"Four corners to my bed
Four Angels round my head
One to watch, one to pray,
And two to take all fears away!"
When I was a child I would recite this rhyme before going to bed. Those were the days when we would sleep beneath the stars. Sometimes clouds and trees would take menacing shapes in the dark. I would shut my eyes tightly and think of the Angels protecting me and be comforted and drift into sleep.
Now it seems the Angels are back again.
Life was tough indeed when I took a conscious decision to establish Operation ASHA. My aim was clear- that of providing health solutions to the poorest of the poor. Suddenly life changed. From a successful doctor in an upscale fancy private hospital I became a foot soldier trudging long miles in shanty towns and villages. My appearance changed. I went from stiletto heels to sturdy walking shoes. I started looking unkempt and shabby, initially a deliberately cultivated look to be accepted by those whom I serve, and later a natural consequence of the kind of work I was doing.
People around me changed too. Many laughed. All were contemptuous. Most couldn't understand why I would throw away a good income to start an NGO. Others accused me of exactly the opposite thing- of being desperate to make easy money, for isn't that the reason why one starts an NGO in the first place? With two conflicting accusations being hurled at me at the same time, I wouldn't know whether I was standing on my head or my heels.
And as for the uncertainty! The less I write about it the better. Words are not enough to describe the trials and tribulations I went through. Starting a social venture is bad enough, starting it without a sound financial plan to ensure sustainability is the height of absurdity. And putting your own savings in a social enterprise is the biggest financial folly one could ever commit. I thought my savings would last 5 years. They finished in one, like water trickling from a hole in a bucket. I had plunged headlong into choppy waters without the fear of drowning. Each day I managed to stay afloat was a miracle.
When you are a social entrepreneur, life is all about extremes. You swing from one end on the pendulum to the other. From the depths of despair you go to such euphoria that you are walking with your head in the clouds. There are days when everything goes wrong. You get sleepless nights wondering where the next round of funding is coming from, your best guy has been offered twice the salary by a rival foundation, and some government officer somewhere has absolutely refused to let you work in his fiefdom. Other days- you wake up and find yourself on top of the world for someone somewhere has recognised your work and your worth. One day you are accused of being a crook and a thief, next day, blasphemously, you are feted by the media as the next Mother Teresa. In 2014, the Schwab Foundation and the World Economic Forum selected me as Social Entrepreneur of the Year. I found myself rubbing shoulders with the Who's Who of society and the hoi-polloi at Davos. I haven't looked back since then.
But at all times there is an all-pervading undercurrent of anxiety. Social entrepreneurs thrive on the adrenalin rush created by the see-saw that is life. You may be fully sustainable, yet you can't get over the feeling that you are like the wandering mendicants of yesteryears with a staff in one hand and a begging bowl in the other.
In this topsy-turvy world, few things happen to keep you going. Patients recover. Results are there for you to see. Children get back to school. Treated TB patients get back their jobs, and there's money for food and to spare. Miraculously, funds start coming in time. Those that scoffed at you and laughed with derision give tolerant smiles. There's an occasional pat on the back, a kind word. You go to bed happy and contented and you sleep well, for the Angels are back and hovering over you. And you know they are there for you and will protect you as they have done since childhood. For nobody else will.
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