Suresh Hari: Tell us about your school in Manipur and what takes you to the border areas?
Ravi Shankar: When I was coerced into becoming a reluctant president… I was a half-baked Rotarian and didn’t know how to go about implementing my decision (to donate ₹100 crore), I thought in one year I might have to spend all of the money! I went all over the country thinking I should be able to do things myself. I didn’t have the faith to give so much money to anybody else! This took me to the border areas in the Northeast, which I found terribly neglected, I’m sorry to say, for whatever reason. These borders are porous, there is little development; they are tribals and despite all these negative points they are the purest souls I have ever seen. The children are so pure, so innocent, so untouched. Unfortunately, they don’t feel that they are Indians. They asked me are you Indian? I said you are also Indian. They gave me a look… their innocence was touching.
There I started working with a trust called Sunbird Trust run by Colonel Christopher Rego. All our growth and development should be made inclusive to ensure that the children, in all their innocence and ignorance, in disturbed or troubled areas such as the Northeast, don’t become insurgents, militants or terrorists for lack of opportunities to come up in life. We have to make them feel they are part of us by visiting and caring for them.
SH: Aren’t you also helping a project that benefits children with HIV?
RS: Yes; It’s a very touching and disturbing issue. These innocent children in the age group 1 to 10 years, for no fault of theirs, are suffering from HIV/AIDS. I had gone to the Manipur border and saw for myself the drug trafficking and drug abuse, which is a huge problem. When the parents exchange needles, HIV is passed on and these kids are born with the gift of HIV/AIDS. Brother Ram and the Sunbird Trust take care of these kids and I’m helping them.
Anita Hari: Paola, were you very depressed when you saw these children with HIV?
Paola: On the contrary, we have to learn a lot from these children. Many of them are orphans, with no parents, or one parent, or parents incapable of taking care of them. When they saw us, they were so ecstatic; held each other and jumped for joy to express their happiness and excitement because we had come to share a few precious moments, and sing and dance with them. There are so many people in the world who have everything and yet get depressed. These children have nothing and yet they are so happy. It was wonderful to be with them.
SH: Ravi, when you were young, your sisters were very protective about you; why? And why do you want to work in cancer care?
RS: At the very thought of my sisters, I can’t stop smiling. I was born a mentally-challenged child… that’s how I felt and behaved, and am convinced I was one! We lived in a chawl, a sort of community living space for lower middle class people. I couldn’t talk properly and saliva dripped from my mouth when I spoke. I had skin allergy and boils and because of that other kids would make fun of me. My three sisters treated me like a special kid and acted like my guardian angels; like commandos they would protect me.
After my sisters, Paola has taken that place! When I say I am an atheist, Paola jumps and says: ‘No, no, he is not an atheist, he is an agnostic. He may look bad, talk bad, do bad things but he is not an atheist!’ She even bargains with god to say that I am okay!
One of my sisters died of cancer and my mother had cancer too but recovered. I feel cancer is an epidemic and now that polio is under control, this is one area Rotary should take up.
SH: We live in a society where money and cars do matter on how you are treated. Your response.
RS: This is an outdated and overused trick to show that you are richer than the other person. I’ve seen people throw a car key and say ‘Ab bata (now show me)’; just to show that he is a bigger, more powerful man. I have never believed in expensive cars or clothes. Look at youngsters; they come with torn jeans and tee shirts, and you’ll find some heading start-ups. I’ve never seen old men having start-ups; because old men have no confidence. So they need Armani suits or BMW cars to show that they are somebody. The kids, the young, our leaders… we are all half-baked human beings.
SH: On giving, you have a very critical take on how people give, particularly the educated lot.
RS: The educated lot? For me they are jokers, who are often confused with the cultured lot. They think they are very smart in how to outsmart others and get mileage without really giving anything.
Our glorious country had wonderful rulers, and we gave a lot to the world but later we were ruled by a foreign country and were reduced to being beggars. That’s a cycle of life. Then we won our Independence through a powerful weapon called ahimsa, unleashed by Mahatma Gandhi. Our country has galloped ahead and today become a power to reckon with, but unfortunately, the educated are hopeless, the begging and hoarding bait has not left them. They feel insecure and don’t have the heart
SH: You recently gave an interview to a radio channel in the US where you spoke about NRI giving. Tell us about that.
RS: It’s an FM channel Jazba and is meant for NRIs. He said many NRIs in the US want to serve India; how do they do it. I said whichever country you live in, whether France or US, be sincere to that country and follow their rules. And if you really want to serve, there is one vehicle that offers travel without petrol or visa. As RI President Barry Rassin said, Rotary is present in over 200 countries, so by joining Rotary you can help to lessen human misery from any corner of the world.
No inspiration; no miracle
SH: By your donation you have combined both this year’s theme — Be the inspiration — and the title Miracle Makers given to this batch of DGs by the RI Director.
RS: We all heard RI President Barry Rassin explain so beautifully what the logo of his theme denotes, the colours of sunset, the sea and sand of the Bahamas. But ‘inspiration’ is a big word and you can’t be using it on me! Only when you see something extraordinary, then that word should be used. What did I do? It is like saying somebody is paying his taxes or looking after his father, so give him an award and clap for him. I did not do anything great. I came from the street and had to build from scratch. Who helped me? No inspiration or miracle here.… When I lost my dad, society stood by me. It’s my bloody duty to see that I give back to society. It is a debt on my shoulders. If I die without doing that, I will be running away from my conscience and I will be a convict in my own eyes. I want to die like a hero with a smile on my face, because society held my hand and brought me so far. I am not an inspiration nor have I made any miracle.
Anita: Paola, tell us about the interesting discussion with your daughter before she went to Australia for higher studies.
Paola: A day before she left, we asked her when she’d like to come back. She said she might not return. So we said but we’ve built this beautiful home for you with so much love and someday, you and your sister should take it over. She said I might just sell this house because I don’t need it. We felt sad, having lived in the house for 30 years. So Ravi asked, ‘sell it and do what’? She said: ‘Build schools in Kashmir!’ We were taken aback. Both my daughters have their father’s genes and they too want to give back to society at an early age!
I also implore all of you to give…it may be little or small. To be honest, my husband has given away 75 or 80 per cent of his earnings; I do hope he has left something for us!
SH: As the president of your club, you’ve said it will be a year of giving back. Tell us more.
RS: We didn’t bring anything from the mother’s womb and it’s not as though all of us are great people. We won’t be allowed to take anything with us when we die. Our club, RC Bangalore Orchards, has launched three projects. One is giving back to the city. We are building a government school for 800 children, who are among the poorest. I too am a product of a government school and I was not very happy going to that government school.
Second, away from the city; we have adopted 125 schools and are calling them Rotary Happy Schools and we are going to make these schools places where kids would want to go… want to learn and be happy there. That is giving back to society.
The third project relates to giving back to the environment. Basker appealed for help for rebuilding homes in Kerala and Karnataka, destroyed by recent floods, which is fine. But what happened in Kerala was not a natural calamity but a man-made tragedy. We cut trees for our greed; the trees hold the earth together, the roots hold the rain water and put it down to improve groundwater levels and keep the earth firm. To overcome such greed of humans, we have started a project of planting one crore saplings and 10 crore seed bombing through hillocks in the united Kolar region of Karnataka. This is a great people’s movement and the tree planting area is in two districts comprising about 13,000 sq km. This is giving back to nature. Without nature, we cannot exist. I request all Rotarians to join us and together let us start a strong ‘giving back to nature’ movement!
SH: Ravi has committed an additional ₹4 crore for the tree planting project. Hats off to you; I don’t know where you get the strength to do all this.
RS: Paola and I have given a seed capital of ₹2.5 crore for these three projects, apart from the ₹100 crore donated to the Foundation and my partner/my life support system, B S N Hari has given ₹50 lakh. I am so proud of him.
I find that some Rotarians belong to the variety I call “cosmetic Rotarians”. They’ll go to an old-age home, give out a few chocolates, click pictures and put them on Facebook. This should not be encouraged.
SH: Can you please tell us your vision and mission in life?
RS: As I already said, I was a mentally-challenged kid and I also have a mentally-challenged dream. I don’t know how far it is achievable but nothing is impossible. I want to see in this world only two borders, that between the earth, sea and the sky, everything else, such as borders based on religion, language, caste etc, is only manmade. My dream is to have a world government where the countries become States and we all become world citizens. I believe Rotary can achieve this seamless world, where the defence budget is abolished and the huge money saved is used to eliminate human misery and poverty.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Why Ravi Shankar chose TRF
Suresh Hari: About a year ago, you started talking about the various causes you’d like to support. What made you decide on TRF to entrust your money?
Ravi Shankar: I told you I am a half-baked Rotarian, I was not aware of the structure of TRF, and as I go into it, it is opening up like Alibaba-Sindbad cave!
About 20–25 years back, I decided I have to pay back to society. Society has given me everything, it is my debt and duty to pay back. So I went around, looking for marginalised sections, tribals etc. When I was almost tired doing that, Hari asked me what I wanted. I said I want to build a cancer hospital, and schools in tribal areas in the Northeast and for the Todas in Tamilnadu, and two schools in Pakistan, just to say we are all brothers, sharing the same DNA. Just because somebody has drawn a line between us, the DNA does not disappear. My blood and their blood (in Pakistan), is the same. As people we should build bridges, and not expect the political system to do that.
Hari said ‘Ravi, there is something called TRF, and you can donate your money to them and continue year after year. You are tiring yourself roaming around like this.’ I made my decision, and that day, after a year, I slept well and continue to do every night. Thanks to DG Hari and TRF.
SH: But thanks to you Ravi, I am not sleeping properly nowadays! What was the response from Rotary and TRF Trustee Gulam Vahanvaty and RID Basker?
RS: DG, this is the only time I won’t follow your orders! In TRF, the kind of transparency you maintain, the processes you follow, the care you take that every wish of the donor is fulfilled, impressed me. I have not seen this anywhere. Hari, for two months you kept the cheque with you without encashing it! What kind of an Indian are you? And then you said unless you are happy, we won’t take this money. I’ve seen in other NGOs, the moment you mention you want to give, they come and grab it. Gulamji, I think of him as a saint in a suit… Sufism comes naturally to him, he is such a spiritual being.
And Baskerji, as a Don, monitors everybody to ensure that nothing goes wrong. The people at the helm inspire confidence. Vahanvaty followed up the whole process. Our DG, he took me by a local bus to the airport. I had heard some horror stories of Rotarians spending lavishly and celebrating; at one installation I saw a DG being brought on an elephant and one more DG was installed with a helicopter showering flowers. This is not serving!
Anyway, Vahanvaty came (to Bengaluru), we had a simple lunch, and over 2–3 hours, he clarified everything, point by point. I was 200 per cent satisfied and only then the cheque was deposited. This is The Rotary Foundation!
SH: You insisted on so much documentation; you made my life miserable!
RS: This giving has been done after a lot of preparation and at a time when our country is doing brilliantly well and we are no longer begging from others. Documentation is very necessary. You know the fickle mind of human beings. And there is no guarantee of life, so the will was registered, and the donation document was signed by Paola and my business partner Hari, who I consider my brother, so that it will be enforceable. I had only ₹10 crore with me (which he has already given), the rest is in the form of property which will be sold and the money given.
I have an appeal; when a couple gets married, for the girl the husband is the hero and she has stars in her eyes as he will take care of her, the children and the parents. But I’ve seen, even among my friends, whenever the husband decides to do something good, the wife stops him. At that time, she treats him as an idiot. My request to women is that please understand that after a person has delivered on everything, all his promises made to you, when he wants to do something for society, please don’t stop him.
SH: You mentioned the hands-on approach of Basker, he never interferes…
RS: The Don doesn’t do anything, he only watches, and delivers! (Loud applause from the audience).
Buy a Merc, help TRF
Anita Hari: Ravi, you’ve said that Paola is like a guru to you. Can you elaborate. Also, that she is a classic jewel. What do you mean by that?
RS: She is indeed a teacher to me and sometimes, without intending to, teaches me a lot. She has never asked me for anything, for riches, jewellery or luxury. Whatever she wears is artificial jewellery and she looks so beautiful. One jewellery nobody can steal from her, the best jewellery she always wears, is her smile. If that can be protected by me, I am a hero!
One occasion when she taught me… and Rasheeda Bhagat of Rotary News is a party to that. While interviewing me she asked me if I had a luxury car. I said I’m sorry I have one and this is the last time I am buying a luxury car. That car cost me ₹72 lakh; with that money I could have built two schools, which for decades would have enlightened so many children.
The other day, I was having breakfast with my beautiful wife… I use our SUV all the time, and she said do you remember the Benz is lying there, you don’t even look at it. I felt she was teaching something again, and that was: ‘Don’t be a fake, walk your talk.’ Without speaking a word, she taught me this lesson. (Displaying a picture on the screen) This car, which hasn’t even run 3,000 km, is a beautiful car. I want it to be auctioned and the money to be given to TRF. Rasheeda, you’ve kindled this thought in me!