The story of Shabnam: From the platforms of Sealdah station to establishing an English Medium School
From the platforms of Sealdah Station to working as an interior decorator to become a speaker at Aspen University , Shabnam Ramaswamy’s life has been full of twists and turns.
Born in a village called Katna, in south-west Murshidabad, Shabnam, got to study in Kolkata’s elite La Martinere School, thanks to her father’s Army job. At 16, she was married off to a wealthy 34-year-old who would torture her.
I wasn’t allowed to go out, had no control over my body. I got pregnant six times but only two of my children survived. He was a womaniser and would often come home and beat me to pulp. I had to undergo abortion at seven months once and I also gave birth to a stillborn. There was excessive physical abuse. It felt like I was being choked at every step – said Shabnam
One night, at 24, she left home with her son, leaving behind her daughter who she was still breast-feeding.
For two months, she lived in a shanty at Sealdah station after which she got herself a job and worked her way out of poverty.
‘I lived on Sealdah railway platform for two months, all the while telling myself, Woh subah kabhi toh meri hogi’- She said
Within a decade, she succeeded in her job as an interior decorator, got a divorce and won custody of her children. But she began to tire of high-society life and trained her sights on social work. “I decided to leave Kolkata, as it was awkward going from businesswoman to social worker in the very same city,” she said. She wrote down the names of six cities on chits of paper and asked her daughter to pick a chit. The girl picked Delhi, so that’s where the family went.
Shabnam joined Mira Nair’s Salaam Balak, where she befriended runaways at Delhi station. A senior journalist, Jugnu Ramaswamy, approached her with the intention of making a film on her work. He not only made the film, but married her too. The Ramaswamys set up a school for street kids in Delhi, called Jagriti. After the school was demolished by the Delhi government, they headed to Katna in West Bengal, where they decided to set up a state-of-the-art school with the same name for rural kids.
It was a Muslim belt with severe poverty and deprivation, very conservative and educationally backward.While their school was still under construction, one evening bombs were hurled at them. Their car went up in flames and they later found out four men had been paid to kill them . After being on the run for days, one of the contract killers arrived at their doorstep one night begging for mercy. He now takes care of the school. His daughter goes to Jagriti school and his life has changed.
In 2005, just before the school began, Jugnu died of a heart attack, leaving Shabnam to run it single-handedly. Today, the school boasts several school rooms, workshops, and hostels for 500 students, teachers and staff.
Shabnam’s daughter works towards ending violence on women and children with an NGO in Delhi and her son is a professional photographer.
“City life doesn’t attract me anymore,” says Shabnam, she was also invited to Aspen Ideas Festival Scholars in 2014 as a speaker.
‘I held life by its collar, pushed it to the wall and said ‘you live according to me and not me according to you!’ Toh poora dum se jeetey hain.”
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