I remembered my childhood.. I swam to catch ducks.. swam in competitions, played basketball.. gained confidence.. helped players and athletes in US to earn money by facilitating tie ups with companies. I thought to myself.. My homeland has thousands of Such Nakusas, I must do something for them.. Today they are sweating to cut sugarcane.. but why not sweat for something that they like doing? I found my motto “Sweat for something you love”. I started “Mann Deshi Champions Programme”.
Q : Would love to know the first memory you have from your childhood…
A : Mhasvad from Mann Taluka in Satara district is my village. It is a drought prone area. When I think about my childhood, I remember… I used to climb up the Gulmohar tree in front of my house… Used to climb trees and remove honeycombs from trees… I used to roam around barefoot everywhere… I still remember the touch of the tree bark while climbing up a tree.. That is my first memory…
My school was in a village called ‘Devapur’ around 7 to 8 kilometres from my village. I used to cycle to school. That school was started by Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil.. So, they had a “Earn and Learn” programme. The school had its farms where cotton was cultivated. There were Gins where the cotton was stored. We used to go cotton plucking once or twice a week. Bees hid in the cotton. While working, we would throw them on each other for fun. We used to jump in wells and swim on the way. We were so mischievous that we got punished and spanked everyday.. This was my life.. It was fun..
As kids we spotted wolves and hyenas at least a couple of times every month. Since the number of trees has reduced, these animals are also not seen.. I haven’t even seen kids climbing trees of late.. We used to play hide-and-seek on top of trees. Things are changing very fast nowadays.. It is a good thing that newer technology enters our lives everyday.. but kids must experience ‘childhood’.. These experiences help you remain grounded. That was the best period of my life… I used to spend time with my grandmother.. She used to take me along to pull carrots in the farm.. In the summer vacations, we used to take two buffaloes and four sheep calves to the lake near the village.. We saw snakes on the way.. Granny had taught me how to catch snakes. When I think of my childhood, all these memories come to the fore. I work among children and youth from rural areas.. Some kids from tribal communities (paaradhi community) still live like this. Just the way I grew up…
I was first enrolled in a Government (Zilla Parishad) school.. Then studied in the Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil School. I Learned a lot about farming in school. We used to water the cornfields at night. Frequently there was no electricity for 14 hours at a stretch. We lived in the middle of the farm. There used to be heavy lightning in the rainy season. When the lights went off in the middle of the night, we would take long sticks and go out and check if any wires were stuck to each other.. We used to untangle the wires using the sticks. I have been doing this since I was ten. I also knew how honeybees live. Now I know it more scientifically. But I had already seen it all closely. I am very happy that I got to live such a childhood.
Prabhat with his father
Q : You spent your childhood in a village.. and experienced farming, catching snakes and even playing hide-and-seek on trees.. But didn't you go and live in America when you were a teenager… maybe 13-14 years old?
A : Yes.. My Mother (Ms. Chetna Gala Sinha) was granted a Yale University Fellowship. As a kid I played a lot but had never entered game competitions/tournaments.. I liked swimming.. We have a British Era Lake at Rajewadi.. we used to swim there.. I liked catching ducks in the lakes.. used to swim very fast to get a hold of them.. I have become a very good swimmer.. I visited America the first time when my mother was selected at Yale University. I was in eighth grade.. but I didn't know what water was called in English..It was my first airplane ride.
I found out that there are game tournaments/competitions after I went to America. I took part in swimming competitions.. I Learned skateboarding, basketball.. I used to play in the school teams there. When I returned to India, I played at the state level.. I did my eleventh and twelfth in Satara. I used to participate in sports even when I was doing undergraduate in Fergusson College, Pune.
I went back to the US for post graduation. When I visited the US the first time, sports had changed my life.. gave me confidence.. (this confidence started with the challenge in catching ducks… because if the duck drowned, I drowned..) Experiencing village life as a kid, going to the US as a teenager, liking for sports, spending time with my grandmother… all these impacted my life in a big way.. you might wonder if it was all difficult.. but it only made my life different.. than difficult..
Q : Tell us about your family..
A : My father was from the OBC (Other Backward Class)community, So, I had a lot of people from backward classes while growing up. My mother is from Mumbai, from the Jain Community. She had never visited Mhasvad before marriage. My parents were working in social movements. Mother started India’s first Rural Women’s Bank. My father was in the farmer’s movement and was also supporting my mother in her work. They both used to be busy with their work. I have seen the farmer’s issues since I was a child. I have seen my parents work for the Name Change Movement, in Sangharsh Vaahini, or the movements they carried out for getting farmers correct market prices for sugarcane or milk… I have even seen them go to jail for these causes..
I have been seeing our drought prone region for the last 32 years.. So that some water is saved, we started building dams since 2012. I tried to raise funds for that from the US. We built dams, undertook rainwater harvesting in rivers and streams with these funds. After ages, there is little water in this area now and I can proudly say that my parents have greatly contributed to this.
My brothers are seven years younger than me. They are twins. There were some things that I did not get as a child.. I always wanted them to have those.. One of them went out of Mhasvad long back to study music. He works as an International Music Manager in a Music Company in the UK. The other one is a post graduate in Agriculture Policy from Georgetown University. I also studied at Georgetown University. What we can do for the farmers in India, is a topic very close to all of us because of our parents. But unlike other families, there is no compulsion to have meals together, etc. We all would follow our own routines. But issues faced by farmers, down trodden and backward communities were always a topic of discussion amongst us.. We discussed a range of books, from ‘Annihilation of Caste’ to ‘India After Gandhi’ to even books by South African Comedian Trevor Nova. To sum up, we are Global people and we live in the small town of Mhasvad. People also like to come and live with us. We have at least 10 to 15 guests everyday, from the US, UK.. or farmers from remote villages like Gangoti.. Guests come from various backgrounds.. they all love to talk to us… It is a different world..
Q : You studied in the US and also had a job there.. Why did you decide to return?
A : I did my Masters in Business and Finance from Georgetown University. I fell in love.. She was an Afghan- German.. I married her when I was 25. I wanted to come back to India and so we separated. We were happy together for 6 – 7 years, but we realised that our goals and journeys were very different. Sometimes you just clearly know where you want to go in life.. and separating from a person you love can be extremely painful.
I was doing a job.. I was a sports agent. I used to connect accomplished Olympic athletes and sportsmen with various companies. Used to guide companies about how they should invest in the sports market. I used to work with George.. my university professor. I used to even visit the university as a speaker sometimes. We separated because I wanted to do something different. I realised that until then I had travelled in the US only on business.. and so I decided to travel to experience the country.. Stay in Parks, or streets or with the homeless.. not in hotels.. In a month I roamed in 7 National Parks. Saw Grizzly Bears at night.. Met a person who was an Irish terrorist and then gave that up to become a policeman. Met a 93 year old woman. She fell in love and married very young. Her husband went to war and did not return. So she married again.. He passed away in his seventies. Two years after his death, she met her first husband again. They married each other again. I met her on a train. She told me her story.. At that point both her husbands were dead. I invited her to Washington DC and showed her the city. I experienced these and more beautiful things in that period. I met a boy who was charged with espionage. He was in prison for nine months. He was innocent. With the help of a friend who was working with the Government, we managed to free him. Understanding people and helping them.. I was doing it there too…
While working in sports and endorsement deals in the US, I used to think that my country had big problems. I used to visit home occasionally while living in the US. Once I saw a group of sugarcane labourers at Patan near Satara. I sat down with them and shared a meal. A small girl with them was playing with a ball made from waste cloth pieces. She was very happy. I asked her parents “ What grade is she studying in?” They told me “She works as a sugarcane labour..” I was stunned.. That little 12 year old girl had never attended school. Cutting sugarcane is a risky job.. needs to be done carefully.. Snakes also live in sugarcane fields. But in the 15 minutes of lunchbreak, she was playing happily. I asked her name.. her name was Nakusa.. (meaning unwanted). This name was not new to me. Her name was Nakusa, she had never been to school, cut sugarcane for a living, and might get married in a year or so.. But, when that ball is in her hands, for those 15 minutes, she forgets everything. I realised how important that small waste cloth ball was.
I remembered my childhood.. I swam to catch ducks.. swam in competitions, played basketball.. gained confidence.. helped players and athletes in the US to earn money by facilitating tie ups with companies. I thought to myself.. My homeland has thousands of Such Nakusas, I must do something for them.. Today they are sweating to cut sugarcane.. but why not sweat for something that they like doing? I found my motto “Sweat for something you love”. I started the “Mann Deshi Champions Programme”. We converted our farm into a 400 metres track. It started thus, and today we have a swimming pool, a 5000 sq.ft American style Gym. There must be only 3 or 4 such Gyms in all of Maharashtra. It also has a wrestling ring. I am now building a basketball facility in a Spanish style Gowdy structure. Half of it is now complete. There is a hostel for girls. We also have a Music centre, performance centre, painting centre.. We started with a track on farmland and today we are one of the best Sporting and Educational Facilities.
I will tell you some interesting stories of some of the kids. Reshma used to tend to buffaloes after school. The other day, she was confidently telling me “ The buffaloes taught me to run… They used to wander into adjoining farms while grazing, So I used to run behind them” That girl who used to run behind buffaloes ran the Boston Marathon this year. She even won the Satara district marathon this year. She is among the top 10 runners of India. This 22-23 year old is the fourth daughter in her family. She earns 4 to 5 lakh rupees annually. Any girl from rural areas would have been married off long before now, but she is not married off because of her career in sports.
19 year old Kajal’s story is also similar. Her elder sister’s name is also Nakusa (meaning Unwanted). Nakusa was married off at the age of 14. She was abused by her in-laws. Kajal was a sugarcane labourer and used to take care of her younger brother while cutting sugarcane. She had five sisters and Kajal was the sixth child. Her brother was seventh. Kajal used to look at airplanes in the sky and wonder. Last month she travelled to Ireland in a plane. She won a silver medal there. She is in the Junior Field Hockey Team of India.
Ashwini Kolekar hails from the sheep rearing community called Dhangars. Her parents are farmers. She also went to Ireland and won a Silver medal.
The place where we have the swimming pool, used to house the Mann Deshi cattle camp during drought. Balu Bhise who trained with us from that time, now swims for India.
(Part 2 will be published tomorrow)
Interviewer : Rima Amarapurkar, Mumbai
Prabhat Sinha, Mhasvad