soft murmurs


As Nutan’s story unfolds, India comes to light, with its hard realities and softer truths. Nutan is 30 and is suffering from a severe heart malfunction.

Years of ignorance laced with neglect, years of living the life of a woman in a society where women are lesser beings, of bearing four children with little or no help, of malnutrition and hard work have taken their toll on a frail body, where a heart was made to work twice as much because of a probable congenital defect.

When the body could not carry on, when the lungs hungry for oxygen started giving up Nutan was taken to the district headquarters of Purnea, in Bihar. There a doctor who braved the odds and dangers of life in this dificult state to bring a healing touch to those in need, diagnosed Nutan’s ailment and gave her the best possible advise: take a train to Delhi, to the AIIMS for immediate heart surgery.

The year was 2003.

Nutan then fell prey to the half baked knowledge of probale well wishers who scared her so much that she refused the treatment needed and pushed her all ready tired body to the very last.

Then two years later, when even living became difficult, she finally took the train. The verdict was simple: immediate surgery; the cost was staggering for a family who had already sold or mortgaged everything it possessed.

Ayan, a doctor friend from John Hopkins saw Nutan and confirmed what we all knew. I asked her what would have happened if Nutan had been born to a rich family. The answer was staggering: the pediatrician would have detected the heart murmur at birth and the corrective surgery would have taken place by the time she was 3. And anyway, had Nutan had proper medical check up during her pergnancy, the murmur would have been heard. And then the inevitable question, what if nothing was done, the answer was a quiet: 2 years at the most.

What conclusion to draw in this tale of missed murmurs?

The one missed at birth, the one missed four times and then the unexpected one from a kind doctor in a state everyone has given up on..

victim of ignorance


Nutan a mother of four was diagnosed having a severe cardiac malfunction in a district hospital in Bihar and advised immediate corrective surgery. Doctors were optimist.

That was two years ago…

For two years, Nutan suffered, her condition deteriorating day by day. You may think that the surgery was delayed for want of funds.. well not quite

Nutan became an unsuspecting victim of what one could call enlightend ignorance. In her small village in the back of beyond of what is now known as the most backward state in India, this broken woman was fed on horrific tales of what a heart surgery was. In betwen bouts of severe and almost unberable pain, she heard bribes of conversation that described her body being torn apart and mutilated by city doctors and leading to a possible death.

Slowly a deep seated fright took hold of her pain ridden mind and she simply refused to be taken to the city and thus shut out the one option that could save her life.

It took two years of withering away, of bearing excruating pain, of witnessing her body slowly giving up for Nutan to accept to come to Delhi.

Nutan can barely walk, actually she can barely breathe. She is now undergoing the pre-op tests at the cardio-thoracic centre of AIIMS. We hope we can raise the money required and above all use our sources to get a date for the surgery and see this mom back on the road to recovery.

But Nutan’s case is not unique. How many people fall victim to ignorance, or what is worse half-baked knowledge.

Education then takes on a whole new meaning, a far cry for multiplication tables and historical dates…

of dreams.. and broken zips


as children we have all dreamt of what we would want to be when we grow up… i remember wanting to be an air hostess, a nuclear scientist, an astronaut and god knows what else..

even slum kids have dreams: they often want to be teachers, doctors.. even actors.. and sometimes they even say ‘we want to be like you’.

the young boy in the picture is Sanju. His father ran away with another woman. Sanju has two younger sisters. Deepa the middle one has been sent to the village. Manju, two and half, comes to our creche. Sanju’s mom cleans homes and leaves at 6 am returning late in the evening, leaving Sanju is charge of getting little Manju to school.

Sanju is an angry young man who does not know how to handle his feelings. He used to come to project why but was a difficult child to control. He stopped coming and hangs around in the street in spite of our best effort. In the afternoon he does go to school but that also is not regular. And in the evening he often has to bear the frustration of a tired mother, who often hears complaints about her neglected kids.

This morning I spent time talking to him, wanting to know how I could get him to come back and study. In the course of our little chat, I asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up. After some thought he mumbled ‘mend chains‘. I was perplexed and asked him to explain. He did: Sanju wants to become a zip-repair man (there is one who roams giri nagar repairing people’s broken zips)!

I was filled with immense sadness faced with this child and his tiny dream, his one life ambition. I just sat long after he left lost in my own thoughts. How could the life of a man who wandered through streets holding a few zips and lugging a shoulder bag become the ideal of a smiling boy. At an age where one can dare dream of the impossible, what makes a child stop at something so insignificant.. how suffocating and sad must his life be… what did he see in this man who goes around shouting in the street hoping for someone to call him so that he could earn a few rupees… was it escape from the life of a surrogate parent when one wants to jump and play with others, or from the embarassment of having a little sister clinging to you..

Sanju has to be given back his childhood and te right to dream big, but how?

that is the question.

a country without women…


I did not get to see matrubhoomi, young Manish Jha’s much acclaimed film…

I left for chennai the week of its release and thought I would see it on my return.

matrubhhomi did not run for a second week in India’s capital city. it got good reviews and was awarded in cities such as Venice, Kozlin, Thessaloniki and Florence, but it was wished away in our own delhi… though it ran for a second week in chennai

wonder why…

is it just too close to reality… everyday infant girls are done away with, women raped even pregnant ones, striking gender imbalance figures are published by disturbing NGO’s..

this is just one side of reality.

there is a subtler side, one we do not see unless we look. we are faced with this alarming reality with obsessive regularity in our day-to-day work at projectwhy.

little girls are not given the same food as their brothers, they are never taken to the doctor at the right time, their vaccination schedule is not followed. it does not end there. at every occasion possible they are reminded that they are girls and this a burden to their families and by extension to society itself.

their school fees are not paid in time, school books not bought and their desire to study twharted and even sneered at by their male peers. and it goes on endlessly… without respite the same way as the endless abuse in Kalki’s body in matrubhoomi… as they are married at an age when they should still be playing with dolls and become mother as a time when their bodies have still not finished growing

Jha’s film should be viewed as being in a much larger context: girls have to be protected and cared for, nature has to be left alone and not tampered with..

i sometimes wonder at the need of education in its present avatar and I mean education for every child be it rich or poor. multiplication tables and spelling of never comprehended words, or rote learning of civic rights and historical dates with the sole purpose of getting as close as possible to the imposible 100 mark is not going to bring about the changes we need to usher.

maybe our policy framers should think of reviewing the course content rather than splitting hair over trivia. children should be made aware of their role in society, their duty as citizens to bring about change, they should me aware of the problems lurking at every corner and been shown the way to address them.

it is not impossible neither is it difficult; it just necessitates the will to do so.. just as we should not as a city have turned away from going and seeing matrubhoomi!

Note: According to the latest government data on births, the number of females per males at birth in Punjab was 775 to 1,000

he sang with all his heart.. and waited


the little fellow in red singing his heart out is Aman a little gypsy child.
last wednesday, his mom made him wear his smartest clothes, scrubbed squeaky clean in spite of the paucity of water in the camp where they live and sent him to project why.

in days gone by, i succumbed to the fashionable funding option of sponsorships even though every fibre of mine was telling me not to. but at that time the sources were few and the need urgent. the deal of course was that there would be no special goodies or add ons, but just the basic requirement for the child to be in project why. we carefully divided the cost of each section by the number of children and came up with a figure and got some funding that way. since we have ben able to try and get our message across and do not go for sponsorphips of individual kids anymore.

I have often wondered what is it that makes this so popular and once again one is compelled to conclude that it is a matter of giving in to the donor’s conscience. has anyone ever stopped to think how the kid who has a sponsor and smart thinks is treated by his peers, how he is marginalised and considered an outsider. have we not all felt this way in our childhood days?

Then how do we explain to one parent why the other parent’s child has been sponsored. and when you view a set of pictures what makes you select one rather than the other? the cutest one? the saddest looking one? Even in our group adoptions we have always found that it is the smaller section that gets the most support. Sometimes the special kids, as it is fashionable, never the secondary kids though for them it is the last chance to catch the train to a better future..

well to come back to my little fellow, he was one of the chosen one and last week after umpteen mails and calls the person was to come and meet him. we of course told all parents that we would have a visitor so that every child came looking his best.

So it was a bunch of really smart kids that set out that wednesay morning waiting for the guest to come… he never did.

I guess aman and the others never realised that they were kept that little bit longer, as project why is a fun place to be in. For them it was just another day…

and I just once again remebered the fox and his quiet message:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

may i never lose that ability…

return of the prodigal…


just got back from chennai and will write about my visit soon …
but today i want to share the joy I felt returning..home!

yes this little planet as i like to call it, has become ‘home’ as isn’t home the place you feel wanted, loved, cared for… was it the little children who ran to me screaming maa’m, or the more subdued ‘morning maa’m’ of the older ones.. was it the relief written large on the faces of some of my colleagues.. or the happy face of TunTun the scooter driver as he drove me to work..

maybe it was all of that ..

or was it the incredible joy and positive energy that dwell in every nook and corner of this little project and was so visible in the faces of the special kids as they greeted me this morning…

yes i was home…

chennai calling

with fisherwomen

when the tsunami – a word none of us knew post 26/12 – waves hit the shores of India on a fateful sunday morning, I did not know that it would create ripples in a little planet tucked away in a small delhi slum.

we set about collecting money for a boat, and we managed to do so in record time. today a beautiful little fishing boat proudly bears the name ‘project why’ as it bobs on the East Coast of India bringing new hope to little children and their families.

in project why classrooms, a picture the little brightly coloured boat is displayed on the walls with great pride, creating new yet invisible bonds.

now as we all know the tsunami relief operation did go a bit out of hand as the world found its lost conscience and wanted to put it to use in a hurry. we managed to convince some donors to set aside a little money for the children of a fishing village and my visit to chennai was to try and see what could be done to erase some of the terrible memories that little minds still carry, and that are often not understood by elders.

A drive along the East Coast Road brought to light many realities that we are unaware of. Several villages have been affected and the fisherman now live in ‘camps’ some of which look unreal, I was horrified by one where dwelling units were made of hessian cloth dipped in black tar, and looked like a vision of hell, others looked a little more welcoming and they used natural thatch. DV Sridharan my guide for the visit, pointed out something I would have missed: carefully worded panels that almost ‘invited’ you to visit these camps. I was appaled by the lack of sensitivity that made a human tragedy into a new form of tourism..

More disturing however was the fact that today many villagers have made releif their main ‘economic’ activity, with fishing taking second place… here again we are made aware of the thin and invisible line that lies between helping and handicapping. When fishermen stop fishing something has gone terribly wrong… whe people start concealing reality in the hope of getting more, the purpose of aid gets defeated… this is something we have also faced time and again, and to my mind herein lies the litmus test of any development work: the ability to know when to stop!

Alas this is easier said than done as the problem does not lie only with the recepient but also with the donor who rides on the high of becoming a temporary god or at least saint of the day!

Then what does one do, become a follower of Diogenes and sink into cynicism, or does one carry on with the hope of being able to stop when the need arises.

That is the question.

Dear Nida….


Dear Nida,

Thank you for your lovely mail and of course you can call me Anu!

I chose to answer your mail in this weblog, because much of what I would like to write to you, is what I would like to say to the young women of a land I love with deep passion. I must confess that sometimes I feel very defeated when I see the youth of today, and wonder where, we as parents have gone wrong.

To read that I have inspired you is not only humbling but a vindication of my deep seeded belief that everyone has a heart, maybe we just have forgotten the way to it. I am sure that everyone of you has the potential to make a difference, we just have not been able to show you how!

I do not what what motivated you to spend precious holiday time in the dusty and hot lanes of a slum rather; I do not even know what you were looking for.. I just hope you found it, and I do not think I am wrong, in the eyes of Aditya.

I can also see that you are a woman of substance as you were able to catch the essence of my approach. Yes, Nida deep concern without pity. Pity is a word far too often associated with, what in page 3 terms, would be ‘social work’. Yet it is the one thing that ruins it all.

I think we should all feel some reponsibility towards what we think is wrong, and I do not think that anyone would argue with the fact that little Aditya sleeping hungry is wrong or that young Arun having his operation money diverted to pay for funeral rites is wrong, or that a child’ s school fees going to pay the father’s evening tipple is wrong, or that .. and the list is endless..

The time you spent with us at project why must have shown you how little it takes to set things right. And yet it is so difficult to get even the tiniest bit of support.

I hope you will take this message to your friends and help people find the way to their hearts. And I hope that you will continue to be the woman you are, that you will always find the strength in you to do what you think is right, even if all others think differently.

We will miss you… particularly Aditya….

Note: Nida was a volunteer who worked with us during the summer.

a rupee a day makes the world smaller


I am an Indian expat – living in San Diego, California now. I was born & raised in Delhi, and, like so many others, had become immune to sights and sounds of abject poverty surrounding me everyday. I came across your project while doing some random net surfing during my lunch hour at my work place here, and was touched by the plight of the children. I think you & your team are doing a terrific job, and I wish you every success. I cannot even begin to imagine the kind of hurdles you face in your day to day operations, & I just want to commend you & the rest of your team on your spunk and spirit.

I do not know Betsy… I do not know if we will ever meet… maybe we walked on the same street as she grew up in Delhi, two unknown strangers that nothing could or should link.. she went to fulfill her destiny thousands of miles away and I stayed on to fulfill mine… and we should have remained strangers but for project why..

When I wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to catch up with the ever increasing load of work, and switch on my computer, I am often greeted with a message like this one.. and the grey clouds lift to let rays of hope in.. and I am strenghthen in my belief that I chose the right road, even if it is the less travelled one..

I have often been criticised and even sneered at for insisting on my decision to fund project why with the now almost proverbial ‘one rupee a day’! But it is that very ‘one rupee’ that brings to project why the love and good will of so many people dispersed the world over, of people I would have never come across and creates invisble bonds that are priceless..

a rupee a day does make the world smaller!

salt, sugar and a proud mom’s love….


If you look at the picture you will see a little tear that is about to fall… why is aditya crying as he clutches his pink bag?

Some of you may remeber a post in the June archives of this very blog entitled ‘the other WHY’, and the same little aditya asking questions no one would answer..

why did my father die ?
why is everyone so nasty to my mother?
why did no one give me medicine when my face was hurting so much?
why do i hear my mama weep at night?

the questions will remain unanswered.. and many more will appear… as life will continue its often cruel course…

Aditya, who never misses a day at project why had not been coming for the past few days.. This morning we sent Urmila, his favourite teacher, to find out what had happened and my blood ran cold when she came back: Aditya was alone at home, and Neha his mother and his grandmother were out.. a kind neighbour told a stunned Urmila that for the past three days the little proud trio had not eaten anything. The gaz cylinder was over.. and as Urmila perused the tiny kitchen she realised that all the diminutive containers were empty, barring one which had a few grains of lentils…

The neighbour went on to reveal that this proud family never asked for help, and often went to sleep after drinking water to calm the hunger pangs… a message was left asking Neha to come by and Urmila returned and shared what she had seen and heard…

We set up our little support network and decided to fill up the empty boxes and the cylinder so that the little family would not sleep hungry tonight and then we would work out something..

Later Neha came clutching little Aditya and we heard that this proud mother, widowed at an age when one is still a child, had calmed little Aditya’s hunger with water laced with some sugar and salt and dollops of mother’s love…

But there is a god for the lesser ones and he does send angels in different garbs and Aditya’s angel was a kind lady who had come to visit project why and who decided to sponsor these little bravehearts till Neha finished her course and could stand on her own feet…

Little Aditya sat on his mom’s lap listening to everything and I knew that his little soul knew that an angel had flown by…