Reba Devi (of Guwahati) does not belong to the cotton-wool generation. A State-level badminton player from 1975 to 1980, she retired recently as the Executive Director, Centre of Excellence for Energy Studies (CoEES), in the Guwahati office of Oil India Limited (OIL) where she has been working since last year. She has rose to this position in life under her own steam. She recalls, “When I had joined OIL in the early ‘80s in Duliajan, it was a male-driven workplace. But, that did not deter me from working odd hours at night. I was lucky enough to be working in an environment where my male colleagues were nurturing, graceful and kind, where being a woman hasn’t affected my professional experience in the slightest.”
A humanitarian, she makes it a point to “squeeze out time” from her “tight work schedule” to spend quality time with the inmates of Mother Old Age Home in Guwahati. Reba, who is enjoying her post-retirement life in Bengaluru with her daughter and son-in-law, said over phone that she was “pained” to hear recently that the landlord had asked the inmates of the said old age home to vacate the premises immediately.
Reba observes, “In the West, two generations never stay under one roof. But, what pains me is that in India, where three generations have lived together, this new concept of nuclear families with the elders ousted is just too touching to bear.”
The first woman geologist (read then) to join OIL’s Geology & Reservoir Department in 1983, she was also associated with the Sparsh Old Age Home in Tinsukia when she was posted in Duliajan. “I was associated with this old age home only for a year through Ladies Club of Duliajan. We used to distribute food, clothes and other materials to the inmates.” The corporate honcho further observes, “The society is seeing a very unhealthy trend of putting away parents in old age homes – something which has been imported into India from the West. Whenever I visit Mother Old Age Home, I feel depressed. Undoubtedly, the inmates are very well looked after, but no one seems to be happy.”
Reba is “pained” to see how children coming from affluent families simply “dump” their parents in the said old age home. “In fact, majority of the elderly in Mother Old Age Home belong to rich families. Much of these old people’s story is the same – turmoil in the family, disgust against the old and, finally the removal of the elders from the family scene. I spend most of my free time with these elderly people and what they miss most is being among their flesh and blood.”
She also extends “financial assistance” to Mother Old Age Home and “whenever possible, I spend time with the elderly people. I sing and dance with them and also cook variety of dishes for them. It gives me a feeling of total satisfaction to do something for these unfortunate souls – who are neglected and unwanted in their homes by their own children.”
Reba, however, pointed out that Mother Old Age Home has two buildings – one where the aged people who have come “willingly” are put up. They have come on their own as the “daughter-in-laws also work and there is nobody to look after the routine needs of the elders at home,” she states. The children come every month and give a “minimum amount of money for their parents”. In the other building, the elderly who have been “dumped on the roadside are kept”.
She is also associated with the Shri Shirdi Sai Spiritual and Charitable Trust in Guwahati and through this Trust she had arranged an “outing and health check-up camp for the old age home inmates”.
A pioneering career woman in her days, Reba has done her M. Sc in Geology from Gauhati University. As she puts it, “I have learned the ropes of my chosen profession, raised my family (read she is a mother of two) and have also mastered the art of balance. I was always eager to learn and though I was a woman, I did not think twice to go deep into the jungles of Jorajan (sandwiched between Duliajan and Digboi) as I was a Well-site Geologist. Later, too, all the well-site operations were under me and I had to go to various drilling sites (in and around Duliajan) at all odd hours. I really enjoyed my job and wanted to know my onions well.”
She further states, “I have made the above point because under the Mines Act, 1952, women are not allowed to go for field duty after 5 pm. During my time, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was hardly any lady geologist. But, that was no roadblock for me. The present crops of geologists (read girls) who have joined my organisation are reluctant to go to the oil fields after 5 pm. I keep encouraging them and tell them that you have come here to learn and you should be able to rub shoulders with men in the real sense of the term (read going for field duty at all hours).” Her point is that simply shouting about women’s equality is not enough – “We should be able to storm the boardroom by the sweat of our brow.”
What always drew her towards the elderly people? “I never grew up in a joint family. But, I always had deep admiration and respect for the aged. I fully get involved with the Mother Old Age Home inmates and spend time with them because it is your time which they need the most. The present generation is very self-centered and less tolerant and a lot of children consider their parents as useless appendages in the family,” she remarks.
Reba, who received the Lokmat Corporate Excellence Awards in 2015, sums up by saying, “Both me and my husband Bipul Sarma (who is still working with OIL) have a post-retirement plan of opening an old age home in Guwahati and also sponsoring the studies of meritorious children belonging to the marginalised communities living in the villages in and around the city. Whatever I have achieved in life today, I owe it to my mother (Chandra Prova Devi) who placed no restrictions on me. She taught me that a country or a society can progress only if daughters are treated as equals with sons.”