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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

We Hang Out With 78 Y.O. Campus Nani To Find Out What Makes Her Students’ BFF

  • IWB Post
  •  October 11, 2017

There is an Italian Proverb, “If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.” But if you’re not able to do that, we’d say, call Campus Nani Prema Iyer. Curious much?

She’s a 78-year-old dynamic grandmother. A ‘Nani’ not only to her grandchildren but to the entire campus of UPES (University of Petroleum & Energy Studies, Dehradun), aptly titled “Campus Nani”. Now on a mission to revive the traditional Grandmother magic, she wishes to reach out to whomever, wherever, and help-counsel-advise in whatever capacity possible.

Her day starts at 3:30 in the morning, but before she calls life a day, she wishes to help people on a wider scale. “I am also a lifestyle coach, and I am into health, beauty, grooming, any and every sphere. This phase of mine is payback time, and I am here to give it all.”

Get on with us to know more about the Wonder-Nani!

Prema Iyer

‘Campus Nani’, we’re intrigued to know more about this title of yours?

Well, it came my way four years ago, and to tell you the truth I was also just as intrigued. It was during a family function, when the Founder President of UPES, Shri Sanjay Kaul, offered me to join their University as a counselor. I was surprised, or if I may say, shocked, and so was my family. In fact, when I discussed it with them, they gave me a straight no. I remember my son-in-law saying, “Amma, what will you do going there, why would the kids even listen to you!” And he kept a bet that I would return in 10 days. But here I am, naughtily she said, so you know who won!

Ha-Ha! How was your first day at the University?

Oh, don’t ask. The first day, and the following few days, I saw not a single person in my office. Not that I was expecting a rush of students, you ought to be practical. But gradually I realized that waiting approach wouldn’t work, and so I set out. I went to the library, canteen, playgrounds, and every possible place where I could spot students, and tried to interact with them. That also could not have brought success in a day, but I was in no hurry. One at a time I got to talk to students, and slowly with the word of mouth, my office started seeing more of them.

Prema Iyer

So did Nani have to adopt a counseling-strategy to connect with her young students?

Not really. The act of counseling seeks no strategy. It is all about listening patiently, followed by talking even more patiently. I am no trained professional, it is only what I learned from all the life lessons, that has blessed me with the wisdom to be able to connect and help.

Did you get to counsel only the students or their parents and teachers also came looking for you?

It started with the students, of course, but gradually the word reached to teachers and parents, too. I believe that it is not just about the conscious need of counseling, but the routine need of a listening ear and experienced head. Which can be sought by anyone, regardless of one’s age, profession, family-role, or any such factor.

Prema Iyer

“Of course I talk to myself, sometimes I need expert advice,” said your Facebook. Tell us a little about these sessions too?

Quite a grey-haired post you found. But it holds true, I do counsel myself as and when I feel the need. Once I was to visit Africa with my husband, but few days before the trip, I fell and broke my left arm. I was devastated, and extremely disappointed, but when the crying phase passed, I got myself together and reminded myself of all my blessings.

Though the credit of being able to live with this attitude goes not to me, but to some kind-hearted people I got the chance to come by. The tips they left me with not only helped me bounce back from depression, but from every adversity that life brought my way.

Tell us more about your battle with depression.

I got married at the age of 18 to an Indian Air Force officer, and two years later, I lost him in an accident. I was eight months pregnant then, but was left in a state of utter shock and despair. “I was a dead person who didn’t care about anything, and I just wanted to die.” I went into depression to the extent that I used to think of ways to commit suicide. And then a month later, I gave birth to my daughter, who became my lifeline. It took me time to realize that, but once I got up, I never indulged in suicidal thoughts again.

Who showed you way out of depression?

After my husband’s demise, I was offered a job with the Indian Air Force on compassionate grounds, which I took up because I’d decided to raise my daughter independently. But my heart and head were still at unrest, so much so that I neither found peace at home nor in office.

I have lived my fight alone, but there were a few people who appeared at various instances and instilled in me the courage and will to kick-start the journey every time.

Prema Iyer

Would you share with us those invaluable words of wisdom that gave you a push?

Once at the IAF, a very senior Army Brigadier, who was known for his fun-loving nature, walked up to my desk at work and asked, “Why are you always so quiet, Prema?” unguarded I told him of the actual reason, and his response is what led me to live life counting my blessings. “If you think I am always light and cheery because I have no pain in life, let me share with you this – my wife and one of the two daughters don’t live with me, they are in USA, getting treated for life-threatening ailments. But should I not live because of it, no! I have my one daughter here, and I can’t thank God enough for everything that I still have.”

“Learn to count your blessings, Prema”, his words still ring in my head.

Speaking of Depression, what according to you is making the younger generation suffer the most today, and how can they be supported?

Many youngsters that I have come across have had issues regarding their equation and emotional connect with parents. And I don’t say that only side is at fault, but I strongly believe that parents ought to work a little more towards developing a bond with their children and safeguarding the same.

The other being relationship issues. Children as young as 10-12-year-olds have girlfriend/boyfriend, and so the age at which they can’t handle their own emotions, unknown they are dealing with a lot more. Love is a beautiful emotion, but the youth seldom realizes its true meaning. And though I don’t judge them for their physical relationships, but love is not about that alone. Sheer ignorance towards the repercussions, their health, and so many other things, often leaves them with major physical, emotional, and mental problems.

Prema Iyer

Have you ever counseled your grandchildren? What was their reaction to finding their nani having become ‘Campus Nani’?

I do keep talking to them, but counseling, no. My grandson is a Web Designer, and granddaughter is studying at TISS Hyderabad, and neither of them knew about the developments of ‘Campus Nani’ for the longest. It was only in the recent past that they heard about me from their friends, and realized their Nani’s potential. You know how they say, “Ghar ki murgi dal barabar” (She laughed). But I’m glad to share that they responded rather enthusiastically.

And what about your daughter, how is your equation with her?

I share a wonderful bond with her. Being a single parent, for long I remained obsessed and emotionally dependent on her existence in my life, but with time I took control, for I knew that she’d have to leave me one day and I didn’t want it to become a problem for either of us. I took voluntary retirement after her marriage and opted for a self-dependent lifestyle. And regarding her marriage too, I think my being ahead of time helped me to respect her choice.

Today she has her own life and I have mine, and if there is ever something, we both have each other’s back.

Prema Iyer

In your view, what can bridge the gap between the two generations?

The ability of parents and elders to listen and understand without judgment is the only aspect that can help lessen the gap. Kids need to find trust in their parents, and they, on the other hand, need to give up on the typical moral policing attitude. It is something that I have stayed far away from, and in hindsight, that is what helped me connect well, not only with my own daughter but also with all the children whom I met donning the hat of ‘Campus Nani’.

They opened up because they realized, “Nani listens, she doesn’t judge, and though there is a wide generation gap, but she understands”. So, understanding is the sphere that needs to be worked upon!

Prema Iyer

Take us to your childhood, did you have to experience any discomfort as a child?

Ha-ha. My childhood! It seems very far away, but don’t be surprised if I say I remember it all. In the family of performers and achievers, I was a blockhead and an ugly duckling, the one who always got sidelined. My father was a music lover, so he once arranged a music teacher for me, and he had run away in a month saying, “your daughter can’t sing even to save her life”, so you can imagine!

And it did take a toll on me, my self-esteem suffered greatly and I’d begun to stammer also. But I am glad to share that after all the years I took a challenge to learn singing, and even performed on stage at an event at UPES.

Wow! What other fond memories do you have of UPES?

A bag full of memories I have! This one time, a year after I joined, I got the idea of doing a counseling session for faculty and staff, and after a lot of persuasion with the HR Department, I got the opportunity. UPES has beautiful conference halls, but just before the day of talk, because of some issue the hall booking got canceled. In the matter of one night, few students voluntarily gathered and on my request gave a classroom the ambiance of that of a hall. The next day session was not only a huge success, but the staff exclaimed that they couldn’t recognize the room! That experience was really heart-warming.

Prema Iyer

In your journey as Campus Nani, was there a session that left you with an unforgettable takeaway?

Hmmm, yes. It was one of the last cases. There was a student deeply into addiction, one day his mother called me to seek my permission to spend a day with me. I said yes and she came. With God’s grace, that boy has recovered today, but that day before leaving, his mother’s only words were, “you probably lost your husband early on in life only so that you could come here and bring happiness and joy in the lives of so many”. And I found myself in agreement, shortly after which I returned to Delhi.

Lastly, what is on your Wish List now?

In my personal life, my only wish (which I’ve long been living), is to take care of my health and maintain my body clock. I wake up early, do yoga, go for walk, and make all my meals by myself. Also, I believe in keeping in the best form and shape; I like to carry my age, but elegantly.

In the role of Nani, my aim is to reach out to as many people as possible and extend all my help and guidance. “I have to earn a ten on ten from whomever it is up there when I go” (she laughed). I have given up all the worldly desires, and want to return to the society and nation in my humble way. Three D’s dominate my life now – Determination, Dedication, and Discipline. Jai Hind!


“Campus Nani is an ideology, a belief that having a “Nani” figure in a college campus makes the student comfortable, especially the ones who are far away from their families. So its a small initiative to make people realize that having a nani in a campus does make a difference”, Dhruv Kapur, who with his Vultus group at UPES made the (below seen) video to elevate Nani to Campus Nani.

Campus nani

Campus Nani is an ideology, a belief that having a “Nani” figure in a college campus makes the student comfortable, especially the ones who are far away from their families. So its a small initiative to make people realize that having a nani in a campus does make a difference.

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