five – oh – oh

This is the 500th post of the project why blog. By curiosity I went back to blog number one and read it. What a long way one has come since that day when with faltering fingers I wrote the first blog and entered uncharted courses not knowing where they would lead me.

Yes it has been a long journey and a thrilling one at that. From the almost childlike account of day one with its spelling mistakes (had not discovered the spellcheck I guess) to the sometimes acerbic posts one has truly travelled; from moments of pure unadulterated joy to those of extreme sadness, this blog has been a true reflection of a personal journey.

So just like on day, the best subject for this milestone blog would be to just talk about today..

After the thrill of success (results of the Board exams) the morning was spent planning a befitting celebration. many ideas were mooted and finally it was decided to take the successful kids to a movie! A friend dropped by and was introduced to our two brand new teachers: Azad and PK both of whom had just cleared their XIIth. While Azad went off after a brief hell, PK stayed to discuss the idea of a play on environment. The friend asked him about his interests and soon his life story came tumbling leaving us all stunned.

PK is the eldest of 4 siblings, all boys. One of his brother is practically blind after a cerebral accident and another severely epileptic. His father, a tailor, lost his job and works from home. Since he was in class VI, PK has worked to finance his studies. He told us about how he was employed in a factory where geysers were made and how he had got electrocuted while testing a geyser. He then took on odd jobs and slowly stared learning tailoring from his dad and helping him with orders at night. He went on to share his dream of further studies that he was determined to finance himself. As he spoke in his quiet and yet assertive voice, my heart went out to him as to me he epitomised the dreams of so many children of India, the difference being that he had had the courage to fulfill them while others just let the slip away. I made a mental note of seeing how we could help sponsor his further education.

The rest of the day passed without much ado. In the evening I went to the Gauri Shankar temple in Chandni Chowk. As we were about to leave, we saw a huge commotion with some TV crew and host of cycle rickshaws. We were told that the crew was interviewing cycle rickshaw owners as these were soon to be banned with the coming of battery operate buses! I looked as the bedraggled men, some old, some young with their defeated expressions and wondered why once again the poor were being sacrificed. How many hoes would go hungry and how many dreams would be shattered. First it was street food, now cycle rickshaws. There has to be a better way of modernising and cleaning the city. Cycle rickshaws are environment friendly and one can find a way of having them ply in an organised manner, just has one has to have a way of providing clean street food. And what about the garbage, the plastic, the potholes, and the multitude of things that scar our city and never seem to be dealt with. Why is it always the poor voiceless person that is made the victim. Questions that need answers but who will bell the cat.

Yes it was just another day at project why. Wonder where we all will be at 1000th blog!

a few of my favourite things

Last week a TV crew came to project why. They spent two days capturing the shots they wanted and driving us literally up the wall. When it was over, the producer handed me a form tat he said needed to be filled. It began like all data sheets with queries about name, dob etc.. but then were a host of questions asking for one’s favourite things.

At age 55+ it seems a little inane to have to answer favourite actor, food, actress, movie colour, dress and God knows what else, so I simply followed the lead of my excited young colleagues. True there was a time when I did have a list of favourite things, but stilettos gave way to floaters as style was sacrifices at the alter of comfort! However one question caught my eye: what is your favourite book?

This one was for me, my true turf, as books had been my friends, solace, companions and mentors right from my early days. At first glance, it seemed an easy question as was I not the ones who lived and breathed books. I still remember how deeply moved I had been by Francois Truffaut’s stunning film Fahrenheit 451 where the possibility of a world without books entered by adolescent mind.

So the question what is your favourite book was one I had to answer myself. easier said than done as I sat pencil in hand trying to recall the innumerable number of books that I had read over the years and finding the one that could truly deserve the attribute of favourite!

My mind rapidly scanned the books I had always professed liking, but each somehow fell short of something. They seemed more to have been in tune with a particular moment of my existence but paled beyond that reality. What I sought was the book that had withstood the vagaries of a lifetime; the one that gave the same intense pleasure each time one opened it; the one that always had the ability to answer the query of the moment no matter what it could be; the one that could soothe frayed nerves and make you believe that life was worth living even in your darkest hour; the one that had never left your bookshelf!

My mind travelled back and forth as many titles came to mind, but only one could answer all the aforesaid questions as well as those not yet formulated as yes there was such a book in my life: The Little Prince by Antoine de St Exupery, a book that had entered my life when I was twelve and that still sits comfortably on my bookshelf.

To many and by the looks of it, The little Prince is a children’s book, and I must confess that when I first read it, it did not quite compete with the adventure books that were hot favourites of mine. But I found myself attracted to it in an almost intuitive way and as years passed I often picked up and read bits of it at times when I was confused, sad or lonely.

The Little Prince is a mesmerising book as it seems to address to each one of us and any given time in our lives. It is a quaint philosophical fable written way back in the 1940’s but one that retains its freshness as we meet its diverse protagonists: the businessman counting useless stars, or tippler who drinks because he is ashamed of his drinking.

And as you get lost in this world you realise the futility of many things your held as important and the importance of those you overlooked. You are gently taught of the danger of losing your ability to question what you cannot comprehend or what you find absurd. And gently you are led to the one secret that holds true in life and extols you to learn to look with you heart.

In hindsight I now see how deeply this tiny book has helped me and guided me in life and deserves to be my favourite book!

happy b’day girl

When she came to us a few months back we did not know whether she would make it. her tiny and frail body, her almost cerulean hue, her huge sparkling eyes made a quaint and disturbing picture.

Her near brush with death made scared us no end, but soon miracles occurred as she had her much needed surgery. And suddenly her zest for life took over as she rushed to make up for lost months: a new tooth, a bigger smile, a few ounces here and there and new antics each time she came by.

This morning she arrived again clutching a box of sweet. It was her first birthday, one she almost missed!

happy b’day girl!

.. better than all the rest

You’ re simply the best we sang with as much energy as Tina Turner as the 12 girls of our class XII batch cleared their Boards with panache. Yes this year the project why class XII was an all girls batch. A matter of pride for us but also a true reflection of an existing social reality. parents spend more on boys and hence most are given private tuition. The girls are just sent to project why!

Today we can see the next line of the song – better than all the rest – as the X Boards results are out and once again our 11 boys and 11 girls have passed too!

I have now words to express what I feel though this day as dawned 7 times for us. Yet each time I feel as overwhelmed and somehow a tad sad as there are many children who have the ability but lack the tiny little bit of help they need.

I just wish we could do more…

the length of a lifetime

The story of little M should send chills down every self respecting human being’s spine. The question remains: Does it? Or have we become so inured to crime against children, particularly small children, that we turn our hearts away.

Can any society that calls itself civilised allow such incidents to happen, let alone happen with license, particularly when the child in question is poor. And if they do happen can one allow the perpetrators to roam scot-free as we lose ourselves in legal imbroglios.

M or the Nithari children or even the Ghaziabad girls were one may say exceptions, but child abuse if often much more insidious. There has been lot of talk of child abuse in recent days. A recent study shows some chilling facts as to the extent of this crime that seems to be mostly perpetrated within the supposedly safe boundaries of the home.

Child abuse is by far the most heinous crime and one of the reasons why it is practised with impunity is because in most cases no one is ready to believe the child who has the courage to break the tacit code of silence. Instead of sharing the pain and alleviating it, adults are quick to rap the child on the knuckles and push her or him back to realm of the very silence she or he dared break, and thus to the hell of more abuse.

The reason for the post is two fold. One stems out of a recent incident at project why when a child shared a personal experience. The experience was difficult to word and as always with children it came out in a garbled whisper. Thankfully the teacher she shared it was sensitive and understanding and decided to come to me for advise. We soon learnt of the abuse this child had been subjected to and were glad she had broken the deafening silence she had lived in all those years. The first step towards healing had been taken.

But, and that is the second reason for this post, this is rarely the case as children rarely find a sympathetic ear when they decide to come out with the truth. A ten year old had been subjected to inappropriate fondling by someone she held in trust. The child had the courage to inform her mother hoping that at least she would believe her and act. But in spite of education and well worldliness the mother adopted the cowardly middle path and though the child was never abused again she had to live with her perpetrator for many long years.

That is the problem with child abuse as it is mostly committed by someone within the family, and often someone with authority. Breaking the silence means destroying the social balance and shattering the comfortable life one leads. It means taking sides and standing up for the child against all. It means risking to lose everything one has and somehow society has rarely stood for the victim. The hesitant and hurting child is often silenced or at best provided some half-baked protection and made to continue living under the same roof as the abuser.

Something is terribly wrong: a little child who has been abused and hurt has to pick rags for a living when what she needs is healing and love, another child is made to live long years within the same walls as her abuser because the social balance cannot be disturbed.

And even when perpetrators are caught then justice is elusive. Who knows where the Ghaziabad girls are or whether the Nithari children will really get justice, or whether little M’s abuser will pay for his heinous crime. And these are just the few cases that got reported but every day there are children who are being abused and who need to be heard.

It is for us as a society to take up the cudgels and fight this crime. What is terrible is that it is often the victim and her family who are ostracized by the very society they live in. C is 14 year old and she is a student of project why. Just like M she was raped by a neighbour at the age of 4 and suffered severe injuries that needed corrective surgery. Her abuser did some time in jail and is now free but young C still bears the stigma of that rape and is shunned by all.

Yes something is terribly wrong and we cannot look away because in the words of Herbert Ward child abuse casts a shadow the length of a life time

You’re simply the best

Once again our kids have done us proud. All 12 project why students have cleared their class XII Boards and some with distinction. What makes this bunch different to all others is that many come from poor homes and have studied against many odds. Some were even considered failures when they first came to us and in some cases we had to convince parents to allow the kids to continue their studies.

But today all is forgotten, and a palpable feeling of joy filled the classroom as the results were declared. The credit goes to Naresh our senior secondary teacher whose dedication and unwavering faith in his students motivated them to give their very best.

It is time to celebrate

ultimately it is all worth it..

When Deepak walked into the office this morning we all held our breath and stared in wonder. Was this the same child who just about a year back could barely breathe and seemed in constant pain. Was this the baby who had suffered a code blue, something we see on TV serials but never in our lives.

It has been a long run for Deepak, but one that was worth it, and one that makes us once again believe that miracles happen every day. It is just that sometimes we fail to see them.

a unique summer camp

When my children were young, summer holidays always spelt disaster as one would be plagues with a leit motiv of I’m getting bored or What do I do now. One would try and plan things but they never quite met the standards of demanding kids. Those were the days before Internet or even video games. One just had the good old VCR and films borrowed at the local library as life saviours.

Today things have changed. Parents have more money and new summer options are being marketed. I recently saw an ad for summer holidays for children within India and in faraway lands were the tag could be as high as 1 lac of rupees, notwithstanding the plethora of summer camps in the city. Even in the area we work in, many of the private teaching shops offer courses in painting, dancing and more of the same making them an option for harried parents.

For those who cannot afford it, it is the street that plays the role of a summer camp, where children play in spite of the heat and spend time as best they can. This is one of the reasons project why never closes but then we can only reach that many kids.

One kid decided to create her own summer camp. What began spontaneously has now become a serious affair. Every morning Kiran is ready at 8.30 and comes to us to project why. Gone are the days when she tagged along and followed us with the proverbial bored expression. She now goes straight into the special section and is there to welcome the kids as they come. Then after morning exercises that she still leads it is time for serious work as per the timetable. Kiran all of six years and some months settles with her little group – group A – and asks for the day’s copy books. She is soon busy giving out work and checking it as it is completed. She knows the ability of each child and doles out the work accordingly: If Champa one of our slowest learners gets simple letters written large, Pooja has now graduated to three letters word, and Anurag is still learning to write his name though she shared proudly with we today that he can write Anu and now she plans to attack Rag.

I watched her today as she sat on a chair – a concession to her size – and interacted with her class that ranges from age 8 to age 30 and thought to myself how perfectly tuned everyone seemed to be. Here was a group that had nothing in common – neither age, nor caste, nor creed – ; each one had a disability that branded them an oddity in the wider world yet under the strict yet loving care of a little six year old they sat and learnt in total harmony.

There were so many lessons to be learnt if one cared to look wth one’s heart.

Chapeau bas to this young child who had created her very own unique summer camp.

let us get started…

I normally am rarely at home during the course of the day and thus am not aware of he comings and goings that dot a normal working day seen from the inside of a home. Yesterday I remained indoors on doctor’s advise and spent most the time in my tiny office which is next to the main entrance of the house and thus closest to the gate.

My hope of getting some serious work done was soon shattered by the door bell that rang at disturbing intervals. Bar the ironing man and the gardener all other interruptions came from a new persona: the courier man.

Soon a little pile of envelopes of all shades and hue littered my usually pristine desk. There were a few bills, a few invitations but the majority of the pile was made of diverse promos and publicity material. Though we are only three in the house, my husband is a member of two prestigious clubs and thus on several mailing lists. From sarees to silverware, from furniture to food, from electronic goods to art exhibitions everyone seemed to consider us a valued customer. And each envelope was glossier than the other and in sizes that would never fit the slit of a mailbox. And if that was not enough, most of the envelopes were packed in high quality transparent plastic lest they get soiled!

Like in most homes, the carefully wrapped messages would soon find their way in the waste, and in city like ours where waste segregation is still an unheard concept, the carefully worded suggestions to valued people who simply add to the burden of a collapsing planet.

Everyone is talking of global warming and the need to act. And one of the simple ways of doing so is my protecting trees and saving paper. Is not time for us as concerned citizens to raise our voices against this flood of publicity that now targets our very homes? I know that many will talk about the numerous jobs that this industry gives and supports. But is it not time to alter perceptions and reinvent things in a more environment friendly way?

In the times of the Internet and the electronic media, there have to be ways of halting the proliferation of publicity material that is suffocating the planet. And if one insists on printed material then one should use only recycled paper. I have often written about my concern on the proliferation of pouches that have hit urban slums and litter the roads and clog drains. Companies who market these are rich enough to invest into developing environment friendly packaging were it made mandatory. But in the game of money making who will bell the cat. And the cat is often within our home and goes by the name of comfort and convenience. It is so much easier to get a plastic bag from the shopkeeper than to carry a cloth one; it is easier to sump all garbage in a plastic bag than to segregate it.

Added to comfort and convenience is another culprit that goes by the name of convention. When we began our work almost 10 years ago and looked around we found that all organisations had beautiful brochures and pamphlets. In our earlier days we did the same but thankfully because of paucity of funds and the ever changing nature of our work we had to put a stop and look for alternatives. Those were the early days of the net and we jumped the bandwagon and created our website that we managed in-house. The rest is history and today even the printer has stopped making his customary sale calls. And today when people ask us for litterature about the project we refer them to the site and the blog and if needed print out one set of the required information.

Be it plastic, paper or water laws alone can never suffice. One has to change mindsets and alter our ways of thinking and be prepared to be called marginal or wacko. When my daughter got married we did not print wedding cards. Barring one person everyone did turn up.

It is time each one of us starts giving up old ways and find new ones. It is not an easy task but it is the only one that will help our children have a future.

end of a lifeline

Bye bye hot samosas was the the blog I had written some time back when one first heard of the probable banning of all street food in our city. Yesterday the Supreme Court decreed and imposed a ban on all street food.

We often fail to see things unless we have a real reason to. For as long as I remember I have driven past roads in Delhi not quite looking at street food. Lately I have found myself actually doing so and have been amazed by the abundance of what is soon going to disappear: From small road stalls to carts, from samosas to meals via fruits and zingy snacks, the street food culture permeates the very soul of this city! And true to its globalisation efforts we now have Chinese food and burger stalls too! Frankly I cannot begin to imagine the streets without these. It is true that if we look closely at some of these stalls we are compelled to frown at the hygiene standards or the safety norms; however life without them seems a tad sad.

That was nostalgia but the problem does not end there. In my pre project why days street food was that forbidden treat we sought once in a while, but many of us do not realise that for millions in the city it is a lifeline!

At 5 or 10 rupees a plate it is a hot meal for those who do not have families or time to get up and cook. To others it is the sole way of having some fruits or a sweet treat. And to thousands of families it is the much needed income that brings a meal at the end of the day.

It was heartwarming to see that a leading TV channel had launched a campaign to save Delhi’s street food on the lines of earlier campaigns to get justice. And the pictures that were aired were those of humble people who candidly defended their right to a meal.

That Delhi is bursting at its seams because of the daily influx of migrants is a reality that no one can overlook, but can one deny the fact that this has happened with the tacit approval of those in power. Swelling vote banks, new causes to defend were all part of a hubristic game and no one saw the writing on the wall.

As numbers grew so did the support network: food stalls, street barbers, cobblers, cycle repair shops et al. And greed broke all bounds: the greed of the politicians who wanted more voters, the greed of the administration who saw more sources of dubious income, the greed of the people who found new shortcuts to earning. Till the day when someone saw red and petitioned the courts.

I cannot but begin to imagine how the new law will be brought into force keeping in mind the host of people that it will affect: livelihood of some, sustenance of the other and above all extra income of yet another. The scenario is quite frightening as no real option seems to have been put in place. The ban on street food will swell the ranks of the unemployed and increase lawlessness. Or will it be a cat and mouse game that will benefit the greedy law enforcers as the fact that street food is available in the remotest recesses of the city makes it easy to move into a grey mode.

All this is yet to be seen, the large issue remains that once again it is the poor that is hit. We will still find ways to fulfill our nostalgic urges as in all likelihood, traditional street food will find new moorings. What will disappear is the hot lunch option that sustains a multitude of people who toil hard in this city and make it a better place for us.