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Miles away, New Light on their minds

snapshots from an american tour

Back from a four-week US trip last month, Urmi Basu, the founder-trustee of New Light, a Kalighat-based NGO that strives to protect women and children in the red-light areas, pens a diary of “four extraordinary days from my ordinary life” to highlight what is prompting the West to endorse her cause.

November 6

No place on this planet is perhaps as removed from the narrow fetid lanes of Kalighat where I spend most of my work days as the majestic Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. A symbol of the struggle and victory of the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, the Ali Center embodies the true spirit of equality, freedom and resilience of the human spirit.

Jeff Dupree, co-producer of the critically-acclaimed PBS documentary based on the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn connected New Light to Ali Center.

Invited as a Daughter of Greatness to speak at the breakfast lecture by the same name, I was received by the gentle and affable director Marcel Parent.

With a rare combination of leadership and humility, the Canada-born director took me on a tour of the fabulously designed and appointed museum that was built over a period of six years. Hours were spent browsing through innumerable pieces of memorabilia, photographs, paintings from the private collection of the Ali family, videos of breathtaking matches and documentaries on the life of the Greatest.

What could have been a boring official trip of acts disconnected soon riveted me to everything Ali. The center based on the six core principles of ‘conviction, confidence, dedication, respect, spirituality and giving’ rests on the personal mission of the Greatest where he states ‘Be Great… do great things’.

What was unmistakable on the faces of hundreds of visitors young and old from around the world was a sense of awe at the possibility of being the greatest in the face of worst discrimination. At the auditorium I was delighted and humbled by the presence of another Daughter of Greatness, ambassador Attallah Shabazz.

Daughter of civil rights leader Betty Shabazz and Malcom X, Shabazz embraced me warmly, congratulated on the work done at New Light and committed to bring a group of young leaders on what she calls a pilgrimage of the spirit.

November 9

The façade of the Opera House in Napa Valley, California, was awash with the glow of late afternoon light that is possible only in that wine country. Inside the impressive landmark of Napa Valley, I was warmly greeted with a buzz of activity.

The joy and anticipation was palpable in the air with a number of young people volunteering to usher and take the coats away as elegantly attired guests, many of who were senior citizens, gradually walked in. It was the last performance of the season and for many months before the house would reopen after extensive renovation.

The charity event organized by Linda Scheibal and Kerry Forbes in partnership with the Soroptimists Society of Napa Valley featured Young Musicians for Young Humanitarians comprising a diverse group of classically-trained musicians.

The evening was dedicated to a safe house, A New Day, for victims of sex trafficking and abuse located in northern California and New Light and aimed at raising awareness about the extent of sex trafficking, the modern-day slavery that is all pervasive in today’s world. Closing the evening with Hallelujah, the young musicians moved the audience to a pledge to continue their fight till each and every child was safe.

November 15

If blues is the story of people’s lives, for me no one says it better than the double Grammy winner singer-songwriter Benjamin Chase ‘Ben’ Harper.

Born and raised in a family of musicians that owned a music shop in Santa Clara, California, his exposure to all things musical began while he was an unborn child. His mother, also a musician, recalls fondly on stage about the beginning of Ben’s music.

On November 15, playing at the Granada Theatre in the picturesque Spanish-style seaside city of Santa Barbara for the penultimate concert of his 20th anniversary concert tour Ben was more pensive than exuberant.

Received at the gate by a charming young musician I was ushered in with an all-access pass to the greenroom to hang out with Ben. That truly was a rare opportunity even for very close friends just a short while before an important concert. Nothing could have caught me more off guard than his simple query… ‘How are things at New Light?’

Living thousands of physical miles away with almost intergalactic space between his reality and that of New Light’s I could not but be overwhelmed by his concern and sincerity.

An extraordinarily-gifted musician who plays multiple musical instruments, writes songs and creates music, Ben lets skateboarding be his true passion.

In his other avatar as friend and mentor to many young African-American, Dominican or Puerto Rican inner-city kids from the seedier parts of Los Angeles, Ben lets his skateboarding skills shine a light on their lives.

Nothing that evening could be more significant than Ben giving a shout out to New Light and dedicating my favourite song by him, Roses from My Friends, to me.

November 19

Walking into the Cookshop Restaurant near Chelsea Market, New York, my sleep-starved body was immediately alerted by an extra shot of adrenaline from the smell of freshly-roasted coffee and warm bread.

That crisp windy morning I was meeting designer Yoana Baraschi and her charming publicist Stacie Gillian for breakfast.

In April 2012, actor Olivia Wilde reached out to introduce Baraschi, who had come to know about New Light from Half the Sky, to me.

Over a breakfast of fresh fruits, soft-boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and rye bread, Yoana began to recount her India stories. More than two decades ago as a young designer after her internship with Thierry Mugler and Valentino, she had arrived in Madras with her 18-month-old daughter.

At the Taj Fisherman’s Cove the entire staff on her floor took charge of her blue-eyed blonde daughter in typical Indian fashion and asked her to concentrate on her work and business.

Yoana was touched forever by that show of acceptance and protection as a young mother.

Romanian by birth and American by choice, she has since visited India more than 90 times. She said her long-term spiritual connection and business association with India was catapulted to another level when she watched the India segment of Half the Sky.

Yoana was propelled into action immediately and picked up her sketch pen and paper to do what she does best. She went on to create a dress for New Light that would be a tool for expression of her solidarity with all the marginalised and dispossessed women of this land.

Superbly feminine in design, the dress she says represents the gentle graceful power of Indian women who face untold hardship with unparalleled fortitude in its combination of the fabric and the cut. Created in three colour ways — teal, coral and black — the dress was launched nationwide in the US on October 13 through the prestigious chain store Anthropologie, which is known for its commitment to social justice.

As we come to the close of our breakfast meeting she brings out a beautifully packaged gift and hands me over the same to me with the word gratitude.

I instinctively knew what was inside... it was Yoana’s love for every Indian woman in the form of a teal dress.