by Sylvia Holder, The Telegraph, October 13, 2017
While on business in India 30 years ago, I got chatting to a boy on a beach. He was 12 years old and the son of a desperately poor fisherman and, as a 50-year-old woman with my own PR company and a husband and two stepchildren at home in London, we had little in common – yet that encounter changed both our lives.
I had been staying at a hotel near Chennai and was intrigued by a fishing village along the coast. I went to explore and was approached by a charming boy, Venkat, dressed in ill-fitting blue shorts and offering, in rudimentary English, to show me around.
We had a jolly time, wandering about and tucking into food at a local café with his friends, but I was horrified at the poverty. So when Venkat asked me for £10 for his annual school fees, I agreed and offered to put him through high school and university, too. Looking back, it sounds naive.
Could such a disadvantaged boy really go to university? But 10 years later he graduated with a degree in commerce from Madras University and went on to become an Italian translator.
Contact was minimal over the years – I only visited him three times in his village, Kovalam. But when Venkat graduated, I felt a real tug and began to think of him as a surrogate son. I was also impressed that he’d grabbed the opportunity for a better life.
He touched me in other ways, too: when I first returned, one year after we’d met, I hadn’t told him I was coming and asked some boys to find him. They took me to his house first, which I hadn’t seen before, and I found that it was bare except for sleeping mats and a photograph of me on the wall. Seeing it – and being greeted excitedly by Venkat, who had been playing football – was all very emotional.
Already he was blooming into a delightful and bright young man. But then, in December 2003, a few days after he had emailed me saying he’d been shortlisted for a very good job in Mumbai, Venkat was killed in a road accident.
He was just 27. I’ll never forget the night his brother telephoned me with the awful news.
I returned to Kovalam, planning to build a small memorial, but when I saw the local primary school, neglected and dilapidated, I realised there was a bigger job to be done.
I had recently retired and was looking forward to being a lady who lunches, but instead I ploughed my time into starting a charity.
I wrote a letter to friends and contacts, telling them about Venkat and the village school, and their response was astounding. In the first year, The Venkatraman Memorial Trust (or Venkat Trust, for short) raised £27,360 and donations have just passed £1 million.
Today, the primary school is entirely transformed, we have built a high school, put sponsored children through university, plus Kovalam has been transformed with hotels and a surf school opening since I first went.
My 80th birthday beckons next year, but I’m still working on the charity and visit Kovalam twice a year. I’ll be celebrating by throwing a huge party there for all the children, as well as Venkat’s family.
As for Venkat, decades have passed since the day I first met that young ragamuffin who endeared himself to me, but knowing him has enriched my life forever.