27th Jul, 2017
I still remember the eagerness and excitement that came along with the wait for the letters and greeting cards from my friends around the time of birthdays, Christmas and new year’s. A week before my birthday, I would be seated in a plastic wicker chair, glued on to the window grill, looking out into the distance for the ‘tring-tring’ of the bicycle of our beloved postman. He came by our house every day around 3 pm. If the bell doesn’t ring, it meant that he did not have any letters for us. And if it does, it’s a continuous ring until we land up in the courtyard and run up to him to collect the letters. Gone are the days when a small inland letter or a greeting card would bring us so much joy and fulfillment, or a telegram would travel to us with so much suspense and grit to reveal some of life’s dreadful mysteries. Now, with just a click of a button, all the suspense is dispelled. There is a frantic scroll through the emails to sieve out messages that are relevant and discard the ones that are irrelevant. There isn’t any speculation or surprise or personal touch to the messages, as they appear before our eyes in bits and bytes.
However, there are a few fortunate souls who bask in the joy of receiving personal letters even today. With emails replacing handwritten letters and surprises coming with no surprises, there is still a bunch of girls who pen down their thoughts on paper and send them to their beloved friend Sphoorthi. They wait eagerly to hear back from her. These are not just casual letters exchanging pleasantries, but a reluctant effort of unraveling their morbid lives, their dreams, and their anxiousness to someone trustworthy.
Who are these girls by the way and why have they chosen Sphoorthi to offload their burdens and anxieties? They are the Role Model Adolescent Girls (RMAGs) from Koppal, Karnataka; fortunate to be associated with Sphoorthi. Sphoorthi is the name given to the RMAG program carried out under the aegis of the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) and the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative. The envelops are decorated with laces and colorful art work, and etched with perfection, the contents pouring out seamlessly as the girls open up to their beloved friend Sphoorthi. They confide into Sphoorthi, their darkest secrets shoved beneath those suppressed minds. The rampant gender discrimination had forced the girls and the women-folk alike to accept their fate and live a suppressed life. They did not know that they had a choice until Sphoorthi told them. They did not know that they too had a voice in the affairs of the house. They did not know that they had the right to be happy and lead their lives in a manner they envisioned. They did not know that it is not demeaning and unfortunate to be born as a girl. They now know of the beautiful things in life that they were denied or were ignorant of. They have someone who they can trust. She has solutions for all their problems.
It all began over a cup of tea at the modest premises of KHPT in Koppal. The KHPT staff was having a hearty discussion on how to kick off the Sphoorthi Project, when several ideas emerged. Among them there was one that was approved unanimously—the idea of Sphoorthi being an adolescent girl herself who wants to garner support from her peers to form collectives and join her in creating a progressive society. And the first set of communication regarding the project began in the form of letters written by someone called Sphoorthi to the girls, inviting them to form collectives, rise, grow and lead. Every month Sphoorthi would write to the girls on topics ranging from nutrition, hygiene, health and other perils prevalent in the villages. For the fact that peer influence is the best influence, Sphoorthi became a household name and her fame spread far and wide. Thus, the groups grew bigger and bigger and Sphoorthi evolved to become the role model for the RMAGs.
The RMAGs now communicate regularly with Sphoorthi through personally crafted letters and look forward to receiving replies to their letters. These letters are handed over to the community organizers, when they visit their respective villages for the RMAG meetings and gatherings. The letters then travel back to Koppal, to the KHPT office. Each and every letter is read and responded to by the dedicated staff. This data is meticulously analyzed by the team to devise strategies for future activities and also to identify any loopholes in the manner in which the project is undertaken; an indirect way of seeking feedback from the field.
The girls feel empowered and more confident now because they are walking along the path led by Sphoorthi. She portrays herself as a daring personality and a dreamer, who dreams of a better future for herself and her friends in the RMAG cluster. Some of the letters have a detailed account of their dismal lives and an appeal to Sphoorthi to help them out of difficult situations in life. Some of the letters seek advise on improving their studies. Some display the anxiety of the girls to meet Sphoorthi. They wish to put a face and voice to her. Is Sphoorthi just another adolescent girl like them? Does Sphoorthi study well, does she also go through difficult times like them. Despite all the adversities, Spoorthi seems determined to go ahead in life. She has answers to all their questions. To them, Sphoorthi has transformed into a personal diary. They write to her about the eave teasing in their locality, or their eagerness to know their fathers better and share their dreams and wishes with him. Some of them want to know the purpose of life, what is it like to face death head on. These letters are a stark revelation of the level of trust and intimacy the girls share with Sphoorthi.
It has not been a one-sided journey. Sphoorthi won their hearts for the kind of responses they were getting from her. Her receptiveness to their problems and miseries, her advices on the perils of the society, and emphasis on the importance of a balanced diet and the need to be healthy, happy, and successful. Her attestation to the fact that their destinies are not to be carved by someone else, left them in awe of her. They now know that they are the mistresses of their destinies and they have the magical wand to transform their life the way they want it to be like.
It has been a tough task for the community organizers and the field officers to withhold the identity of Sphoorthi. They abstain from revealing the truth about Sphoorthi, when they witness the incessant flow of questions about Sphoorthi and the glitter in the eyes of the hundreds of adolescent girls who have perched their hopes on Sphoorthi. At this stage, they will be shattered if they come to know that Sphoorthi is just another fictional character like Sita or Kannaki. The team does not want to reveal the identity or the non-existence of Sphoorthi and in the process, break the trust of the hundreds of girls who have crept out of their cracked casts and learnt to share anything and everything not only with Sphoorthi, but also their peers. Sphoorthi was able to convince them that it is important to share your woes with someone who can relate to them, and they did just that. It took them a great deal of effort to accept Sphoorthi as one among them. She motivated them to step out of their thresholds and breathe in the petrichor that emanates from the earth. There should be no looking back for them. Sphoorthi should always remain the role model of the RMAGs, and she will continue to remain in the hearts of the RMAGs. The real victory will be when the 4000 odd RMAGs start believing that each one of them is a reflection of her values and ideals. Her legacy shall continue to kindle the young minds and motivate them to move ahead in life even in her absence. And eventually, that is the goal of the Sphoorthi.
By Sheena Lakshmi