Viji Venkatesh on living life to the fullest



Viji Venkatesh is the Regional Head of Max Foundation in India and South Asia.  She is a mom and according to her – a  mum to ‘grown up men’. She shares with Mums and Stories, on her chosen path to work in social sector that grew out of circumstances. She also candidly shares on her love for her project ‘Chai for Cancer’, on her mom and how living life after 40 took a dramatic turn in life.

“I grew up in a large household. We were five siblings and our grandparents lived with us. The house was always full and like our friends, their friends too became our parents’ friends. Both Maiji and Babuji (we were the traditional Iyer family in Delhi and what can be more inclusive and beautiful than this that we called our parents by this typical Delhi nomenclature.) had the largest hearts possible. And they loved music and their love of books and reading instilled the same in us. No evening went without someone dropping in for a coffee or in the summers for Maiji’s famous Mango shake or Roohazah and nimboo sherbet. Winter days were spent in the sun, on the lawn with our favourite books and homemade winter snacks .

Oh how I missed my Delhi days….Then I got married and came to live in Bombay. But then when my husband and I set up our own little household in Bombay it was natural, I would try and recreate every fond memory, ritual and tradition in that home. Till our two boys grew up and left home I like to think my husband and I gave them all of that.

(Picture courtesy- Nazia Erum)

As I have entered my 6th decade in life, though I may have changed and become more practical a little less sentimental and mushy. It isn’t like those values imbibed have changed and even now love of family, the importance of nurturing friendships, treating people with love and respect, admiration of art, being inclusive and kind and respecting those who serve us and always being well groomed are still what I hold as important aspects of life.

My father would always say that one’s appearance mattered a lot because that was what showed your respect to those around you. You could not offend another’s sensibilities by being shabbily attired in company. Not fancily but decently and elegantly .That has been so deeply ingrained in me.

To be honest I never, ever thought I would be what is generally termed a “working woman”. Till I was in my mid thirties, I was a proud and happy home maker. ( I still  am) I kept a simple but beautiful home, made by my own hands and a trusted Usha sewing machine , every garment I wore other than a saree, my boys outfits till they would wear them and even my husband’s kurtas. And of course all the linen and cushion covers and what not.

I will credit to my mom all over again . Because my mother was always so well turned out in her simple, starched cotton sarees or in her Chinamapettis. She would be always so well spoken and well read and therefore well informed. People always asked her if she was a working woman and I am so proud that people assumed that of me too.

(Viji Venkatesh with her mother)

So no I never worked till we returned from a long sojourn in Venezuela in the mid 80s. That was the time when due to severe financial losses occurred overseas, we had to begin in Bombay, our life all over again. We needed a loan to buy a house and a double income was deemed necessary. I had no qualifications except for my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. But I seemed to look and sound very efficient and I began my ‘career’ as a fund raiser for a non profit that worked in cancer care. In college I was in NSS and would spend two afternoons a week in the pediatric and burns ward of AIIMS and Safdarjung Hospital .

Yes I was drawn to social service and even if I had wanted to, never had the educational background for anything else. I could have found a teaching job in as all school I guess. Of course I did have a dream of being a doctor once and later on of joining the IAS but never really pursued anything in that direction . Maybe I would have made a good IAS officer if I had tried

Both my beloved grandmother and my absolutely beautiful ( inside and out ) mother-in -law died of cancer . The latter when she was barely 50.  I used to take my grandmother for her radiation sessions in AIIMS. I was 16 or so and a great help to my mother , being the older sibling as my own older brother was in IIT and sister already married. I took compete care of my mother in law. Being the daughter-in-law it was my duty . I knew nothing about cancer that totally and rapidly destroyed her. I was young and strong and I believed it was my duty. So I really cannot say I was inspired or driven to do cancer work . I needed a job…any job. We were struggling to cope.

But then, once I began working in cancer, it grew upon me. I realized I had certain skills and competencies in me even I was not aware of. The timing was right, I had some great people I met who encouraged me and I was so inspired and impressed by some simply wonderful doctors who were cancer specialists. We now call them oncologists. I realized there were a great many unmet needs in that area of care and if I made an effort I could do many things that would make a difference. Cancer awareness and the scourge that tobacco and the lack of awareness was took me in a direction and to a place from where I have never looked back.

Maiji has her love of books and reading, her sense of humour, her kindness, her welcoming nature and her love given so freely to all. There are good memories of the way she kept house and how she was always so neatly and elegantly turned out. I have always wanted to be like her and if someone says I remind her of them, I am over the moon. At 90 years, she still remains the person who matters to me the most.

Having said that I would like to believe I am so much also like my father. Seeing me at work now, Maiji herself tells me he would have been proud of my administrative capabilities, the way I have made a name in my chosen field. I run the South Asia Region office here and have close to 20 people working under me and to me her saying that is a real compliment.

(Viji Venkatesh’s family.)

Chai for Cancer – www.chaiforcancer.org is a unique awareness and fundraising tool to support the thousands of cancer patients I work with who are from the low socio economic background. Yes, it’s my brain child and began as a small and an innovative attempt. I am happy people have in their own small way chosen to champion this cause and people are talking about it and wanting to get involved.

It is a simple premise. Chai is something anyone can have at anytime and anywhere. I wanted to bring cancer and its awareness and the needs of patients into a platform that was as normal and basic and un intimidating as a cup of chai. So I asked my own patients to host a chai adda in their homes and ask friends and neighbours, family and colleagues to come by and for that day’s cuppa, donate a small amount. Today, my friends, family, their friends and families are hosting ‘chai for cancer addas. I do not sped huge amounts promoting it. It is by word of mouth and social media. Hospitals are hosting addas, corporates and smaller offices are showing interest and radio stations are urging their listeners. There is a website and one can donate online .

Every second Sunday of May is Chai for Cancer Day . On that day if as many people as possible could raise their cup of chai and donate and drink to a cause. .”

On cancer, Viji Venkatesh clears a few myths and says, “Cancer can happen to anyone. Some cancers can be avoided because we know the causative factors. Especially those that are tobacco related. Some risk factors too are known. For certain cancers like breast and cervical cancers – preventive measures can be adopted. Diet and lifestyle too maybe make a difference.

Regular screening , abstinence from tobacco , pap smears , self breast examination , diet low in red meat , seasonal , local and fresh and in moderation are some basic stuff that is not rocket science .

Today we lead very hectic, crowded and stressful lives given the complexities of modern living. We need to take time out to make sure we are being kind and good to ourselves. The support system that existed earlier is falling apart. Women and men for that matter have to understand that it is in their power to keep themselves in good health.”

On her love for sarees in which she is generally seen, Viji says, “ I love the saree . It makes me feel like a million dollars. I have been wearing it for at least 50 years now and I still feel like a new woman each time I wear a saree. The way I wear it has changed. I’m braver now in that I wear sleeveless and halter neck blouses now. I was more traditional when younger when I had the layers of daughter, daughter in law, wife and mother over my persona.

I never wore a cotton that was not starched. Today with crumpled cotton I make a statement. My blouses were perfectly matched . Today they defy all such notions .

The 100 Saree pact was the perfect platform for me to flaunt my idiosyncrasies and share with great abandon my adventures with the six yards of fun and fashion .

Winding up Viji Venkatesh mentions reading and music and writing and films as her passions too . “ Wish I had another 8 hrs every day . But I try and I manage to find time for it all.”

Mums and Stories thanks Viji Venkatesh for sharing  this wonderful slice of her life, on her passions and on being the person she is in life.

Featured picture of Viji Venkatesh- By Chiro deep Choudhary)

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3 Comments on Viji Venkatesh on living life to the fullest

  1. Amma, as Viji Venkatesh is fondly referred to as, by the hundreds of people who know her through her work at the Max Foundation is an inspiration and role model. Thanks for featuring her in your columns.

  2. Hi this is really great.
    So many mums and so many incredible stories out there!!
    Thanks for sharing.
    I work with the Akanksha foundation. If you want to cover a mom like me, reach out to us. Lots of hard working and inspiring moms here.

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