Meet Your Neighbor: Manjula Mair Gupta
By bayareadesi team on 10 Jul 2012
Manjula Mair Gupta is the Founder/President of the “Chai with Manjula organization. She is also the producer, director and host of the TV show “Chai with Manjula’ – a show about giving. Manjula is working passionately towards developing initiatives to promote philanthropy. The weekly TV show airs on Public Access Television in the Bay Area.
Got to know more about her as she spoke to our team and on things in the bay.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I felt blessed to have highly educated and progressive parents. My father Dr. Om Prakash graduated from King Edward Medical College, Lahore. My mother Dr. Kamala Mair graduated from Isabella Thoburn College (IT College), Lucknow, and got a Master’s degree in Hindi in her 40’s and Ph.D. in her 50’s. My parents were praying for a daughter before I was born, and they treated me and both of my brothers equally. I grew up unaware of the terrible gender discrimination that exists in India even today.
My mother was a co-founder and Principal of D.A.V. Girls’ College in Yamuna Nagar (Haryana), where I grew up. She was also a highly accomplished classical musician, and a social activist, who started a chapter of All India Women’s Conference in Yamuna Nagar. She was President of Ladies’ Arya Samaj in Gurgaon (Sector 4), where she was a regular exponent of the Vedas, and there she also started a free sewing school for poor girls.
My upbringing was immersed in cultural enrichment, with a serious focus on education. I was one of the university toppers in the tri-state area of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal, and won academic scholarships throughout, and also won the Best All-Rounder, and the Most Meritorious student awards, and awards for inter-college declamation-contests and classical music competitions.
What brought you to the U.S., and how did you start your life here?
After doing M.A. in English Literature from Punjab University, Chandigarh, I had started preparing for the prestigious IAS (Indian Administrative Services) competition, which had been my long-term goal, but a sudden marriage proposal brought me to the U.S. instead. I spent the first few years giving concerts, and teaching Indian Classical music to Americans in Wisconsin, which was a great experience.
How long you have been in Bay Area? And what do you like about the area?
After having lived in Wisconsin, and Texas, we (my husband, son, daughter, and me) moved to the Bay Area in 1988. I love the natural beauty with the rolling hills on one side and the bay on the other, and of course, the wonderful weather, and the rich cultural diversity here.
Who is your role model or inspiration, and why?
My parents were very kind, giving and broad-minded intellectuals, who managed to stay above material pursuits, and were a big inspiration to me and my brothers. My mother was a highly accomplished and incredible woman, and by far the biggest influence in my life. She gave me extensive training in classical music for about 17 years (Sitar and vocal), and opened up the world of art, literature, creativity, spirituality and community service to me. In addition, I seek inspiration from strong women like Shabana Azmi, Kiran Bedi, Oprah Winfrey, and in some ways even Lady Diana, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis to name a few.
You are a multitalented personality with great achievements in fine arts and literature. Could you share your favorite piece of art or music?
After classical music, Qawwalies are my favorite. But any piece of music, Indian or non-Indian that captures the sentiment well, touches me immensely.
For example the songs Suniyo ji Araj Mhari which is about a young married girl longing to visit her parents’ home, My Name is Luka, which is about an abused child, and Nothing Compares to You, which is about losing a loved one, move me to tears each time I hear them.
What inspired you to start Manjula organization? What is the story behind the interesting name of the show “Chai with Majula”?
Over the years, I have come across so many wonderful nonprofit organizations that are doing incredible work to make a difference. I volunteered actively with the American India Foundation, and the India Community Center. But I had a strong desire to provide some kind of a service to the entire nonprofit community someday. So, when Jose Esteves, the Mayor of Milpitas told me about the newly built studio in the City Hall, and asked me if I would like to start a TV show, I felt that it was a great opportunity for me to do a show dedicated exclusively to the nonprofits and people who are giving back. So, I started the show in Oct. 2007, which would raise awareness about the work that these organizations were doing, and the issues that they are addressing. With the help of a friend I learned editing, created a website which I have been maintaining myself. I have been handling all aspects of production myself, before and after the taping in the studio.
The reason why I called it Chai with Manjula is that all important and serious conversations in India usually take place over a cup of tea/Chai, and this was going to be a talk show about social issues, so Chai with Manjula seemed like a good name.
Any memorable moments or incidents you could share from your TV shows?
Yes. Some of the candid moments are memorable, like when Dr. Deepak Chopra jokingly told me that his wife and children don’t take him seriously, when Anita Reddy was choking with tears while describing the dismaying living conditions in the slums of Banagalore, when Kiran Bedi told me that all she can cook is a toast and an egg, and when Kanwal Rekhi talked about how he and his wife Ann used to be pen-pals.
Among so many interviews you have done any one that is close to your heart and why?
Kiran Bedi was certainly an awesome guest. Her views about addressing terrorism and handling criminals, and about life in general, were so inspiring, and so well articulated. I can hear that interview over and over again.
Any interesting observations from your meetings with famous personalities?
One observation stands out. I was a member of the delegation that President Clinton took to India after the Gujarat earthquake, and I was simply awed by his ability to connect with people at all levels. He would get down from his car to shake hands with people lined up on the streets of Calcutta on a scorching afternoon, or would gather the waiters and cooks for a group picture with him before having dinner.
What are the challenges you are facing?
I can’t produce fast enough to keep up with the requests from organizations to be featured on the show, which is fortunately a good problem to have. Since the word got out after the first 6-7 shows,
I have about 20 guests on wait-list at any given time. I am simply humbled and very encouraged by that.Secondly, I have not been able to find time for marketing. (In fact, it would be great to have some volunteers.)
You were running a successful software services company which you gave up to pursue your passion for community service. Looking back would you have done any differently?
No, I wouldn’t have done it differently. Professional success was important for my personal growth, and essential for placing me in a position to do full-time community service, and fund a nonprofit project like Chai with Manjula.
Any suggestions/advice for aspiring non-profit organization founders?
You can’t save the world, but you can definitely change the world of some less fortunate people with your initiative. So, follow your heart and get started.
Do you feel local “Desis” have been supportive of your endeavor?
Absolutely. The desi/Indo-American community has been very encouraging, and appreciative. I receive emails and messages on FB from people, sometimes strangers cheering me on. They keep me going.
Has being a South Asian affected you in either good or bad way in achieving your goals?
I have enjoyed best of the two worlds.
Do you feel being in the Silicon Valley accelerated your career goals?
Of course, yes! The Silicon Valley provided the right environment and opportunity for my company Saicom, to grow rapidly from a garage operation to a successful company, with clients like Adaptec, and many other hi-tech companies.
Apart from work, are you involved with any other organizations / non-profits? If yes, can you tell your involvement with them?
I serve on the Advisory Boards of two nonprofit organizations: Ekal Vidyalaya, Silicon Valley chapter, and the Induz organization. I also served as an Art Commissioner in the City of Milpitas last year. I help several organizations with community outreach as and when possible.
What does future hold for you?
I am hoping that the content from all the shows will somehow be complied to serve as a documentation of a very important legacy of the first generation Indo-Americans; the legacy of giving back and making a difference in India as well as in the U.S.
What are some of your favorite activities to do in the bay?
I enjoy collecting antiques from various quaint places such as San Carlos street in San Jose, Pleasanton Downtown, Napa Valley, and Santa Cruz, and collecting art from local galleries and shows.
What are your favorite places to eat?
Straights Café and Thea Mediterranean Cuisine on Santana Row, and Ho Chow in Fremont
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians what would that be?
Take pride in your heritage, and adopt the good in all cultures around you.
How can people learn more about you and stay connected?
The website is www.chaiwithmanjula.org, where all the info. is posted, and shows are archived.
Email address is [email protected]
Email address is [email protected]