A Tribute to Oona Sharma

I met Oona in the winter of 1995, Village: Satoli, Post Office : Peora, District: Almora, Uttarakhand. I was attached to her NGO, Aarohi for a period of two and a half months for a Project as part of my Course work during my Post-graduation.

Oona was a senior from the same Institute where I was studying and she had floated a Project in which she needed to procure some processing technologies for the various aromatic plants (Basil, Thyme, Rosemary, Peppermint) that grew abundantly in the himalayas and that were also being cultivated by Aarohi. Another objective was to actually process the plants, obtain oil from them, bottle and package the oil so that it could be exported to the customers she had identified.

Now I was not exactly in love with taking on this Project but my then boyfriend (who is many years older to me and now my husband) had hijacked an earlier Project that we had both done together and I was not happy with the way that Project had shaped up. So this time round I was looking for an individual Project where I would have complete freedom without anyone consistently over-riding all my suggestions. So I signed up for this Project with Aarohi without any idea of how I was going to produce thyme and rosemary oils, package them and get them export-worthy!!! But I was very excited about the challenge!!!

When I met Oona, I was impressed by her dynamic personality. She was a petite lady, but her entire demeanor was super charged. She was married to an Army doctor and had a little daughter of 3. To my young and impressionable eyes, she represented all that I too wanted from life… do the work that I loved, a life-partner to share everything with, and beautiful children…

Upon reaching Satoli, in the cold November of 1995, I started my Project in great earnest. The hamlet of Satoli is incredibly beautiful… I stayed in the house of the Maths Teacher of the Village Primary School. His wife cooked dinner for me and Oona had given me a gas-filled stove and some rations to make my tea, etc.

I worked at a frenzied pace to complete all the objectives set out in the Project. First, I toured the whole of Kumaon region and visited all the NGOs that were producing aromatic oils. There weren’t too many and those that were, were producing peppermint oil only. My research led me to CIMAP, Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow and I made a hurried trip to Lucknow and met up with the Director of CIMAP who gave me permission to use their library as well as speak to the Professors and Researchers. I also got a chance to see first-hand oil processing by Distillation Method, there.

Excited by my findings and the immense possibilities… I rushed back to Satoli and shared my findings with Oona. Together, we went through all my notes and descriptions of each technology and apparatus that could be used for different plants… She immediately arranged for train tickets to Lucknow; we collected almost 10 kgs of plant cuttings from which we wanted to extract oil and within that week, i returned to Lucknow for the second time, this time accompanied by Oona.

I really got to know Oona during our Lucknow trip. She was passionate about life, uncompromising on her ideals and at heart, a very honest person. We had many and varied discussions… and we forged a friendship of sorts… i could identify with many of her thoughts and decisions and i do think that all our conversations during that trip made a tremendous impact on my own life…

So we reached Lucknow, armed with our plants. I was very nervous, what if my ideas failed? What if my research was flawed? We met the CIMAP Director and he was taken aback by our request ” Could we please process 10 kgs of Rosemary, Thyme, etc in his Laboratory Apparatus???” He looked at us weirdly, did this lady really own an NGO in the Kumaon Hills? In front of that old man, we looked like a bunch of excited school kids trying out some crazy experiment. I had already raised this point with Oona; we needed to look credible and serious. So for that meeting, I ditched my jeans, wore a salwar-kameez and braided my hair. Oona wore a lovely WWF scarf around her neck. I pulled out whatever Student ID papers i had and we waited with bated breaths as the Director peered at us one last time. Then he rang the bell on his table, summoned the office-boy and gave him instructions to take us to the laboratory!!!

That whole day passed in a daze… Oona was simply too happy. I was too relieved, everything had gone well… We stared with disbelief at the tiny bottles in which we collected the oils… We made enquiries about the Apparatus (it was called Clevenger with Distillation method) and where it could be ordered from… But my thoughts were already on the next part of the Project… I still had to figure out the bottles and the packaging…

Oona gave me a lead here. Chandni Chowk in Delhi was the place to procure bottles from… and her friend who worked with an Advertising Agency would help design the labels for the bottles. Right, so off i went to Delhi…

Back in 1995, the only name that came to my mind when i thought of aromatic or essential oils, was The Body Shop. Oona had a few bottles of the Body Shop Lavender oil. I studied the bottles before the Delhi trip. They were made from coloured glass (brownish); to me that meant the oil needed to be protected from light. There was also a dropper kind of lid when you unscrewed the cap. That made sense too, essential oils are to be used in very minute quantities…

My ideas in place, I headed directly to Chandni Chowk and with some effort managed to find what i was looking for. I bought off 50 bottles as part of my test sample. Now I needed to stick labels on the bottles. But wait! What should go on the labels? Were there any norms for export, any information that was mandatory? I needed to think about this one. From some fragment of memory, came another idea- The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) might give a clue. So once more, I headed out to find answers and BIS proved the right place to go to.

Within that week, the bottles were ready. I travelled once again to the hills, knowing that my Project would soon come to an end and somewhere deep inside my heart, I was not happy about it. Oona was once again ecstatic with my work. The technology had been ordered, bottles were ready and labelled, one of the office staff would be trained on how to run the Apparatus and Aarohi was ready to produce their first batch of Essential Oils!!!

In the first week of January 1996, I bid Oona goodbye, little knowing that this was the last time I would be seeing her alive.

Back at my Institute, I waited to see how Oona had evaluated my Project. In the meantime, I got busy with writing out the full Report, which had to be submitted to the faculty. When the results were announced…I got to know that Oona had awarded me the highest grade and I was amongst the top rankers for the Project Segment of the Course-work.

A few months later, Oona wrote to me in her lilac inked scrawl… The first batch of Essential Oils had been exported to Germany!!!

That was the last I heard of her. I was due to graduate in a few months and all my thoughts in those days were focused on… where I would work, where I would live, would my boyfriend be with me in the same city, would my parents now start forcing me to get married…etc…

And then, September of 1996, I was in Bangalore, on an official trip and met up with a classmate. The first thing she asked me was: Did you hear about Oona?

No. What happened?

She’s no more. Died of mushroom poisoning.

What? I was in shock, how could that be? She’s not supposed to die, why I just got a letter from her three months ago.

I thought about Oona for many days, and wept for her loss. I wish i had stayed in touch with her. I wish i had at least responded to her letter. I wish i had met her earlier in my life….

But now it was just too late.

A few years later, I read in a magazine, that Oona’s mother had written a book on her. We were abroad at that time. The magazine was Femina. In my next trip to India, i went to a book shop with the intention of buying the book. But as i held it in my hands, and turned the pages, the words became blurred and i knew that i couldn’t bear to read it. I came back without buying it.

Oona remains and will remain in my heart and mind forever. My association with her was brief, but intense and meaningful. And I think anyone who crossed paths with her would have been impacted in the same way. In a strange and curious way…I think she lives on…


Blog Writer: Amandeep Taunque, MA, Counselling Psychology, SOHSS

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