Conducting the Orchestra

“Oh stop, she’ll be fine,” Sonali said to her friend as she grabbed my hand in hers and pulled me into the middle of the oncoming, unruly, Mumbai traffic. Right on cue, the alarm bells in the practical realm of my head sounded off. But my instinctive side dominated, as it let out a chuckle at Sonali’s command that translated into the grin that was suddenly plastered onto my face. Yes, we were risking our lives by waltzing right into the unreasonable, incalculable orchestra that was Mumbai traffic, ignorant of the dictations of their symphony. But, within seconds, I found that my enabler, Sonali Sonawane (So-na-nay), was the conductor. We walked in front of speeding motorbikes, autos, cycles, cars, and trucks. But with one powerful flick of Sonali’s wrist, they stopped as quickly as they started.

At that point, I had been working for Salaam Bombay/Mumbai Foundation (SBF/SMF) for a little over a month. With the many interactions that I had with its work, I found that my incredulity and awe for the work that I was doing always found its way back to the incredible people, often times the powerful women, involved. On a rural visit to Nashik, Maharashtra, the very place where I met Sonali, a friend of SMF’s and one of the most amazing people I had met thus far, I was still at a point where my project at SMF was undeveloped. By the end of the 3-day visit, though, and with the help of Sonali and many others I had met along the way, I realized that my passion for working with women was a puzzle piece that fit so well within the larger scheme of SMF’s mission to keep children healthy and in school.


Sonali is sitting on the steps talking to the group of women.

In Nashik, we visited several schools and government officials to educate them on the tobacco epidemic that India is facing. Sonali, who works for the government, specifically on women-specific, micro-finance projects, brought me to an all women’s group – one that she works closely with – so that a Salaam Bombay Foundation representative could speak with them on our issues. On the surface, this was a group of moms. I soon realized, though, that these women were powerful figures who had the hand to change so much. And I thought of my own mom, who has shaped every part of who I am. Like my own, mothers for so long, control what we eat, what we hear, what we see, where we go, what we feel, how we grow, what we think, and what we learn; they are our protectors. And when women are educated and mobilized to be change-makers, they have the ability to create strong generations. And those generations create strong generations. And all of a sudden, we start to control the chaos. The beauty of an orchestra is created when so many different parts come together in perfect synchrony to create something so melodic and so coherent. When one of those parts ceases to contribute to the communal sound, however, we’re left with something largely incomplete. Too often, women’s voices are suppressed from so many narratives, leaving many stories unfinished. With all these thoughts swarming through my head, I looked at this group of women and at Sonali who, with her booming voice, was speaking to them passionately, and it clicked: hearing these unheard voices is where I would try and make my mark. I left Nashik and the whole trip tied itself into this one thought: if we want to raise a changed generation, we need to start to use a mother’s love and command to walk into the middle of the road and help conduct the orchestra.  

Although being an Indian-American, Nisha has never been to India like her parents did and now is excited to integrate into the Indian culture and make it a strong part of her identity. She is passionate about health and education and is looking forward to working in the same field through AIF and her host organization. Through this fellowship, she wants to learn about the issues from the people who are living through them and wants to gain a deep understanding of them. Prior to AIF, she was living and working in Peru and Tanzania, an experience she things that would help her in this fellowship.

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