a petition the Lord with prayer

When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
sang the Doors many years ago. The passionate lyrics of this song came back to me this morning as I sat composing what was to be my new year appeal.

In a few hours 2009 will dawn. New year greetings are flying across the world wide web, choking inboxes and saturating mobile phone lines. Each message bravely carries a missive for peace, understanding, and hope. Needless to say that the past few months have been notorious by the absence of peace, understanding and hope. Senseless terror and unfathomable economic vagaries have shaken every one’s beliefs.

Pwhy has not also taken its share of beating. It is sad but true that when things take a downside, people find it easy to downsize or even stop their commitments to causes leaving the like of us in dire straits. One would have hoped that the tumble everyone has taken would have redefined priorities and reinstated values like compassion and empathy. But alas, that is not the case.

It is time to petition the Lord with Prayer.

Had pwhy been a business house, it would have been easy to shut the door, put the key under the mat and sit down in some dark corner to lick one’s wounds and wait for things to pass. But when you hold over seven hundred smiles in custody you do not have that luxury. When you have umpteen doors each one concealing its set of dreams you cannot even start deciding which one do you shut first: the one that costs the most but is not also the one that shelters the most desperate souls, the newest one you put up but is not the one that is the most vibrant?

No, Sir, you just cannot shut any of them. You need to find new ways to survive and thus reinvent yourself and petition the Lord with Prayer.

Today more than ever, I wish my one rupee a day programme had taken off. I wish I had given it a better chance and withstood all the false starts. I wished I had pushed it with more passion and not allowed myself to be skunked. I know that too many the one rupee programme seemed puerile and even silly but the essence of the programme was to ask so little from each one that it would not be missed and hence no matter what happened, the tiny amount would still find its way to us and keep us going. In hindsight perhaps I was not able to make my case heard convincingly enough. So here I am again with the same entreaty in a new packaging. I am asking everyone who believed in what we do to commit a fix amount, no matter how small, for us every month so that no door needs to be closed, no smile needs to be lost and no child risks to drop out of school and lose his morrows. Is it asking too much.

Today I petition the Lord that I may be heard.

mother and child reunion

Yesterday was a special day. After almost six months little Utpal was to see his mom again. The day before I had asked Utpal whether he wanted to see his mom dance and act as the inmates of thecentre were putting up a new year show. Utpal’s eyes light up with joy and I was treated to his mischievious lopsided smile I so love. Mom dancing that was something he could not miss.

I felt a lump in my throat as I remembered all the false start mother and child reunions Utpal had gone through. Would this finally be the right one? Would Utpal’s mom come back to us healed and ready to face life? Easier said than done as she is deeply disturbed and needs a lot of healing and care. Would I ever be able to fulfill the promise I made to little Utpal: that of giving him back a mom!

The battle we have waged for many years has been quite uneven. Little Utpal has played by the rule and never made a false move. He settled in his boarding school without batting an eyelid. made friends, brought report cards filled withs stars, performed on stage, learnt to skate, and even began to play the piano. And each holiday he settled with ease in whatever place we sent him to be it a rehab centre or our women centre, with or without mom. As I have always said, he was is a true survivor.

So it is with a spring in his walk that he took off yesterday to see mom dance. He came back happy and full of stories: mom danced well said he as he proudly showed me the little clip on the camera, and then went on to show me the little paper windmill that his mom had made in her craft class adding with pride: you keep it, it is for you. Needless to say it now sits on my work desk next to his Xmas card and little cars.

Soon it will be time for mom to come home. I do not know what will happen but I do beseech the God of Lesser Souls to make this the final home coming. A little boy with huge eyes and an unwavering spirit deserves to have his mom back.

flashback

This picture was taken yesterday. Our class X boys busy studying on the roadside in the morning sun. They often do that as their classroom, or what goes by that name, is very cold. But somehow the picture took me back to the day it had all begun. I still remember the way a vile school principal contemptuously told me that the likes of our students were simply gutter snipe and could never clear their Boards. The challenge was taken and for want of a classroom, classes began in the road side just a few meters away from where this picture was taken. In those days we did not have chairs or stools, a simple mat sufficed and cups of tea kept the chill away.

What we lacked resources was amply made up by the passion, commitment and zeal we all displayed. I remember coming almost every morning and sitting close to the boys, hoping against hope that that my presence would make up for all that was missing. Time was short as we had just under two months to achieve was seemed impossible: ensure that all our 10 boys cleared their Xth Boards. And they did!

Since that day every year a new batch of students has repeated the feat and I must confess a little sheepishly though, that now one has almost taken this for granted. As time passed and the project grew one had to take on new responsibilities and meet new challenges and many small miracles just went passed unnoticed.

Another picture did take me recently on a journey down memory lane, but this own was different. It brought back the almost palpable energy, vitality and spirit of what pwhy truly was: the passion to take on any challenge that comes our way, even it seems impossible and even if all screams to the contrary. I guess that is what we are all about and will strive to always be.

wondrous ways

When the terrible attacks on Mumbai occurred almost exactly a month ago, we like many the world over, watched in helpless horror. We mourned the senseless deaths of innocent people. We searched for elusive answers to the disturbing whys. And as is always the case in life we settled back in our ways and life took its momentarily suspended course. Mumbai somehow seemed very remote and we felt too small to have any role to play. But that was not to be. A wondrous moment was in the making.

A few days back a mail dropped in my inbox. A friend of a person whose life had tragically ended on that terrible Wednesday wanted to provide a small meal to pwhy kids in memory of her departed friend. So on Xmas eve, she along with her friend’s family, came to pwhy laden with boxes of yummy snacks and a bag of shining apples. I am convinced that the kids knew that the moment was almost hallowed. Their beautiful smiles and endearing eyes managed to convey what they could not word. And for those few magical instants time stood still and all that is ugly and sad was forgotten as one watched these little souls open their boxes or bite into their apples.

It was a blessed moment. One of hope and healing. One that urged us to look beyond the obvious and seek real solutions, one that compelled us to see that there were millions of little souls who still believed that a better tomorrow was possible even if the only evidence they had was the sweetness of their first whole apple.

It was a touching moment as I watched the brave little family who in spite of the terrible loss they were still coming to terms with, found it in their heart to come and bring a smile on faces who were still learning to smile.

It was a beautiful moment that proved that no matter how small or inconsequential one may feel, each one of us had the ability to reach out to another and craft something special.

I felt simply blessed.

a boon in disguise…..

I am going to be outrageous today as I dare to hope that the proposed school fee hike in public schools may just be a tiny first step to the cherished dream of a common neighborhood school. Let me try and explain what I mean.

That education has become a commercial venture is sad but true. And this is across India as I learnt first hand just a few days ago. Gita who works is our home has a young daughter who lives in Calcutta with her mother. Gita nad her husband who works in the Gulf have just one dream: to give the best education possible t their only child. The child is not ready for school and for the past weeks the family has been filling forms and going through the tedious and onerous admission procedures. They have dutifully bought forms at 500 rs a piece ans completed them. They were shocked when a school told them that they had to produce the mother as she needed to be interviewed. They tried in vain to explain the situation. The nightmare is far from over and I just hope the little girl will get into a good school.

It is the word good that gets my goat!

Over the years certain schools have acquired the label good! Slowly and surreptitiously an insidious caste system evolved in what was meant to be an even playing ground, and slowly and surreptitiously the hallmark of good schools became the size of their fees, and not the quality of teachers or other such parameters. For a good school in Delhi you have to pay in thousands and more. And now with the dreaded rise the costs will become simply mind boggling. And as a parent said : we might have to pull out our children from expensive school to a cheaper one.

During the recent election campaign a politician aptly commented: Having a house in the city is beyond the reach of the middle class. If the fees of children are increased, then schools will go out of the reach of the middle class and only the children of the rich people will get education. Education is the fundamental right of children. This of course was uttered to gain political mileage but it seems to be the way things are going. Schools will soon become out of reach of the middle class and the likes of Gita and her husband who toil day and night to try and ensure their child gets the best.

Rather than the cheaper school can we not start talking of the common neighborhood school run by the state. Or is it is too infradig to think of sending your middle class child to such schools? How long will it take to some to terms with a reality that is staring us in the face. Is it not time to demand that state run schools be made into good schools, and redefine the word good once in for all!

As long as good is defined in germs of the size of fee paid, there is scant hope. Education is not better if imparted in fancy buildings. The best lessons can be learnt under a tree! By making education a commercial activity one is hijacking one’s own future. If good education is allowed to percolate to the lowest level, it will usher a better society for all. This is something we seem to have forgotten.

look at me I also exist

Meher came into our lives just a few months ago. Her story is nothing short of tragic and yet her joie de vivre is infectious. From the time she walked into the women centre she adopted us all.

Though officially enrolled in the creche, Meher has become part and parcel of the centre where she practically lives. Her booming voice, her incredible self confidence, her larger than life smile and endearing ways make you forget the scars on her face or her maimed hands.

True that some may find her a tad spoilt, but what the heck, she deserves every bit of pampering and overindulging to make up for all that was taken away from her on the fateful night when a cheap mosquito net caught fire and scarred her for life when she was barely a few months old.

Meher has an incredible spirit. In spite of her tiny age she wants to live life to its fullest. She seems strangely aware of the fact that she is not like others and is probably conscious of the fact that people look at her with a mix of pity and even horror and yet she is not one to hide behind anything. She faces you head on and ensures that you look at her and acknowledge her existence. And once you do she treats you to her breathtaking smile that almost washes away all her scars. Her message seems simple: look at me, I also exist.

Meher is probably an extreme example but over the past decade I have seen this spirit in almost every child that has come the pwhy way. They all bear scars though for most of them these are invisible: scars of humiliation at the hands of uncaring parents, scars of indignity meted by brutish teachers, scars of embarrassment at their poverty, their disability and so on. The list is endless.

And yet, when given a chance even the tiniest one, these children, no matter their age, want to tell you just like Meher: look at me, I exist. They do it in subtle ways: a good report card, a lesson well learnt or sometimes simply a hesitant smile and a hand held out. And if you respond then there is no stopping them.

There are millions of such children, waiting in the wings for someone to simply tell them : I see you and know you exist!

prowling predators

I am really livid! i was hoping that my mellowed mood of the day before would have lasted me this festive season and gently pushed me into the next year but that was not to be.

This morning a worried Prabin, the house master of our foster care programme walked into my office and informed me about a late night knock that came to disturb the peace of our little haven: a posse of uniformed men who romped in noisily as apparently they had been told that we were running a lucrative guest house!

A very lucrative guest house indeed where the permanent residents are 7 lost souls, given up by all and who pays us in smiles, stars on their copy books or a pile of neatly folded clothes. A very lucrative guest house indeed where the most unlikely roomies learn not only to live together but to respect and care for each other; where a half orphaned boy climbs on a chair to help his disabled roomie comb his hair! A very lucrative guest house indeed where simple meals of rice and dal are shared amidst laughter and chiding, where the TV runs for only an hour and all huddle in one room at night to keep electricity bills lows. I think it is time to redefine the word lucrative!

What makes me livid is the fact that someone found it necessary to go an complain to the authorities. What makes me livid is that everyone on the street knows what we do and yet the cops reached our door. What makes me livid is that over and over again we are bothered by uncaring and heartless authorities, even ten long years d won the line.

What makes me sad is that even ten years down the line, in a country where every one knows what the other is doing, one cannot carry the simple work one is doing in peace. If you want to repair the roof of your crumbling building, before you have even knocked off the first brick, a swarm of uniforms descend upon you with their hands lasciviously held out. If someone kind souls form faraway lands make the effort to a simple gift to the children a cryptic sign language greets you as you again wonder where you went wrong.

I wonder when the prowling predators will knock. I wonder if they were able to see the reality as they pussyfooted across our little home or were they too blinded by their greed. I do not know why I feel desecrated. The peaceful life we had crafted with so much effort and love in spite of the innumerable problems we had faced stands violated. The dream to give Manu a warm bed, or to secure Champa’s morrows or to give four desperate children hope now lies exposed.

And as is always the case in such moments, we find ourselves compelled to wonder where we went wrong.

I am incensed and terribly sad.

muted musings

As I was browsing the innumerable pictures that sit on my computer, I came across this one, taken a few weeks ago by a friend who had dropped by. I guess she must have snapped the shot as she was leaving and the children and staff waved her farewell from the rooftop. I do not how, but I had missed this one till today.

I looked at the picture for a long time and somehow it set the mood for some muted musings, something that had not happened for a long time as one seemed always hijacked by some crises or the other. The silhouettes of the kids etched across an almost pristine blue sky seem to echo to the T the mood I find myself in as the year draws to a end.

It has been an eventful year to say the least. From our terrible struggle to salvage our land, to the continuous one to keep project why and its new avatars alive one had been on one’s toes, not having even a moment to take a back seat and simply enjoy the incredible happenings that have dotted the year.

I do not know how and when the women centre grew from a tiny handful of 5o kids to almost 300. I did not have time to pour over the regular reports the foster care kids brought home and count the stars they proudly displayed. I barely had time to dance with the special kids or play with the tiny ones. Like the proverbial character in the song of sixpence, I just seemed to have spent the year in my counting house simply trying to ensure that each day flowed in to the other. Days flew by, each with its tiny miracle that went unnoticed, at least by me. Children quietly moved from one class to the next, two batches of women got their tailoring certificates, our hearing impaired girls got their hearing aids and heard their first sound, Manu took his first bath without help, and 7 super kids learnt the art of inclusive living. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to list all the marvels that dotted the year gone by, I would need to write a book.

I had not realised it till this very moment but the year gone by was one that saw the realisation of long cherished dreams: the one that was conjured silently almost a decade back when I first lay eyes on Manu and dreamt of a soft bed for him, or the one barely evoked by a teenage girl. And it was not just the fulfillment of personal dreams but also of those barely mouthed by desperate souls, be it the sightless woman whose husband’s life was at stake, or the little boy whose mother was in danger.

It has been an incredible and blessed year. And I am glad the picture that had passed me by came to the fore today as it allowed me to remember all I had to be grateful for. Sure the sun will rise again, and the muted silhouettes will become sharp and distinct reminding me of the struggle that lies ahead, but today I just want to revel in my muted musings.

the only way to go

Yesterday our four little foster care kids celebrated their first annual day in their little prep school. While the three older ones were dancing, little Aditya was an elephant in a Panchatantra tale. Babli, Nikhil, Vicky and Aditya are incredible kids. For the past 8 months they have been living with their very special pals Manu, Champa and Anjali. And they all are truly a terrific seven!

A year back they lived dreary lives and barely knew each other. In a few months they will take their first step in brand new world when they join little Utpal in his boarding school where a a whole new world await them.

These four kids have done us proud. They have secured excellent marks in their terminal examinations and have truly walked the talk! Yesterday, as I watched them get ready for their big show my heart filled with pride. How little it took to change the world of a child. Their willingness to accept new ways and excel in them is truly touching. They seem to know intuitively that what is happening to them is special.

My thoughts go back to the days when the whole programme had been put in question as support we thought we had secured was withdrawn without an explanation. I remember the sleepless nights I spent wondering how to salvage the programme at least for these four kids. I recall the reactions I got from those I approached for help. To many, giving quality education to slum children was anathema. And yet I could not send back these kids to their homes; I could not take back dreams that their parents had conjured.

Thank God, there were friends who felt the way I did and soon a wonderful network was created to try and help these children. Asha Seattle and Asha Canada have adopted this project and others have promised to help.

One must remember that this is a long haul. The children have to be able to complete their education that they are just beginning. It is also a long term commitment and one does not know what awaits us. It is not simply a matter of funds, for the next decade or so these children will depend on us at every step. One will have to be there at each PTM, smooth bruised egos , laud every achievement, chide when needed and heal every hurt. We too embark on a new journey, one we know will be filled with wonderful moments but also challenging ones.

My mind again travels back to the time where I first laid eyes on each of them. The day Babli told me herself that she needed an operation but that the family did not have the money. And then long after the operation the terrible day when I found out that Babli had stopped going to school. My mind also goes back to the very first time little Aditya walked into our lives a lost child with his huge eyes filled with questions. or the day we first moment I saw Vicky in the arms of his mother as we visited his family? Children whose dreams had been put on hold by seemingly insurmountable circumstance. And yet the god of lesser beings had his own plan. One that took many twists and turns but ultimately brought these children together under one roof and salvaged all dreams just as he had done for little Utpal.

In a few months these children will fly to another coop. We will miss them but for them it is the only way to go.

new bizz on the block

5000 crores! A mind boggling figure! I do not even know how many zeroes it has and yet this is what private schools in India make by simply selling nursery school admission forms and this is no loose statistic but the result of a survey made by the ASSOCHAM Social Development Foundation (ASDF).

It is again that time of the year when public and upmarket schools open their hallowed doors to new entrants: the little nursery babies. For the past year or more I have watched with growing horror the plight of parents and their tiny wards as they set off to fulfill all the modalities required to get admission in a good school. The drama seems to be endless and with its share of unexpected twists and turns. Just as you feel that things may just have fallen in place, a new bombshell hits you. After innumerable court orders, commission decisions and more of the same, the (ill)famed point system seemed to have been the chosen mode, but as some autonomy was left to each school, we were lights years away from the promised fair, transparent, etc process.

The shocker was indeed the recent survey and the mind boggling revelation: in Delhi alone good public schools are likely to earn revenues by selling prospectus to an extent of Rs.5,000 crore. Some school charge 1000 rs for their prospectus and the average a parent spends on buying prospectuses is 5000 rs. There is no guaranteed admission and one has not even begun talking about the fees, admission charges and donations asked.

Education is the new lucrative business on the block.

Yesterday a metro channel aired a call in programme on nursery admissions. Two guests were invited: one a upmarket school principal and the other an ASSOCHAM rep. Many harrowed parents called in, each asking candid questions or sharing some of their angst. The guests did not quite answer the proffered queries but debated their own viewpoints. While one defended the case of the public schools the other pleaded for some regulatory system. Needless to say the debate was heated and got nowhere.

All this is terribly troubling particularly in a scenario where humbler parents are wanting a better education for their children and where state run schools seem to be growing from bad to worse by the day. I cannot forget the plight of little Kiran’s admission.

It is a strange situation. The children of India have acquired their supposed right to education after almost half of century of independence, and yet the bill is still on its slow way to implementation. The feeble voices raised in favour of a quality neighbourhood common school are loudly being shut down by interested lobbies: those of the public schools as yo will all agree it is all about money, honey!

In the midst of all this, little children are being forgotten. It almost seems like everyone is conspiring to keep the majority of children away from the so called good schools. And that is another matter of debate: who decides which school is good?

One had no choice but to agree that in spite of recession and tumbling markets children still need to be educated and hence education becomes a lucrative option. Every business house seems to have its own school and new public schools are being opened everywhere. On the other hand government schools which have prime locations and ample land seem to be deteriorating by the day making us believe that the lobbies are working well. Education is truly the new business on the block.

Who will bell the cat? No one I guess and yet the idea of a good common school has to be mooted and accepted. Perhaps not for the ones who can afford the mind boggling costs but for the many who feel they have acquired the right to give their children a better education. Getting your child into a good school should be easy and affordable, not the mortifying experience it seems to have become.

A good common school where teachers are selected through and IAS like competition and given sterling work conditions, children who can walk to a school that does not look like a 7* extravaganza, but an even playing ground that reflects the unity in diversity that India is. An impossible dream? Maybe, but dreams do come true sometimes.