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Elaine Ghosh: Remembering a selfless soul

Published Dec 16, 2013, 3:01 pm IST
Updated Mar 19, 2019, 12:28 am IST
On December 1, 2013, groups of women at some of Bangalore’s poorest slums gathered together.
Elaine Ghosh with some of the children at Parinaam.
 Elaine Ghosh with some of the children at Parinaam.

Bangalore: On December 1, 2013, groups of women at some of Bangalore’s poorest slums gathered together, around a photograph of a smiling, silver-haired woman. They lit candles for her, weeping silently, mourning the loss of someone who had become, over the years, a mother to them.

In November this year, Elaine Ghosh, founder of Parinaam, passed away after a prolonged illness. With her mop of hair streaked with silver, a big happy smile and a twinkle that never once left her eye, Ghosh’s contribution to society has been tremendous. Religious differences fell away that day, as the women, brought together in their sadness, stood up to say a few words on all that Elaine has done for them.


Parinaam was founded back in 2006, to set up healthcare camps for the rural poor. A few hundred camps later, however, the logistical problems became too big to tackle. “Very few doctors wanted to give up a Sunday and none of the women wanted to come in on any day that wasn’t a Sunday,” Elaine told me, when we first spoke, in March 2013. As the foundation grew, two programmes began to take shape. The first, Diksha, was a financial literacy programme. Though there are nearly 70 financial literacy programmes in India, this is the only one that caters to the urban poor. The second, which was smaller, won her many accolades. The Urban Ultra Poor Programme, as it was called, dealt only with the poorest of the poor.

The idea of so many people living in dire poverty always rankled, Elaine had said, even when she and her husband, Samit, were both bankers travelling the world. Her husband, Samit Ghosh, then founded Ujjivan Financial Services, a micro-credit institution that lends only to the urban poor. It was when her husband founded this company that Elaine began her own investigations, which led her into the netherworld of shanties, starvation and booze.

These were the people too poor even for micro-credit, very little work was being done to further the lives of the urban poor. This week, Samit Ghosh and her daughter, Mallika, who will now take over the foundation, pay tribute to someone they loved dearly. When we found this letter, it was clear, that Ghosh, who had changed so many lives, had also made a handful worth living.

Dear friends and family, This issue of the Ujjivan Update is dedicated to Elaine, who passed away after a very short illness on November 28th, 2013. Elaine was my partner and the source of my inspiration and strength for 34 years. Without her encouragement and support, I would not have had the courage to set up Ujjivan; without her hand on my shoulder, I would not have been able to build it to the level we are today. A lot of Ujjivan’s values were from her and she ensured that we always stayed on the straight and narrow path, which has built up our reputation as an outstanding organisation.

Elaine ran two major programmes within the Parinaam Foundation. Diksha is a highly successful financial literacy programme which has trained 75,000 Ujjivan customers across India in 12 languages. This was a source of great pride to her. The second was a small but beautiful programme called the Urban Ultra Poor Program (UUPP), which is a holistic programme to uplift the poorest of the poor in Bangalore slums. It includes those who are too poor even to take loans from microfinance institutions – new migrants from rural areas, ‘coolies’, unskilled construction labourers etc. This programme was closest to her heart.

She found it most difficult to raise funds for UUPP. It survived because of generous contributions from some close friends. This programme brought international recognition to Parinaam and Elaine, posthumously. It won the prestigious Financial Times and Citi Ingenuity Award – Urban Ideas in Action for Asia Pacific on December 10, 2013 in New York. 

Elaine had a very wide circle with whom she bonded, in her open, warm and joyful manner. We would like to thank all those who attended the funeral service at Holy Name Cathedral in Mumbai and the memorial service at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Whitefield, Bangalore. As a finale of the Memorial Service, our friend Suleiman played the beautiful song – ‘Candle in the Wind’. It truly symbolised her life. 

“Elaine was not a person who liked to wallow in sorrow. She has found her ultimate peace and freedom, which gives me great solace. She would like us to get on with our work without missing a step. Work that she helped start.”

When Mallika and I speak on Sunday, nine months after our last conversation, much of her cheeriness has left her voice. Asking her to recount the events of the past few weeks seems almost heartless, although she is preparing to shoulder the responsibility her mother carried for a lifetime. “The staff have been so supportive. They cried, of course, but they never stopped working,” said Mallika. “That’s the most important thing, because the people we work with need us. That’s what mum would have wanted, too.”

This is what she had to say, in her written tribute. “One particular message that stands out is from a dear friend of hers who shared some of Ma's advice when she lost her parent. Ma encouraged her to look ahead and “enjoy” the memories that she had, rather than sit back and undo the great life that had just gone by. She convinced her that she would never really lose the connect and that her parent would always be there to guide and support her. I know that is exactly what my mother would be telling all of us that grieve for her. I hope in some way this will help you through the pain you must also feel.

“I would like to assure everyone who has been touched by my mother and have supported us through the years, I will continue to carry out her dream and will nurture Parinaam with the same principals, dedication and integrity she taught me. Parinaam was her last and most precious gift to me. I am lucky, thanks to her and my father, that I was given an opportunity to find my vocation very early. I hope to achieve as much as she did in my own path.”

Elaine never hankered for the limelight, she never tried to make nice with the ‘people who matter.’ Her contribution to society has been greatly underplayed, but the difference she made to hundreds of lives that were totally devoid of hope, will always make her missed.

Location: Karnataka