Changing lives in rural Bengal

Changing lives in rural Bengal
PHOTO: Indranil Ray Chaudhury

In the summer of 2000, a young Singaporean pilot and his wife were pushing their one-year-old son in a pram through a Kolkata street.

They came upon a little boy, almost their son's age, sleeping on the pavement while his mother was going about doing some household chores (yes, some people there do live on pavements). It was a scene that Mr Indranil Ray Chaudhury had seen many times during his visits to the city but on that day it made him stop and reflect for a second. He looked at his young son sleeping blissfully in the pram while the other child was sleeping on the filthy pavement.

"It dawned on us that we were just lucky to be have been born to a different family. We were concerned for the little boy on the pavement. We decided then that we would try and do something," said Mr Chaudhury, 50, of how he and his wife decided to start IsonFund, which stands for In service of the needy fund.

IsonFund trust is a non-profit organisation providing education, healthcare, hygiene and dignity to the needy in India.

The money for the trust comes from him, his wife, family and friends. Initially, the trust started to help 25 needy students in Kolkata with lunch. It was then that Mr Chaudhury and his wife met a "wise" man. "He told us to move into rural areas if we really wanted to make a difference," said Mr Chaudhury on how they went on to choose a few villages in the district of West Mednipore, about four hours from Kolkata.

Over the years, the trust built close to 360 toilets in three villages.

"We also have nine homeopathy clinics and sponsor students in a rural tuition centre. Ad hoc projects include medical operations, buying books, warm clothing, blankets and dry food and holding a sports day.

"The other project we are proud of, but unable to scale up due to want of funds, is student sponsorship. Three students we sponsored from the villages have done well. One is a university teacher, another a business manager with software giant TCS and the third is a nurse now working in a Kolkata hospital," said Mr Chaudhury.

"We do not do any official fund raising. We run on our own contribution and with contributions from our close friends, for which we are really thankful," added Mr Chaudhury, who is a senior pilot with Singapore Airlines.

Mr Chaudhury and his wife Shreya, 38, are happy with the work done so far and they have done it with minimum supervision. Their managing trustee lives in Kolkata and he oversees the projects.

Mr Chaudhury, who has two sons - Ishan, 16, and Orjun, 11 - visits the villages with his wife three or four times a year. But every December they make a trip to the villages with their children. "The year-end visit is special. We try and visit as many of the villages as possible. The kids love it and it gets our feet and hands 'dirty'. We and our children gain a lot from these visits," said Mr Chaudhury, who moved to Singapore in 1974 when he was nine years old.

His father, a naval architect, had taken up a job with a shipyard in Sembawang and Singapore has been home to Mr Chaudhury and his younger brother ever since.

He went to Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School and then to Nanyang Junior College before taking up his pilot's course.

His parents live with him. "We are a very close- knit family. My brother and his family live in Choa Chu Kang but we meet every week.

I am a Singaporean in every sense of the word except for not being born here. I served National Service and am quite certain I would not hesitate to bear arms for Singapore if called upon," said Mr Chaudhury.

He and his wife love the local food and scour hawker centres for the best laksa, hokkien mee and bak kut teh.

"We travel a fair bit and most of it is trying to find the best street food in the city. But if I had to have a last meal, it will have to be mee goreng," he said with a laugh.

His wife, who like him was born in India, designs handbags and is a budding entrepreneur.

"My spare time is spent supporting her. We also try and spend as much time as possible together as a family. Additionally, I am an avid fan of sitcoms."

The two are also actively involved with the Bengali Association of Singapore.

Mr Chaudhury is living proof that we all have it within us to make a positive difference in the lives of people who need help. Perhaps putting ourselves in their shoes for a moment would be a good way to start.

patrickj@sph.com.sg


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