The debate continues…

The supreme court order staying the OBC reservation issue has leashed out a series of reactions across the land. This time I kept my pend in check waiting before adding my two penny bit.

Last summer was one of discontent as many young students took to the streets to protest: each each side having its protagonists. Students sat on hunger strike, gandhigiri made the journey from screen to street. No one really heard as the powers that be huddled together and got what they wanted or so they thought.

Institutional heads were roped in and some wishy-washy formula was evolved. Quietly petitions were filed in the highest court but the hubris was such that it would even take on the Gods!

Then came the supreme court stay order, a rude wake up call that sent everyone into a flurry. bandhs were called, protests abounded a new cause was found to defend setting the dreaded caste and social divide into motion. Passionate debates were aired on TV and strangely every voice of reason was shouted down by those with extreme positions.

As if no one wanted to find a solution. A retired Professor echoed my thoughts as I tried desperately but in vain to highlight the sad reality about the abysmal state of primary schools. His effort to steer the debate in that direction was countered by a venomous retort branding him as an enemy, validating the point that I have often made about the conscious effort of the powers that be to ensure that a large segment of the population remain illiterate and hence a vote bank easily manipulated.

As the debate carried on one realised that no one was actually interested in the plight of the little Ramus and Jyotis who may have been born in the right caste but who will remain illiterate and whose only hope will be little efforts like project why that ensure that they do not drop out of the gaping holes of the education net.

Last week I went to the Greater Kailash outlet of Cafe Coffee Day. To my utmost surprise a beaming young man in his smart red uniform came to my table and said: Ma’am don’t you recognise me, I am Shiv and was a student at project why! I was taken aback as I remembered him 5 years ago still a shy adolescent who barely spoke.

I must say he was not standing at the portals of an IIT or IIM, but somehow he had stepped on the other side of the fence on his own merit, without reservation with just a little help because someone had believed in him.

The reservation issue will never die as no one will allow it to. It is to good a cause for politicians and for what is now known as the creamy layer. For those who barely survive nothing will change; no one wants it to.

planet why – sustainability factor

Seven years ago we set out to create a model whereby underprivileged and illiterate or semi-literate parents could be empowered to steer the educational needs of their children with local resources.

The model proved doable as in the last 7 years drop out rates were contained and children passed their examinations with success. We used local talent and proved that teaching could be done anywhere and did not require structures. The only factor that remains to be proved is that of having the staff initiate funding modalities and this necessitates a phased withdrawal on our part. That is where we stand now and will soon have a model to share.

Were that to happen, then phase I of pwhy would come to a logical closure compelling us to move on to phase II. Whereas a set of precise goals steered phase I, it would be unwise to think that they same can apply to phase II.

Many factors have to be taken into consideration to launch phase II: some are beyond our control as the new habitat and town planning realities, some emanate from our past experience and some are guided by our desire to see pwhy live beyond individuals.

The idea to seed planet why in a rural outskirt answers the first concern, the need of a residential facility, albeit a tiny one, stems out of the handful of persons that have come into our lives and the resolve to address the sustainability option form day one of phase II is the logical outcome of the precarious and fragile nature of our funding ways which have been resting on individual skills and individual state of minds.

So whereas we could begin working with the children and the community of Goyla immediately and without much requirements, we have chosen not to and instead find a way to ensure a permanent source of funds from day one.

The cusco model was one we found eminently doable in the present scenario as there is a paucity of pleasant guest house facilities in Delhi and the ever increasing desire of tourists to pair voluntary work with sight seeing to get a real feel of the country makes us believe that our concept can work not only in Goyla, but elsewhere to making this model a replicable one too!

So it seems to be a win-win situation. However it will need all our friends and well wishers to once again open their hearts and help us get going!

Ever since we have started sharing this exciting idea, we have been overwhelmed by the positive response we have got. A friend from China says it all in these words:

When I read about the guest house and the new location near the airport, I just think it’s wonderful. Imagine if we can draw transit passengers from over the world to drop by the planet.. And the thought of children showing how proud they are to be of service and showcasing the planet and India, the jubilation’s beyond description

We second that!

planet why – hope and believe

When a package enclosing two healing stones marked ‘hope’ and ‘believe’ landed on my table after travelling an incredible 12 000 km all the way from Ontario, I knew something huge was about to happen in the existence of project why.

The stones were actually meant for Utpal to be in my custody till he graduated from grade and high school, but somehow for the very first time I did not feel guilty when I unabashedly asked my friend North whether i could keep them. Needless to say she agreed.

I must confess that at that time I was confused and worried about the future of project why as one was faced with the indubitable reality of a metro line looming large and heralding the relocation of the slums we work in, and the bleak future of the handful of children of a lesser God whose only hope lay in our hands.

I usually do not sink into despair but I was close to that as one also knew that some supporters were also tiring of the comfort zone we seemed to be sinking into. The sight of those two stones somehow lifted me to a new high and I found myself planning the impossible: planet why. Nothing seemed to large, or to big. It just seemed to be the obvious way to go.

In just under a week a plan had been formulated and friends sounded and the response was amazing. As I write these words a piece of land has been identified and the initial budget is being worked on and I know that planet why is on the way to becoming a reality.

It will be known as planet why – hope and believe!

seeding planet why

Many things have been happening at pwhy and some of them point towards the indubitable yet maybe invisible reality that Chapter I of pwhy is slowly coming to a close. Most of the slums we work will eventually be relocated as metro lines extend and the dream of some becomes the doom of the other.

India is all about macro and micro realities and in order to make substantial and meaningful change it becomes imperative to address both sides of the coin. What began 7 years ago as an honest effort to empower underprivileged communities to take charge of the education of their children, has met with a fair amount of success.

A viable model was mooted, and tested successfully as drop out rates were contained 100% and the model steered by local efforts. The only element that did not quite meet the set target was sustainability as till date we could not truly seed the one rupee a day programme.

This has led me to believe that maybe the way to see it seed is to actually withdraw much of the spoon feeding and slowly position ourselves as a consultant/advisory entity. Then it will be a do or die and once again if out of all the various elements that form pwhy one emerges a winner we will be satisfied. A little radical I know but nevertheless necessary.
That is the macro level.

But the past seven years has also brought the micro level into our lives be it children needing surgery, children having no future, single mothers at the fringe of giving up and children and young adults with disabilities facing a bleak future.

For these creatures of a Lesser God we need to find a larger solution particularly has we have witnessed the total lack of social and administrative support which is at best inhuman (orphanages, homes for the challenged etc)

So as we slowly hand over power in the first case, we need to create a viable option for the later. That is what brings us to Chapter II of our journey in the shape of what I would like to call simply Planet Why: a small home in a rural suburb where we we would try to give a new lease of life to these souls. Moreover this home would have three or more activities: a refuge, education and empowerment for the local community and specialised vocational training.

As land cost is prohibitive, we are looking at a long lease option and have short listed two plots.

This brings me to the invariable question that is waiting to be asked: how will planet why sustain itself?

Here is my answer: we want to seed planet why in a village called Goyla, close to the airport and to Dwarka which is already on the metro line. With the imminent completion of several flyover/highway projects the place is ideal to create a guest house like the ninos hotel set up in cusco Peru entirely run by street children.

We are thinking of having one part of planet why as a guest house with about 6 rooms for those who do not want to transit Delhi but just have a take off point to their holiday destination. Goyla is close to the Jaipur and Agra highways. Many friends have promised us 100% occupancy.

Pwhy has taught me that nothing is impossible and no dream too large if it’s intent is honest and for the good of those no one cares for.

No matter how empowered the present community we work in gets there are always some that still need us on a long term basis: Abhishek and Rahul’s widowed mother who is constantly ill treated by her in-laws and made to live in a room that reminds us of the torture box of the Bridge of the River Kwai as she lives in a tin box on a fifth floor; Utpal’s mother who has to one day come out into the world again, Mansi and Himanshu who saw their mother hang and their father be shot in a vendetta like operation commandeered by their maternal grandparents, Babli who in spite of her open heart surgery seems to be of no interest to her family the father being too old and a gambler and a mother to busy working or seeking greener pastures, and many of our special kids who no one really wants and last but not the least Manu for whom pwhy began.

So we begin a new journey and hope you will once again be there for us..

planet why

Life is a strange and fascinating journey. It is said that when a child is born his brain has the possibility of learning anything he is taught. After that begins a selective process that mirrors the child’s environment and hence appears the choice of language, likes and dislikes and so on. many of the choices we make are either akin to those of our caretakers, others stem from our rebellious nature and are the exact opposite of what we see.

As the journey continues new choices come by and many course corrections too, but some things remain embedded in your mind even though you do not quite know why.

Many years back when I was in high school one of my teachers gave me a present: it was a copy of the Little Prince of St Exupery. At that time it was just a book that touched me but somehow I had the intuitive feeling that it was to be much more.

Life took on many turns but somehow this book never left me and I found myself going back to it at times when I needed answers to seemingly incomprehensible problems. Exactly 4 years ago when a scalded Utpal landed into my life I caught myself thinking of him as the little Prince who landed from nowhere into a lost aviator’s existence.

For the last four years Utpal and I have made a long journey as he led me to places I would have never gone to were it not for him. With him I visited many planets just like the aviator did, some nice some not so nice. From the hell hole of the life of an alkie woman in an urban slum, to the crisp and refreshing air of a quaint boarding school, from the forbidding and cold precincts of a rehab centre to the laughter and hope filled surroundings of an a idyllic sanctuary, via toy shops with the best deals, and sinful fast food joints.

Like the Little Prince of St Exupery, I too encountered rares species: some funny, some sordid and some filled with hope and came across realities that my half a century on this planet had not prepared me for. I was faced with many challenges, some seemingly insurmountable but his little hand always held mine nudging me not to give up. And as I travelled with new eyes on uncharted courses I knew my little man was the bearer of some deep message that went beyond the realm of his life.

Over the years I had often found myself referring to project why as planet why, and then correcting myself as the raggle taggle elements that make project why could not be named a planet. Some Freudian slip or an intuitive glimpse of what still lay ahead. Any one’s guess. Yet hindsight shows that a tiny seed was being planted in one’s mind. Project why in its actual avatar was too fragile and had to take on a new body. The travels with my prince were just pointers towards the task that lay ahead: creating planet why that would come full circle.

And once again an apparently impossible picture seeded in my mind: that of a happy place where those with no hope could seek not only refuge but find meaning, where no one’s children would study just like others, where skills would be taught, where days and would filled with laughter and happiness and childhoods would be reconquered with renewed assurance watched by my smiling little prince.

So help me God!

give me five!

Miracles happen to those who believe them says a quote, but some are a little difficult to imagine let alone believe in. And yet on that long hot drive back from the grim rehab centre to my home about a year back, there was a picture that flashed in my mind as I held on to the little boy who had in one dark night lost his childhood: it was a hazy picture of a day when he would be reunited with his mom and sister in a ‘happy place’. And no matter how dim and remote it would seem at times, I never let it go!

The picture you see is not a figment of my imagination nor a piece of trick photography. It is a kodak moment. This moment happened yesterday when finally all the elements of a complex puzzle fell in place, and even the colors were right; Popples celebrated his 5th birthday with his mom and sister and best pal kiran and even maam’ji, in an idyllic place where ducks and flowers are in abundance and surrounded by a motley group of 60 kids who just like him one day lost all hope but regained it here.

The journey was long and the hurdles many but were all met with courage and dignity. An alkie mother had to be cured, a baby had to learn to live in an alien place, and a young girl had to be rescued from lurking predators all this while battling a host of so called well wishers bent upon opposing your every move. yes the odds were against us and the dice was loaded, the social profile was wrong, the foes many but somehow the happy picture remained engraved in my memory.

Yesterday once again the mr p support group set out for this special event. Armed with games and toys for his new pals and overflowing love we landed at karmmarg to celebrate a real mother and child reunion. There was laughter and song, Durga Utpal’s sister delighted us with a bolywood number, and we all sat in the shade amidst nature at his best and shared a lunch that would surpass any three star gourmet meal.

The day was picture perfect and the old maam’ji so moved that even the photographs turned out misty, but do have a look at them

mother and child reunion

A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them wrote victor Hugo and yesterday after on whole year Utpal must have slept soundly.

It has been a long solitary journey for utpal and his mom, but they are both survivors.

It was also the first time in that the now legendary motley crowd that goes by the name of Utpal’s parents was not there to fetch him. trusted Dharmendra bhaiyya was given the task of picking up utpal and delivering him and the little red bag to the portals of karm marg. Imagine my panic when I received a call telling me that the whole karm marg was away on a field trip and only the ducks, the dogs nd a three staff members were there. My immediate reaction was to ask that Utpal come back to me, but he knew that something special was to happen and once again acted with wisdom beyond his age as he befriended those present and told Dharmendra bhaiyya to leave.

Later a bag was delivered to my home. It contained Utpal’s school clothes, his uniform and winter wear. I just held on to each that little bit longer as I emptied the bag missing his smile and babble.

As I write these words I do not know how the mother and child reunion went. I just foolishly spent the night kicking myself for not having put a sweater his bag.

why ki tazaa khabar

why ki tazaa khabar is a new blog that saw the light of day on March 17th. The idea was mooted by the following words sent by a long time supporter: I find a major problem which is lack of information… my only problem is that I never get any information about that project. how that project is going are kids in that project…did they do any is my contribution being helpful to them…how many teachers are there in the project etc etc.

Being one who has the tendency of easily slipping into comfort zones – i.e. taking for granted what goes on smoothly – this was a wake up call. I understand my friend’s concern as once upon a time I did send out regular individual emails!

But as the project grew and so did everyday challenges, individual updates became rarer as I believed – maybe wrongly – that the blogs and updates on the site were adequate information.
Having decided right from the outset that I would not waste my funders money on heavy administrative structures, and having also chosen to employ only community people who were not savvy enough to write in English, I was left with little choice. I could have sent a mail explaining this but I just sank into a comfort zone.

The wake up call that landed in my inbox jolted me into the need of finding a viable solution that would dovetail into the why spirit and give a day-to-day account of what happens at pwhy.
The way out I hit upon was a blog in roman Hindi in the words of those who were directly involved with running pwhy. So why ki tazaa khabar will be rani and shamika’s blog in their own words and will give all a different view of pwhy.

It is the first time shamirani – the name they chose – are setting out on such a venture and if you feel it is something hat needs to be encouraged please do drop a mail to

from milk vans to call centre cars

I have always been a morning person and a light sleeper. Yet for years I never woke up before 4 or 4.30 am. If I let my memory travel back I realise that often it is was the cling clang of the Delhi Milk Scheme vans that used to wake me up. Sometimes a crow or a bird preceded it by a few minutes.

Lately I have found myself waking up as early as 2 am jolted from my sleep by the sound of a speeding vehicle. We live close to a flyover and in the dead of night every sound does get amplified. True that in yore years too sometimes their were cars whizzing past, maybe on their way to the airport, or Saturday party goers getting back home but it was an occasional sound that did not get passed the deep sleep one was in. It is the everyday sounds that reach that part of your brain like the milk van or the faithful crow.

Irked by this new phenomena that was now translating itself into dark circles under the eyes and an irritable Maam’ji, I decided to try and decipher the source of this new late night occurrence. It did dawn one such night: these were the BPO or call centre staff vehicles crisscrossing our city to meet their unearthly schedules.

A lot has been said about the effects of these new working hours that need to meet different time zones and turn night into day. many young people are paying the price and as is often the case, the once lucrative and upmarket job options is now being shunned by some and is slowly reaching the lower strata of society. Today many of our ex students work in call centres as the job profile is scaled down to meet the ever exceeding demand.

Doc P, our family doctor recounted how on a trip to the US he needed to change a booking and dialled a number answered by a young lad who was desperately trying to communicate in his newly acquired American Hinglish; no matter how many times Doc tried to coax him into speaking in Hindi, the lad held on: needless to say the booking was never changed.

While travelling to pwhy everyday one sees new hoardings for BPO training institutes that guarantee perfect English in 6 weeks or so. I guess they must be lucrative as new ones appear ever so often.

I guess I wil need to invest in a good pair of earplugs!

Sapna’s mom

To me she will always be Sapna’s mom though her name is Bimla and she is also Monty’s mom. She came to us almost 4 years ago carrying Sapna who was 5 but could not even hold her head, let alone stand. She used to drop by sometimes dragging her feet and looking far beyond her twenty something.

Slowly her story unfolded and we were shocked to learn that a still born child has resulted in a prolapsed uterus, the reason for her awkward gait. I first wrote about he almost exactly three years ago as she lay in hospital where she had initially gone to get her uterus removed but landed up in having to get a heart valve replaced. The uterus lay forgotten.. though visible!

Today three years later she again lies in a hospital this time finally free of her agony and shame. her story could have been shared many times as so much happened in the intervening years, but somehow I felt that the moment was not the right as for her closure only came today.

Bimla is 28 though she looks 128. Married to a man that not only does not care for her but is also often jobless, she bore with the resilience of Indian women a fate no one can envy: a retarded first born that was seen as a curse, a second child that was often ill, a mother in law that despised her but on whom she was dependent, nothing looked right for this woman. More was to come as her husband was diagnosed with a congenital heart problem. So the surgery she needed was delayed as she had to replace him as a dishwasher in a small eatery…

In the meantime however Sapna started walking and saying a few words and Monty got better and became a regular at pwhy! Bimla can infuriate even the most tolerant person as she often does not react to things but simply accepts her fate; I guess it is her way of dealing with what she knows she cannot change. I guess she has perfected the art of living one day at a time, and does not or rather cannot allow herself the luxury to look at the future.

Last week she came by and a look at her swollen face and body shook us out of the torpor she had manged to instill in us: we decided to get her hysterectomy done come what may as were anything to happen to her her innocent kids lives would be shattered. Luckily Sabrina and Chris were kind enough to help us.

Needless to say that it was not easy to get her husband to come and sign the consent forms but we managed though once again no one fromm her family stayed with her, it was little Deepak’s grandmother who offered to be there, another pwhy miracle.

For us it was just the question of saving Sapna’s mom, as little Sapna is considered a burden for all and only has her mom on her side.