Greetings and Update: Sulochna's Story

December 14, 2005


Dear friends of IVC,

Attached is my second update from India. It is a story close to my heart. I know it will warm your hearts too. T

he end of the year 2005 is only two weeks away. We have not met our funding goal for this year yet. Part of the reason is that a number of our supporters make their contribution at the end of the year. This note is an appeal to them as well as other friends of IVC to make a generous contribution before the year end. You have contributed generously in the past and we count on your support.

Happy Holidays.

- Abul Sharah


Sulochna's Story

Project update #2

Photo related to newsletter

Sulochna at Varanasi railroad
station (returning from Gujrat)

Sulochna helping the mother and the baby she delivered

Sulochna helping the mother and
the baby she delivered


Sulochna's story is close to my heart and I am confident it will warm your hearts too, especially close to the holiday season.

In the fall of 2002, when I returned to the village for my six month stay, I saw a new face in the kitchen (I eat my meals at the kitchen counter, standing). The woman, who was making flat Indian bread for lunch introduced herself as Sulochna. She looked clean and sober and had a warm smile on her face. She called me Babu Ji, a respectable title Indians use when addressing their father. In the old days, they used this title to address the bosses too (if he was gentle and considerate). I was pleased and flattered to hear the word Babu Ji. I can't explain why, possibly my childhood impression of the word.

Over a period of the next couple of months, I learned more about Sulochna and her family, because she talked while I was eating. She told me she was from the lowest cast and lived in a neighboring village, about a 15 minute walk from IVC. She had a husband and five kids. Her husband, Ram Kishore, was an unskilled labor, who occasionally found odd jobs that paid $1.50 for a day's work. The couple didn't own any land, cows or any other property, except a mud walled/thatched roofed house that had two small rooms, no bathroom and no kitchen. The whole family went outdoors in the field for their bathroom needs, as many here do. Sulochna told me that she never went to school and was a total illiterate. She couldn't sign her name. She said "as a kid I always wanted to go to school, learn to read and write but being poor and low cast, I had no opportunity to do that". She stayed home, helped her mother with cooking and cleaning and took care of the younger siblings. She was married at the age of 16 and bore five children before the age of 25.

From my meal time conversations I came to recognize that she was exceptionally intelligent and was capable of doing almost anything. She simply never had the opportunity. Let me illustrate this by an example.

This happened two years ago. On several occasions, when I needed to go to the city, I wanted to eat lunch before leaving our residence. I would ask Sulochna when she would have the lunch ready. She would say in half an hour. I would wait and her half an hour would turn out more like one and a half hour. I was annoyed and intrigued simultaneously because she didn't have a good explanation for this behavior. So I dug deeper and finally discovered that she didn't know what half an hour really meant. I asked her if she knew how to read a clock. She said no. So I brought a little alarm clock and spent about 15 minutes with her explaining the 24 hour clock system and how hours and minutes could be read. Can you believe that in half an hour she could read the clock forward, backward and every which way? I would point at the clock and she would tell me exactly what time it would be if the hour and minute needles were pointing where I had indicated. I just couldn't believe her comprehension.

Little incidences like this convinced me that I must help Sulochna to secure a better future for herself and her family. But I didn't know how.

Six month later, in April 2003, I returned to Minneapolis. Sulochna continued to cook for the staff.

In June 2003, while in the U.S., I received a phone call from one of our health clinic staff indicating that Sulochna's husband was seriously ill. Apparently, he had a stroke and within a week, he passed away. Sulochna was left alone to care for her five children. I knew at that instance that I had to do something to help her.

In October 2003, when I went to India again for my six month visit, I had a plan in mind for Sulochna - develop a nursing/health worker career for her!

I talked to a doctor friend, Dr. Bhakti at Ram Krishna Mission Hospital in Varanasi. They were starting a three week instruction program on primary healthcare for fresh college graduates, who wanted to pursue a career in rural health care. The emphasis was on women's and children's diseases. The instructions were given by a former WHO doctor, experienced in rural healthcare programs in India. Dr. Bhakti agreed to put Sulochna in this class of about a dozen women, who were all college graduates. Sulochna's situation was unique. She was not only an illiterate, incapable of reading or writing Hindi (the Indian language) but she couldn't even converse in Hindi because in our villages they speak a dialect that Hindi speaking people from the cities can't follow. I was greatly concerned about her handicaps in the class but equally confident that her intelligence, the intense desire to learn and her inner strength would carry her through the challenge. And it did.

The instructor and her class mates were so impressed by her talent that they went out of their way to help. While taking the health care class, we also got Sulochna to take a self teaching Hindi language class. This is an audio visual computer program that Ram Krisna Hospital developed. All one needs is a computer and a headphone. Sulochna worked diligently at this too. Noticing her enthusiasm and initiative, people at the education center at the Hospital helped Sulochna with her Hindi language instructions. At the end of the short three weeks, she came out swinging. She had accomplished many first time ventures.

Before this, she had never stepped out of her village, she had never seen a city before, although Varanasi is only 30 miles from her village. Now she had stayed in the city for three weeks. She had learned to read and write Hindi alphabets and could read simple Hindi words. She could sign her own name, for the first time, instead of using thumb print for identification. She had learned the basics of primary health care and could work as a facilitator between our male doctors and women patients. She was on her way to becoming a nurse and a health worker. And above all, she had gained confidence in herself. I knew it was a great start and I was thrilled.

When Sulochna returned to the village, she seemed like a different woman. We changed her assignment too. Two days a week, she started working with our doctors and patients as a facilitator. She learned to administer simple shots as well as intravenous. Five days a week, she still cooked meals for the staff. During the rest of the summer, between cooking and a nurse's job, she managed to find time, a couple of hours daily, to practice her Hindi language lessons on my laptop computer. By the end of the summer, she was reading Hindi short stories and writing short sentences.

Before returning to the U.S. in the spring of 2004 I advised Sulochna that, in my absence, she should practice her Hindi lessons and spend an hour daily reading newspaper. Fall 2004. When I returned to India in October, Sulochna told me that in the last six months she read the newspaper daily and proudly demonstrated her reading skill. She also wrote me a one page note of thanks, telling how education had changed her life and how grateful she was for the opportunity. What a difference in just a year!

But please wait, the story gets even more interesting.

Observing her progress, I wanted to do more. I again talked to my friend at Ram Krishna Hospital, Dr. Bhakti, who knew about a very successful training program, run by a Trust in the western part of India, Gujrat. We investigated and enrolled Sulochna in a nurse's training program at Seva Rural in Gujrat. Now Sulochna was on her way to a different part of India, 1500 kilometers away, where the language was different, the culture was different and the food was different.

Sulochna was scared, concerned about leaving her kids behind but she agreed to accept the challenge enthusiastically. She spent a month at Seva Rural, receiving nursing education, hands on training in delivering babies, premature and problematic birth issues. She returned home in triumph. She did the day and a half train travel on her own. Considering that she had never seen a train before, much less traveling on one, this was truly a triumph. We received her at the Varanasi railroad station with an enthusiastic welcome (see first picture, above).

On her return to the village, we gave her a new nurse's white dress and removed her totally from the kitchen job. She was now a nurse and was to be treated and presented like a nurse. We wanted to remove the stigma that she was a low cast cook and was going to remain so for the rest of her life.

Sulochna now works six days a week, assisting our doctors, facilitating communication between the patients and the doctors, does primary examination and interview with women patients with gynecological problems. Occasionally, she delivers babies at our clinic (we have not started a baby delivery program yet at International Village Clinic for the lack of space and equipment but we end up doing a couple of deliveries every month). She gives shots, administers IV and assists our doctors in minor surgeries. In other words, she is a full time nurse now, which is a dream come true for her. Here is what she says all the time: "I am thirty eight years old, I never imagined I could read and write. I can't believe that I am a nurse now. This was only a dream. International Village Clinic has changed my life for ever."

Note: Sulochna's training and education in Gujrat was partly funded by a donation Cindy Shingler gave when I was in the U.S. during the summer of 2004. Jim and Cindy Shingler are my personal friends and have supported our project in India, since its inception. In the summer of 2004 I visited the Shingler's at their home in Florida. During the car ride to the airport, somehow the conversation turned to our work with women in India and I mentioned Sulochna 's story to Cindy, who was so impressed that she instantly made a contribution specifically to help Sulochna.

- Abul Sharah