By Nigar Ataullah for Twocircles.net
Bengaluru: When you walk into the premises of the Banjara Academy, a counselling centre, you could be forgiven into believing that you have been tricked into a pleasant surprise: it feels more like an old friend’s home, complete with the informal and humble company of Ali Khwaja, a sexagenarian with an amazing zeal for life who has helped transform thousands of lives by providing them valuable counselling.
The walls of Khwaja’s room are covered with little motivational notes about life and a pretty chart depicting caricatures of facial expressions with the question: “How do you feel today?” A counsellor often needs to put on a thinking cap, which explains why the shelves are full of headgear of different shapes…a cowboy hat, a Himachali cap and many others.
One of the first things you notice about Khwaja is that his positivity is mind-blowing. He attributes two years studying in a Montessori school in Mumbai in 1958 and 1959 as the reason behind this.“There, I learnt how important it is to have a mind of your own, rather than blindly following what people tell you to do or want you to become,” says Khwaja. “I am the youngest, with three older siblings, a brother and two sisters. My father was in the civil services and my entire family, down through seven generations, served the government. But I turned out to be the baa-baa black sheep in the family!” he says, laughingly.
When his father was posted in Osmanabad (Maharashtra), Khwaja, who was then around 9 years old, spent his time wandering around villages. After completing his pre-university studies in Hyderabad, he enrolled at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Povai, to become a metallurgical engineer. Khwaja confesses that he did not wish to become an engineer and if anything, those five years of B. Tech. taught him why.
Engineering was followed by a two-year stint working with a friend, who had set up a fertilizer factory in Hyderabad. This was followed by a foray into the world of publishing: he bought a printing press and began a paper in Hyderabad. “It was a 16-page tabloid. “I really enjoyed writing stories about people, their lives and about the city. The tabloid was called “Hyderabad – the city,” says Khwaja. However, the honeymoon period was over soon, and it was shut down due to lack of finances.
But destiny had something else in store for Khwaja, who was actually destined to become one of India’s most popular counsellors. “I have been a good listener since I was a teenager, when my sisters began confiding with me about their little secrets. Many of my sister’s friends would come to me with their worries or problems and I would listen to them. While this was a small beginning for me as a novice counsellor at home for my sisters and their friends, the real professional ‘break’ as I call it, came when Dr. Lakshmi from Sneha Counselling Centre in Madras came to Hyderabad for a workshop to train volunteers in 1989. Though it was just a 3-day course, it gave me valuable skills in counselling,” Khwaja recalls.
Shifting to Bangalore in 1990, Khwaja was fortunate to meet Alice Saldanha (who passed away two years ago), who had initiated ‘Helping Hand’ as a free counselling centre. It was an informal set up, with 12 people, mostly Alice’s friends, working as volunteers. As Alice was getting old, she handed over the baton of ‘Helping Hand’ to Khwaja in1992, who was then managing a construction company under the name of ‘Banjara’.
After many people told him that they wanted to be equipped with counselling skills, Khwaja and some friends began a counselling training course at Banjara. It began first as a three-day course. Later, Banjara went on to offer a range of counselling courses, of varying duration, and, recently, even an online training course.
To focus completely on this mission, Khwaja wound up the constructions business in1995 and focused on the counselling courses. The 2015 batch of counselling skills students are the 17thbatch from the Banjara Academy. So far, several hundred people have trained as counsellors through the Academy, which is an autonomous institution.
With a small team of committed individuals who are regular staff members, the Banjara Academy today is a sought after place for people of all age groups who wish to do the one year course. Many go on to become professional counsellors, including in schools and offices. Others use the skills they receive here in their day-to-day lives, helping transform many lives, their own and that of others.
Says Khwaja, “We may not be able to solve everyone’s issues or problems, but they may want someone to just listen to their woes and worries. People walk into Banjara for counselling for every issue under the sun—from emotional troubles to career choices. Our counsellors who are all volunteers give people who come to us unconditional attention.”
“Life as a counsellor may not bring ‘big’ awards,” Khwaja says, “But that does not matter to us at all. In school or college we are never taught how to handle issues of life—a hurt, a heartbreak, a downslide of self-esteem or fears. As we grow up, we face all these issues at some point of time and then we breakdown. Some take the extreme step of ending their lives, yet others wallow in self-pity and depression. Our mission through Banjara is to let them know that we are here to listen to you. We may not rescue you from your problems, but we try to give you a direction and help you to take life’s decisions on your own and have your own mind.”
Khwaja’s love and compassion for his fellow beings was the driving force behind the setting up of the Banjara Academy, which is now the sole mission of his life. Most of Khwaja’s work is in Bangalore, where he is invited by schools, organizations, colleges and corporates to present talks on various issues in life. Occasionally, on invitation, he also travels for short trips to other places.
The writer is based in Bangalore and is Associate Editor, Islamic Voice English Monthly. Nigar also likes to write on nature, environment and animals.