It was one chilly morning of 1991 of London when the late Princess of Great Britain, Lady Diana received a letter from India. More than a letter it was an invitation, very unique, from the children of special school ‘Tamanna’ with the thumbnail signatures of its special students. The late Princess was impressed by the very self-effacing style of invitation and she accepted it at the first instance. This visit of Lady Diana on February 12, 1992 albeit without any diplomatic initiatives hogged the maximum headlines in the newspapers. People came to know about ‘Tamanna’ and its founder Dr Shyama Chona with a different dimension to her academician profile. By this time Dr Shyama Chona had already earned herself a place in the glitterati of the national capital as the high profile Principal of DPS School. But she was not happy just being a Principal, academician and celebrity. She had the horizon of social service in the shape of spreading awareness in people for the cause of disabled children waiting with open arms for her.
She listened to her inner voice and answered the call of her undying spirit of social service. She went on to became the recipient of the highest national awards, the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, along with more than 55 other awards to her name. Her will and determination of doing something for the society still remains the same even after 40 years of her dedicated services. She is daughter of a bureaucrat and wife of a retired army officer (Major General).
As I entered her office at DPS RK Puram the sight of more than 35 honours on the wall was enticing. ‘Wow, this is greatness personified,’ were the words that instantly danced on my lips. There are very few persons who can boost of achieving what they desire. A twinkle in the eyes and the spirit of ‘miles to go before I sleep….’ defines her indomitable spirit.
Excerpts from a talk to her by preeti Prakash:
Q 1. At this juncture of a highly successful life what do you attribute to your childhood.
The peace in my mind, the strength of conviction, compassion for all, to be the best, sharing are all attributes of childhood that I cherish. I was a product of a happy childhood. My father being the financial Controller of Govt of India I grew up in Lodi Estate. With around 12 servant quarters I would go and play with their children, take food for them. I always had a soft corner for them in my heart. We had a tonga whose horse, I would talk to. I was always the brilliant one and topped studies. I was the youngest of the 5 children. I had a phenomenal memory. My homework copy was always stolen before my exams but I still got the best marks. I would say though we were not children of abundance but we were taught to use, finish and get more instead of get more and discard. My mother would always feed the cow and dog first before her children.My schooling was from Sophia Ajmer and MGD Jaipur where I learnt to swim, dance, walk, talk, dress all in style. I did my graduation from Maharani’s college Jaipur. When I topped my graduation I was immediately offered lecturership in MGD. I was President of University Students Council. I was the first Femina correspondent for Rajasthan. In 1965 war I worked for soldiers & their families.With all the achievements at that point of time I had never known who I am. I felt I wanted to do more and better. This desire and undying urge to work for humanity inspite of the composure within has surely gone a long way in moulding my personality.
Q 2. Biggest Challenges faced in life.
The biggest challenge in my life was my daughter Tamanna. Till she was nine she could not walk, talk and even swallow. She was like a doll given to me by god in the shape a half finished job, for me to finish the rest. It was an internal and external fight with my ownself. It was first a denial, then sorrow combined with anger. But there was a feeling of positive contribution. I desperately tried everything possible to see her behave like other children. This made me go to all kinds of saints and babas later to realise that nothing worked. I took her to America for treatment, tried all therapies and doctors. When in need you are ready to do anything. My tools were hope, inner strength and support from my family. I was reading and writing and teaching at that time too. My son was an equal partner with me in the days of struggle when my husband would go for exercises (he was in the army). It was sorrow combined with hope. She could not speak and I longed to hear ‘mumma’ from her. I knew that the language was in her mind and I waited for the day. She is now standing on her own, independent and can read and do her chores herself.
Q 3. With more than 55 awards and 96 nominations, one honour after another, year after year, were you lucky or was it love of labour.
I have always been a hard working person and enjoyed my work thoroughly. Whatever task I had in hand I did it with honesty and earnestly. That gave me immense satisfaction. It also gave me strength to work for greater benefit of society. With all the hardships, the challenge that I felt were like forts to be conquered. I don’t know where luck was but hope never died because of which I am what I am.
Q 4. What is Tamanna project. Other projects you are working on.
Three decades ago life stood still when I had my daughter Tamanna. When I needed to put her in school, there was no place to take her. The whole problem of disability should be looked at the other way. We expect everyone to be like us and have no patience if they aren't. They just need our shoulders and our hand, Tamana is a registered voluntary and non-profit making Society, working since 1984 for the upliftment of multiple-handicapped children. As its Founder Member, I have established 3 of its branches in the prime locality of Vasant Vihar, in South Delhi, namely : Tamana Special School, Nai Disha and the School of Hope, which educate approximately 500 mentally-challenged and autistic children. 40 per cent of the handicapped children in these institutions are from poor families. I also provide, from my own salary as the Principal of DPS R.K. Puram, for their education and maintenance. My main concern today, is to streamline the handicapped with the normal children, by providing them with special education, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. For the first time in the history of special education, the Tamana Special School is providing integrated facilities for the disabled. The ‘School of Hope’ is also the only institution which is educating autistic children, a symptom the detection of which is as difficult as its rehabilitation. Autism is a mental disability affecting one in every 10,000 children. I have taken the first step in setting up a school for slum children, This is called ‘DPS ANUBHAV SHIKSHA KENDRA and has become a role model for other schools to emulate. The school, with 1500 students on its roles. I am also running a free school in Ekta Basti, R.K. Puram for the poor, providing free educational services to children of the weaker sections of society, and I’m also training the mothers to cope with family situations. This school is run under the aegis of UNESCO and UNICEF. I have also been a regular columnist with the Hindustan Times and the 4th D Magazine, and have been writing on various issues concerning parenting. These appear in a weekly column entitled ‘Nurture Talk’. Some of these articles have been compiled and a book has been published bearing the same name.
Q 5. But for your daughter Tamanna, would you have taken up this project with equal zeal.
I always had the zeal to work for the weaker sections of society and disabled children. As I said earlier life was much larger than we realized. One should think beyond oneself. The number of underprivileged in society are more than the privileged. I believe in the verdict “There is a destiny that makes us brothers, none goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others, comes back into our own.” The satisfaction derived after helping out the needy is much greater than anything desirable. She was surely the motivation and a light that took me to that higher goal.
Q 6. With your vast global experience how do you rate schools in India.
School education is India surely need lot of changes. There is no elasticity in school education which means that we have a system in which a child is either pass or fail. It is totally exam oriented. There is no value of social sciences. More practical changes are awaiting our education system. Stress should be laid on emphasizing vocational education aiming at employment opportunities. Today American and Japanese schools have 40% dropouts. In India every school policy differs. There is a great difference in government and private schools. Value education is missing. It's not a school's function to equip one to find jobs, points out the principal, and faith-based schools have no role to play in our education system. The most important thing for children is to accept discipline.
Q 7. Gap between past & present generation.
These days due to high degree of professionalism and materialism parents are not acting responsible. Young parents themselves seem confused. Consequently respect for parents is decreasing. We are planning to open a school for parents to provide them training. Then there is the influence of media on children, giving rise to frustration and competition. Children are not positively occupied. Children should be brought up under some rules and limits. Children now a days need time and space. However, spanking is not a part of the parenting process.
Q 8. What is the philosophy of your life.
My best moment of life is this moment. The now is important and most mindful. A book named, ‘I am ok, you are ok,’ says that life is a replay of childhood- the book is close to my heart and my inspirer too.
Q 9. What plans do you have for future.
Apart from Anubhav School I also am working on a school for parents named ‘Love and Logic school for Parents.’ But it is miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep. One birth is not enough to do what I want to do. There is lots that is to be done in social sector, education, disability.
Q 10. Message to children.
Respect elders. Be polite, work hard, discover yourself, any conflict with parents sort them out through communication. You are never alone in this world.