Those familiar with Usha Saboo, the tiny frail woman, well-known in both the Indian and international Rotary world, also know that the tiny package comes with a steel spine. And you can count on her to deliver some tough punches, in her soft voice, when required. Her address at the Kuala Lumpur Zone Institute proved no different. PRID Shekhar Mehta chaired the session where she spoke on the theme, Service is Divine.
After telling the audience about her initiative in rallying Rotarians to send Diwali sweets to our jawans serving in the toughest of regions in the world in Siachen, she quietly said: “Now please permit me to do some frank speaking and share my experiences on the functioning of Rotary in other countries, as compared to some of our districts.”
Saying that she has attended many district conferences in the US, Australia and elsewhere, she gave the example of one in Australia where some 600 Rotarians had registered. “They were present throughout the conference, where lunch was served in boxes containing sandwiches, a fruit, cake, juice and coffee. The punctuality, silence and involvement of Rotarians in programmes throughout the conference was tremendous.”
There was no awards ceremony, and awards were given during the conference only to a deserving few. “And this pattern we saw elsewhere too. Nowhere have I seen the extravaganza, the fuss over food, entertainment and the free gifts, as happens in our zones. Is it not something for us to think about?”
Water is a very expensive commodity in Siachen and the soldiers are given a very small quota to wash and drink. Hot food is another luxury they don’t have; food is also dropped by helicopters and for days on end, when the weather turns bad, there is no helicopter service.
Wondering who would take the lead in changing this, Usha said, “right now we compete with our predecessors in the district in terms of gifts, food and sometimes even free alcohol. So our conferences and other Rotary events don’t get much notice because there is hardly anything to showcase.” Also, the number of awards given to Rotarians at the end of the year is reaching humongous levels. “There is nothing wrong in giving some awards… a genuine appreciation for a job well done. But changing times need a change in mindset and fresh innovative ideas to enhance the image of Rotary.”
Thinking aloud, she said that perhaps awards to clubs or individuals could be given in the form of scholarships to deserving children of soldiers or policemen killed in the line of duty. If they were adopted, educated and given employment, greater visibility would come to Rotary. With the caveat that her remarks were not meant to “criticise any individual or event”, and were an exercise in self- evaluation to improve Rotary’s public image and “spread the fragrance of our good deeds in society”, Usha added: “I am not a Rotarian, but a Rotary spouse for over 57 years; I feel hurt when Rotary’s image is hurt. I feel proud when Rotary gets the appreciation it deserves. Rotary’s future is in the present and the present is in our hands. Therefore, in true spirit of friendship and service, let us do service that will make a difference to society.”
Nowhere have I seen the extravaganza, the fuss over food, entertainment and the free gifts, as happens in our zones. Is it not something for us to think about?
Narrating the genesis of the gesture to send Diwali sweets to jawans in the Siachen, Usha said once while travelling by train, she was chatting with an army officer who was posted at Siachen. “I inquisitively asked him what kind of life soldiers lead when serving on high altitudes above 19,000 ft and many degrees below freezing point. He smiled and asked: ‘Can you guess how often we soldiers bathe — once in a fortnight, a week, or a month?’”
She was stunned to learn that the water available to these men is “only by melting snow with kerosene which is airlifted. So water is a very expensive commodity and they are given a very small quota to wash, brush their teeth and drink. Hot food is another luxury they don’t have; food is also dropped by helicopters and for days on end, when the weather turns bad, there is no helicopter service. You can imagine the commitment, the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers.”
This account left her speechless; “I could not imagine that water and hot food which are simply taken for granted by us are not available to them. My chance meeting with that officer opened the floodgates of thought and my conscience started pricking me.” A few days before Diwali of 2016, she wondered what these festivities meant to the soldiers who were so far away from their families, and couldn’t “we express our gratitude to them by sharing some sweets?” She shared the idea with her husband PRIP Rajendra Saboo, District 3080, who embraced the idea and just a day before Diwali, 4,500 sweets boxes were airlifted, free of cost, by an IAF plane. The boxes contained a greeting card which added: “Aap hei toh hum hei (Because of you, we exist).”
Least expecting this gesture, the soldiers were overjoyed and expressed their thanks with the heart-warming message: “Hum aap ke liye hi hei (We are there only for you).”
This Diwali too, the sweets were sent and Usha said that this initiative was appreciated, publicised and brought laurels to Rotary, and added that it should be continued. “This requires no Foundation grants and no fundraising if each Rotarian participates. It’s a small amount but a big gesture.”
Volunteering at medical missions
Earlier, addressing a spouses’ session during GETS, Usha Saboo described her experiences as a volunteer in various medical missions to Africa, India and elsewhere, and said she cherished these moments. Rotary came into her life when her husband Rajendra Saboo joined it in 1961. As the years rolled by, she got many positions as the First Lady of the club, district and finally RI. But all these titles gave her “no satisfaction and I felt a deep void within me. I had seen Rotary at all levels, grand events, meetings in elite hotels with seven-course meals, appointments with Presidents and Heads of States, endless speeches and applause, flowers and gifts.”
But she wanted to add a different “first” to her life, and that came when Saboo and she decided to “dedicate our time, resources and hearts for reaching out to others”, through the medical missions. In the last 19 years, she has served in over 30 medical missions starting from 1998, in countries in Africa, India, Cambodia and Mongolia, “touching thousands of lives and in turn transforming my own life completely”.
She says the couple is often asked why Africa when there is so much need in our own country. “But we go to Africa because Raja (Saboo) and I feel that as Indian Rotarians we should contribute to world understanding and peace in this special way.”
On the other side of 82, I am neither tired nor retired. Strength comes to me by holding the hand of my Rotarian husband and serving humanity. We have many more milestones to reach, many more lives to touch.
She has never looked at these medical missions in terms of the number of operations done as they “are real people who are suffering and need our care. For us, more important than numbers is each surgery becoming a life changing experience not only for the patients, but for their whole families.” Complimenting the Indian surgeons participating in these medical missions, she gave the example of a 3-day-old infant in Malawi, born with his intestines protruding outside his stomach, and who the local surgeons had refused to touch. “Our surgeons readily performed the delicate and difficult surgery and the child is hale and hearty.” There was the Ethiopian man blinded by cataract in both eyes who could not lie down for surgery because of a severe spine defect. Indian surgeons restored his vision, operating on him in a sitting position and “through another difficult surgery, corrected his spine defect also. You can imagine his and his entire family’s happiness. Such surgeries are done in each medical mission and they make beautiful soul-stirring human stories making our work rewarding.”
Maintaining that no act of service is ever too small, Usha said “it touches the heart of both the giver and the receiver. After seeing the badly torn and disfigured faces of the genocide victims in Rwanda, I am no more conscious of the leukoderma patches on my face and body. I count my blessings realising how fortunate I am to have a healthy body.”
In these medical missions, she had seen the “true spirit of Rotary”; they offered “no luxuries, comforts and sometimes not even necessities. Here our strength gets tested; we volunteers travel at no cost to Rotary, but Rotary gives us an invaluable reward — the opportunity to serve and become the citizens of the world.”
She concluded by saying she couldn’t have even dreamt of doing all this without being a Rotary spouse “for over half a century. On the other side of 82, I am neither tired nor retired. Strength comes to me by holding the hand of my Rotarian husband and serving humanity. We have many more milestones to reach, many more lives to touch. So many children with heart ailments, sightless elders, women with torn genitals, so many polio victims are awaiting us.”