The savvy business woman who founded Shobha — a NYC-based mini-chain of salons focused on waxing, threading, and sugaring — was born in Michigan, but spent her first six years living with grandparents in India. Shobha says she knows she's home when the musty, humid air of Hyderabad hits her face. Recently, the entrepreneur made a special trip with a dual purpose: to show off the newest edition of the family, and connect with an orphanage and school that she has been funding.
It had been four years since my last visit, and this time was special because I introduced my 18-month-old son, Aakash, to our family and our country. Aakash is the fifth generation on my husband's side, and I wanted to take a picture of all the generations standing next to each other.
I was also excited about Shobha's Home for Girls and Women. About three years ago, I got involved with an organization that runs a school and an orphanage. It was started by Vijayalakshmi Vemuri, a retired professor who works as an advocate for young ladies. Some time ago, at my request, my mother went to the orphanage to meet Ms. Vemuri. She was so impressed with the mission, we decided to contribute toward the construction of a new orphanage. They named the building after us, and I couldn't wait to go see it.
After making the nearly 24-hour plane ride with baby (a rite of passage!), and overcoming jet lag (an Indian cup of coffee with milk and chicory — nothing compares), I made arrangements to see the facility. I agreed to give a talk to the students about the importance of school, and to their mothers about the importance of discipline and support. I have spoken in front of hundreds of people before, but for some reason this one weighed heavily on my mind.
I had a hard time falling asleep the night before the school visit. I couldn't decide if I should speak in the language that comes easily to me (English), or the one they can really understand (Telugu).
The next morning I put on a sari — to appear older, wiser, and more in sync with the audience. My husband, Venkat, my son, my mother, and my grandfather piled into a car. It took us two hot, sweaty hours to go 30 miles on a bumpy road. We got close, but given there are no street signs in India, a bus had to come to the main road so we could follow it to the school. In India, you are given directions based on locations on the street (ie: take a right at the mall and a left at the yellow building). Somehow, miraculously, it all works.
When we reached the school we were greeted by three girls and a drum, who marched us into the school. It was so cute. Students waited patiently in their classrooms to say hello to all of us. I remembered how basic things can be. A small row of desks, chairs, and a blackboard. No overflow of books, no computers. But somehow, again, it all works.
After a tour, the students put on a show for us. It was great to see them dance and sing and have fun. When it came time to give my talk, I did it in my broken Telugu. I tried to tell them that no matter where we come from in life, no matter the caste and family we were born into, we can all strive to become educated. Despite the language we speak or the place we are born, if we have the opportunity to study hard, it can help level the playing field. I told them there would be days they wouldn't want to study, but pushing through would build a strong work ethic and character.
I spoke about my own background, and about how lucky I was to have grandparents and parents who had stressed the importance of education. My paternal grandfather ran away from home in order to go to school so that he wouldn't have to work on the farm. My maternal grandfather went to the United States to get his Masters and Ph.D in the 1940s. I spoke to the mothers about structuring a life for their children that's different from their own. That means making unpopular decisions — like not taking the kids out of school for every family member's wedding. Or, working extra themselves so the child can stay in class. It was quite emotional. I thought of the burden parents are faced with, and how they have to break the cycle to give their kids a chance they never had themselves. It made me realize how lucky I am. Of course, I broke into tears.
Finally, we went to the orphanage and met the 69 people who live at Shobha's Home for Girls and Women. The building was immaculate. The girls all have chores to do, with the exception of one driver who does errands for the school and orphanage, and one woman who helps with the cooking. The girls cut vegetables and help in the kitchen, they clean their living quarters and their home. The big kids help the little kids with their homework. It's a real group effort.
The girls served us delicious homemade snacks and performed a wonderful choreographed dance. Aakash loved it so much, he joined in. When it came time to leave, everyone made a commotion for pictures and videos. You can see that we all had tears in our eyes.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
Shobha's favorite Hyderabad picks:
My favorite place to pick up gifts and saris is called Kalanjali. Their saris are a little on the expensive side, but their selection is unmatched. It's where I got my wedding reception sari.
Lepakashi is my favorite place to buy Indian handcrafts.
Barista is a coffee chain that I go to for my coffee fix. I love Indian coffee and tea.
Hyderabad Biryani is a type of fried rice famous all over India. Street vendors really serve the best, but I worry that I migh get sick so I go to restaurants like Paradise, Swagath (Pakala Plaza), and Hyderabad House for the next best versions.
My favorite place to buy costume jewelry is around the area of Charminar. There are stalls everywhere. There's also a stall right outside of Meena Bazaar that has amazing stuff. Meena Bazaar, by the way, is a famous sari and fabric place. The jewelry stall is right in front of it. There is no address.