the trick is to finish with flourish

“A person taking stock in middle age is like an artist or composer looking at an unfinished work; but whereas the composer and the painter can erase some of their past efforts, we cannot. We are stuck with what we have lived through. The trick is to finish it with a sense of design and a flourish rather than to patch up the holes or merely to add new patches to it” wrote Harry S. Broudy. These words came to mind as I sat this morning browsing the pwhy pictures taken last week.

Had someone suggested a few months back that one would soon be seeing Manu around a table sharing a meal with his pals in a proper home, I would have smiled and told the person to stop dreaming, reminding him or her gently that dreams took time to become reality. It would have been akin to fast forwarding a film to reach the end without living through the story. And yet the picture you see is no trick photography, it is reality, one anyone can share each and every day. The foster care was not even an idea in our minds, at best it was a distant and impossible dream.

For the last week or even more I have been avoiding the much needed task of setting out to seek help for pwhy. Strange as I thought I had overcome my almost innate reluctance to ask for money and should and could have picked my virtual begging bowl without fuss, any time needed. But I guess inborn feelings stay longer than one thinks.

But what needs to be done, has to be done. I knew time was of the essence and the task I had to be undertaken. And in order to do so, it was time to take stock of the past. In Broudy’s words I knew that nothing could be erased or painted over and that the work had to be finished with flourish and honesty.

So here I am again seeking support to see pwhy through. Have we reached the middle of the road? I think we have. Much of we set out to do when we began had been achieved in ample measure. The class X results declared yesterday reinforce the point. All the children passed and in in both class X and XII it is a pwhy student that topped his school. Many had made the journey from street to home and many other achievements big and small dot our firmament. We have met every challenge that came our way and have done our best in finding the right solutions. The sustainability issue that had for long been our Achilles heel, has now been addressed as we have bought the land needed for planet why. There is no looking back!

However as I write these words we are in a tricky situation: that of having to raise funds both for the building and the day-to-day running of the project. And our needs have grown as many new whys dropped our way and could not be cast aside as that would have been defeating the very spirit of project why.

We do manage to raise a substantial part of our needs but still fall short. Perhaps the reason for this stems from what I will call the soul of project why. For almost a decade pwhy has been able to survive and thrive because it is infused with goodwill, one that has come from the innumerable kind souls who have answered each and every call for help. Were it to be fuelled by impersonal sources – no matter how regular and steadfast – alone, it would cease to be.

To many this may sound preposterous and even old-fashioned in a world where success is measured by the weight of bank accounts and the size of buildings. But for me that is not so. The mere fact that we have been able to grow and thrive is the direct result the immense love that we have received from people the world over, many of whom we have never seen. Our success is the outcome of the trust and belief that had come with each coin dropped in my begging bowl. We have reached where we are because pwhy has never afforded itself the luxury of sinking into comfort zones that would rob us of our very individuality and make us pallid clones of others. It is but natural and essential that we fall short, as this is what will enable us to always remain who we are. Ours is a work where patches and holes are banished, and each corner of the painting or note of the symphony is part of the whole.

On a personal level it is also essential that I retain the ability to beg humbly and shed any misplaced arrogance no matter how innate it be. Only then will the intangible and indescribable riches that are vital to the very existence of pwhy continue coming our way

It is now time to finish the story with flourish, one that cannot end without the presence of each one of you.

A lot of water has flowed

This is a picture of Neha and Aditya taken almost three years back in happier times. Since a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. In those times questions were simple and solutions easy. Even mummy learnt to smile as she picked up the pieces of her broken life and wove them bravely into a new one.

Barely a few back just was working and had gladly accepted that Aditya become part of our foster care programme as she knew that this would give him a better future. Everything seemed almost picture perfect as we sat content in what we thought was a befitting conclusion of a journey started many months ago. We had conveniently forgotten about the big picture being busy putting final touches one the tiny one we could see.

Neha had been complaining of back aches, one that even compelled to take a break from the gruelling hours she put in at the beauty parlour where we worked. We advised her to se a doctor and take some rest. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to ensue.

One morning Neha came by asking for help as she had been asked to have an MRI and did not have the money to so. In spite of her smile, we could see the pain and knew that something was wrong. When the results came we were shocked. Neha had advanced tuberculosis of the spine and many of her vertebrae had collapsed. The diagnosis was confirmed by a bone specialist. it was a miracle that Neha was still walking. She needed immediate immobilisation and even then the prognosis was terrible: risk of paralysis, permanent damage to the back and poor chances of recovery, septicemia from the risk of any of her abscesses bursting .

She was advised complete bed rest for at least 3 months as any movement could entail paraplegia. Neha has no one; even her mother has walked away from her life. Her only family is 5 year old Aditya. She needs to get back on her feet; anything short of that is a death knell.

As I write these words she lies in terrible pain in a room at our foster care. In a few days she will be moved to a room on the ground floor of the dame building. A day time nurse will look after her and at night a distant relative will take care of her. Neha weighs a paltry 32 kilos. The ordeal that awaits her is terrible and she knows it.

I have often prayed for miracles but am at a loss as I do not know what to pray for. Even the best case scenario is short of what Neha needs. A deformed back or life in a wheel chair is no life at all for this young single mom. What we need is a real miracle, the kind that is not fabricated by us humans but one that only He can make true.

A miracle for a little boy who plays and learns unaware of the reality that may become his!

So help me God!

met mrOcean

One day Popples you will meet mrOcean. Many of your friends live close to it and many have promised that they will take you there one day…

These words were written almost 2 years ago and are now there for all to read as in dear popples. I must confess a little sheepishly that I had then hoped that I would be the one to make the introductions. But that was not part of the larger picture. Mr P met mrOcean last week when he was in Mumbai spending a few days with his new. friends: Abhigyan, Mrinal and Vedika. I wonder what went into his little mind when he saw so much water. I guess we will never know. All I know is that they will be tucked away in his little mind to be recalled at the right moment, when he is in need of reassuring himself.

Utpal has had an ace holiday in Mumbai. One replete with memories of things he never knew existed: a flat on the 22md floor, a shower cubicle, swimming in a pool with goggles, the feel of a real family with a father, mother and grandparents, a train ride over. And to crown a trip in a plane, like the ones he sees flying over his school every day. And of course the huge helicopter balloon he had to give up to enter the plane and that the misses terribly.

I know he was a handful to his impeccable and kind hosts but what a holiday it was. The kind he could not have ever conjured even in his wildest dreams. Here are some stolen moments:

never say never

I would have never believed that one day I would be seeking help to fund the surgery of a man! Most of the hearts we have fixed are those of children, barring Nutan who was a mom and her children’s life depended of her survival. She was taken care of and is now back in her village.

Rekha was a young spirited girl when she got married to Basant a kind hearted man. Life was going on well. A few months later she suffered a terrible fever. She survived but the drugs given to her were too strong and led to her losing her sight and hearing. For some months the family took her to a bigger town and yet another. But to no avail. Everyone told them that her eye sight was gone forever though perhaps something could be done for her hearing.

Basant’s family then tried to convince him to send her back and find another bride. But this man was made of another mettle. He stood his ground and told them that she was his wife for the better or the worse and that he would stand by her till the end. The young couple set home and in years to come three children were born. Basant tended to Rekha with affection and tenderness. He looked after her and helped her in all chores, even those considered infradig by his peers. Whenever he could he use to try and seek specialists and even took her to Bangalore in the hope of restoring her sight. Their meagre savings dwindled fast.

A few months back he had brought her to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences as he had been told of a possible next procedure that may restore her sight. One morning he got up with excruciating pain in the chest. he was diagnosed with a heart condition and was told that he may need open heart surgery. An angioplasty was performed and a stent was inserted in the hope that things would settle. But things did not work out and the pain came back. He needed open heart surgery.

The cost was prohibitive: 100 000 rs!

I would have never thought that I would be the one appealing for help for basant. there are many reasons for this. One is that he is the sole support of Rekha and her three children. Were anything to happen to him, she would suffer a fate worse than the darknes she lives in and her children’s future would be jeopardized. But that is not the only basis for my appeal. There is a much deeper one.

Basant is the kind of man one does not see in India, particularly in Bihar where he hails from. No man stands up for his wife, more so a blind one. And to do so with compassion, love and tenderness is unwonted. Were anything to happen to him, Rekha would be derided and shunned as a harbinger of bad times. There is much more at stake than just a life.

I hope we will find the support we need.

wondrous are his ways

The project why journey has been astounding in more ways than one. At every step, miracles big and small have dotted its path with regularity making one believe that the big picture theory really exists.

When we began the foster care programme, there was a huge debate about how to select the handful of kids that would launch the programme: social profile, performance, home situation.. The options were many. Finally four children were selected. Aditya and Babli being two of them. At that time none of us was aware of the real reason.

A few days back Aditya’s young mother came by our office. We could see the pain written on her face in spite of the smile she bravely put on. We had known that she had left her job as she had been complaining of back ache but nothing prepared us for what was to come. She wanted help to get the expensive CT scan her doctor had asked for. The scan was done and to our utmost dismay she was diagnosed with advanced Pott’s disease or what is knows as bone TB. Many of her vertebrae had collapsed and huge abscesses dotted her spine. The prognosis was not good: she could suffer paraplegia and septicemia.

Aditya’s mom had no support system as after her husband’s death she cut off her links with her own family. She had decided to bring up her child alone and after training as a beautician was working in a parlour earning enough to survive. Two months of sick leave had depleted her of her meagre savings. And to crown it all, her landlord had asked her to vacate the tiny room that was her home.

Aditya’s mom is at the foster care for a few nights. We will take her to hospital and start her treatment. Will she be saved is another part of the big picture cannot see. We will do our best and hope that things go well. We do not even want to think about what could have happened had things not fallen in place. We only know Aditya is safe and his mom in good hands.

When we invested in Babli’s tiny heart, we thought that like in all other cases she would thrive and grow after her surgery and fulfill all the dreams that she had conjured in her head. The script went awry many times and each time, we intervened in the best manner possible, or so we thought. On the way, we did wonder why, unlike other children, Babli was not growing, but felt that it was due to poor nutrition and care.

When we were about to launch our foster care programme, someone suggested Babli as one of the inmates. In spite of her advanced age, we all agreed that it would be a great idea, as the child was intelligent and would benefit from such a programme. A few days after her joining our housemother shared her concern about Babli’s constant bed wetting. Yesterday she was taken to the doctor and diagnosed with hypo parathyroid, a rare condition stunts growth and depletes the body of its calcium retention of the body. It can be treated and reversed with proper life long medication. Babli is now having all tests and investigations required and should soon be on the way to recovery and to leading a normal life.

When we selected Babli and Aditya we were totally unaware of the real reasons that had guided these two children our way. Today we know…

Wondrous are His ways…

It tolls for thee.

A few days back we got the visit of the representative of a very up market page 3 organisation. This organisation funds various NGOs by organising high profile fund raising events. As we sat chatting in our new foster care building, the lady told me about a new venture of theirs whereby they are sponsoring school fees in up market schools for a handful of very underprivileged children. Actually what she was trying to convey indirectly was her disapproval of the amounts we were spending on the foster care residential programme.

While we were chatting, our children sat quietly finishing their lunch.

I tried to the best of my ability and with as much fervour and passion I could muster to explain to her that a child from a deprived or dysfunctional poor background would never be able to fit and be accepted in an up market English medium school. He or she would feel lost and would not be able to keep up what is required of him or her. Moreover ‘home’ or what goes by the name would not be able to provide him or her the support needed.

My mind went back to a blog where I had shared my feelings about the reactions of people to our foster care programme when it was being launched. Today it is in its third month and though there have been many teething problems, we have never felt that our decision was wrong.

I would not have written this post were it not for a totally unrelated incident. Utpal is in Mumbai spending a few days with Abhigyan and his family. The first few emails were positive ones and then came one where I could feel that Popples was being difficult: tantrums and demands bordering bad behaviour. I must confess that at first I was upset and went into denial and then apologetic mode as any doting parent would. Much later when the heat and embarrassment of the moment has passed, I realised that it had been naive on my part to expect that Utpal would behave like a perfect child in an environment totally new to him. That he accepted to stay in an unknown home without batting an eyelid and with comfort and ease, is in itself huge. He is only 6 and he has had a lot to deal with in the 2000 odd days of his life.

But that does not condone bad behaviour one would we tempted to say, or does it… The urge to balance out his misfortune is not easy to put it in Abhigyan’s words. I cannot but agree. But let us take our thoughts a step further. Till date Utpal was never seen, let alone spent time in what you and I call a family: a papa, a mummy, siblings, maybe grandparents. He has never known a structured home. The only structure he has experienced is that of a boarding school. He has no role models, no examples to emulate, no mentor to walk him through such moments. He survives by instinct and the closest he has been to a home is probably mine, where he knows he gets what he wants courtesy his ever indulging Maam’ji!

We, and here I talk about all those who think they are a cut above the rest being engaged in doing some form of social work or the other and who would like to believe that lives can be transformed by doling out the needed amount of money to pay fees, books and more of the same, have to take a moment to pause and think. If that were so, how easy it would be alter destinies. But the reality is quite different. Education is not just imparted in schools however good they are. Nurturing and building lives start in homes and with parents or guardians. It takes time, patience and above all the will to truly want to do so.

When the idea of what is today our foster care programme was first mooted by a potential donor as part of what we call planet why, these are the words he chose to use: A residential foster care programme for a maximum of 20 bright children where children from deprived backgrounds will be given an enabling and nurturing environment to be able to excel in education and access to employment possibilities. The children ( a maximum of 20) will be kept at planet why for an incubating period of 4 to 5 years and then be sent to boarding school. Emphasis will be on creating an environment close to those found in educated homes, with stress on English and building self-confidence. At that point of time I must admit I was not in a great bargaining position but the immediate reaction that many of us had was that this was far too ambitious if not impossible and that the way it was spelt out reeked of social engineering.

However the die had been cast and even though the initiator of the idea backtracked at a later stage we were left holding the proverbial baby and there was no retracting. The only battle I had won was to begin with a trial with a maximum of 4 to 6 kids. The task was daunting albeit exciting and just the possibility of being able to perhaps change a handful of lives could not be set aside. However one must stress that right from the word go, we knew intuitively and logically that if this was to succeed, we had to keep the kids in residential care at least for part of the week.

Education as I have said time and again is not just imparting the 3 Rs; it goes much further and has to cover life skills. Something that tends to be forgotten. I recall with a smile one of the brainstorming sessions we had early this year about where the foster kids would spend their summer holidays. Our erstwhile donor had suggested that they be sent to homes like yours and mine and wondered if there would people who would accept them. A no comments on this one barring from saying that this person lives outside India and is not aware of the reality that surrounds us.

We will find a solution for Popples, and our fostercare kids are learning to unlearn before they begin learning again.

Life goes on as always.

To quote john Donne: “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

to sir with love

The class XII results are out and once again all the pwhy kids have cleared the dreaded Boards! This is now the nth time in a row! There was a time when I remember spending a sleepless night before result day and pacing up and down till I was given the news. In those days results were not on line and one had to wait for the teacher to come back from the school where they were posted.

This year Naresh our secondary teacher just came to the office with his list of roll numbers and a few taps on the keyboard and we knew that all the kids had once again passed. No sleepless night, no angst. Just a feel of deja vu!

Naresh sat with paper and pencil computing the marks to get the percentages, a number essential to chart out the future. Gone were the days that a simple pass was enough for jubilation. Now it all depended on that extra half percent that could make all the difference. As I watched his serious face bent upon his sheet of paper I realised that all this could not have been possible without him. It is Naresh who has almost single handed, year after year, with rare dedication bordering on obsession ensured that pwhy kids have cleared their Boards!

The words of the title song from the movie To Sir with Love came to my mind: But how do you thank someone, who has taken you from crayons to perfume?It isn’t easy, but I’ll try. Every year we congratulate the kids, eat the sweets proffered and organise an outing. But this year kudos need to go where they are due: to sir, with love!

In the winter of 2001, when a deriding remark from a school Principal about the impossibility of a bunch of class X students to clear their Boards had led me to throw the gauntlet and accept the challenge of ensuring their success. That year we simply had a small spoken English class and helped a few primary kids with their studies on an ad-hoc basis. The bunch of boys were students of the spoken English class and the reason for my trip to the school was to find out why one of them had been beaten without apparent reason.

The next day the boys came, huge smiles on their faces and hope in their eyes. We had no classroom, no teacher, no funds. But what we had was the determination to win the challenge. At that time Naresh had just finished his college and was looking for work. I had hear that he use to give tuition to school kids. I asked him if he would help us and he accepted. Classes were held the pavement in front of our single class room, in the biting cold at 7.30 am with many cups of tea! That was how our senior secondary section began.

Naresh is a born teacher and teaches with compassion and unseen commitment. For him it is matter of pride to see his students do well even if that means extra classes early morning or late evenings and even on Sundays. He handles his section almost single handed as no teacher ever meets his expectations. And his students are infused with the same passion, as they often come well before time and wait for him with eagerness. Naresh has turned many failures into toppers and is always there for his students as a teacher, mentor and above all a friend. That is what teachers should be.

So today it is to Naresh that I say: hats off or chapeau bas!

remembering them

This blog is not meat to be a personal one, nor is it meant to be one for reminiscing the past or delving in nostalgia. Yet today I beg your indulgence as I take a brief pause to remember Ram and Kamala on this day that would have celebrated 59 years of their union.

This blog is meant to share the project why story, but would there have been a pwhy, if Ram and Kamala had not walked this planet. I wonder.

The loss of a parent is always difficult to come to terms with. It digs a deep bottomless pit in your heart and soul, one that is impossible to fill, even with time. A word heard out of context, the whiff of an aroma, the chirping of a particular bird, the sight of an innocuous image are sufficient to trigger a Proustian reaction that is ample to bring back every single memory you had laid to rest.

Yet today it is not with sadness that I remember them, but with a sense of peace and fulfillment. The huge void they had left was not only filled but is now almost overflowing. It has been filled with the smiles of every child at pwhy, with the hearts repaired, with the report cards held out with pride every year, the big and small achievements of children of a lesser God: the first drawing made by one who could not hold a pencil, the first word babbled by one that could not speak, the first step taken by one who was never meant to walk. And they live on in each and every moment of pwhy’s life.

Ram and Kamala gave me the most beautiful gift: that of life itself, and then went on to colour it with muted lessons of hope and courage. I just hope I have been worthy of what they taught me subtly and without fuss.

Pwhy could not have been without them as it is in many ways a reflection of who they were: a spartan erudite humanist and a woman of well beyond her times who wanted to change things and led by example; a reflection reinterpreted by the one who loved them unconditionally.

Today I simply remember them!

a losing battle?

We work hard to raise money so that we have the opportunity to help people but the more children we educate the more are being born that… so we are tempted to say that education will help our people to overcome poverty but if the resources remain the same and the population continues to grow… it’s a losing battle.

These very frightening words were sent by a dear friend who is a volunteer with an organisation that is deeply involved in education projects all over India. This friend also is a young highly educated Indian the very people on whose shoulders the destiny of India lies. I understand her concern ans perhaps would have shared it had I not been part of project why!

The education scenario in India is abysmal. But it is not only the state of education for the poor or underprivileged but also that of the so called rich and extremely privileged. A strange caste systems now prevails in school and one wonders what schools have become.

The simple definition for the word school in any dictionary is: a place for educating children. The crux of the matter lies in the definition of the word education and the one we at pwhy adopt is the one based on Delors 4 pillars of education: learning to know, to do, to be and to live with others. He says: these four pillars of knowledge cannot be anchored solely in one phase in a person’s life or in a single place. There is a need to re-think when in people’s lives education should be provided, and the fields that such education should cover. The periods and fields should complement each other and be interrelated in such a way that all people can get the most out of their own specific educational environment all through their lives.

To me the most important pillar remains: learning to live with others as therein lies the true success of education and this is sadly what is disappearing from the society we live in. Schools should be a level play field but is now turning into a mirror image of the social strata you belong to and the habitat you live in. Hence the richer you are the fancier looking your school is, and the poorer you are the more pathetic it will be. So any exchange, peer learning, learning to live with others is doomed to fail as you remain within the tiny part of society you belong to.

But I have digressed as the concern voiced here was that of population growth, or have I really? That is the moot point. Education we all agree is a spring board that can enable one to change one’s destiny but is the education we are today giving the children of India the right one to do that? The question raised has within it another element that we may tend to overlook: static resources or we can even say dwindling resources. And I speak with a certain authority as I was spent almost a decade raising these very resources.

Education alone can change the destiny of India and even help arrest population growth and maybe one day reverse it. Sadly it is perhaps not the kind of polarised education we see around us but one that would merge different strata of societies into schools that look like schools and not of seven stars resorts or slum backyards! That in itself would alter the content, change mindsets and bring a transformation that we cannot begin to imagine. All election oriented and fund draining dramatic programmes will lose their relevance as a symbiotic learning will emerge on its own.

Today we have idiosyncrasies like a pass percentage of 33% and a college entry point of 90+%! reservations in higher places of learning when we know the slum kid will never reach. These could slowly vanish on their own without laws and programmes.

But there is also another change that such an approach can bring. It may also address the resource issue as the better off kids may in such a situation become aware of their won responsibility and add to the resource pool. Pay it forward a simple fiction made into a movie launched a movement and a foundation. A child helps another and in return asks him or help to help three others and so on.

When we took on the challenge to give four kids the best education possible we were derided by many, particularly by those belonging to the rich side of the spectrum. And yet everyday these kids shows us that we cannot be wrong. In a pay it forward situation a rich kid could sponsor a poor one who in return would commit to help three or any number when her or she was in a position to do so.

Daydreaming? Perhaps or perhaps not. Change requires bold and seemingly preposterous action. Only one thing remains unchanged education is, cannot and should not be a losing battle!

We have to find the resources both financial and moral to go on!

education for all

Sarva Siksha Abhyan, Education for All, Right to Education Bill are all lofty projects. Sadly none of them have truly helped the children of India get what is rightfully theirs: a sound education that would help them become part of shining India! They all seem to be half baked attempts that seem to be politically motivated and not children friendly. They are good meat for heated debates and often lie in wait while adults debate their commas, and full stops. Their huge budgets help line many a pocket.

And while this happens children grow and miss the boat altogether. And as many cores issues are never dealt with, some children fall out of the net. Seema is little Radha‘ sister. She is 9 and should be in school yet she has never been to one. Her parents are too poor to think of sending their children to school and anyway someone is needed to look after Radha and her brittle bones! Seema is just mother’s little helper.

We have a handful of Seema’s in our believe it or not creche! They all belong to the Okhla slums where families are extremely poor and barely survive. It is our very own Sitaram who ferrets these kids from the darkest holes and brings them to project why. Most of not all of them are girls. We now have a handful of them and have decided to run a class for them where we will try and teach them basic reading and writing to start with and seeing their motivation maybe steered them towards and open school option. We will also try and teach them some useful skills so that they can become capable of earning. We know that putting them in a school would be close to impossible so this in our opinion is the best we can do for them.

We sincerely hope this works.