picture perfect

This is not a painting or a touched up photograph. It is s snapshot of our ‘class in a box’ – a.k.a as our manav kalyan creche – and was taken by a visiting friend.

What makes this class so special is that it is the initiative of two barely literate slum housewives who decided to keep this class going even when we moved out of the area. As it is a little far away from our normal beat we tend to neglect it a bit but both Seema and Sarita run it with extreme efficiency.

Most of the decorations are made with recycled objects (such as toffee wrappers) and the little ones are even taught yoga. Though this may seem common place in ‘our world’, it is remarkable as Seema on her own initiative joined some craft and other courses to gain new skills.

A true story of empowerment and one that vindicates what we stand for.

whose family is it anyway

I have been watching the recent on-goings of the Presidential elections. I have nothing against any candidate but could not but wince when I heard our prime Minister defending the lady candidate’s past with the words “she cannot be held responsible for the wrong-doings of her family” he was of course referring to the collapse of the cooperative bank she founded.

At about the same time Radhey our faithful three wheeler operator received a threatening call from a recovery agent pertaining to an unpaid cell phone bill of his handicapped and maverick son. When he tried to explain that the son in question did not live with him or listen to him and thus was not responsible for his misdemeanours, the irate man simply told him that he had 24 hours to pay up or else they would issue a warrant of arrest against him, as if the son did not pay up the family was liable.

Once again a tale of two Indias.. I presume

changing egosystems..

“Trying to save ecosystems has more to do with changing egosystems.” said Don Rittner

Last week a visitor from Europe shared his dilemma about choosing a new car. His main concern was carbon emissions and thus his choice a small car though he was a person who could afford the biggest on the market.

Yesterday night as we drove back from a late dinner, we were fishtailed by a speeding sports spewing smoke. The driver was obviously showing off his vehicle as he broke every rule in the book.

It is evident from the above that whereas our European friend has a deep concern for the environment, our young home lad has a long way to go. This is a sad reflection on education as and awareness as the young sports car driver was definitely from a good home.

We have been trying at pwhy to sensitize staff and children on environment issues and we even held a staff workshop on global warming, in the hope that they in turn will take on the issue in their respective classes. And the idea bore fruit as yesterday a day-long programme was held in our secondary section with debates and a painting competition.

The day was spent sharing and exchanging information and trying to find out what children living in slums could do as when one browses sites on global warming most of the remedial measures do not apply to kids in slums. Awareness is needed but is in no way sufficient. One has to give children concrete steps that they can follow. This is not an easy task as we are here faced with people who have come to cities to access new and modern amenities and are loathe to give them up.

And herein lies the challenge. The first step is undoubtedly to show them how critical matters have become and how the sheer numbers in India make it vital for us to act. The battle is far from won but it has begun.

bake a cake

When Kiran got admitted in an upmarket pubic school.. it was a dream come true for her family and for all those who love her. Admission woes were soon forgotten as she set of in her sparkling uniform to conquer a new world.

It would be a big challenge to see her through but her brave little family was determined to ensure that this lovely child would get the best, even if it meant a lot of sacrifices and many hurdles.

The first one came sooner than we expected. As summer holidays began and we perused the dreaded holiday homework sheets we stumbled on one that stumped us all. The class I one child was supposed to bake a cake and immortalise the event in a set of pictures that were to be pasted on the sheet.

Now cakes have percolated down to the poorest of homes in slums in the from of b’day cakes bought at the local bakery, or the packaged version available in local grocery stores but baking a cake is still an uncharted territory. Kiran’s home does not have an oven and anyway her family’s culinary expertise does not extend to baking.

On the other hand not doing the homework would entail consequences none of us would want. Hence the cake was baked in my home and the task fulfilled leaving us to wonder when and in what form would the next hurdle appear in what now seemed to be a surprise obstacle race.

This post could read as a fun one, but if one stopped and took time to think, the incident highlights once again the invisible, unmentionable and yet ever present divide that exists in our country.

I remember times when some part of the homework of my girls could not be completed for some reason or the other and how one confidently circumvented the issue with the teachers. It was easily done as both protagonists belonged to the same side of the fence. However in Kiran’s case, saying that she did not have an oven at home would be almost akin to branding her with her red hot iron.

I am sure that teacher who drafted the homework included this item as a fun project and for as long as different kinds of schools exist in our land such things will occur. It is only when we look at all the children of India in the same manner that we will be able to resolve the issue…

depend on them…

Don’t believe in miracles – depend on them said Laurence J Peter and that is what we have been doing for seven years now. If you need to know whether miracles exist or not,just read on.

Manu who you see in the picture used to roam the streets dishevelled, uncared for and sneered by all. Today he sits with a huge smile holding the weaving frame for his pal Shalini who is learning to make rag rugs. Manu has a peer group and even friends. He laughs and gets angry just like all of us and is slowly learning to live.

Nicola is back home with a brand new hip and a huge smile. In spite of everything being against her, she never lost hope and today she is set to make up for lost time by healing others.

Utpal’s journey from a boiling pan to a boarding school is nothing short of a miracle and as he spends his last summer holiday moments with his mom , he knows that they both have beaten all odds.

In a few weeks Mehajabi will join the rank of the 11 other kids who now have a brand new heart.

Bu these are not the only miracles that came our way. There are more. All the kids who passed their examinations with obsessive regularity; the handful of special bacchas who spend a few hours a day laughing, dancing and above all learning; young Rinky locked in her silent world who now has a job in a beauty parlour; Farzana who had failed twice and whose parents were almost at the brink of stopping her studies and who is now a class XII graduate; our motley bunch of ‘teachers’ who proved everyone wrong by doing a great job.

However all this could not have happened without the miracle of the incredible web of friends from all over the world and all walks of life who stood by, believed in us and reached out without fail each time we needed them.

Yes, project why is an endless string of miracles big and small that have dotted our lives for the past seven years and we do depend on them.

a different QOTD

The recent plight of HIV+ve children has been making headlines. Denied school, then readmitted, then targeted. As usual once again it is good copy for the media and we have picture of the little souls with their faces blurred but ever so recognisable flashed on the screens with obsessive regularity. And the now trendy QOTDs (read question of the day) pertain to this issue: should HIV+ve kids be denied schools? and more of the same.

This heart wrenching incident brings many matters to the fore. The problem of these children does not seem to stem from the authorities but from parents of other children and their misconceptions and fears. The stigma attached to AIDS is mind boggling as we ourselves have experiences at pwhy. When we initiated awareness classes on AIDS, some parents stopped their children from coming to the centre and accused us of being immoral! People from all walks of life seem to associate HIV to loose morals and obliterate the many other causes.

Campaigns have failed to highlight real issues such as its multiple causes and its transmission. hence all HIV+ve patients are denied basic humane behaviour and sensitivity. I recently visited a patient who had contracted the virus through an ill-fated transfusion and was admitted to a hospital. I was shocked to see that rather than have a small sign or code to indicate her status, a huge placard bearing the words BIO HAZARD was hung on her bedpost reminding one of the yellow stars of the Nazi days. What could have been done discreetly was unfortunately done in the most uncaring way.

To the question should kids be denied school the answer has to sadly be yes as long as the environment is not conducive to their presence; yes as long as their status is branded to one and all; yes as long as they are not accepted wholeheartedly for placing them in the midst of a polemic can be destructive.

The QOTDs on this issue should have been addressed to each one of us as in a simple: would you accept to have an HIV+ve kid in your environment?

Wonder what the answer would be then?

just another day at project why

Friends often gently remind me to talk about project why particularly when tend to digress on larger issues or as was the case lately, wander into deep introspection.

Maybe the mere fact that I can indulge in the above proves that all is well at project why. But still I guess many of you may want to know more.

The picture of Anurag and Umesh says it all as it conveys better than any word I could find how pwhy is. Comfortable, at peace, happy, content, cosy, snug are some of the words that come to mind. The cool rains that broke the unbearable heat spell brought some unexpected and wondrous images like this autistic child and his cerebral palsy pal taking a break and maybe dreaming impossible dreams.

Children are slowly coming back from their summer holidays. Classes are going on as usual but I have been told that a play is also being rehearsed though what it is is a mystery. The new prep class is a joy to watch as little toddlers are now learning to sit at a table and work. The special kids are busy making paper bags and mats, and weaving rag rugs. The bigger classes are often seen playing chess or carom.

Two weeks from now school will reopen and the pressure of studies will once again be felt, but till then everyone is happy taking things easy.

and there is always tomorrow.

Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow. Dorothy Thompson

I have been locked in silence for a few days. A rare occurrence for me as I always seem to err on the other side, always the one to find the word, action, reaction to any situation whatever it may be.

As I pick up my virtual pen to ultimately break this muteness I find myself diminished in more ways than one. Gone is the bravado and cockiness, the ease with which one took on every cause to espouse, the fire to fight for seemingly lost causes and in its place the inevitable almost existential question: who am I and what gives me the right to do what I do?

The last seven years were filled with a sense of achievement – no matter how minute – a feeling of pride as children passed exams, hearts got fixed, women got empowered, and we grew from 20 to 100 and then to over 500! There were even moments when hubris took over albeit for the tiniest of moments and one’s human side stood exposed as one carefully filed press cuttings with a feeling of satisfaction. One had arrived or so one thought.

However life or God or whoever else it is that holds the trump card always intervenes before you wander to far and this is what happened at a time when I felt almost invincible as we worked towards N’s operation. A simple barely murmured sentence by this extraordinary woman as we sat counting numbers dealt me a blow I am still reeling over. She simply said: had I not had the past I had, I would not have been able to be who I am today.

These are words many of us have said or thought or even believe. But when your past begins with the worst case of abuse at an age when you should be playing with dolls and in a split moment the stage was set for a life where everything would be defiled: her childhood, her dreams, her mind, her spirit, her soul: in a word her future. To bear the pain came the drugs, the alcohol and the defiance of all the rules as, are these not made for those who have the luxury of a normal life where childhood grows into adolescence and matures to adulthood.

Those were her dark years where danger, misfortune , fear, injustice played their destructive game and as is often the case in such situations temerity ruled. Everything is sacrificed with impudence or so one feels. But somewhere a little voice tells you to hold on and a flickering light beckons you to reach out. It is that very glimmer that led N out of her dark labyrinth into a pool of luminous light that not only dispelled her darkness but became a beacon for others to follow and makes a barely literate woman say with pride: I would not have been what I am today.

For N is. In a world where people are happy being shadows or clones, she stands out as an example of hope, a vindication of all those who believe that nothing or no one is hopeless or beyond redemption. But above all N puts into to question the very foundation of those like me, who feel smug in the tiny roles they have chosen for themselves.

Today, when I look back at my existence and particularly at the last seven years I often hold as my best, I see nothing much to write home about or be proud of. It just seems one did what one had to keeping in mind the abundance of privileges one was dealt with all along. N brought into my life a different perspective altogether and a new meaning to the word tomorrow. It becomes imperative for me, to redefine that tomorrow and strive towards it with renewed hope.

Remembering mom.

She left seventeen years ago. Every year on this day I remember her; write a few words, light a lamp, place a garland on her picture, sit quietly in her favourite spot in the garden or make her favourite dish. Then everything is put back into some corner of one’s memory till the next occasion.

On the other hand my more flamboyant father became the one whose memory was celebrated in my work and she as usual took the back seat. I discovered a diary last year and that discovery was a defining moment of my existence. It shattered many images I had held on to. It raised many questions, the most important one being whether I had vindicated my mother’s sacrifice.
My answer was a letter to a dead mother.

I do not know why I chose this day to share this? It could be a sense of guilt towards one I owed so much to, and yet chose to forsake. It could also be because for the past few days I have come across many women fighting for their survival and dignity just as Kamala did.

Last year my friend Abhi decided to immortalise part of Kamala’s life in a short film entitled remembering mother, but I still remained locked in silence. But last week when I spent a morning with the women of Sahara House in their Miracle Maids programme something snapped inside. As I watched this motley bunch of ex addicts struggling to learn the ways of the world as they set out to set tables and memorise complex recipes, my mind went back to the small town girl who became and ambassador’s wife, beating all odds.

The unbearable heat of that refurbished shed where this handful of ladies toiled made me decide to get them a cooler on this special day in the hope that the breeze it blows carries with it the love and blessings of an incredible woman I called mama!

a woman of substance

A few days back an acquaintance who is a jet setting honcho of a huge MNC was house hunting. He finally zeroed on a flat in an up up market district of our capital city. The rent a whopping 550 000 rs a month! Mind you it is not a bungalow, just a second floor in a building! Needless to say the rent is being paid by the company.

This afternoon N insisted on showing me her home. This is the place she is coming back to a few days after her hip joint replacement to recuperate. It is the tiniest of room in a tiny lane of a small middle class colony, with a sordid bathroom and a poky kitchen. She shares the room with a friend and once you lay out two mattresses on the floor there is no place to sleep. Yet it is her home, one she proudly shows. There is a TV, photographs on the wall, and little knickknacks which give it a welcoming appearance. She pays 2000 rs for it, a large chunk of her small salary!

N’s story is one heart wrenching and one you would only think happens in the minds of fiction or script writers. But is also a story of hope as she has proved to one and all that one can survive the worst nightmare and came out of winner.

At an age when others still play with dolls she was abused and then came a spiralling descent to hell which for her was a heady cocktail of alcohol, drugs, and abuse of unimaginable proportion. Yet she came out of it a winner as she took on the task of helping her soul sisters follow her lead.

When she talks of her past, she does it without bitterness or anger, without acrimony or rancour; she has accepted it as a part of herself and one she had made peace with. She simply picked up the broken pieces of her life and wove them into a new life where hope and faith are the call of the day.

Her smile is infectious and her joie de vivre contagious. It is as if she has to make up for lost time and fill her life only light and joy. Looking at her you would not believe the pain she is and that she need a hip replacement that will cost the earth. She is just knows she has to get back on her feet as there is still so much to be done. She has left it to all God’s angels and just carries on. And somehow I know the angels will appear in all shades and hues as when it is comes to a woman like N it just cannot be otherwise.

The morning I spent with her was one the most beautiful I have ever known as it renewed my faith in all that is good and kind. It also made me once again believe in the fact that no life is too wretched to give up on. As we shared a simple meal cooked by another woman whose childhood was usurped by predators under the watchful of eye of our personal angel Mr P, I felt at peace after a long time.

And when we finally stopped by that tiny little room, it somehow felt like the biggest castle as it was overflowing with dreams and aspirations waiting to be fulfilled.