As the COO of Kool Kanya sits down to talk to me about her father, her eyes light up. At first, I think it’s just a glimmer of the jhumkas that dangle in her ears but as I listen further, I’m drawn into the conversation like a moth to a flame perhaps because Rajlakshmee’s father, Mr. Rakesh Kumar seems more like a lighthouse, guiding ships in storms, than a parent.
He always says, ‘By controlling your children, you create bonsais.’ Raj recounts that when she was 14-15 years old, her father gave her, his entire month’s salary to run the house. During that month, she learnt how to pay the bills, how to make a monthly register of opening and closing and also how to negotiate with elders like her grandmother who had a tough time asking the 14-year old for money. According to Raj, that month taught her everything about being responsible and accountable when it comes to money – skills she later used, to run the business teams and offices she managed.
Rajlakshmee was 8 when she lost her mother to rheumatic fever and her father was 32. In the early 90s, being a single dad was not a common phenomenon. While the joint family system provided support, Rajlakshmee gives a lot of credit to her father for instilling the right attitude in her from an early age. She believes most of her education happened under his keen eye rather than in school. In fact, he was, her school.
He used to organise summer camps in vacations for her and many other kids from Delhi in the villages of Madhya Pradesh. They used to light the fire, cook their own food, go for treks, study Vedic Maths under his tutelage and in the process instilled a deep love for nature. She remembers how other parents were overly protective of their children but a thorn in her foot was met with an unflinching attitude by her father who taught her to be independent and self-reliant under all circumstances.
Whether it was learning to travel in DTC buses at the age of 13 or standing up to eve-teasers in Delhi buses or learning to change the tyre before she set out to learn driving, her father showed her the path at an age and time when parents used to stop girls from stepping outside their homes in a city that is considered one of the most unsafe cities for women, even today.
I marvel at the confidence with which she speaks. Growing up as a girl in Delhi in the 90s was a daunting task. Jostling in DTC buses, protecting oneself from uninvited touches, gropes and what-nots, the sense of freedom that Rajlakshmee describes, sounded quite alien to me and empowering.
‘The fact that he let me make my own decisions was indeed empowering.’ Rajlakshmee adds. ‘But that always made me accountable for my actions. There was never any pressure to perform or to do well.’ Just an insistence on a well-thought out plan. Like many businesses do these days, Rajlakshmee’s father asked her to think of the next 5 years with every decision she took in life. ‘So even when I went for the Master’s program to US, I was networking with people in the first year because I knew I had to find a job after my second year to pay off my education loan.’ This far-sightedness has helped Rajlakshmee in life, personally as well as professionally.
But what she finds hugely fascinating, is also the fact that a government servant like her father has managed to give her profound money skills that have helped her build a healthy relationship with wealth.
- What you save makes you richer than what you earn
Her father often repeats this quote and lives by it as well. Raj mentions that her dad’s salary was comparatively lesser than some of the people in her family. But even today, if someone needs money in the family, her father is the first one to offer help. He always has a surplus income to help, but not enough to waste – something she lives by, too.
- Charity doesn’t happen without money in your hands
After her graduation, when Rajlakshmee was about to join a diploma project for an NGO in Jaipur that was only paying for boarding and lodging but not salary, her father insisted that exploitation was unacceptable and that she should charge money for the skills she has acquired during her education. His understanding that you can only help others when you have helped yourself, is akin to the new age spiritual mantras that many seem to mumble but not all of them, practice.
- Focus on the right thing at the right time
During her childhood, she craved to get Lisa shoes – a very popular brand by Action shoes that girls of that age used to wear. Her father told her that this is the time to learn and that if she learns well then at the right time she will have all the shoes and clothes that she needs. She laughs saying that now her cupboard is spilling over with stuff that she thinks of giving away and that life is now teaching her to let go.
I wonder if that ‘spilling cupboard’ part sounds at odds with what her father must have thought. She shakes her head as if she was expecting this question and says, ‘He has never forced me to do anything. In fact, he believes that all hermits were once kings and owned palaces and riches. Only when you live through something, will you learn and appreciate the letting go.’
She admits that her childhood was full of richer experiences – of afternoons spent in the British Council Library, watching cultural events at Sahitya Kala Parishad, of walks to the museums, clay modelling workshops in National Gallery of Modern Art or a Hasya Kavi Sammellan in Old Delhi; life was simply breathing in the art and culture scene of the city. Her father has always been a great reader – psychology, anthropology, movies, art, politics, you name it. And Rajlakshmee became the sponge that absorbed all the knowledge he had to share. Even crossing the Lodi Road in Delhi would not go without him going into the history of the person the road was named after.
‘What I love most about him, is how he has adapted over the years.’ Rajlakshmee says. ‘He gave me attention when I needed it the most. He passed over many promotions at work just so he would be able to look after me. And now when I need space, he offers me that space.’
I wonder if a child could ever ask for more. For a child to feel secure in oneself, they don’t need just a mother or a father. They need a parent who can strike a fine balance between attention and space. And follow it up with faith. Faith in one’s upbringing and in seeing one’s child grow into an adult.
Raj hurtfully remembers her time in school. Due to her tonsillitis, she used to miss school on many days and feel lost when she would return. Due to blisters on her head, she would also have to be bald for long stretches and children would tease her mercilessly. When teachers would complain to her father about her inattention, he would reply, ‘It is not my child’s responsibility to perform in school. The day she is articulate, she would be a topper.’ Raj proved him right after she turned 15 because that kind of unshakeable faith can shake mountains.
Even when she was little, he used to tell her, ‘The entire world will know me as Rajlakshmee’s father, not the other way round.’ These words by Mr. Rakesh Kumar sum up his attitude towards parenting. And as for life, each time the father-daughter duo go on treks and hikes, he reiterates on the quote from the Upanishads, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family) and that is why he believes in giving back to people, to society, to nature, to wherever one is, in life.
Raj signs off with a sense of purpose saying that her father can’t stress enough on the fact that all human beings are nurturers and she has seen him follow that maxim so often that it is now ingrained in her too. That each job she takes, each path she pursues, giving back to the society is central to her thoughts.
As she picks up her bag to leave, I can’t wait to see which tree, this seed that her father has planted within her, would blossom into.