The Best Thing Ashoka Ever Gave Me
“Colonialism was designed to separate a city’s citizens from its people,” Fellow Debashish Nayak’s voice echoed on the podium of the Ramakrishna Mission, Ahmedabad, about his work on preserving heritage sites in India. But this isn’t a story about heritage sites, this is a story about love.
In the audience that day was Indu Capoor, Ashoka Fellow and the founder of CHETNA. After the talk, Indu approached Debashish, struck up a conversation, offered him a place to stay and showed him around some local heritage sites. It wasn’t long before Debashish started visiting Ahmedabad more often[O1] . Their quiet romance blossomed through these meetings and soon those who knew the couple, like former Ashoka India head, Sushmita Ghose, started telling them to, “just get married already!”
And they did. Over the last 18 years, Debashish and Indu, both award winning social entrepreneurs and amongst the first Ashoka Fellows, have grown two distinct organisations from scratch. Debashish founded and runs the Centre for Heritage Management, which connects a city's people to its ancient heritage by preserving historical sites; and Indu Capoor's organisation CHETNA works with women and children to increase nutrition in rural communities and advocate for better rights. Both of them have helmed a marriage together which made huge demands on their time. As they explain, being married to both your work and another person brings with it a host of unique challenges. Their paths would cross in the most unlikely places—like an airport that both were passing through to catch flights to different destinations. With only a few moments to catch up, Debashish would save a seat for Indu in the airport lounge. This still makes Indu smile.
Staying together has also meant challenging traditional gender norms. Debashish relocated from Kolkata to Ahmedabad after the wedding and Indu has supported him emotionally and financially. Having a wife who was financially independent left Debashish free to follow his passion without having to worry about supporting her. Indu's independence brought them closer together. Speaking about Indu, Debashish says it was never been going to be easy managing a home, two sets of families and his obsession with heritage sites. But she has done with unmatchable flair. “We learned early that we had to prioritise each other, despite the work and circumstances," he says.
When asked what the best thing about being married to another Ashoka Fellow is, Indu answers – the “obsession”. And the worst? “The obsession” she replies brightly. Debashish’s love for heritage buildings has often meant being in the background and its 'not for everyone' she insists. But Indu Capoor isn't everyone and CHETNA has always kept her too happily busy to really notice.
Their strong bond and support for each other is evident in their social impact as entrepreneurs. Debashish has now consulted globally on preserving heritage sites and most recently Ahmedabad University piloted their very first Master’s programme in heritage conservation,the first of its kind in the world. CHETNA has completed over 35 years of operations, supporting hundreds of women and girls across the country to take control of their own nutritional rights.
Speaking about the Ashoka Fellowship, Debashish recalls the early days of the Ashoka office starting in India. Both of them were personally interviewed by Bill Drayton for the Fellowship – the interviews lasted 8 hours each. Indu recalls how much time and effort it took and how the processes benefit her thinking about CHETNA. There was however one value add that no other Fellowship could ever compete with.
“There was a lot of learning. A lot of strategy and scale and clarity. But the best thing Ashoka ever gave me was Debashish.”