The Phoenix and Palladium malls, which her family own, may epitomise consumerism, but Amla Ruia, wife of Ashok Ruia, prefers to devote her time and resources to those who need her expertise and energy. MARWAR meets the altruist to find out more about her laudable efforts to bring water to the parched villages of Rajasthan.
Amla Ruia could easily have fallen into the trap of parties, travel itineraries every six months, swapping news about new collections, new restaurants and frittered away finances. But early on in life, she cast her anchor in deeper waters. Frivolity and extravagance are temptations she turns her back to, preferring to face the harsh realities of life and the eroding moral and economic climate of her India. If there is only one thing that could be said about her, it would be ‘She is focused’. “We have to decide…”, she tells me, “Once you make a decision, everything else follows easily”.
It is a sunny April morning. The pink bougainvilleas in her sprawling garden are in full bloom and servants and cars and family members are going about a normal day. The charming courtyard between the two wings of Ruia House in Malabar Hill, Mumbai, catches my attention—old trees and old staff members, little temple alcoves and kitchens that allow a quick, fresh peck before you step into the parked cars. Ashok Ruia himself is getting ready to leave “for office”, while Amla Ruia has taken time off for us.
Their Phoenix mall is a household name (“Going to Phoenix today”, is a happy city anthem) but Ashok and Amla Ruia are far from any form of ostentation. In fact, her interests lie on the other side of the stream of life. The check dams, water harvesting, Aakar Charitable Trust, the streamlets in parched desert lands, the frequent trips to the villages in Rajasthan, the robust work she does for the poor and unspoken in districts which otherwise lie neglected—all these and more keep Amla busy. And yet her spirit is not weary or worn, or self-righteous. She owes it all “to the divine”. Hands elegantly placed over her red and ivory coloured sari, she attributes all her social work to the many influences in her life, starting from her parents and her early life. Her husband is supportive, and as her children now have their own lives and families and children, she is free to do what she like. And yet it becomes clear as she sits before me, that she is all of this and much more, as are most women over the age of 70. The vine of life helps women branch out in so many ways; their years give them wonderful wisdom, experiences and relationships along the way.
Whatsoever your hands find to do; do it
“It is my belief that the two foremost issues in our country that need immediate attention are water and education. Hence, whichever village my team and I enter for carrying out water harvesting, we also take up the issue of primary education. A few years ago, we started doing full-fledged water harvesting in the severely deprived and marginalised areas of Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts of Rajasthan. Water harvesting is the foundation, because of it, villagers can have an income through cultivation and cattle rearing and farming. Water is life itself and thanks to so many like-minded friends and organisations we are able to carry out this work and fill a big need. I am told by my team that up to December 2015, we have constructed 216 check dams and transformed over a 115 villages totally and impacted another 193 villages. A total of about `8 crore in donations and about `2.75 crore of villagers’ contributions has been spent so far. This year people are looking forward to a good monsoon. I hope it is a good year and the check dams overflow by August 2016,” Amla explains.
The Aakar Charitable Trust, of which she is the chairperson, also distributes cassettes and CDs to spread awareness on water harvesting. Children perform these songs and street plays, as Amla wants to popularise the concept of water harvesting, “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream…” as Martin Luther King Jr had once said. Generous Marwaris will need to keep pouring funds into the heartland that they call home. The need is “now”. Amla Ruia tells me of helpless mothers who boil rice and feed their children the thick starchy water as a meal. “Only rice water with some namak,” she says. Abject poverty dots the Indian landscape. As uncountable as the sands of Rajasthan, thousands upon thousands of human beings are awaiting help. She knows that water harvesting, financial aid, empowerment and education for these helpless men, women and their many children is not enough; they need love, that one river of living water.
Suddenly, like a little schoolgirl on elocution day, very sweetly she asks me, “Can I recite a poem?” With glee she goes on to speak of the “best loved poem in English”: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray. She next recites Keats with a flourish, her hand raised mid-air, smiling through the stanzas. “When Papa and Amma took us to Kashmir for our holidays, as children we’d enact volumes of Oscar Wilde, each one of us taking on a character. This inculcated a love for English literature, which remains with all of us till this day.”
“My grandfather was a compassionate zamindar of Haryana district living in Hisar. He spoke in Marwari, hence he must have originally hailed from Rajasthan. My grandmother was highly religious and constantly told us stories from the Ramayana. My father Madan Mohan Tayal was a handsome, up-coming youth who was chosen by my maternal foster grandfather as a befitting groom for my mother Prabha Tayal. My maternal foster grandfather, Shanti Prasad Jain, wanted to start a business and hence our family moved from Hisar to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. I was the third child after two sisters. Tension ran high, so my mother went to her foster parents who were then living in Dalmia Nagar in Bihar. I arrived, a third daughter, on Shiv Ratri. My mother concealed her disappointment and declared that I was a special gift!”
“It was an uncomplicated childhood with an ambience of simple living and high thinking. We were exposed to a lot of arts such as painting, Indian classical music and folk dance. Our parents used to play bridge and golf and we also played both the games. English classical books and novels were discussed on the breakfast table. The Ramayana accompanied us on long journeys. My mother would be singing the chowpais with all of us joining her, and my father would explain the meanings and mysteries of the text. There was also a passion for gardening in my parents’ home with my chachi DM Tayal taking the lead. Hence, we all became avid gardeners. We received a lot of love and care from her.”
Every year, as a young lady, Amla and her family would go on a two-month vacation to a hill station, which would be either Mussourie, where her maternal grandfather had a beautiful property, or in Kashmir, which had become a favourite family destination. Her father was an expert horse rider and gave the kids a formal training, making them intrepid horse riders also. Yes, Amla Ruia can ride a horse! Then there were crazy competitions like who can stand longer in the freezing waters of the mountain streams. Ah, the beauty of family days. “Our maternal grandfather was wealthy and we spent at least three months every year with him. Hence, there was a lot of exposure to affluence, which ceased to matter for any of us. We had learnt that we could be equally happy living very simply in my father’s house, which was very minimal and basic. These true values of life were so firmly and unshakably ingrained in us that the glamour of life in Mumbai has not been able to erase any of it in these past 50 years. We three sisters and one younger brother have an immense love between us and we’re ready to sacrifice for the other. We have common interests as our roots are the same. We are filled with patriotic zeal, as our father had participated to an extent in the freedom movement. We all like to do our bit for society, as we had seen our mother doing the same.”
In school she knew all her books from cover to cover and that knowledge came very handy in later life. “I could diagnose all the ailments of my children even before the doctor arrived. I knew the incubation periods of all the diseases and the particular species of mosquitoes which transmitted them. I still remember the names and shapes of all the bones in the body and can draw them without referring to a book. Please do not take this to mean that I am extra sharp”, she says. “I am merely a hard worker. Besides, our lessons were not as extensive as what children learn today. The limited text was easy to learn and has remained with me till today. I wish our kids would not have to deal with such wide portions in every subject.” Its something her seven grandchildren would wholeheartedly agree with.
Lending to the poor has its rewards
She is happy that her son Atul is settled and has his own family, as do her daughters, Sharmila Dalmia and Kavita Khaitan, who are married and now living in Delhi and Kolkata respectively. “If my family needs me, they know I’m there, anytime. But most of our family members are independent, and that allows me to be independent (smiles) and devote my days to my spiritual pursuits, my work in the villages, my yoga. People tend to think that I am a very serious person, but as you have seen, I am quite fun loving. I go for lunch with friends, but rarely remember what I have eaten!”
When I ask her if her presence at the tables in restaurants in Phoenix and Palladium send the staff scurrying off on a nervous spin, she replies, “No one would even recognise me. We hate to throw our weight around”. Her typical day is simple. “I wake up by about 5.30 am, walk down to the Priyadarshini Park, do my morning yoga there and sometimes when our teacher doesn’t come, I even lead the class. I come home, have a light breakfast and then work on the computer. I again go for a walk in the evening, after which Ashok and I watch some interesting, historical serials on the television.
“I am not at all ritualistic; I see creation in everything, even in muddy water. I am connected to my Creator at all times through my oneness with nature and all things. Whenever there are lapses in my conduct, I review what I have done wrong and work it out again. If a person is involved, I immediately apologise. Why should I have an ego? What is mine? Everything that I have, has been given to me by the Creator,” she says. It is this spirit that makes her generous. “That is why I want Yuvacharyas (the young teachers of the Art of Living) to come to our villages and spread wisdom. I would like these villagers to have all that I have, all that we have access to. It is this beauty of the scriptures that made me want to share them with others. I felt so blessed with all this wisdom that I was imbibing that I needed to take it forth to others,”
It is to this end that she has translated the scriptures, intoned them, distributed CDs and created a small municipal garden up the tony lane of Malabar Hill where she lives. She hopes to conduct workshops there, host inspiring discourses and give the public a place where they can enjoy some tranquillity and beauty. She says with a little girl’s naughtiness, “Ashok is in the office from 12 pm to 8 pm, so in that time, I can do whatever I like.” A retired head of the J J School of Art, Dhopesh Warkar would come home and teach her art, so she paints, she thinks, she conceptualises how to translate ancient religious texts, all the while, keeping herself busy. And she is very keen to take water harvesting to other third world countries. With her, it seems pretty possible!
Is there anything that this very positive, upbeat lady doesn’t like, I wonder aloud, and pat come her response: “Corruption”. “I find it difficult to accept all the corruption in the country today. The indifference of authorities, the bribing. My friends know it is these things that get me
Having celebrated their golden anniversary two years ago, her life is rich in every aspect. But it hadn’t begun this way. “My parents and my sasural’s outlook in life were very different. I did get confused in the initial years of my marriage and this led me to a spiritual quest that has kind of made me who I am today. All the goodness of life that I have learnt and experienced, I now like to give to others, especially to the less privileged.”
Giving is a beautiful feeling, and be it tending to another person’s thirst for water or for life is joy unspeakable.