BANGALORE: She is not the sweltering hot ‘Lady in Red’, who swooned Chris de Burgh, nor is she a typical activist who merely shouts slogans. Instead, she carries her five-foot-long stick around the town, dons her typical red saree, sports a big red bindi and roams around the slums in the city -- Ready to counsel and sometimes even smack erring husbands.
Her agenda is to rid the financially poor people off alcohol, tobacco and drug dependence. For these are, according to her, the main cause of marital discord, in their families.
For over two decades now, Roopini Chandra has donned the role of a contemporary Mother Teresa. She speaks the language of peace, but allows a silent threat to linger in the air. A typical day starts with picking up her stick and heading out to all the slums in the city. She even attends distress calls of domestic violence victims and mediates marital fights when necessary. She then barges in to counsel the accused husband. Her words of advice are followed by soft threats. If nothing works, she then advises the wife to tie a leash around her husband’s neck and starts whacking him with her stick.
In her own words, she “doesn’t care two hoots” about cynics, who throw her disapproving stares for her violent methods. “I started working for the Karuna Mother Teresa Welfare Society almost 20 years back. Then, it seemed like a little counselling would help families in the slums. But when this method did not show results and marital fights and depression grew, I decided to don the role of Badra Kali. I shed my white clothes and embraced red. This worked. It became a sign of approaching danger,” she recalls.
In the dead of the night, she solves the fights of slum dwellers; in the morning, her fight is against the system. “When I question husbands about why they consume cheap alcohol, they argued that it is easily available and helps them drown their sorrows. But we stock phenol, rat poison and insecticides at home. But do they consume that? They know it is poisonous and will cause immediate death, but what they don’t know is that alcohol is slow poison. We help them understand. But when words don’t help, my stick does the talking,” she says.
Her latest campaign was at the J C Road slum, that houses over 1,000 people. When City Express took a walk down the slum on a reality check, we found that her name sends shivers down the spine of the male folk in the area. In the last five days, she has solved fights in 20 households and the treatment meted out to the erring husbands was enough to straighten the rest. “I first heard about aunty from a friend. My husband used to come home drunk every day since my wedding. One night, I mustered courage to make that phone call and within minutes aunty was knocking on my door. After her visit in the wee hours of the morning, it seemed like it would only get worse. My husband was furious. But after aunty got him a job, he realised where he was faltering,” narrates Shobha (name changed), a slum dweller who works as a maid in Shanti Nagar.
Chandra explains that merely counselling or beating doesn’t work. “I realised that I need to find a permanent solution. Of the 1,000 people in this slum, I have found temporary jobs in the BBMP for almost 500 of them,” she says. One such beneficiary is Harish, who now earns Rs 300 a day, and does not indulge in drinking or domestic violence.
“I look at them and I know that I’ve given at least something back to the society. These men will now inspire others to lead a life without dependence too. My idea will remain, long after I’ve gone,” concludes Chandra.
* Each year, over 200 families living in the slums of Bangalore suffer domestic abuse at the hands of husbands in an inebriated state
* Statistics show that over 150 female slum dwellers commit suicide after being victims of domestic abuse
* Over 5,000 litres of bad quality alcohol is consumed on a monthly basis from shops in the vicinity of slums in the city