Stairway to Success: Pratiksha Tondwalkar

Pratiksha Tondwalkar Sweeper to AGM

The Journey From Sweeper To AGM

“Give this child to me and I will take care of her studies and expenses,” the woman had asked the child’s father. The child was in grade 7, the father was pulling her out of school to get the child married and the woman was a school teacher. The teacher begged, but the father pleaded and narrated the plight of the lower caste, the scheduled caste tribe that they belonged to, and the only fate any girl had was marriage and not education. The teacher was a Brahmin, an upper caste in the Hindu society. The father got her married at an early age and the child left her school to bear a child of her own. 

Many years later, I was pleading with the then child, now a lady in her late fifties, to give me a few minutes. The seventh-grade pass child is now an AGM with the State Bank of India. Meet Mrs. Pratiksha Tondwalkar, the lady who has walked the stairway to success, one step at a time, with her clear thinking, well-designed processes, and steely determination.

There are a few moments that I am grateful to Twitter for, finding a tweet on Pratiksha Tondwalkar was one such moment. The tweet read, “from sweeper to AGM” and carried a picture of a lady in a rose pink vest, bespectacled in a light-colored frame, hair pressed straight and left open behind her shoulders, a touch of make-up on her face, a wrist watch in one hand, every little thing that oozed her subtle style and made up the elegant look. The only thing that was not subtle was her broad, big-hearted, confident smile that came with holding a trophy in her hands. Just happiness, no pride. 

The picture spoke of elegance, style, confidence, and warmth – some aspects that are very tough to equate with an erstwhile sweeper. A friend helped me get access to her number and after some cajoling and convincing she agreed to answer a couple of questions that were personal and not related to her employer, as she followed the company’s policy on press-related matters. To make her decision easier, I shared these questions through a WhatsApp message. She agreed and I offered to take down her answers over a phone call instead of her replying to my questions in her inbox. What I had expected as a ten-minute call, went on for nearly an hour and it felt like living in a movie, the only difference was that this was for real and not fiction. 

The beginning:

I had asked her about her journey and she had replied, “Mujhe padhne ka bahut Shauk tha.” (I wanted to study further). Studies are often the light in one’s life but study became her anchor too. Widowed at the age of 20, mother of a young child, and educated till 7th grade, she returned to her parent’s place after the death of her husband in a drowning accident. Her husband not just left a child behind but also a critical link that led her to SBI. He had done a small job of binding books for the bank branch and the bank owed money to him. Since the bank didn’t have the policy to pay in cash, an official asked her to visit the branch to collect a banker’s Cheque for a small amount of about Rs250. She couldn’t recollect the exact amount and I didn’t bother her. She had gone to the bank to collect the cheque with her child in one arm. Employees at the bank had pooled in some money and some clothes for her child. There was a long pause on the phone call, so long as if it waited for the image of the tattered, broken, shaken woman whose respect was hurt by receiving kindness, to fade away from the scene. She gathered herself and uttered ‘it is so tough to speak of those days.’ I offered her to move away from the conversation. But she stayed there and at that moment her pain was palpable. The hurt of misery and being dependent during those days was hurting her as an open wound even now. Some cuts are deep. 

The clear thinking of Pratiksha Tondwalkar:

She said I asked the bank people to offer me a job instead of the collectibles. She was hired as a part-time sweeper for the bank. The first step towards coming out of the deep well of misery was the courage to ask for a job. She said I knew if I didn’t study further, I would live a life washing dishes and cleaning houses. She didn’t want that. With a child to look after and a part-time job, she knew her odds were stacked against her studies and would have no time to pick it up from grade 8 onwards where she had left it in the school. Her second, yet giant step, was to register for the 10th exam through an open education system wherein you independently, free of any school, fill up a form with the state education board to get access to take the exam. One day, away from work, she stood in a long queue at Sion, a place in Mumbai to collect the form. That day she had leaped on the second step of the stairway. She said she had gone to the bank employees again, this time asking for help righteously. Help for books, notes, texts, and any study material that anyone had access to through their children in the family, relatives, or even friends’ family. She collected her ammunition like that- all study material. I asked her how did she study? How did she understand the text and subjects? She said she had no other way but to read and write each chapter five times, ok at least five times. In the case of maths – she was focused to practice the same chapter at least ten times. They say 10,000 hours rule for practicing to become an expert. Here Mrs. Tondwalkar at the age of 21 or so, mother of a child, barely managing to make her ends meet through the job of a sweeper, was sitting on dark streets, using thrown away alcohol bottles to light an oil lamp, and was writing the same chapter anywhere between five to ten times to self learn. It is not the grit, not the hard work, it is the process that takes you closer to your goal, many small steps towards one’s success. Even though I was stunned to hear her process, I was perplexed. The lady who is so determined, and was speaking to me in Hindi, how did she manage to read and understand on her own? How did she manage English as a subject? What came as an answer left me speechless. 

“English, though easy in tenth grade as compared to higher standards like 12th, was still beyond my reach,” she replied. “I was determined. I had to learn it anyhow. So every day I would write ten spellings on my left arm on my way to work. In the evening I would come back and write it down and check if I had got them right. Every day a new set of ten words were on my arm. I just mugged it all up.” 

I tried to swallow the idea. Amitabh Bachchan made arm tattoos famous through his movie, Deewar. His drive was the tattoo which was an allegation about his father. A creative tool used by the movie director to deliver a message. Here is the lady, who may not have seen the movie – but had a mission too – a set of English words. “How far can you go? I can make my arm my chalkboard.” 

She said she had passed the tenth-grade exams with first class, higher than 60% of marks, far more than what is needed to just pass. There was no stopping after that, she was flying on the stairway to success. From sweeper, she got promoted to messenger, studied for the 12th grade through a night college program, and earned a clerk’s seat at the bank. All this was still a part-time job, one-third as she called it. Her parents had wanted her to get married again but this time she was not giving control to them. She was determined to study further, the second marriage could wait till her graduation. Graduation led to trainee officer and then further growth. She never declined any opportunity, any project at work. Today, Pratiksha Tondwalkar is an AGM in one of the Mumbai branches of the bank.

The Mantra:

A mother of three children now, two from her second marriage, she understood growth doesn’t come only from professional degrees but also from leadership skills and work ethics. She makes sure she keeps her team energized and motivated. How do you do that? She says, her power mantra is the morning huddle – laugh out loud, clap for a couple of minutes and let someone share one experience from the previous day. I was curious about her elegant look. The credit for her power dressing goes to her daughter, a trained interior designer, who plans her outfits and accessories for a week in advance. Again, a reflection of focusing on the process. Planning every detail, even the physical appearance, is necessary to build the profile. She didn’t stop her love for studying after graduation, she has completed a course in naturopathy. She is currently learning to sing. I had one question for her:

Awards, trophies, and certificates are a way of seeding confidence and trust in the personality. The picture that floated on social media was the picture of her receiving a trophy from the CGM club for fulfilling all the 77 parameters to earn the trophy. There was a tinge of pride in her voice when she narrated that. But the biggest trophy in her life has been the trust of the teacher who wanted to adopt her as a child so that she could pursue studying. Today, her life is an inspirational study. 

Mrs. Pratiksha Tondwalkar, the lady who has walked the stairway to success, one step at a time, with her clear thinking, well-designed processes, and steely determination.

Pratiksha Tondwalkar

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