Hers is the story of a woman whose love for humanity is paramount. Hers is a story which proves that humanity still exists in this world, through some form or the other. In today's age when human beings are all pitted against one other in a mad rush for either material or momentary pleasures, her life story underscores the fact that love for mankind can still move mountains.
We are talking about Aruna Mukherjee, a well known social worker and humanitarian of our State as well as the region. A resident of Paltan Bazar area of Guwahati, she completed her 100th birthday last year. And throughout the course of the century she has lived here on earth, she has kept professing and spreading the universal message of love for mankind and humanity.
Many of us might think that a century is more than enough time for us to reflect on the time we have spent here on earth. But for this lady it seems as if it is just the beginning. Mukherjee had recently applied for permission from the civic administration to run an old-age home! And what makes it even more amazing is the fact that she does not rely on external help or support to materialise her dreams - she plans to run the old age home herself!
A strong advocate for women empowerment, Aruna Mukherjee at present runs four vocational institutes that offer free training in painting, music, knitting, sewing, embroidery and soft toy-making.
One of the most remarkable things about Aruna Mukherjee is that she has been surviving on just tea and biscuits for the last 70 years. She had stopped eating regular food since the time of Indian independence. In 1947, the plight of people who had to flee their homes in Bangladesh due to the partition disturbed her immensely. While she would cook for the refugees and share with them her food, she felt it was not enough. The plight of those helpless people moved her to such an extent that she herself stopped eating so that she could feel their suffering.
It has been written that the significance of any society lies in moving together. If in the course of the journey anybody lags behind, if in the darkness of night a gust of wind blows out anyone's lamp, the tenets of humanity demand that we should not just go ahead and leave them in the lurch. We should extend a hand to help them up, and rekindle their lamps with the flames of our lamps. Aruna Mukherjee seems to have lived her life, or rather is looking forward to spend the rest of her life, following these basic tenets of mankind.
The melange team recently spent some time with her at her residence in Paltan Bazar area of the city in a bid to know more about her life. The philanthropist had just returned home after she had been hospitalised due to age-related weaknesses. And although we could not spend much time with her, the moments we spent made us realise, and respect, her love for human life. We can only hope and pray that people like Aruna Mukherjee continue to take birth on earth so that we do not forget the basic tenets of humanism.
Following are excerpts of our conversation.
Q. Where were you born? Please tell us about your family.
Ans: I was born in Dhaka and spent some time in Gauripur after my marriage with late Prof. Jadulal Mukherjee. My husband's work brought us to Guwahati and I have been staying here ever since. My husband late Prof. Jadulal Mukherjee had retired as the Head of the Department of Chemistry of Cotton College.
I have four sons and a daughter. Three of them have passed away and my youngest son lives in Canada where he works as a Chartered Accountant.
Q. Where did you complete your education?
Ans: I never got the chance to study in my life. When I was young, my parents sent me to live with my elder brother in Mymmensing (in present day Bangladesh). I never got the opportunity to study in life and still hold this grudge against my family. But then after my marriage to late Prof Mukherjee, I read from my children's books and taught myself.
Q. How and when did you start working on social issues?
Ans: I have always held a deep love for human beings. The joys and sufferings of the common people affect me in a myriad number of ways.
Saying this, I always felt that womenfolk have been neglected in our society. I have always voiced my support for the empowerment of women. As we constitute the fairer sex, it is important that women are financially independent so that they can stand up on their own feet.
Living in Gauripur and later on in Guwahati, I found that womenfolk often tend to stay at home without doing anything. They would depend on their husbands to provide for their existence. Isn't that so sad, to be dependent on others for your living? In a bid to make them independent and stand up on their own feet, I decided to start a vocational centre on sewing for women where I taught them without any charges. Through the school, I taught sewing to many young girls and women so that they could get a new livelihood option.
In the beginning, it was difficult and I had to really motivate the women to take up sewing. Tailoring jobs were hard to come by and most girls used to get disheartened. I had to also motivate them a lot besides teaching them tailoring,
Later on, I thought that I will do something apart from the sewing institute. I began teaching music and started a painting school.
Q. Where did you learn all these? When did you start your music and painting school?
Ans: I have learnt most of the thing by myself. I learnt music though private tuitions while I learnt painting entirely by myself. I would see a painting on the streets and after coming back home, I would try to recreate that drawing. At times, it would take me around six months to complete just a single painting. But I used to keep practicing and my perseverance enabled me to complete my paintings.
I started my music and painting school sometime in 1971 or 72. Even today, I try to paint and practice singing whenever I am free.
Q. You had recently applied for permission to start an old age home? Why do you want to start an old age home at this point of life?
Ans: I might have crossed hundred years in age but I still have a lot of work left to do! I feel that old people today are neglected by their children. More than anything else, self respect is very important for people. I believe that every person in this world has the right to lead their lives, especially their old age, with pride and dignity.
It is my desire to start a home for elderly people where they can spend the rest of their lives with their heads held high. That is the chief reason behind my desire to start the old age home.
Q. You have always strived for the betterment of society. How do you look back at all the social work you have done?
Ans: Social work is important. But before starting any social work, it is important that one looks after his or her own family first. One cannot work for the welfare of society by neglecting their own family.
Q. You have been witness to so many developments that have taken place in the socio-cultural history of Assam and the world. How do you look back at your life and the developments that have shaped Assam's history?
Ans: It is true that a number of developments have taken place in the world. At the same time, I feel that the mindset of the people has shrunk in comparison.
Also, I am appalled with the way a section of our youngsters dress and conduct themselves today. In the name of fashion, our young boys and girls have forgotten how to respect our own tradition and culture. Does our mekhela-chador not have any value? It is important we respect our own traditions and culture first before embracing new ones.