Vimala Seshadri: Not Without My Daughters
The only male in this family of 13 is a gorgeous brown German Shepherd named Lupin. Pharmacologist and medical researcher Vimala Seshadri lives with 10 girls between the ages of four and 20, who come from underprivileged backgrounds, and two dogs.
“We’re an all-women household,” says Vimala, who has been bringing up the girls as her own daughters in a small home in Injambakkam for the past nine years. While the younger girls study at a nearby CBSE school, the older ones have just started working. Twenty-two year old Sashi, who came to Vimala when she was 14, is doing her BCom through correspondence and works as an au pair for an expat couple. “The older girls also babysit for expat couples on weekends. And the money they make is put aside for them,” says Vimala. “Sashi paid for her younger sister’s wedding with the money she made as an au pair,” she says.
In Vimala’s home, the focus is on education and being independent. The girls live with her through the year and go back to their parents during the holidays. “We go back for a while, but this is home too,” says Divya (18), who’s paraplegic and has just finished class 12 at a special school. She’s planning to start her own baking business with Vimala’s help.
They’re a happy hard-working gaggle of girls, only too pleased to invite you to their next Christmas party (“we bake loads of cake and cookies that disappear in a flash”), bring you their two-week-old puppy to pet (“look, her eyes are still closed!”) or show off their pink dinner plates with Disney characters (“there are three princesses on this plate). Tiny squabbles break out occasionally — the kind that siblings have — over the better actor, whose custard turned out better or whose turn it is to water the garden.
Born to Indian parents in the US, Vimala had never spent time in India, though her family is from Chennai. She decided to work with children while she was living in Michigan in 1993. “Soon after I had made that promise to myself, I got a call from the local hospital saying there was an Indian girl there who spoke no English, and could I help. That’s what made me think of coming to India.”
She came to India in 1994 and until 1997, worked in an orphanage in Tirukundram. “It was mostly an administrative role but it made me realise that though the children were well looked after, they needed one-on-one attention. I believed I could give it to them.”
So in 1998, she set up the Nivedita Centre for Learning in the US as an organisation that focussed on education and making girl children financially independent. She and trustee R N Prasad started an India branch in 2000 and Vimala moved to Chennai. “We moved here in 2000. The lease runs out in 2010 and we’re still looking for a house. It’s hard to find a landlord willing to take in a family as diverse as ours,” she says.
Though she gets help from a few donors, Vimala’s been putting in her own money — it costs about Rs 5 lakh to Rs 6 lakh a year — to keep the centre running. She juggles work as a senior project information and feasibility associate at Icon Clinical Reasearch in Perungudi with looking after her large family.
Vimala also conducts tuition classes for girls from the fishing village down the road. She pays for a master to tutor the older girls, while one of her girls, Esther teaches the girls from classes one to three. “I was just helping out and realised I love teaching,” says Esther. “I want to become a Montessori teacher and go abroad and study for a while,” she says.
The others have big dreams too — Maheswari wants to be an astronaut, or the President of India. Vaishali wants to be an accountant. “I wanted to be a pilot, but realised I loved numbers after I started doing Vimala Akka’s accounts,” says the class nine student. “You can be both,” interrupts Vimala. “You can get a licence after you finish your CA,” and then adds, “Vaishali’s doing my accounts for the third year. My auditors never find a mistake.”
Vimala believes that every city should have at least one home based on her model. “With a little bit of money, you can do a lot,” she says. “You just have to be ready to give each person one-on-one attention.”