what gives us the right….

What gives us and the media the right to question politicians for their divisive politics, when deep inside we are as divided and prejudiced. And so we shall get what we deserve. These very pertinent words were part of a note on Facebook.

The aftermath of the Mumbai attacks has set many of us thinking or so would we like to believe. TV shows are roping in distinguished personae to debate and dissect the events of the past three terrible days and suggest measures to ensure that such horror is never revisited. Politician bashing is the call of the day and everyone is engaging in it unabashedly. A popular TV show was aired yesterday and though I only caught the end twenty minutes my, blood ran cold. (for those who want to view it it is available here). The audience was made of a gathering of eminent personalities and an audience of educated people, some of whom had survived what is now known as 26/11.

There was understandable anger and unbridled passion. But what shocked me beyond words was the ease with which our own prejudices and divisive attitudes emerged at the slightest provocation. What appalled me was the casualness with which some identified the enemy and even suggested we carpet bomb them. I am comforted that some reacted to these and put an end to the dangerous direction things were taking. What saddened me was the fact that this was all being done by the intelligentsia of our country. Deep inside we are divided and prejudiced.

I would like to share two stories. One of a young child of 6 maybe 7. It happened many years ago. The child father’s was actively involved in some UN negotiations and for many days the discussion in the home had been about the crucial votes needed to push some resolution through. The fate of the resolution lay in the way Japan would vote. While the parents discussed the the matter with passion every evening, the child sat listening. On the fateful day Japan voted against the resolution and the motion was defeated. A few days later was the child’s birthday and as she sat with her mom making a list of the children to be invited, she declared that she would not invite her two Japanese friends. her mother was perplexed as they were the child’s best friends of the moment. The child’s answer was simple: their papa voted against my papa, they are enemies now ! Luckily the child’s mom was a wise woman and she sat her child down and put the incident in the right perspective and needless to say the Japanese girls came to the party and remained best friends for a long time. The child was me. I had forgotten this incident that happened almost half a century ago. It sprung back to my mind yesterday as I listened to the hate that seemed to colour the words of many speakers.

The other story I would like to share is one of a simple family that was somehow both Hindu and Muslim. I reproduce it here though it was published some time back in GoodnewsIndia.

(Dr S D Sharma, now 80, is in retirement. He reminisces about a ‘brother’ who went away to Pakistan but stayed in touch till he died.)

‘I grew up in Kanpur, where my father was a doctor. Ours was a large family, and my mother was known for her strict ways with children. We were nevertheless, a merry band of 10 children—siblings and cousins– that lived in the rambling house. Mummy, as we all called her, showered us with love, but could be a real tyrant if we did not study. For her it was imperative that we do well in school, as she intuitively knew that learning was the key to the greater things in life. And what was even more remarkable was that she had the same view for both boys and girls.

One of my father’s good friends was a Muslim trader. We knew him as Khalid Chacha. He was an imposing man, with a long beard and we were always in awe of him. One day, Khalid Chacha came, holding the hand of a young boy, maybe 10 years old.

That is when I first met Umar. Umar was Khalid Chacha’s son, and was, as we learnt later, a naughty boy who hated studies. My father and Khalid Chacha had decided that only Mummy could get him to study, so Umar would come and live with us, in our home.

Umar turned out to be a lovely boy and he became my best friend. He lived with us for over 10 years, till he passed his BA. Initially it was hard to get him to study, but later it was Umar who decided that he preferred living with us, even though he had to work hard at his books.

In 1947, Umar’s family left for Pakistan. We were bewildered, hurt, sad and also a little bit angry at their decision to leave. But we did not know the power of love. We all thought we would never see him again.

Umar Bhai died in Rawalpindi in 1990. Each and every year till then, political conditions and regulations permitting, Umar made his ‘pilgrimage’ to India. As the rules demanded, he had to fill in the names of people he would visit. And the names would be those of my family, all Hindu names. This surprised the authorities so much that once they asked him why he came every year to meet Hindus.

His answer was the simple: ‘They are the only family I have’. ‘The heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand,’ said a French poet. Well Umar Bhai proved it in a remarkable way.’

(Dr Sharma now lives a quiet retired life in Delhi. He wonders what became of Umar’s children. Do Hindu and Muslim children grow up in the same household now? Or has the Partition put paid to all that?)

Why tell these stories today. Perhaps because the first one shows how easily a young mind can be influenced and how important it is to set things right before they are too deep seated to be removed and the second one simply illustrates how not so long people of different faith lived together in this very country and respected each other without hate or prejudice. This would lead us to ask why things changed and who was responsible. I will not delve into the matter as I know that each one of us know the answers. We have just let ourselves be swayed like the little girl and did not have anyone to put things in the right perspective.

Th real healing and ensuing solutions will only come after deep and honest introspection and a genuine effort to rid ourselves of our prejudices and intolerance.

The picture I have chosen is that of a child who transcended the labels of his birth and origins to try and make his own place in the sun: little Utpal.

have faith in India…

Sixteen years ago, on this very day my father breathed his last. Each year this day I remember him. If not of him, there may not have been project why as he is the one who instilled in me the passion and compassion needed to steer such a venture.

Each year this day I remember him, yet each day I see him live in the hope and smiles of the little eyes that greet me as I walk into my office. For Ram was all about hope and belief.
Is dying words to one of his dearest friend were: have faith in India.

As I remember him today war rages in Mumbai, hundreds of innocent souls have died and the lives of many have been irreversibly transformed by the today’s foe: terrorism. Yet as I remember him , dying words refuse to pale; on the contrary they seem louder than ever.

All screams to the contrary: the prevalent terror attack, the empty and flawed babble of the powers that be, the hate filled reactions of the so called educated, the insidious feeling of hope lost and more of the same. And yet as I remember the one that gave me life, I am filled with renewed commitment to the cause I defend. I am convinced that somehow the tiny effort that goes by the name of project why is a step in the right direction, that of hope.

Nothing can destroy the spirit of a nation. Nothing should be allowed to do so. And the spirit lives in the humblest of souls, the ones we chose to ignore. For the past three days everyone – I mean every one who could afford to do so – was glued to TV screens watching operation Mumbai. But there were millions who went about their lives without a fuss. They did so with the rare dignity and courage that often goes unnoticed. And yet they represent the India one needs to have faith in, the backbone that allows each one of us to stand, the ones we have not only forsaken but betrayed.

I did send messages inquiring about the well being of the few friends I have in Mumbai. This is what one of them wrote back:

We all went out for dinner last night to Taj Land’s End in Bandra. Everyone else I called refused to go out. The hotel was stunned to hear us ask for reservation. When we went there – the police cordon started 50 meters outside the hotel. and they said – the hotel was closed…none of the restaurants were open. We called the restaurant – they confirmed our booking..then we were asked to leave our car at the police cordon and walk. when we went to the restaurant we learnt – we were the first customers at any taj restaurant since the attack.we popped champagne. and we toasted Taj. for staying open for business after all the mayhem, and despite having no customers and of course we toasted Bombay. Even if it was one family out on the streets of Mumbai – we were there and no terrorist or army or police or calamity can keep us down!

Today I remember Ram and today I have faith in India!

where are we going

I went to sleep on Tuesday in a world that seemed well, barring the normal hitches and glitches that one has come to accept as part of the deal of living in today’s day and age: a school girl crushed under a bus, traffic snarls leading to incidents of road rage, noisy election drama replete with empty promises… one could have said all is well in the kingdom of…

Morning dawned and I went about my usual chores. I settled in front of my computer to take on another day. A few minutes later a skype call from my daughter living in London shook me out of my comfort bubble: Mumbai was under attack and this was not your isolated crude bomb that blasts in some innocuous area and kills a handful of innocent souls, but a coordinated attack that would seem more real in reel life! Swanky hotels, gun battles, hostages, indiscriminate firing, encounters, chases on high seas, assaults and all that makes a good pot boiler script. It went on through the night, the day and the night again and was for real: Mumbai, India’s commercial capital was under attack!

While the battle raged on, and Mumbai smoldered in more ways than one, a bunch of children in perhaps one of the most deprived slum of India’s capital city were busy watching a street magician as he conjured one act after the other. These were children from all faith, caste or creed linked by one simple reality: poverty. Like all children they have dreams and like all children they dream big, still unaware of the harsh fact that dreams come at a price they may never be able to pay. Like the magician they can still conjure their dreams, fuelled by what they see around them on or the screen of the small TV that is the pride of every slum home.

They will one day grow up, and most of them will accept reality and learn to survive; some may drown their broken dreams in easily available hooch, others may vent their frustration on their loved ones. But as I look at these children I wonder how many will be tempted to take the wrong turn and seek quick gratification by resorting to petty crime and how many will fall prey to predators seeking young minds and bodies to perpetrate their heinous agendas.

The pictures of the young men responsible for the horror in Mumbai are chilling. They are of your regular kid next door, the branded jean and tshirt. The kind you would smile at. And yet they are the ones willing to lay their lives on the block for the cause they espouse.

How many of my kids could turn to this if no one was there to guide them, soothe them, mentor them and above all ensure that they get some of their hijacked childhood back. The plight of the slum kid is no bed of roses: beaten at home, caned at school, riled by his peers, rejected by others, sometimes hungry for food, for love, for understanding he lives a lonely life and sees his dreams crash one after the other. How hurt and humiliated do you have to become to cross the line. I do not know, but the fact is that some if not many do.

Once again we are faced with the question that needs to be asked but that no one is quite willing to, let alone answer. Who is responsible?

Some of the terrorists will be caught. They may even be tried and punished. But are they the true perpetrators? And come to think about it who are the real culprits: the predators lurking with their indoctrination spiel or a fractured society where dreams of some can never be fulfilled, where hate and animosity are easily ignited and stoked?

Disturbing questions that nevertheless demand urgent and honest answers.

sunny side up

Little Prakash is not being punished. Far from that. He is just spending his daily 20 minutes in the sun, part of his treatment the rickets he acquired because he lived a huge part of his tiny life in the dark.

Every time I look at him as he treats me either to his lopsided smile or to his rather cross look, my heart goes out to him. Where he should have by now been hopping, jumping and babbling, Prakash can barely stand though he is well over two. He only cut his first tooth a few weeks back.

Prakash has been a student of pwhy for more than half his life. For many months he simply sat propped up by the wall and barely interacted with others. It is only now that he has begun joining his pals and participating in some of the activities. But the road is long and the future uncertain. We do not know whether little Prakash will be able to one day catch up with all his pals. We only know that we will do everything we can to make sure that the he does.

Two to tango

A few days back a mail dropped in my inbox. It was from a young lady who loves in the US and who has been a staunch supporter of pwhy. I have never met her in person but a couple of years ago when we were going through one of our dark moments she and her friends got together and organised a super raffle for us aptly called two-to-tango!

More than what was collected, it was the love and support they showered me that overwhelmed me. Sonal is now a married lady ans till lives in the US. Last week, the first snow in her city made her think of the pwhy children and she wrote wanting to send them warm clothes. I gently convinced her that it would make mores sense if I bought them here as postage would be prohibitive. Sonal agreed but with a small request: if you could have them gift wrapped, I would feel really happy. a little something extra….As it is, it pains me that I cannot be with the kids there and that I have to live so far away from my home…..but if I know that they enjoyed receiving them, and see their happy faces in the pics, I would feel like I can enjoy my holidays this year! 🙂

We did just that. And the packets were distributed on Sonal’s birthday and the children made a big thank you banner for her. The pictures were duly sent to her. This is and always will be my best birthday gift she simply wrote back.

What truly touched me in this roadshow as Sonal called it was the fact that she insisted that the gifts be wrapped as to her that made it that more special particularly for children who rarely receive gifts.

As I was still basking in the warmth of this wonderful gesture another mail dropped by. Young Harriet who came to spend a few days with us last month wanted to know how she could send some of the money she had collected for us. She has also informed me that she was busy planning a cake sale in her school and had also asked all her friends and family to give a donation to pwhy instead of the usual Xmas gifts!

Sonal and Harriet, two wonderful souls that make you believe that all is well in the world.

No entry….

No entry: domestic helps, service providers, drivers, luggage, pets screamed the headline of my Sunday morning newspaper. And though I had promised myself not to harp any more, at least for a while, on the have and have not issues or social strata syndrome, I just could not hold myself. I agree that the world over service elevators exist and for a good reason but what made once again my seething blood boil were some of the reasons given for the segregation of elevators.

We have kept the lifts separate to maintain hygiene. Helps do not keep themselves clean. Either their clothes are dirty or they have body odour which makes it uncomfortable for residents and visitors said one person.

Electricity supply is erratic here. In case of a power cut, one could be stuck in the lift for 10-15 minutes. If a resident or a visitor gets stuck in the lift with a servant or a driver, he/she might feel awkward added another.

I don’t like it if a domestic help uses the same lift as me or my children. I feel we do need separate lifts quipped yet another requesting anonymity!

Millions of questions come to mind but let us just a simple one: are these not the very people to whom you entrust your children, who cook your meals and keep you house clean so that you can live a comfortable life. And are they not human being just like us!

yet another tale of two Indias

My 799th post seems to have been the most popular one I have ever written, if one is to go by the number of comments (a whopping 24 to the normally 1 or 2!)). I agree that the heap of rubbish lying on our tiny terrace did get the better of me for some time at least, till things settled and one got hold of one’s self.

No I did not return the things as many suggested as to me what matters is not to make an enemy, but to try and get people to change the way they look at the other India and treat it with respect if not affection and compassion.

A friend directed me to a video that he thought I would as he said understand! The idea is simple and stark: simply ask a cross section of people what they would do if they were given hundred rupees. I share the video with you and urge you to spare the few minutes required to watch it:

Some of you may not understand the answers in Hindi. They are the ones given by the other side of India, the hidden and forgotten one. They simply range from I will buy food, I will pay my school fees, I will give it to my mum to simply I will hide it.

unless the whole man accompanies it.

I hate the giving of the hand unless the whole man accompanies it said Ralph Waldo Emerson

Continuing the saga of the art or chore of giving let us talk today about one more avatar of the giving tale: feeding the poor on birthdays, death anniversaries etc. This is extremely prevalent in India and we have had our share of this over the last almost 10 years.

When still greenhorns we readily accepted any such offers and I guess that is how we learn many a lesson. I still remember the day when a lady called wanting to feed children. She gave us a time and over 100 children waited patiently for the food to come. It was meant to be lunch and the agreed time was 1pm. By 3pm there was still no sight of the lady and her food. We tried to keep the kids still by playing games and singing songs but even that had a limit. Finally the lady and her retinue arrived with oily puris and over spiced curries. Needless to say the whole thing was a messy fiasco. After that day we insisted that anyone wanting to feed children had to bring things on time and that we preferred fruit, biscuits and juice packs.

But how can I forget the day when a lady came with biscuits and juice and distributed them to the children. She had a few packs left over as some of the kids were absent that day, so rather than leave the packets behind or give them to the handful of teachers she simply took them back!

Yesterday another mother celebrated her daughter’s birthday by giving a food packet to children and a small gift. She came at the prescribed time and made all the right moves, but somehow the heart was absent.

But there is one young girl named Yashu. her parents decided to celebrate her birthday in a very different manner. She spends her birthday taking the entire special section of pwhy for a day out at Dilli Hath bringing the two Indias together in a wonderful celebration. They play, sing dance together. The pwhy children make gifts for their special friend and there is always a birthday cake and return gifts! Yashu has never forgotten her special date with her very special pals. A befitting tribute to Emerson’s words.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s birthday party


The fragrance alway stays

The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose. ” wrote the 17 century British poet Hada Bejar
I do not know whether I am livid, desolate or have just become inured to whatever comes my way. I do not think so as each time I come across an incident like the one that happened yesterday my blood boils and then curdles. Over the past years I have often vented my anger when faced with situations that demean the very act of giving.

Let me end the suspense. Here is what happened: last week I got a phone call from a well to do up market lady who lives in one of the poshest colony of our city. She asked me to send someone as she had things to donate for the children. In spite of having been bitten many times, specially when the so called donor is from a particular strata of society, we promptly sent one of our three wheelers to the lady’s home. He came back some time later with over a dozen plastic bags of all sizes stuffed with things. The bags were deposited on our terrace waiting to be emptied.

Jenine and Nina two volunteers from Canada and the US and some of our staff were given the task of sorting things so that they could be handed over. It did not take long to realise that what had been sent to us as donation was a heap of rubbish: dirty and torn clothes, broken toys – half a Barbie doll, half a chess board etc – dusty and stained lampshades, broken shoes and even stained and tattered undergarments. It was a nightmare to sort things out. At the end of it all there was not one article that could be put to use. Even the kabariwalla (recycle man) called later refused to pick anything up!

Needless to say that the volunteers were shocked beyond words and our staff members angry and even humiliated. The question on every one’s lips was: How dare she….

Charity as one sees it today is often nothing short of galling. I often wonder what the real motivation is: a topic to discuss at the next kitty party in the hope of getting a pat in the back, a desire to be written about on page 3, a way to ease ones’ conscience, or simply a way of getting rid of the rubbish no one else wants. I wonder how the lady in question set about collecting the items she sent us. Did she just ask all in her family to set aside what they wanted to get rid off, or simply did a long overdue spring cleaning. I do not know, but what really riles me is that she could for even a second think that what she was sending could be used by anyone!

I guess I will never learn. A few years back a bunch of ladies belonging to a respectable and even elite international club decided to donate us toys. These came beautifully wrapped and were handed over with great drama. After the ladies left we opened the packets and were shocked to see that all the toys and games were not only used but broken and incomplete. When I brought this to the notice of the convener she simply said: what difference does it make, it is only for a poor child! Needles to say that I returned all of them.

Are there any lessons to be learnt? I do not know. What I do know is that not a single of the slum people I work with would have the audacity to give any broken or dirty article to another human being. So what makes this and other ladies do such a thing. And there we once again reach the realm of the two Indias. Is it that they truly believe that the so called poor will accept anything with gratitude, that they have no right to feel humiliated or angered. Have values like compassion and generosity completely disappeared from the lives of the rich and affluent. Do they not realise that in acting in such away it is they that look poor and pitiable as in Bejar’s words the fragrance stays in the hand that gives.

To the manner born

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.
Shakespeare (Hamlet)

I wonder what it takes to be to the manner born. I have often been stunned by the unexpected gestures of pwhy kids that make me wonder about who is truly to the manner or manor born.

I look forward to the weekly report I get from Prabin, the housemaster of our foster care programme as each week a special treat is in store for me. This weeks report was short and crisp but had not one but two surprises for me.

Manu it seemed now wished everyone good night before he went to sleep. Nothing to write home about would be the normal reaction, but how can one forget where Manu comes from and what a miracle these two simple words were.

But there was more.

Last Friday the foster care children went for a visit to Lotus temple. At the gate of the temple a Canadian volunteer was greeting every visitor with a Namaste and handing out information flyers to all. No one answered her greeting or murmured a thank you to her. Our children answered her Namaste and thanked her for the flyer without be prompted to do so. The lady was impressed and took time to interact with them. Some people stopped and asked Prabin which school the children studied in.

Now remember these kids – Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Aditya – come from the most deprived homes possible. When they came to us they were aggressive, used language and were a real handful. Today they make us proud.

I wonder what it takes to be to the manner or manor born!