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Wisdom Stories Ep.40: Jija Hari Singh

Wisdom Stories #40

Cultural expectations surrounding the elderly are being challenged today, and with good reason!

While it was the norm to slow down and retreat into a quieter life post-retirement, more men and women are finding purpose and joy in doing the opposite.

WisdomCircle honours such men and women by shining light on their journey through an inspiring series called “Wisdom Stories”. These people have successfully smashed stereotypes, and their stories remind us that life should be lived to the fullest, no matter what age or stage.

I was fortunate to be South India’s first woman IPS officer (1975), and have served over 35 years, retiring as Director General of Police in Karnataka. I held key positions in organisations like the Airports Authority of India, National Textiles Corporation, Nuclear Power Corporation, Mysore Minerals Ltd and Jungle Lodges and Resorts.

I have always been academically inclined, and have a PhD in Sociology from Mysore University, two Master of Arts Degrees, and an Honorary Doctorate. My career journey began as a journalist with ISRO and a Lecturer in English at Maharaja’s College, Kochi, before joining IPS. I pursued advanced programs at Harvard University, Commonwealth Secretariat, and The Scotland Yard and Wollongong University in Australia, while in the police forces.

I was privileged to receive civilian awards as well as the prestigious President’s Medal for Distinguished Service & Police Medal for Meritorious Service. I received national recognition for handling diversity and conflict, winning the Indira Priyadarshini Award.

Post-retirement, I co-led international research projects on civil security cooperation, in Metro Security as well as Disaster Management. I am presently engaged in philanthropy and corporate governance, serving in various capacities.

We interviewed Jija Hari Singh, one of the honourees of 58 Over 58, a collaborative endeavour spearheaded by WisdomCircle and INK. The mission is to spotlight the narratives of 58 remarkable individuals annually, individuals who are meaningfully engaged in their post-retirement phase.

Photograph of a lady

What was a key moment that defined your current path?

The defining moment that sculpted my current journey is the Kargil story which unfolded before me quite by chance. It was 1999, an era when television was still new. The visuals I saw on the news that evening would resonate eternally, changing the course of my life. I saw a slender, young woman full-term pregnant, her dreams interwoven with the arrival of her child, standing in grief, receiving the cold coffin of her husband. They were married for just a year. He had come home for the imminent arrival of the baby when suddenly he was recalled to duty. Her husband of just a year had left for war to return in a week, in a coffin. The image of her inconsolable sorrow haunted my consciousness. It was in that poignant moment that my resolve to help the Kargil widows took shape leading to an exhibition of my paintings. All the money I got, Rs 2.53 Lakhs, was donated to the Kargil Widows Fund. This was a large amount then, my salary at that time being just Rs 25,000. To my surprise, I found that Gen Mullick, the Chief of Army Staff at that time, recorded my initiative in his book as a testament to how the nation emotionally responded to that war. My name and story a mentioned in the book ‘Kargil: From Surprise To Victory’. That exhibition of my paintings in the India Habitat Centre exhibition, opened by Anjolie Ela Menon, led me to embark on a journey of supporting the helpless through modest yet impactful means. This narrative serves as a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of empathy.

 How would you define your purpose? And why did you choose it?

The idea of purpose in life was predominant in my thoughts from a young age. Biographies fascinated me, of people like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Dr Ida Skudder, CMC Vellore, Fr. Damien & Lepers of Molokai, Hawaii, Dr Schweitzer and his philosophy of “reverence for life” all fascinated me. My father was a staunch Gandhian, who had joined Gandhi in Sabarmati once he finished his masters in English. He truly walked the path of simple living and high thinking. He also made me aware of the plight of the downtrodden and poor. I realised how enormously privileged some of us are and how helpless in circumstances many are. Encouraged by Gandhian philosophy, I felt the power to help is more powerful than giving away money, which we all distribute in various charity contexts. There are huge layers of knowledge, networks and resources that we have that are inaccessible to many. To me, sharing it all, and living in the joy of giving, is a purposeful life.

What is your flex today? How is it different from a decade or two ago?

A decade ago, my flex was marked by early achievements, growth, and the excitement of exploring new opportunities. Today, my flex lies in navigating challenges with resilience, adapting to change, and continuously learning, finding opportunities to help many and support the underprivileged Albert Schweitzer, one of my childhood heroes, said: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

What advice would you give your younger self?

If I were to offer advice to my younger self, I would say don’t take life too seriously. Learn to relax and enjoy life and relationships. If I want to be more specific, I would give these pointers:

  • Learn from mistakes; they shape your journey.
  • Prioritise self-care along with working hard.
  • Cultivate resilience, and learn to rise gracefully every time you fall.
  • Build relationships by investing time and effort, consciously
  • Recognise that success is a journey, a moving target. Follow your passions, and pursue what fulfils you.
  • Always keep your mind open, change is constant.
  • Celebrate achievements, yours and those of others.
  • Learn early about financial management.
  • Savour each moment you live, for life is a continuous experience.

Is there anyone you look up to, to help chart your post-retirement journey?

In shaping my post-retirement journey, I find inspiration from a diverse array of figures – cherished teachers, pragmatic bosses, and influential social and spiritual leaders. Well before retirement, I began envisioning the possibilities awaiting me beyond the routine of meetings and job-related tasks each morning. I had a dream and am following it, to create a village of Art, craft and design, an oasis of cultural traditions and contemporary concepts, a space where people from all walks of life from all over the world can congregate and find things they have been looking for, creative energy, peace or happiness.

What are the current gaps in the post-retirement eco-system? Where is the pressing need for attention?

The gaps are many in the post-retirement ecosystem. First and foremost is the lack of financial literacy and planning, leading us to wake up to harsh truths. Illnesses and medical support can hit us hard. Healthcare is costly and tough to access. After retirement, opportunities for productive engagement are not easy to find. When old age creeps in, we realise that support systems are inadequate in our country. Health contingencies, technology to cope with facilities, and even daily living can leave us perplexed. Loneliness and in worst cases, harassment and exploitation are also sadly prevalent. Once incapacitated, comfortable retirement homes and later, assisted living have also huge gaps in our country.

The pressing need for attention is all around. I feel awareness to start planning as we cross into the thresholds of middle age, say from the age of 40 may be vital. Diversified investments and reinvestments to suit the market change are essential. All needs are to be addressed by individuals, some by governments and private enterprises. Huge opportunity for NGOs and businesses to increasingly plan and focus on the 50-plus population.

What would your advice be to the Wisdom Generation, to help plug these gaps?

  • Be self-reliant till the end. Early financial planning, diversified investments, constant upgrading of plans, to live comfortably till 100!
  • Wellness focus and transitioning to a healthy diet and exercise; Regular yoga, walking and avoiding allopathic medicines with damaging side effects
  • Focus on social activities and connections. It is most important to seek and keep the mind and body active in outdoor activities, generating excitement and joy. Signing up for courses is great.
  • Practice the joy of giving. An attitude of gratitude, every moment, even for our very breath and all the minutest blessings we have, like life itself, not to mention home, money or friends.
  • Plan happily for life after life as well, taking care of all legal matters too!

Why is leaving a legacy important for you? What would you like yours to be?

A legacy reflects the values, beliefs, and contributions that an individual holds dear and wishes to be remembered for, creating a meaningful narrative that transcends our own existence. My legacy is actually the lives I have touched positively, bringing a smile to their lives.

3 words that describe your life right now

Active. Content but Restless. 

What else would you like to say, that we haven’t covered yet?

I am deeply committed to the ‘Power of Giving,’ a guiding principle that shapes my endeavours as a cultural and social activist. Through my work, I strive to contribute meaningfully to the community, empower women, and create livelihood opportunities for the underprivileged and tribals. The act of giving, whether through organising cultural events or championing social causes, is at the heart of my life’s mission.

Read more Wisdom Stories on WisdomCircle

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