Anjuli Bhargava discovers Brand Abha Adams.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Abha Adams, 66, has an abiding memory of her own school days.
Standing with her two thin plaits among a long line of cherubic girls as Mother Superior's voice looms loud: 'Girls, I want you to be like limpid water in a crystalline vase.'
And she thinks to herself: "Wow, what wouldn't I give to be limpid water in a crystal vase", even though she didn't know what it really meant.
The strong moralistic values and sense of duty that were ingrained in her through her convent school days in Delhi led her to envision her future as a nun.
"I was a disgusting goody two shoes through most of my school years," she says, a quality she found hard to shed even in later life.
So much so that when she first met Bill, who she would marry later, he asked her 'what's with this should and ought', the only two words she appeared to have in her vocabulary.
When he advised she should just 'follow her heart', it sounded like blasphemy to her.
We are meeting for a hurriedly fixed lunch at The China Kitchen at Hyatt in New Delhi, with time at a premium for us both.
She orders a stir-fried sole fish and Udon noodles and I opt for some stir-fried vegetables with fried rice that she agrees to try.
As we wait for our food, she tells me a bit about her childhood, a phase that many former students and parents can't even imagine.
"Abha was once a school girl! Can't even imagine that!" is how one reacted when I mention my meeting with her to a few people who know her.
Most of them swear by her... her charm to be precise.
In fact, many say she is "charm personified".
Adams learnt her p's and q's in a highly Anglicised atmosphere in her Kolkata home from one Mrs Robinson who used to turn up in her starched black dress with white cuffs and spent hours perfecting Adams's handwriting under her watchful gaze.
Adams's mother -- a school principal and a stoic nationalist who imbibed many British customs nonetheless -- took the young girl regularly to the national library in Kolkata and let her loose, a delightful memory for the avid reader.
In the 1970s when she was 10, Adams moved from the rich, cultural ethos of Kolkata to Delhi that seemed like a "large, electrified village".
After lapping up "duty, convention and morality" in the first few years at school, Adams began to find herself dabbling in the performing arts, expressing herself more freely and going on to become the head girl at Carmel Convent at some stage.
The spirit imbued in her by Sister Candice, one of the nuns at her school, began to come to the surface, much to the chagrin of her conventional-minded father.
The seeds of rebellion had been sown in the young girl, who would soon be attracted to most things forbidden and nun-hood would be jettisoned.
Indeed, Adams has never been one to conform.
Even today she attempts to be politically correct but prod her a bit and she spills the beans, laughing with gay abandon.
Real rebellion kicked in during college with her joining Barry John's Theater Action Group -- that her father derisively referred to as 'nautanki' -- with the likes of Siddhartha Basu and Lilette Dubey.
Much to her father's horror, she also experimented with radio and appeared in a television show, Around the World.
At 21, she started teaching English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi after securing her master's degree.
After she lost her father around that time, her mother's plans to arrange a match or her went haywire, thanks to the rebellious streak that had started raising its head.
Young Adams had no intention of getting tied down at that stage but agreed to go out for a coffee with a prospective match.
After she was seated comfortably, she asked the waiter for an ashtray and lit a cigarette.
Needless to say, the wedding bells failed to ring.
After teaching for six years, Adams felt the need to move on and applied for a second master's degree in theatre arts from the University of Leeds, UK.
Thereafter, she left on a scholarship for a year-long course in practical theatre, enrolling for an MPhil in the subject, one she never finished.
Upon leaving the Indian shores, she felt the need to rediscover the 'Indian' in her and started working on dance and theatre performances with the Indian community in the UK.
She began working with artistes and theatre personalities and doing ballets like the Ramayana, operas like Savitri and productions like Dularibai.
There she also met Bill, her to-be-husband, who she found "radically different from the average Indian male" she had encountered.
"He had no hang-ups, no ego and made me laugh."
He could deal with her confidence, encouraged her to break every norm and live life to the fullest.
In 1984, she landed a job with the BBC, learned to broadcast from the best in the business, presented a prime time show in current affairs and became education producer for Broadcasting House, Leeds.
She then joined the Great Britain Arts Council in London which was setting up a development agency, Aditi, for South Asian performing arts.
For two years, she worked to bring together dancers, artistes and performers of South Asian origin and "learnt like never before" while helping with advocacy, promotion and training.
In early 1992, when he was only 44, her husband developed a serious heart condition and was told he didn't have much longer to live (Bill is 73 today).
The upshot of it all was a decision to return to India, something she fought at that time.
With the main course over, we order a chocolate bruele (a poor cousin of crème variety) and decide to share it.
Later the same year, Adams found herself back in India, unsure of what she was really qualified to do.
Instead of looking for a job -- neither had a job at that point -- the two bought a 17-year old Ambassador car and drove across the Himalayas, discovering parts of the country they didn't know existed.
The car died on them on the way back!
With all their savings spent, Adams first approached Doordarshan for a job since broadcasting was what she knew best.
But it was like "entering Dante's Inferno without the fires burning".
The dusty office with spools of tape resembled "baba adam ka zamana" and she quickly retreated.
She then decided to go back to teach at LSR and found the place totally unchanged while she had grown by leaps and bounds.
That's when someone mentioned that the Delhi-based Shriram group was setting up a new, experimental and very out-of-the-box school.
She joined the group to set up the senior school and began what she describes as the "best phase of her life".
The founding team -- she reels off the list and I know many of them personally -- put their "heart and soul" into what they saw as their "baby", several of them with no background in academics or education but "personalities" nonetheless.
Fourteen years flew by, in a whirlwind of activity, led by Adam's own spontaneity and infectious energy.
She gives full credit to Manju Bharat Ram -- the founder of The Shri Ram School -- who she describes as a true "visionary" in the education space.
The Shri Ram School became a brand under the leadership of Adams and Ram.
After 14 years, it was time again to move on.
After Adams resigned, she began to get calls from all and sundry asking her to lend her name to their new school ventures.
Some offered to pay absurd sums of money for just her name, suggesting that she needn't even come to the school.
That's when she realised she'd become a "brand" like TSRS!
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to earn a tonne of money for doing very little but her conscience didn't allow her to go ahead.
Finally, it was Ritu Suri's offer to set up Step by Step in Noida in 2006 that resonated with her.
That's where she spent the next 12 years of her life, building almost an equally formidable name in another part of the city.
At some stage, however, Adams felt her work there was done and she quit in 2018, deciding to end her affair with the high-end schools of the national capital region and spend more time on Ahvaan, a teacher training and mentoring NGO that works in the government schools space.
She's writing a book on the (mainly) negative fallouts of the increasingly digital- and social media-led world on today's children.
Students in elite schools "are self-harming in large numbers", she tells me.
She starts recounting some related stories when we realise we need to wrap up as time is running out.
On this somber note, Adams breezes out, leaving me to absorb the dull Abha-less environment.
Try meeting her once and you'll understand why she's the brand that she is.