Aruna Upadhyaya, 66, the director of one of the best schools in Nagpur – Centre Point School – and Mother’s Pet Kindergarten, pursued her M.A. in Economics from Nagpur University and a Diploma in Childcare Design from Harvard University. Daughter of former union minister late NKP Salve and elder sister of former Solicitor General of India Harish Salve, Aruna comes from a “progressive family.” Still she had to face a gender bias and settle down for teaching instead of law – a profession that she wanted to pursue. Her entry in education business might have happened by default but it’s commendable the way she has designed the destiny of so many Nagpurians through Centre Point School, a brand that stands tall in the city with its three branches (Katol Road, Wardhaman Nagar and Amravati Road) and four branches of Mother’s Pet Kindergarten (Wardhaman Road, Wardha Road, Amravati Road Bypass and Sadar). In an exclusive interview with Nation Next, Aruna Upadhyaya spoke about her “snobbish students,” Indian parents’ regressive mindset and why she feels that children should be handled with extreme care and love.
You wanted to become a lawyer like your younger brother Harish Salve. How did you land up in education business instead?
My father convinced me not to become a lawyer because he felt that for a female lawyer, it would be very difficult to manage the house and profession simultaneously. He had a Chartered Accountancy firm, where I wanted to work and pursue CA, for which he didn’t allow me either as it would require me to travel frequently for audits. I did my masters in economics from LAD College in Nagpur, after which I started working at LAD as a lecturer for home economics. Though my parents never differentiated between my brother Harish and I, the gender biases were still very strong then (1970s). There were limitations for girls, and we weren’t given the access to occupation of our choice. Teaching was an option, which everybody was happy with.
How did Centre Point School and Mother’s Pet Kindergarten come into being?
Unfortunately, Nagpur’s education was in the doldrums. After looking for good schools in Nagpur for my daughters for one year, I realised that there was a dearth of good schools in Nagpur. My expectations from educational institutions were so ‘different’ in those times that the Nagpur schools didn’t even understand my requirements for my daughters – Radhika and Aparna. Also, the class strength of students was too high in all the schools, which would leave the child cranky and unattended. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ was the mentality of most of the teachers. According to me, forget about hitting the student, one shouldn’t even mention the word ‘rod’ in front of the students.
For me, leaving Nagpur was not an option. So, I thought of starting a school to try and fill in the gaps in the education system.
Moreover, my younger daughter, Aparna, was only two years and Radhika was four years old in 1979 when I started Mother’s Pet Kindergarten. I wanted to do something that would allow me to be home by the time my children came back home. I would have the same holidays, which my children had.
I read a lot, I traveled, I interacted with many people and I got myself trained before establishing Mother’s Pet Kindergarten. I was always willing to take help from people because I wasn’t professionally qualified.
Have you been successful in your agenda of bringing about the change in the education system?
I wanted to develop an institution where children didn’t feel the pressure of studying and staying apart from their parents for hours. I feel they should look forward to go to the school as even brightest of the students don’t like studying because of the immense pressure on them. The students have to study for 16 to 17 years of their life, and it becomes monotonous for them. The least we can do is to give them a journey, which has some good moments in it, so that they don’t feel the pressure. At the end of the day, one thing I always ask my children is, are they happy? Did they have a good time? Most children, who come out of Centre Point School, would say that they had a great time and they had lots of fun, and they studied too. I make sure the teachers are kind to the students, do their job well and make learning easy for every child. I have never been a marks oriented person. I feel all Centre Pointers are so confident. If you have caliber, you can’t keep it hidden. Every child needs exposure. More than anything, I want my children to feel special. That’s why the motto for Mother’s Pet Kindergarten is – protecting the rights of the children.
It’s seen that one of the major causes of the children’s disinterest in studies is parental pressure. What would you say to the parents?
Indian parents treat their children like their property. They pressurise their kids to become doctors and engineers. Why? God has given you a child to take care of, to nurture and to allow him to be an independent, fulfilled, secure and a happy human being. What are you doing for this? You can’t treat your child as an opportunity to brag about. I believe while the children have rights to exercise, the adults have duties to fulfill. In India, if a child’s opinion differs from an adult’s opinion, he’s considered manner less. I’ve ensured that my children develop their own opinions and the reasoning behind them. I do explain them the pros and cons of everything but the final decision is theirs. Children too are humans with their own aspirations and desires. Every parent should want a child who is healthy, of sound mind and above all, one who wants to grow up to become a good human being. Unfortunately, these are not the prerequisites for many parents. For my daughters, even today, my words of encouragement and appreciation matter a lot.
Despite Centre Point being one of the best schools in the city, why did your daughters study in a convent school?
Radhika was already a student at St. Joseph’s Convent Sr. Sec. School, Nagpur, and Aparna was too young when Centre Point School was conceptualised, so there was already a gap in establishing the school and admitting my daughters in school. Also, I thought it would not be appropriate for my daughters to study in a new setup of mine, as either they would get more attention than they deserved or they wouldn’t get the credit they deserve. Finally, I had the guts to admit my grandchildren in Centre Point School. I make sure they are treated equally.
As a woman educationist in the late 70’s, how difficult was it for you to break the stereotype and emerge as a successful entrepreneur?
I never thought of it that way! (Laughs) I sincerely worked hard and things gradually fell in place. In fact, it was my mother who broke the stereotype. She was born in Sindh where education for women was non-existent. My nana, (mother’s father) cut my mother’s hair short, dressed her in a kurta pyjama and sent her to the school as a boy for her primary education. She went on to become a doctor from Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi. She set a record in her college for excellence in gynecology. She went for inter-religious marriage of her own choice, which was a huge step then. I’m lucky to come from a background where traditional molds and sets never existed. My brother (Harish Salve) is also successful because of our family’s progressive mindset. Also, my husband Arun Upadhyaya has supported me through thick and thin.
Despite developing the biggest education brand in Nagpur, you never expanded in other cities. Why?
In the last 10 years, people have continuously hounded me for franchising, but I have been short of hands. It’s just my husband and me. My daughters are married and tied up with their own things. We did think of taking the brand outside, but I don’t believe in franchising because the reputation and the standard of the institution are at stake. How do I ensure the quality? I don’t want people to mistreat children under the name of Centre Point School. Now that my daughter has come back from abroad, I think I must expand my institution now. We are looking for Pune as a possibility because my younger daughter Aparna resides in Pune.
Brand Centre Point School is considered synonymous to snobbery. Did you take efforts to develop it into a niche brand or is it because of the city’s kids of who’s who are your students?
People say that Centre Point School students have got an ‘attitude’ problem. I believe they are very confident, they speak up, have good verbal skills and they will fight for their rights. This is not a wrong attitude. To me, lying and cheating is not acceptable but a child’s different opinion from mine is totally acceptable. People say that my students speak only in English. They should realise that the parents have sent their children to an English medium school, so shouldn’t they be speaking in English? Isn’t it my job to ensure my students speak in English? Today’s students are global citizens, where the common language is English. Also, it’s because of my own upbringing as I come from a highly educated background and a progressive family with a westernised and liberal mindset; and if that is what I’ve given to my children, what’s wrong? I don’t believe in religion or gender as a barrier in one’s life. My students are treated decently and with respect in the school and their opinion is considered important. I think every child must think no end of himself. That is how one’s childhood should be. Parents, school and the society should make the children feel that they can conquer the world. Only then can they face the world. Why should anybody’s childhood be depressing, insecure and of low self esteem? Unfortunately, such students come out as petrified and cowering. I hate that! The who’s who of the city wouldn’t have admitted their kids to Centre Point School by looking at my face (Laughs) or because of my family background. You’ve also done your schooling from Centre Point School. Your father too would have withdrawn you from the school if you hadn’t grown as a better child. Centre Point School can never be a business for me.
People say your school develops the students’ personality for sure but humility in their nature takes a beating. How do you control that?
What do they mean by humility? If one is able to speak up at the right time, it is called humility. In my 38 years of career, I’ve never had a child, who has been rude to me or who has insulted me. No Centre Pointer has ever gone out and brought a bad name to the school. We have always competed at national and international level. They conduct themselves so well; and for this, we need to empower them and make them realise of their caliber and potential. Adults want a world where a child is not entitled to argue and he must not have an opinion. The child must not differ, so that adults can put across their point conveniently. People misconstrue humility for blind obedience. A child must question everything he’s bothered about. Every child must have a choice in the decisions his family makes for him. I’ve had parents coming to me and encouraging us to beat their child, for which I’m dead against. Nobody has hurt me physically, so why should I hurt any child? I’m so proud of Centre Pointers because they are doing so well. We keep tabs on whatever they are doing. When my daughter during her college days went to LAD College in a skirt, unlike other girls who wore traditional outfits, she was labeled as snobbish. My granddaughter, who came from the U.S, too was tagged as snobbish as she had an American accent. Just because some students can’t cope with the studies, or people with monetary issues can’t get their children admitted here, they start defaming the school.
You have put in great amount of efforts in establishing your institution. How do you feel when people attribute your success to your influential family background?
I still remember when my school’s first board results were out, people said that my students had to pass in first division because my father was a minister then. I realised this particular mindset very early in life. This is one of the downsides. I did have my share of advantages though.
Talking about your father, he was thick friends with Dilip Kumar, who had even visited your school years ago. It was a big thing for such a huge star to have visited a Nagpur school. What are your childhood memories of Dilip Saab?
More than me, my daughters have fond memories of Dilip uncle.
Dilip Kumar didn’t celebrate his 90th birthday when he learnt about your father’s demise…
He was extremely upset because they were so close. It’s so sad to see Dilip uncle unwell. Sadly, he’s suffering from dementia.
Your younger brother Harish Salve, the former Solicitor General of India, is one of the leading lawyers of the country. How does it feel?
Not just in India, Harish’s one of the best lawyers in the world and the best in India! He’s currently practicing in London but he does come to Delhi intermittently. Unfortunately, we don’t even get enough time to talk to each other; he’s so busy. One of the downsides of somebody of his stature and being this successful is that they barely have any family time. He works for 14-16 hours a day. Unlike me, he couldn’t spend sufficient time with his children because of work commitments. Success came to him at a very heavy price.