a launch to remember part 1

Dear Popples was launched this week end. A series of events – three actually – had been carefully planned: two in malls and one in a hospital! I must confess that the past few days had been filled with excitement and apprehension. Dear Popples is the first book I have written and hence this was to be my first launch. I had been told that there was to be a book reading and signing and a quiz where people would play for a miracle. At the end of the day Basant and Rekha’s family would be saved. Over 100 people I was told, had entered the contest! This was great news. The event promised to be a whopping success. Innumerable calls were made, and mails were sent to ensure that may would attend.

Saturday morning dawned. I must admit the night had been short. A palpable sense of excitement permeated the house as we all got ready. There were many of us, almost the same gang that takes the monthly ride to Utpal’s PTM except that this time Utpal, was with us. Rekha and Basant had come early. Abhigyan, my wonderful publisher who I had finally met the previous day arrived and it was time to leave. The event was in a brand new mall in Gurgaon a long drive away. We reached the mall. It was the very one where we had come to a year back for a PTM. Ominous!

We reached the right gate and could see the sparkling book store an escalator ride away on the first floor. But Rekha being blind and having never in her life seen or heard about moving staircases, we set off in search of a lift or staircase. We found a lift but though we reached the said foor, we found to our utter dismay that there was no access to the store. There was no staircase either. How did one get Rekha to the store. Finally with much effort we managed to convince the operator to stop the escalator. Rekha was made to climb on it and then the machine was restarted. It was an ordeal and I cannot even begin to think what must have gone in the poor woman’s mind. At last every one reached the store.

The place had been beautifully laid out with chairs, and armchairs, tables ans flowers, large display of the books to be launched, larger than life sized posters, a screen, mikes et al. What was missing was people though the said time had past. Once again I was reminded of Kafka. Barring us there was no one. One could almost sense moods changing. Anger in some, bewilderment in others. A sense of amused deja vu filled me. Oh darling hey hai dilli was what I felt like screaming. People do not come out of their comfort zones at 11 am on a Saturday morning, people fill forms for quizzes ans events and hen simply do not turn up, people promise to be there and then forget to come or forget to inform that will not. Anyway the chairs lay empty for a long time. Slowly friends who had been solicited, entreated and bullied started trickling in and some chairs got filled. Even Mrinal and Anil, whose flight from Mumbai had been terribly delayed made it on time.

But the show must go on and it did. The show had to go on and it did. Rekha and Basant’s miracle had to happen and it did. There was a book reading, a book signing and a quiz even though many chairs were empty and contestants few. What was important was that all present had the ability to see with their heart and hence as the fox told the little Prince only the essential was visible.

You can share some pictures of the event here:

www.flickr.com

mellow musings

The last post was angry though I had promised to myself not to succumb to anger. But there are moments when resolves break. I am but human. But the anger passes and often a mellow mood follows, one when you try to reconnect with the simpler things and heal yourself.

Last week was so hectic – a book launch, an important visit and a bout of fever – that I almost forgot a very precious incident. Utpal spent some days at home. One evening he went to the market with Radhey his long time pal and came back with a small glass bowl filled with what looked like glass beads but turned out to be made of some gooey unidentifiable and quite yucky matter. He was all excited as he entered my tiny office clutching his precious ware. He stomped to my table and placed the bowl carefully: he then turned to me and said: this is a present for you, it shines at night so you will not be scared when it is dark!

Needless to say, I was terribly moved – throat tight and tears welling up – as I hugged the little fellow. Needless to say that the cheap glass bowl suddenly became very precious. For those of you who do not live in Delhi and hence do not spend time at red lights getting pestered to buy strange ware, this is the latest offering from China. A small packet filled with what looks like glitter till it is placed in water where t swells to 600 time its size and becomes gooey beads. A glass bowl comes with it, or you may just buy a bowl filled with already bloated beads. Wonder how many people do buy them, and why.

My bowl is unique, just like the Little Prince’s rose. For Utpal it was something that could adorn my sancto sanctorum, a place replete with memorabilia of all kind, each having a story to tell. It is not simply a glass bowl filed with cheap gooey beads. It is what little Utpal found good enough to have a place in my office. It is laced with the love and tenderness of a little boy. I know it will sit on my table for a long time and I also know that my eyes will often stray towards it as my heart fills with wonder and pride. And perhaps, it may just soothe any threatening bout of anger in days to come.

equal opportunities

A comment on my latest post reads: A comprehensive solution that caters for reduced population growth, offers equal opportunities to all Indians, offers a fair and just judicial system, and a fair market where people can achieve their goals with no fear is what we need. Wow! Wish one knew how to conjure that, but sadly one does not have the magic wand required. The commentator feels that we cannot limit ourselves to education and perhaps he is right, but to me it seems to be the only logical starting point that may one day open many doors.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realise that in today’s day and age, the well educated have a head start in life and maybe the Education for All programme should be renamed as Good Education for All or Fair education for All!

While I was writing this post another comment dropped by. It said pardon me, but i fail to see the social evil of a prestigious educational institution raising its bar. the tougher the goal, the harder one works, the better the ones who qualify and the better the end result. Education is a right, but excellence is a prize one must earn. It is sad indeed that your students will now not be able to enter DU, but surely there are other places they can, and if they are not motivated/empowered to begin with, what magic is an admission in a university going to make? I am saying your students are to be blamed for bad performance, i have worked among high school dropouts and i know at least some of the difficulties and so i suggest you turn this in to an incentive for the rare motivated child, than turn it into an opportunity to complain.
I mean no ill will, this is not a rebuke, please do not take offense, i merely want you to think again.

I must admit that at first it raised my heckles. But with all due respect to the commentator who chose to remain anonymous I did think again as suggested and rather than go into a useless diatribe I chose to answer each point made.

There is certainly no social evil in any education raising its bar provided every bar down the line is also raised. I mean let us raise the pass percentage of school leaving examinations. When I was a student the highest marks veered around 65% with a low of 33. Today we see 99% at one end still 33 at the other. The tougher the goal the higher one strives is again an acceptable maxim but how does one reach that goal if one of the contestant has to run the race with his feet tied up. Let me explain in some government schools – and I have this from the horses’s mouth – the entire curriculum is not even taught as iIwas told by a school Principal: only 40% is needed to pass. And I am not even mentioning minor adavantages like educated parents, access to good books, computers etc.

No Sir, most my students will not access prestigious institutions but not because they do not have the ability to do so, but because they have run a lame race from the beginning. And true there is no magic in an admission to a university, but every child has a right to this access.

Of all that has been written in this comment, the one thing I cannot and will not accept is that my students are to blame for bad performance. How do you blame a kid who has never been taught properly in school. one that goes back to a violent and abusive home, one whose childhood has been hijacked by all. Every child has potential. It is our duty as a society to provide an enabling environment from him or her to grow to its full potential.

If schools did provide that enabling environment then there would be no reason to complain. Schools today simply reflect our society. They are schools for the rich that become richer and school for the poor that seem to become worse by the day. If one has air conditioned facilities the other does not even have toilets or drinking water. School has to be a level playing field, a learning experience, a place to discover that other realities exist, a space to rub shoulders with all and share knowledge. Only then will every child have the possibility to access higher portals and contribute to the change we all seek. And only then will I accept the accusation levelled against my kids.

Yes anonymous friend I have thought again, and it has made my resolve stronger. It is time we offered equal opportunities to all Indians.

musings

The Delhi University cut off lists are out. A whole 1% higher than last year! You need 90% and more to secure a seat in a prestigious college, and at least 75% to find space in DU (Delhi University). Anything less than that leaves you with few choices: a correspondence course or if you family is endowed, a seat in the new kids on the block: the mushrooming private colleges and institutions that come at a hefty price.

Statistics show that over 100 000 kids passed their class XII Boards. However one wonders where most of them will go as the pass percentage marks remain frozen in time. 35% still gets you your exam and 60% still gives you the 1st division tag.

Something is not right. Or are we mute spectators to a system that pays lip service to education for all while ensuring that the spoils remain the prerogative of a few.

For almost a decade now we have been striving to ensure that children from underprivileged homes do not drop out of school and obtain the much coveted class XII Board. It has been a handicap ridden obstacle race. Practically no teaching in schools, illiterate homes, poor motivation of parents and more. And yet year after year we have ensured that all pwhy get the coveted pot of gold. I must admit that though we have had a handful of 1st divisions (above 60%) and a sprinkling of kids with 70% and above, the majority of pwhy children secure marks between 45 and 52%. This means that the doors of DU are closed to them. And as they all come form poor backgrounds, they cannot accede to private institutions. Somehow for them the journey ends there.

Boys may join some vocational course or the other and maybe a get a job; girls are condemned to stay home waiting to be married off and produce more children who will be destined to teh same fate.

The sad reality is that one cannot see the end of the tunnel. One may wonder where the solution lies or is it that we just accept that we are fighting a losing battle. We all seem to agree that education is the magic potion that would change India. But is it the kind of education that we see around us today?

a unique hour

How many of us do actually switch off lights when we leave a room, never leave our computers or TVs on stand by, segregate our house waste shut the tap off while we brush our teeth, carry a cloth bag during all our shopping sprees, or travel in a car pool. Not many I guess. But are we not also the many who lecture others on all of the above, nod our heads vigorously during any debate on saving the environment and are the first to sign any petition on the same.

Yesterday someone mentioned a recent article predicting that the North Pole would actually melt this summer. His words brought terrible images to mind, yet before this could truly sink in, the conversation that was threatening to become disturbing moved on, as is too often the case, to a lighter vein. Somehow we always tend to push away what has the potential to rock our boat.

Yet the writing is on the wall: global warming is no more a topic to be debated it lies at our doorstep as we have seen this summer in Delhi. True that there was practically no summer this year, no hot searing heat that sweetens the melons and kills the mosquitoes. True again that the rains came early and the temperature remained low. But this is no cause to rejoice as it is a portent of things to come. Nature has been disturbed and no one knows what lies ahead.

Awareness on environmental issues has been something that we at project why have tried to disseminate, and I say tried, as I must confess our attempts have not been successful or maybe not wholehearted enough. Most of our efforts failed as they clashed with mindsets – our children will never clean streets was the answer to our no plastic programme – or social attitudes.

And yet we know that something needs to be done. It is with this in mind that I approached a friend who walks the talk as far as environment issues go. What I sought was a scintillating project that would look good on the pwhy CV! What my friend suggested was quite the contrary. Have every one follow a zero carbon hour, was his quiet suggestion. I was a tad confused as it made no sense to me. He set out to explain his idea. What he meant was that each one of us, collectively or individually, should once a day or once a week spend one hour where we ensure that our carbon footprint is nil. Translated in other terms it means that for that one hour we use no cellphone, no computers, no iPod, no TV, no cars, no electricity, no fuel of any kind. And further translated in practical terms it means that for one hour you just take a walk or sit in a park or in a room weather permitting.

At first it seemed nothing short of preposterous and yet as I pondered over it, it was a overwhelming. A simple idea and yet one that had immense power as not only was it kind to the environment but also good for us individually. A forced meditation pause that would ensure we get off the spinning wheel and reconnect with ourselves. And there was no excuse as it cost nothing, needed no props or training and could be followed by all.

At this moment of time I do not know how this will be accepted by our team. I do foresee obstacles and hurdles but at the same time I know I am going to use all the power I have to see it happen: maybe not an hour to start with but 30 minutes; maybe not everyday to begin with but once a week but we at project why will adopt a zero carbon hour programme.

To be continued…

Why is God laughing…

Why is God laughing is the title of Deepak Chopra’s latest book. I have not read it. Yet, just the title filled me with a deep sense of joy.

A review of the book states: it shows us without a doubt that there is always a reason to be grateful, that every possibility holds the promise of abundance, and that obstacles are simply opportunities in disguise. In the end, we really don’t need a reason to be happy.

Why is God Laughing. I guess simply because he sees the big picture and knows that ultimately all falls in place. And I guess wisdom lies in realising just that.

We, humble mortals, have perfected the art of holding on to the tiny bad moment forever, wallowing in it, and refusing not only to let it go but refusing to look beyond. And thus zillions of happy and almost perfect moments pass us by.

I must admit that there was a time when I too did just that. But pwhy changed it all. The past few years have shown me that every moment is worthy of celebration and that nothing is too daunting; one just has to have the ability to wait that little extra moment as even the darkest cloud has a silver lining.

You can think that there will never be a way out of the momentary darkness, and yet there is. And what is amazing is that the way out is often most unexpected. When Basant first came to me, I could not even begin to imagine how we would help this little family as dice seemed loaded against them. And yet God was quietly laughing as he knew the way out. And what is truly wondrous is that the solution would bring together unrelated things. The launch of dear popples, a precious personal dream, would also usher a new dawn for Basant’s family

And this is but one example, the latest in a series of plenty. I never imagined how manu, utpal. babli, neha and many others would come out of their darkness, and yet they did, each one of them in the most unexpected ways.

Yes God is laughing and I am busy being grateful!

farewell class of 2008

This is project why’s class of 2008. They have all passed their Boards examinations and are ready to taken their first steps in the outside world with confidence and aplomb.

But yesterday was party time and this picture was taken just a few minutes before they set out for a movie and a treat. I watched them set off with a sense of pride laced with a dash of sadness. This was probably the last time I would see them all together. The morrows belonged to them.

One just hoped that the few years they spend with us would help them in their new ventures. Some are planning to go to college, others are looking for vocational training options. Some may soon be married and others may need to start working to help their families. Some may drop by and see us; others we may never see again. And yet they remain part of us.

farewell class of 2008!

The world is full of wonders..


The world is full of wonders and miracles but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing. The words of Israel Baal Shem came to my mind when I saw this picture after a long time. Actually I was putting together a presentation for the launch of dear popples and hence looking through old pictures.

Anyone looking at this child splashing away in a five star pool would never believe that he had once been practically written off by all! And yet today he lives, laughs, goes to a boarding school and is just another little happy boy. He is one of the many miracles that have come our way but that we tend to hide by covering our eyes with our little hand. Or is it that we at project why have simply become inured to the plethora of wonders and miracles that have come our way.

A young girl who tops her school, a handful of kids who are busy making up for lost time now that their hearts are fixed, a young mother fighting a debilitating disease, a disabled beggar who now has a warm bed, a home and a new family, a bunch of kids who would have dropped out of school but who now are assured of a sound education and a small family quietly waiting for a miracle.

I am glad that seeing this lovely snapshot brought Baal Shem’s words to my mind. Far too often in life we tend to glean over tiny problems and minor impediments and forget all the wonders around us. And lost in our limited vision we simply forget to be grateful for the abundance that surround us.

It is time we took away our little hand from our eyes and simply looked around with us with gratitude.

they wait for a miracle

In a tiny room where barely a bed and a small cupboard fit sit Basant and Rekha. They have been living in this ‘free’ dharamshala (hospice) for almost a month now, but this has not been their first stay here. They are now old hands at living in hospitals across the land.

Their story beats any of the tear jerking celluloid tales so popular in the sixties, the only difference is that it is not a story but real life. The quiet acceptance and the sated dignity are not performances that will beget national awards. The love, tenderness and compassion chiseled on Basant’s face is not for the cameras, it is what he truly feels for his blind wife. He does not even remember how long it has been, or how many hospitals in how many cities he has visited to try and rekindle the light in the eyes of his wife. They have now been at AIIMS for the umpteenth month an were held the last blow a few days back: the cost of medicine that may restore some vision to Rekha’s eyes was so prohibitive that they did not even take the name of the pills that come at 45o rs a piece and of which 2 have to be consumed each day for at least 30 days.

There is no anger, no bitterness, no indignation; at best what one feels is a sense of dignified resignation. Many blows have come in the way of this couple but they have accepted each one of them and tried to move on. It was only a few weeks ago that Basant was told that he needed immediate heart surgery at the mind boggling cost of 100 000 rs. More figures that have far beyond the realm of reality for them. A date was fixed: 7 June 2008. It past as they were unable to pay the money.

For this man who once had a small business and enough money to live an honest life, living on charity must be belittling, yet he stand patiently in queue for the daily packet of milk or ration that is doled out. He knows he has no other option.In a few days they will be thrown out of the hospice as no one is allowed to stay for more than 30 days at a time. They have scant options: to go back to the village beaten, or try and find a way out.

I came to know about them a few weeks back and since have been trying to get the help they so need. But we need in a world where charity has taken strange avatars. It is easy to get help for a child, perhaps a woman but when you seek the same for a man, you are just shunned. Yet in the broken heart of this man lie the morrows of four souls: three little children deprived of the presence of their parents and their mom. It is no wonder that Basant’s heart needs mending. For too long it has carried the weight of a love no one understands in our world.

Away from their children they wait patiently for a miracle to come their way, for now only a miracle can save them. They have exhausted all other resources. Maybe it is time we start looking at ours. We cannot or will not give up. We will ask Basant and rekha to move to our women centre and keep on knocking at doors till we find the one that hides another heart as big as Basant’s.

Is the God of Lesser beings listening.

They can brighten up this world

When i first thought of planet why as a sustainability option for project why I had never heard of social enterprise and social business. It was simply a gut feeling that propelled me in this direction and with every step I walked, it just felt right.

From day one, it has been I must admit, an arduous journey. And yet I knew it was one that had to be made as the destination held its own pot of gold.

Two unrelated occurrences came my way a few days back : one was the gift of a book and the other a simple line in an email. The book was by Creating a World without Poverty by Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus, and the line in the email came from a young professional riled over the injustice she saw around her. It simply said: the other way to look at this is to assume that economic prosperity once established in a quorum population will ignite a string of social entrepreneurship. but that’s a wait and watch game. Strange synchronicity.

Mohammed Yunus’s views echoes what i have always felt and could not express. The world of philantrophy in which I have been always seemed to fall short of something. It was obvious to me that it could not survive the test of time. Business had always been an alien land where I never felt comfortable. The when you get your maximum, everybody will get their maximum often thrown at you by those holding capitalism at hart, was nothing short of galling. There had to be a via media.

The via media solutions that one saw around us also fell short: state run programmes, NGOs depending on donors to survive let alone grow, CSR initiatives that seemed out of place. The common denominator for all of these was that they espoused a state whereby one group remained a donor and the other a recipient. They all celebrated an unequal world.

Mohammed Yunus’s view tilts the balance in order to establish an equal world by redefining capitalism or let us say by adding a new dimension to the words capitalism. Businesses run with the same efficiency not to line deeper and deeper pockets but to change things and make the world a more even playing field.

The idea of Planet Why stemmed form a real need, that of ensuring pwhy lives on. As it slowly took shape it started looking like what is called a social business. A sound investment option in more ways than one. And though the road is still long and the journey far form over somehow I see light at the end of the tunnel.

So I will end by quoting Mohammed Yunus: Lets get serious about social business entrepreneurs. They can brighten up this gloomy world.