Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Memory of Gita Shah

Last week, my good friend Gita Shah of Mumbai passed away. Although I’d known she’d been sick for some time, it still came as a shock. She was one of those forces of nature that seem indestructible. My sadness though has been tempered by a flood of joyful memories.

I met Gita in Mumbai in 1992 during a Council for International Fellowship (CIF) exchange program for social workers from around the world. Gita, an instructor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, was on the committee that introduced us to India’s history, economy, politics, culture, and social services. It was also an opportunity to reflect on our own countries’ approaches to social work and social justice. I was instantly drawn to Gita’s exuberance, intelligence, and gentle grace.

After the orientation, I went to Pune for my fieldwork assignments at an AIDs prevention program and a village social development program. I also got to tag along with a class of students from the Karve School of Social work on a tour of rural development projects led by instructor Anjali Madeo. It was a revelatory experience. We visited women’s craft collectives that were demonstrating that getting money into the hands of women had a more profound impact than medical facilities on health. And we learned that women’s literacy programs were more successful than contraception in curbing population growth. I’ve been thinking about these experiences a lot lately as the field of elder abuse goes global, with groups like the Older Women’s League and WITNESS addressing abuse from a human rights perspective and highlighting the role of women.

By the time we got back to Mumbai for the CIF wrap-up, I didn’t want to go home. Fortunately, Gita had taken an interest in my work and invited me to stay on. She got me an invitation to one of the first-ever Indian conferences on aging and arranged for me to give a talk on aging in America to a group of her colleagues. After she’d assured me that moving into her home wouldn’t be any trouble, I agreed, later discovering her son and daughter-in-law sleeping on the living room floor. Over chai at her kitchen table, she bemoaned the disintegration of the joint (extended) family in India as her husband, Chandra, their sons, daughters-in-law, and mother-in-law streamed past. We dreamed up collaborations.

A year or two later, she visited me in San Francisco, where I showed off our giant redwoods and arranged for her to give a talk to a group of American Society on Aging members. She cooked an Indian meal for my friends and taught us Indian dances. In the next few years, she explored elder abuse in India and co-authored an article for the Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect (volume l6, issue 3/4, 1995).

Once, during the CIF program, a member of the planning committee confided that she’d only agreed to serve because “I can’t say no to Gita.” I came to know what she meant. It wasn’t that Gita badgered or pressed. It’s just that her passion was contagious, and anything she was involved in seemed worth doing—something you wanted to be a part of. When she spearheaded a program for the elderly at the Family Welfare Agency (FWA), I sent checks and tracked down the resources she requested. Two summers ago, when CIF held its international conference in Cleveland, Gita prepared a paper but had to cancel when she didn’t get the funding she’d been counting on. When she asked me to fill in, I wasted no time convincing my husband, Dan, that Cleveland would be the perfect starting point for the midwestern back-to-our-roots vacation we’d been talking about for years. Another Indian colleague eventually came forward and offered to give the paper, but we headed east anyway and had a wonderful time.

Over the years, Gita and I wrote often. She reported on her travels to Kenya to train trainers, and her work with Project SHARE, which focuses on rainwater harvesting in rural areas. She introduced me to her niece Alpa Desai, also a social worker at FWA, who lived for a while in the Bay Area and shares Gita’s interests, commitment, and charm.

Just a few weeks ago, Gita invited me to give a talk in India, and I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’ve left a task undone, a commitment unmet. It’s a good feeling really, this fleeting summons from my old friend. I will miss her enormously.