For Kamini….With Heartfelt Gratitude

Kamini Zohra Mustafi 26.07.1953 — 04.06.2021

A tribute to Kamini Zohra Mustafi, wife of Kabir Mustafi,

who left us on the 4th of June, 2021

Kamini was a rare gem….an unsung visionary…who created and built, for the sheer joy in it, unmindful of applause or recognition. For all of us all who were blessed to have her friendship and counsel, she was the spark which ignited deeper insights within us, transforming us in the process. Being a psychologist, she understood the vagaries of the human mind, and she was therefore compassionate in her approach to people and life. Being with her was to be infused with her love and passion for justice. She perceived a gross injustice in the exclusion of children with special needs and was strongly driven to rectify this ‘wrong’.

Native American cultures believe that both good and bad dreams fill the night and the dreamcatcher “catches” the good dreams and ideas in its web. Kamini was a dreamcatcher par excellence. I had the honour and privilege to work with her as she stormed bastions to make her own vision a reality. In the process we learned valuable life lessons of how to dream fearlessly and focus on that goal to the exclusion of all else. The way to connect with something much larger and beyond oneself and the utter joy and magic you receive from that connection.

She had this amazing quality of recognising people’s strengths and making them believe in themselves…. Of being able to inspire each person who came in touch with her. It was always fun to be with her, to absorb her energy and marvel with wonderment at the clarity and all-inclusiveness of her vision.

She single-handedly established The Learning Centre for special children, in  Bishop Cotton School and thereby gave this historic institution its soul. It certainly was not easy….there were obstacles and resistance from all sides… but Kamini was undeterred and unshakeable. She put her job on the line and fought tooth and nail for making it a reality. Thus the foundation for the Disability chapter in HP, was laid by her.

To understand the greatness of her achievement we have to put it in context. Disability had a stigma attached to it and there was a lack of acceptance for integration, way back in 1995-96. The Disability Act of 1996 was merely on paper…but Kamini had already integrated children with Cerebral palsy, dyslexia and other learning difficulties into the mainstream in BCS.

She saw the need to make a place for those disadvantaged children who had fallen through the cracks of both the education and welfare nets. What better way to do this than to lead by example. Thus the idea of the Centre came about. She wanted it to be the first step in a long long journey towards inclusion. Everyone was sceptical but there was no stopping her. She got two of us regular teachers, got us trained, got a classroom in the Junior School and admitted 10 children with varied disabilities and we had opened shop. She poured her energy into dispelling all doubts and reservations and making the Centre the happiest place in the school. Very soon the regular students started gravitating towards this joyful center…it was open house there. Dancing, singing, outings made our kids thrive. It was a treat to see them blossom. She used her influence and position to open doors for the children. Trips to the Mall, movie hall, hotels etc were organised under her aegis in order to create awareness in society at large. Gradually a sort of acceptance for the Centre and its children was evident.

The Learning Centre grew to become the focal point from where more arms grew to reach other neglected areas for the disabled. Kamini dreamt big and scoffed at every impossibility. It was her mission and she was in a hurry to make this first step impactful and permanent. Once TLC was established the need for a platform where special children could meet and compete was felt. She formed a loose organisation of the few NGOs working in this area in Himachal, and the Festival of the Differently Abled ( FODA) came into being. All these organisations brought their children from far-off places such as Nahan, Mandi, Una, Dharamshala, Solan and Shimla district to participate. This brought children, families, caregivers and organisations dealing with disability, all together on a common platform. The Hope this generated was palpable.

There was a cultural program, sports events specifically designed to cater to every disability and a Mela with games for the kids. It was a huge success…. The children had never experienced such joy and fun. Kamini wanted each child to return laden with gifts, goodwill and love. We had as many as 300 participants by the third year of its inception. The entire Junior School was converted into a dormitory to accommodate all the teams and the entire staff and student community of BCS was on duty. Kamini worked tirelessly to achieve this, and I think that all of us who worked with her gained in many ways….it made us better human beings.

Once this was done Kamini was concerned with empowering the parents of special children and of creating trained staff for the work ahead. We counselled the parents and eventually that bore results. She helped them to establish Udaan, the parent NGO in Shimla. She then collaborated with the National Trust and a Special school Pehchaan was set up by the TLC in New Shimla. The funds came from the Trust, the school was run by Udaan and we in the TLC supported and facilitated the process until 2005 when they took over independently. Today both the Udaan and Pehchaan have grown tremendously and are doing excellent work in providing education, employment and support to children with disabilities. Eventually, the Special Olympics chapter of HP took off from the same spark ignited by Kamini and her support. ABHI, which is an organisation which runs a Counselling and Therapy Centre in Shimla also owes its existence to Kamini Mustafi. This organisation has been formed by the staff of TLC, BCS who were trained by Ma’am herself.

In order to train teachers and caregivers for the task ahead, the TLC ran a certified special education course with the Rehabilitation Council of India and MPBOU( Madhya Pradesh Bhoj Open University). Many of the trained personnel in Pehchaan, ABHI, and other organisations in HP received their training in our special education course. Parent training and mother support were also a special part of our program in TLC and were started under Kamini’s watch. To have achieved so much, in such a short time is no small feat. Within six years of the establishment of The Learning Centre in BCS in 1998, all this had happened.

To have been by her side, as her admiring assistant, working with her at every step, has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. Her constant tutoring and loving friendship has been an uplifting experience for me. She believed in me and pushed me to achieve much more than I was motivated to. Her influence over everyone has been transforming and for me those times are deeply cherished. They were the happiest times of my life.

By overthinking a problem we further complicate it….and by focussing on the “problem” we just get involved in finding solutions and tie ourselves to the task of problem-solving….never really getting anywhere. While the problems of disability and integration of children in schools was still being discussed and debated and ways of doing this were being worked out….Kamini was unique in her delightful way of overriding the entire problem with a ‘Just Do It’ approach. She once gave me a broach that said  ‘Children First’ and that in a nutshell was her own brilliant solution…. Children with disabilities are first children, focus on the commonality rather than the differences and provide them the environment ANY child needs to grow and develop…and for that they need friends and access to school. Just see them as kids and put the rest aside….was both brilliant and sublimely divine in its concept. Even today I find that we overcome all barriers for our children when we focus on their common human needs rather than the differences. They are children after all…and their childhood gets lost behind the monster of disability. They get labelled and forgotten. Kaminiwent all out, no holds barred, to create a space where the ultimate goal of Inclusion was possible.

Kamini, you made the very experience of life, a living wonder….made me experience the bliss of giving and the utter joy of moving away from oneself. You once wove a dream for me with your exquisite embroidery… I cherish that as your living memory and it has already manifested in the form of the ABHI Centre.

For-me, and I’m sure I speak for many others… you were the living embodiment of these profoundly moving words of George Herbert (1633):

Teach me my God and King

In all things Thee to see,

And what I do in anything

to do it as for Thee.

 

To scorn the senses sway

While still to Thee I tend,

In all I do be Thou the way,

In all be Thou the end.

Kamini, you were the Elixir…..God’s ChosenOne …. and are sorely missed. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

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