be alone it’s a reality. In a place like India, most people can’t even accept the fact that they are gay and I can’t be with someone who wants to live a lie.

Was it difficult in the workplace?
In the workplace it was not as difficult as I thought it would be. But yes, at times it has been a bit awkward and that’s only because of with some homophobic people. I am no different from any straight person. Their work is not affected by what they do in the bedroom nor is mine!


© Saadiya Kochar 2013


Sukhmani Malik<!

The first time I lay eyes on Sukhmani was at a cousin’s wedding in Ludhiana.

The Feisty, Sukhmani Malik.

The Feisty, Sukhmani Malik.

Short, curly haired and feisty (no wonder I liked her instantly) as soon she stepped on the stage with Hari, they set it on fire.

Hailing from Punjab,  their music was a blend of Folk and Sufi; Indian Lounge – as Sukhmani once described it.

Here are a few reflections from an encounter, with the cool Biker Chic.

In The Studio

In The Studio

On stage with Hari Singh.

On stage with Hari Singh.