|Illustration by Suman Choudhury
Ya devi sarvabhooteshu shakti roopena samsthitaa
Namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namah
(To the goddess who abides in all beings as power/ Salutations to Thee)
— Chapter 5, Durga Saptashati, Markandeya Purana
When the gods, freed of the demon Mahishasura, thanked Durga, they sought a boon that she return as durgatinashini (one who puts an end to distress) every time there is durgati (distress). With violence against women reaching demonic proportions, isn’t it time for women to invoke the goddess anew, not in a passive plea for help but to awaken the power of Shakti within?
“Ma Durga is all about power and strength and the Shaktiroopena campaign is about invoking that power and strength in women,” said Vivek Deshpande, joint president, brand and strategy, Ambuja Cement, on Shaktiroopena. The Puja campaign by Ambuja, in association with Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph, is aimed at empowering today’s woman of Bengal to realise her inner strength and fight against any challenge that comes her way.
Here are a few women who have fought their own battles by harnessing the inner power that marks the manifestation of Durga as Shakti.
At 17, she chose a life of challenges over a trousseau. Chanda Zaveri fled the security of her Kankurgachhi home in 1984 and returned a millionaire three decades later. The self-made entrepreneur boasts a master’s in molecular biology and a Nobel laureate as mentor. Hers was a fairytale journey from Calcutta to California — landing up in the US with help from an American tourist couple she met on Park Street, working as a domestic help and impressing her employer enough to get a study sponsorship before walking into a lab at Caltech one day to tell two-time Nobel winner Linus Pauling that she wanted to work under him. From a teenager without a home, Chanda went on to become the founder of a skincare products company and the brain behind a formula used in one of India’s bestselling creams.
Rags to riches
Born in Calcutta to British parents who did not leave the city after 1947, Jillian Haslam’s childhood was spent on the streets, under staircases and behind people’s houses before she ended up in the slums of Kidderpore and lived off charity till leaving for Delhi at 17. She was selected by Bank of America where she soared with her schemes and plans of corporate charity, was made a president and then rewarded with a special package with which she migrated to London. Today, Jillian is a motivational speaker, trainer and author connected with the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Despite memories of her morbid past and the millionaire life she now has in London, Jillian wants to return to the city of her roots. She is currently focusing on charity work in India.
A homemaker whose life revolved around bringing up her two children discovered her inner mojo when she, on the advice of a family friend, floated a travel agency. Zubaida Vana, a Bohra Muslim from Elliot Road, is the only tour operator in the city, and among a handful in India, to organise tours to holy places in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria and Kashmir. The 48-year-old grandmother has led more than 50 trips to Iraq.
Ruchira Gupta started her career as a reporter with The Telegraph and went on to win an Emmy for her 1996 documentary, The Selling of Innocents, that exposed the trafficking of women from Nepal to India. The Modern High girl’s experience led her to form Apne Aap Women Worldwide with 22 women from red-light districts in Mumbai in 2002 before expanding its offices in Delhi, Calcutta, Bihar and New York. Ruchira has played a crucial role in starting the discussion on trafficking in India.
Light of their lives
When her husband expressed displeasure about her work with women in distress, Urmi Basu walked out of the marriage and used her savings to start New Light, a Kalighat-based NGO that works for the protection of women and children of sex workers. The organisation, now 13 years old, provides more than 200 children with education, healthcare and nutritional support, as well as the opportunity to live free of abuse, violence and stigma. Besides running shelters for children, the agency aims to stop trafficking of young girls and provide care to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Urmi received The Dalai Lama’s blessing as one of the Unsung Heroes of Compassion in 2009 and won the Global Citizen Award at the Global Music Festival in New York last year.
Rebel with a cause
A self-confessed “rebel from a young age”, Sohini Chakraborty’s “bold thoughts and actions” have taken her a long way from her beginnings in a “lower middle-class family”. She started Kolkata Sanved in 2004 with the vision of saving lives through dance and the belief that “every woman needs to look inside her and find that thing which is unique to her. Only then can we create more voices”. Sohini has been rehabilitating victims of violence through dance movement therapy besides training movement therapists.
You won’t find too many like Kristine Pedersen, a Filipino-Danish-American graduate from Heller School for Social Policy and Management who has been stationed in the back of Bengal’s beyond “discovering a new world” since 2007. Kristine heads the Piyali Learning Centre, where water is still drawn from a tubewell, where parents would rather marry off girls than send them to school and where women slog while men drink. Raised on an acre’s residential property in California and armed with a bachelor’s degree in international development, the 27-year-old decided to make Champahati her home to create “a window of opportunity that could enable the girl child here to seek an education, learn English, become economically independent, escape exploitation and earn something she has always deserved — social equality”.
Damayanti Sen broke the glass ceiling at Lalbazar to become the first woman to head the detective department. The 1996-batch IPS officer took charge of the department as deputy commissioner in 2009. The cop who cracked the Park Street rape case has been described by colleagues as a tigress for standing up for the victim.
Flight of a fighter
She was a shy political science student on her way to becoming a professional dancer before she became a key player in the fight against trafficking in the state that records the highest number of missing women in the country. Sharbari Bhattacharya, a 1989 cadet, started off as a sub-inspector in Malda and now heads the CID anti-trafficking unit. “I was passionately into dance — Bharatanatyam, Rabindrik, folk… I never thought I’d take up a job. I used to watch this serial about a lady IPS officer called Udaan. That was very inspirational. I felt the need to create my own identity and empower myself,” said Sharbari. She cleared every exam and interview and went in for direct sub-inspector training “that no one thought I’d be able to complete”.
Climb to the top
A 31-year-old woman from Howrah who sells dairy products for a living, Chhanda Gayen became the second civilian woman from Bengal to scale the Everest this May and reach the “top of the world”. Chhanda started her journey as a mountaineer by scaling the Susunia hill in Purulia in 1996. She had to seek sponsorship to fund her expedition. The youth welfare department chipped in with Rs 5 lakh of the required 18 lakh. The rest came from mortgaging ornaments kept for her marriage and LIC schemes, apart from the odd local sponsorship.
A rickshaw-puller’s daughter, Jhumpa (name changed) has lived with the stamp of being booked under the child trafficking act. She completed her Madhyamik and was chosen to travel to the US for workshops. Today, Jhumpa is married, the mother of a two-year-old and conducts dance therapy for children from red-light areas. She is the face of an NGO and travels continents to share her story and inspire others.
Pic by :Rashbehari Das
Pic by:Pabitra Das
I’m very proud to be a part of this campaign. The definition of women’s empowerment has changed over the years and it’s great to see women take courageous stands, make their choices, earn their livelihood, be in the forefront and fight for justice. I want more women to step up, not be afraid and make their decisions. I may have been born and brought up differently from many others but I’ve always had the freedom to make my own choices. I want the same for other women too.
Face of Shaktiroopena sports the badge for the campaign
Lopamudra Mitra records the bluesy Shaktiroopena anthem on Friday. The song that goes… Tomay pabo bole taai/ Aamra gaan geye jaai/ Thakbe na aar kono bhoy/ Shaktiroopena amrai… is set to hit YouTube and ABP Ananda on September 27
Do you know a woman who embodies Shakti? Share her story at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com