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Mrs Sharma Remembered

​ON 1 APRIL 2011, Mrs Sharma died of a sudden and massive heart attack, leaving behind three daughters, a son, husband and many, many friends, who miss her dearly.

Mrs Sharma or 'Tai' (meaning elder sister) as she preferred me to call her, was a charismatic, intelligent and articulate woman, who had a powerful influence on both mine and Usha's lives.

Dr and Mrs Sharma managed Dattapur, India's first leprosy colony. Not an easy vocation at a time when leprosy was so greatly feared.

However, the colony's successful self-sufficiency policy brought it much acclaim and to the attention of prime ministers and celebrities of the day.

Tai, a graduate in English Literature and a woman of above average height for her generation, was extremely capable of entertaining dignitaries at a time when Indian wives often remained in the background.

Born in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh), Mrs Sharma was one of four children belonging to a wealthy Brahmin landowner. The family enjoyed a privileged lifestyle in palatial surroundings until the mid 1940s when her father, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and his predecessor, Vinoba Bhave, relinquished all his wealth and moved the family to a slum where they began working for the poor. Just after marriage, Tai joined Vinoba in his 'land Boodan movement', during which time - two years in fact - she marched by foot across India, persuading wealthy landowners to relinquish much of their assets and distribute land to the poor.

Later she and Dr Sharma devoted themselves to the welfare of the poor in Gaya (the backward State of Bihar), living in remote jungle areas for 12 years. Then in the late 1950s, husband and wife were called to Dattapur, where they remained and where Tai was responsible for running the colony's office and Tsubosaka Dera, a hostel within the colony that supported young girls and women who had leprosy, encouraging them to continue formal education whilst completing anti-leprosy treatment, quite often taking a number of years. Usha was brought to Dera in 1986 when she was just 10-years-old and remained there until she was 19. Tai was a strict disciplinarian as well as a surrogate mother to thousands of girls over a period of 50 years, until the hostel closed in 2006.

Tai was passionate about instilling discipline, social etiquette and giving many under privileged girls who came under her care, a good education and social start in life. She was immensely proud of Usha's achievements.

For me, Tai was a friend. During my first visit to India and Dattapur I was initially homesick. Sensing this, Tai called me into Dera and read me one of her favourite poems, 'What is Life?'. Its words changed my perspective completely and I went on to become much more involved in the colony and leprosy... life is a challenge - meet it life is a gift - accept it life is an adventure - dare it life is a sorrow - overcome it life is a tragedy - face it life is a duty - perform it life is a game - play it life is a mystery - unfold it life is a song - sing it life is an opportunity - take it life is a journey - complete it life is a promise - fulfil it life is a goal - achieve it life is a puzzle - solve it life is a struggle - fight it life is a spirit - release it life is a beauty - praise it life is a love - embrace it


Tai and I would talk for hours about absolutely anything. She would often remark that her three daughters would scold her for not acting her age.

When we were together, neither age nor cultural differences affected the close bond we had forged and cherished.

In 2009, Tai, Usha and I opened Women In Need's second shelter for mentally ill and destitute women in Dera. Usha and I had come full circle.

She was responsible for running the shelter in our absence with the support of a caretaker and did this voluntarily, spending five hours a day teaching the women reading, writing, handicrafts and helping them relearn personal hygiene and social graces that had been lost through mental illness.

This was a challenging job for the young and fit but Tai at the age of 80, made it look easy. She had unbelievable energy and would incessantly record new ideas and share them with Usha and me on our weekly visits.

Women In Need has lost a valued voluntary member of staff, Dattapur its matriarch and Usha and I have lost a teacher and friend.

My lasting memory of Tai is we would drop her off at the bottom of the long lane leading to the Sharma's family home in the trees. She would straighten her back and march the distance, just turning at the end to wave as we made our 80-kilometre journey back to Nagpur. She did this, defying spondylitis and hairline fractures in two vertebrae!

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