another deafening why

The festival season has begun. In the next few weeks festivals of all faith will dot the calendar reminding us of the indubitable reality that we are one though some would want us to believe otherwise. Complex rituals, feasting and fasting, revelry and merriment are normally the order of the day. But as I woke up this morning I felt none of the habitual joy and excitement. What kept haunting me was the face of a little boy who lost his life in last week’s bomb blast.

Little Santosh was barely 10. After school like many other little boys in Delhi innumerable slums, he helped his family who ran an egg and tea stall to eek out a living. Santosh has been sent to get some more eggs as being Saturday and festival time business had been good. Like all little boys Santosh liked being sent off on errands as it allowed him to walk through the crowded markets. On that fateful day the observant lad did not miss the dropped packet and being an honest child he picked it up and tried to return it to its rightful owner. His last words were cut short by a loud bang that blew the little boy and ended his young life. A deafening why rents the air: why did this have to happen?

Another set of disturbing faces have been haunting me of late: that of young educated boys who seem to be perpetrators of the terrible acts that take innocent lives: those who drop bombs or drive away after running over another, those who whip a gun out if slightly riled, those who commit senseless acts that leave one flummoxed. . A muted and perturbing why also begs to be answered: why do young souls turn to such dastardly ways?

And above all the most disquieting why that begs us to ask who is responsible for all this and what part accrues to each one of us.

We were debating this issue yesterday with a dear friend and somehow what the powers that be, the vested interests, the seekers of answers want us to believe does not quite ring true. At best it is nothing but a half baked view of things. If there is divide in society that leads to all this carnage it is not one of faith or creed or social appurtenance. It is far more insidious and surreptitious as it is one we do not want to see and yet it is time we did have the courage to do it. The divide I refer to is the one between the have and have nots to use a jaded term, one that is growing at a vertiginous speed; one whose consequences we cannot even begin to fathom. As the rich grow richer they also seem to become more remote. Is compassion the goat to be sacrificed at the altar of what is know today as success? And as the poor grow poorer they do so while their dream and aspirations grow in quantum leaps.

The fragile and yet all important egos of the young craves for recognition. Everyone wants to be valorised, remembered, recognised, in a word to be someone. No one wants to become a faceless and nameless soul that runs the risk of sinking into oblivion. Each one wants to have an identity and sadly as things are today, no one is willing to give them one. The education doled out to them is faulty and even their most valiant efforts at studies never enables them to reach the ranks of their rich peers; success in their world is limited to a few add ons that no one sees. They may be able to achieve a little more than their parents but a heavy lead ceiling hangs over their lives and can never be broken. In other lands education enables one to rise to unknown heights and break the glass ceiling but in ours even education has bowed to the unwritten rule that governs society: schools for the rich and those for the poor. The divide becomes even more glaring as to counter the slums of the poor we have gated communities for the rich, society is getting ghettoised.

The majority bows quietly and accepts to play the game. A few do not and desperately seek that elusive recognition, that misplaced moment of so called glory. Some even go a step further and fall into the trap of lurking predators looking for the fall guy, the one who will translate their vile schemes into reality. The game is on…

Is there are a way out? One wonders. Perhaps there is but it requires moral courage and commitment. It requires many of us to give up some of the what has been acquired and perfected over the years, it requires to look deep into ourselves and not look away. The main issue is to find ways of bridging the gap that exists between rich and poor and not by handing a few hand outs that we would not miss. Real and solid bridges have to be carefully built, ones that will ensure that everyone is looked at in the same way. I am no social reformer or political activist and what I say is simply based on what I have seen and experienced over the last 10 years. The simple solution that I propose is one that I have always heralded: that of the common neighbourhood school, one that is a centre of excellence and a level playing field for every child born in this land. Education has to be given its place at the helm. One could even have and Indian Education Service like the IAS to attract the best in the land. But to succeed the common school has to be made mandatory and therein lies the problem. Will we have the courage to accept this. And yet it is only then that the lead ceiling can turn to glass.

But even education is not enough without compassion as in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh compassion is the only energy that can help us relate to the world outside. Sadly compassion has long been sacrificed to many altars and is almost an alien notion. When I launched my one rupee a day programme it was also to try and rekindle compassion in a large section of society, to try and reach out to those one usually does not think of as donors and draw them into the world of giving. It still feels intuitively right.

Little Santosh did not have to die and yet he did. He is one of many innocent lives who die because we do not have the courage to face realities, because we look at the effect and forget the cause, because we have simply forgotten to look and see with our hearts. There should not be any feasting or revelry this festive season. Maybe it is time to ponder on the true meaning of the day when good conquers evil and start asking ourselves where evil truly lies in our own reality.

reclaiming a lost childhood

Kala is four year old. She lives in a small rented accommodation. Her father is a daily wage worker and her mom does household work for. Three months back another baby was born to this little family. It was a baby girl. The father was livid; he had hoped, prayed and wished for a boy. His daily drinking went for bad to worse and he began holding the mother responsible for the baby being a girl. Every night he beats his wife mercilessly. Kala watches in silence hurling abuses at her.

When the little baby was but a few weeks old,the father decided that it was time to send the mom back to work as money was needed to pay the ever increasing hooch bills. A simple solution was found: little Kala would tend to the baby while her mom worked. So every morning a little four year old was left to care for her baby sister.

Luckily for kala, the landlord was a kind a wise man.He saw the plight of the little child and decided to act. He brought the little girls to the pwhy creche to get her admitted and simply told the father that if he would not send the child then he would have to vacate the room. In a city like Delhi it is difficult to find accommodation so the father grudgingly agreed. His feeble attempt to thwart the issue by saying he did not have money to send the child was pooh poohed by the landlord who simply said he would pay all that was needed for little Kala’s school. So for the past week or so little Kala comes to the pwhy creche and reclaims her lost childhood. It is pure joy to see her play with toys, laugh and dance and be with children age. She is happy as a lark and perhaps dreams of these moments when she returns home and faces the reality she lives in.

Many thoughts comes to mind as one watches little Kala play. The first is undoubtedly the simple fact that it only takes one kind human being to save the life of a child and makes us wonder why more people do not reach out in this way. If we as concerned citizens did keep our eyes open and accepted to walk a tiny extra inch, perhaps many more girls would be able to reclaim their hijacked childhood. But there is another disturbing thought that emerges each time I come across a woman being blamed for the sex of her child. Why has there never been a wide reaching campaign explaining that the sex of a child is determined by the father. The mother cannot be held responsible for a child not being a boy. She simply accepts a seed and gives it space to grow.

Such a campaign could free many a woman from life long abuse and hurt in a country like ours where even the educated are not spared. So much money is spent on family planning and save the girl child blitzes. Simply explaining that a woman is not able to determine the sex of a child would go along way in clearing misconceptions and perhaps help the girl child in more ways than one.

It is time we shed our so called puritan ways and misplaced sense of outrage and addressed such issues in a direct and honest way and allow all little Kalas their rightful place.

to be able to walk

When asked about a fantasy to be a superhero, one of the children said: “to be able to walk“. This was one of the conclusions of the recently held workshop where children had been asked to express their opinions, dreams and aspirations. The respondent in this case was little Radha who suffers from brittle bone disease and whose condition has been deteriorating day after day.

An eerie silence pervaded the room as we all knew that little Radha would never walk. For what seemed an interminable moment we sat quietly, as we gathered our thoughts and tried to come to terms with what we had heard. We were in a place where neither miracles nor dreams were permissible. There was no reprieve, not even a glimmer of hope. Every day Radha’s fragile bones looked more and more distorted.

Yet Radha has an infective joie de vivre. She also has an insatiable desire to learn and wants to do everything her pals in class do. Just like any child she wants to live life to its fullest and yes if she could be a superhero she simply wants to walk.

For the children in this picture dreams and aspirations taken on a new meaning altogether. They are not of the realm of the impossible, they simply aspire to reclaim that little part of their life that fate has usurped. Some simply want to walk, others to hear or just understand the world around them. They do not ask for much and yet we are helpless and powerless.

However we can give them is love, understanding, moments of happiness and above all acceptance. But how many of us do that. We simply cringe at the sight of one like Radha who sits awkwardly on her brittle and jutting bones and instead of gently gathering her in our arms simply walk away.

During the same workshop Preeti who walks on her hands after a bout of severe polio was asked to photograph a few of the things she disliked most. On top of her list was garbage. Sitting in our comfortable homes we may wonder why she thought so. The answer is simple. For Preeti and Radha who walk on their hands or drag themselves around, garbage is a every day reality that is uncomfortably close to them. They cannot hop over it and do not have the luxury of bypassing it. In slums you often live amidst it.

If you were to come and spend some time with the kids you see in this picture you would be overwhelmed by the love and joy they are ready to give in their own special way. They open their arms and hearts to anyone who accepts to enter their world. They never ask for anything and keep their desires and hopes locked away safely. It is only in rare moments that they share them just like Radha and Preeti did hoping that someone will hear.

we are still the dancers

A little two year old girl was found abandoned in bushes some days back in an upmarket suburb of Delhi. Severely dehydrated and malnourished the child was barely alive. It was later discovered that she suffered from cerebral palsy and that seemed to be the reason why she had been abandoned by her family.

The local police chief’s words “Once she is better and if we can find her parents, she will go home. If not, we’ll put her up for adoption and follow all the processes. If nobody wants to adopt her, she’ll be sent to an orphanage,” were ominous. Her family was not traced, no one came forward to adopt her and thus she was sent to an orphanage. The head of India’s adoption agency did not mince when his words when he stated on national TV that no Indian parent would ever adopt a handicapped child! And sadly this is the reality.

The children dancing in the picture above are all what we call handicapped. Some have cerebral palsy, others have brittle bone disease, polio, autism or simple MR. They too could have been abandoned in bushes or simply thrown on the streets to fend for themselves as Manu was. In our country there is scant place for anyone who does not fit the mould. Special children as we like to call them are a embarrassment, an eyesore, a burden, a millstone no one wants. Society rejects them and even the administration does not seem to care. Parents would probably like to wish them away but lack the courage to do so. They are barely tended to, let alone cared for or loved.

And yet in spite of all adversities they not only survive but display a rare zest for life. All you need to do is drop by our special section. You will be greeted by squeals of joy. It may not be your conventional greeting, the one you are used to. It could be a grunt or squeak from one that cannot talk, am energetic hand wave from one that cannot walk, a hug or squeeze from one that has never been loved. You will be invited to join the on going activity or share a simple meal if you happen to come by lunch time. These children have never been taught manners or social skills, they are only proficient in God’s Alphabet or what we call intuition and simply do what their hearts tell them do. They do not judge or gauge you in anyway. They do not care about the language you speak, the way you look or the size of your bank balance. They accept you as you are and simply open their hearts to you.

The have learnt not only to survive but to live life to its fullest if given a chance. Sadly we are not even capable of giving them that tiny chance. I wonder who is the one who is truly handicapped: we or them.

Everyday our special kids dance, it is probably the highlight of their day and each time I see them dance I am reminded of an anonymous quote I stumbled upon one day:

We dance for laughter, we dance for tears, we dance for madness, we dance for fears, we dance for hopes, we dance for screams, we are the dancers, we create the dreams.”

If you can’t beat them…

One of the biggest reasons I want to get married in style was so that I could turn it into a fundraiser said an email I received this morning. At first I was a little perplexed but then soon broke into a huge smile that turned into giggles. What a delightful idea and though perhaps a bit avant garde it seemed to have all the ingredients to make it trend setting in a land always avid and pinning for novel ways. Are we not the city that gets bowled over by anything and everything that is large than life. Remember the flowers costing 40 million a night!

It is an indubitable fact that we like lavish and larger than life weddings. The bigger the better, the costlier the better, the larger the better, even if it becomes ludicrous to say the least. People need to spend money at weddings, it has almost become essential to their well being. It is almost a benchmark for success and this is sadly also the cause in humbler families.

The practice of donating to charity at occasions like weddings or funerals has been in existence for a long time in the west where celebration and charity often go hand in hand. Websites have even been set up to facilitate this. Some time back a young Italian couple donated us the money they would have used for bonbonieres!

If you cannot beat them, join them goes the maxim. If we cannot make people see sense and downscale the size of their celebration, perhaps one should just turn these ostentatious weddings into fund raisers. One simply needs to work out a way that would appeal to all concerned. I must admit that as I write these words I do not have any concrete ideas, but I know that there are millions of possibilities. It is really time that our big fat Indian wedding came of age.

Any ideas…

God’s Alphabet

Things are not bright at pwhy in spite of the glowing report card we got from the recent workshop about our work and the impact we have on the life of children. The flip side of the famous SWOT was of course the fragility of our funding model, something I for one, have been painfully aware of for innumerable long nights. It was touching, infuriating and yet heartwarming to learn that everyone was aware the fact that pwhy’s life was at the present moment linked to mine and that as things stood now it did not have much chance of survival unless some drastic measures were not taken.

The King is dead, long live the King goes the saying. But maybe we need not wait for the king to die to prove the maxim right. Pwhy is facing a crisis and one could just use this to test waters. Let me elucidate.

A few months we faced a terrible crisis: a series of unforeseen events led to us having to raise a mind boggling amount of money to save the dreams of some very special children. The task was daunting, something we had never attempted: we had 70 tiny days to raise what was actually needed to run pwhy for couple of years. We managed. Wonder how? Simply by holding on to the dreams and never losing sight of them. Today the situation is the same. If we do not come up with the money needed for the next 3 months we are doomed. A pot of gold awaits us at the end of the said 3 months but we need to reach it.

I could do what I have done each time I have been faced with crises: write innumerable emails; beg unabashedly and knock at every door virtual or real. But my intuition tells me not to. And intuition is God’s Alphabet as Paulo Coehlo writes in his Manual of the Warrior of Light. Intuition tells me to use this god sent opportunity to test my team and see whether they are capable of walking the talk. Are they not the ones who just a few days back said that they were willing to taken on new responsibilities and even fund raise, that they were willing to do whatever was needed to save pwhy. The stage is theirs. Easier said than done.

It is true that there lies in each one of us a huge untapped potential, one that emerges in times of crises but therein lies the problem: what defines crises in each one of us: losing ones’ job, losing a dignified and motivating job. Or is it something deeper? Would I have fought as hard as I did, overcome situations I found galling if it was simply a matter of saving a job. I do not think so. What fuelled me with unknown passion and fervor were all the things that were at stake if pwhy was to close: the smiles of children, Manu’s home, Utpal’s school, the report cards handed with pride, Preeti jumping on a trampoline, Rinky hearing her first sound. What filled me with horror was the idea that all this could come to naught if I did not walk that extra mile. It is important for each one of pwhy’s team to find what they are fighting for, only then will they be able to make miracles. They need to realise all that would stop if they decided to do anything: the faces that would stop smiling, the children that would stop school and take the road to work, the heats that would remain broken, and more.

And if they do nothing can stop them. My intuition also tells me that time is ripe to resuscitate the one-rupee-a-day programme. Was it not the funding model created for people like the pwhy team, one that did not need special skills but simply a heart at the right place. It is time to listen to one’s intuition and sit back. Intuition is indeed God’s Alphabet and it is time to listen to the wind and the stars.

the bight pink report card

Yesterday was Utpal’s PTM always a special day for more reasons than one. It is a day that always begins with excitement laced with dolefulness as one knows that time will fly and the day come to a close when we will have to bid him farewell.

It is almost three years that Utpal left for boarding school. I have been there for every single PTM ans each is etched in my mind with indelible lines. I still remember the heart breaking cries that rented the air when it was time to say good bye. Then as time went by the tried turned to murmured pleas and entreaties that wrenched my soul. But then as time went by the good byes were easier though seeing him walk away clutching his little bag of carefully selected goodies was never easy.

As we drove along my heart was once again heavy as I did not quite know how to tell little Utpal that this Diwali when he comes home his mom will not be there. Sadly she relapsed and has been checked in to rehab again where she will spend a few months. And to say that we were all so happy and truly convinced that things had finally settled, that in spite of a few bouts of depression J was well into recovery. How wrong we were. The alcohol was too big an adversary, J too fragile, society too eager to draw her back into a world where she could be manipulated, her own family too weak or too greedy. The writing was on the wall: we just did not see it. Women who drink are sadly never given the second chance they deserve.

Lost in my thoughts I had not realised that we had reached the school. After the checking in formalities we went off looking for little Utpal. He was in his classroom waiting with his Kamala ma’am and his bright pink report card. The marks were good and his teacher gave glowing reports though we were told that he was very naughty. Somehow I felt comforted by those words as that meant he was happy and content. Th teacher asked me to fill up a form and as I sat to do it, Utpal stood next tome dictating the answers. When we came to the mother’s name column he promptly said ‘Jhunnu‘. My heart missed a beat and I was filled with a sense of overwhelming sadness. I wrote the six letters quietly and perhaps that is when I decided not to tell Utpal about his mom yet.

A quick trip to the hostel to meet his warden Dolly and seek her permission to give him the few toys we carried as we would be dropping back earlier than usual, then a few words with Anil Sir the PT instructor. We came to know that Utpal loved football, badminton and the Frisbee and had started skating. The music teacher revealed that he could now play happy birthday on the keyboard! All in all a successful PTM!

It was then time to take Utpal for his outing and the destination was the closest Pizza parlour. He was in a happy mood and regaled us with his antics: sipping his fizzy drink with his hands locked at he back, dancing to the rock music that blared as he ate his pizza, telling us funny stories. Time just flew and then the dreaded hour approached: it was time to take the road back. But before that we had to make a quick stop at the local store as he needed some toiletries. At the store he asked us to buy him some biscuits and carefully selected them. We were told that these were for his friends. We came to know later in the car that it was for his big friends. I guess this is what happens in all boarding schools: the gently bullying that signifies that you have been accepted.

When the time to say goodbye came there were no tears or murmured words. A very confident little boy clutched ll his packages and gave us a hug and then walked down the long corridor with a confident stride. I watched him walk away quietly wiping a tear that was threatening to spill over.

something is wrong with this picture

The real tragedy however is that when my mom told me about the blasts on the phone I was not shocked….I was sad ….but somewhere inside me I am learning to live with this terrorism as part of life…not feeling shocked when it happens….and something is just wrong with this picture! To think that my children, whenever they come into this world, will never have a childhood free of this aspect like I did even though for a short while.

These poignant words written by a young friend who lives miles away dropped in my inbox this morning. They ring painfully true in more ways than one. It is a sad fact indeed that we seem to have got inured to news of bombs blasts and terror. Even when it hits close to our own reality. It is as if we have accepted it as a part of our lives we do not have much control on. As the news enfolded on the TV screen one just kept on doing what one was. There was no shock or panic.

I heard about the first bomb as I was watching an evening metro channel. Ghaffar market seemed so remote and distant. It is a place one rarely went to. Then a few minutes later came the news of blasts at Connaught Place. This was closer to one’s life. It was the very place where one hung out almost everyday many years ago, the very place where one headed to escape the boredom of home or the stranglehold of college, a place where one felt carefree and insouciant. Remote memories almost forgotten that were brought alive by the blasts. Then the news of blasts at M block market GK I, a place one frequented every day. Actually I was there just a short hour earlier and still no panic. Is this not proof enough of the fact that we have learned to live with terror and simply accept it with sadness and a sense of longing for days gone by where such horror did not exist.

But at least we have know better days, days where such things did not exist, when streets were safe, when all you feared at most was a freak accident, something you would accept with a sense of fatalism. And people my age would even remember times when terror was almost alien vocabulary. Many would not believe it but I can still recall days when one could see a person off at the step ladder of an airplane!

We still have memories but our children, those who are still very young or those still waiting to be born will never have a childhood free of terror. It has engulfed every nook and corner of our lives, even the sanctity of our homes as TV images of gore and violence invade our privacy. Children of today grow up hearing about terrorism and bomb blasts and sadly have by force majeure become inured. It is a matter of survival.

Gone are the carefree days of childhood. Life has changed irreversibly. Something is really wrong with this picture.

morning has broken again…

It was almost three years ago that I wrote a post entitled morning has broken. I reread it and realised that every word in it still rung disturbingly true.

The morning after has broken again, the sky is lighting up and the sun will soon rise….

Once again my inbox was filled with messages of concern and once again I answered them with words of reassurance. Yes we are all safe. Though I wonder what the word safety means. Should we just say that we are lucky not to have been one of the 30 or one of the 90. As usual gory images are aired with unsettling regularity to increase TRPs, rumor mills are afloat, divisive forces are in play…

And once again we will pick up the pieces and reassemble our lives to the best of our ability trying to forget the cracks and missing bits. One gain we will put our bravest face and best foot forward and carry on. It is the only befitting answer to dastardly acts of terrorism.

I am at a loss of words in the wake of such horror. People simply enjoying a balmy evening in a park or shopping on a week end find their lives destroyed in a split second, their loved ones condemned to a life of sorrow and despair. Is this what the perpetrators of such acts seek? The never ending feeling of loss and pain that remains etched in the lives of the survivors as a constant reminder of the fateful day.

The political drama is in full swing. Talk of conspiracy, destabilisation, seeds of mistrust, empty words of comfort by politicians seeking mileage.. everything is there to see and applaud.

Life will go an, it has to. It will go on for the ones who have lost dear ones, the ones who will have to live with a maimed bodies and scars on their souls. Life will go on for those who have to go back to work to feed their hungry families, for determined business owners, for school children, for each and everyone of us. And this is the only answer we can give to the death merchants.

big bang and the power of TV

Little Babu and his pal Shankar did not come to pwhy yesterday. It is not because they did not want to, quite the contrary: the love pwhy. They did not come because their parents, simple illiterate folks, fell prey to to the misinformation and fear spread by vernacular TV channels about the outcome of the CERN experiment.

We were aghast when Sitaram called to inform that no parent from the Okhla slum was willing to send their children to the project. They were convinced that the world would come to an end at 12 pm and thus did not want to send their kids away. We were also informed that many menfolk had not gone to work and decided to stay home. The Okhla slum where these kids come from is home to migrant labour most of them illiterate and extremely naive, being recent arrivals in the city. Nevertheless most if not all have acquired TV sets, their only lifeline in their abysmal lives. For the past few days some TV channels catering primarily to such people have been running doomsday stories in graphic and dramatised ways that have succeeded in scaring naive viewers to the point of panic. Talks of tsunamis and earthquakes, black holes that would suck in the entire world and such horrors created a fear psychosis in the simple minds and hence children were not sent to school. Though the maximum absentees were in the creche, attendance was very poor in all classes. Fear was visible on the face of our hearing impaired girls who hugged each other with tears in their eyes.

I must confess that I saw red. I have always feared the power TV hodls on simple minds and seen time and again how it affects their lives. The quest for TRPs is acceptable to a point but when the result is the kind one saw yesterday one has to question things particularly when nothing of what was said or shown has any scientific basis. What is worst is that people believe what is shown without an iota of doubt. No matter how much we explained that a tsunami for example was not possible in Delhi, our logic was pooh poohed away as the TV had said it!

The other question that came to mind was the disturbing yet indubitable reality that people are always willing to believe bad and negative things and rarely positive ones. This probably stems from a feeling of deep insecurity. And nothing you can do or say can free them. The issues are too deep seated. And sadly this is what soothsayers, dubious astrologers and other such people play on, something that TRP seekers have understood and mastered.