cinema paradiso

Cinema Paradiso is a touching film. It is about youth, friendship, hope and the magic of movies. Cinema Paradiso is also the name of our new cine club that was inaugurated yesterday with a special show for our very special children.

The idea of a cine club for slum kids was first mooted by our dear friend Xavier many years ago. I must confess that the idea seemed rather incongruous to me as I struggled to survive perfecting the art of a hand to mouth existence. But Xavier held on to his dream and he is one who makes dreams come true.

The dream did come true as a sparkling home theatre was bought and set up in our new library. After many discussions it was decided that the cinema club would be inaugurated with a screening for our very special kids. This was because most if not all of these children have never been to a movie hall and are never likely to. This was also because these children are never taken out of their homes or given any treat. So yesterday as the clock struck ten, the 20 odd kids were bundled up in our three wheelers and taken to the library located a short distance away. There was palpable excitement as they put on their shoes and set off for the short journey. There was even more excitement as they entered the the small room and saw the screen on the wall. They quickly sat down, eyes wide open staring at the images on the screen. After s small introduction where each word I said was greeted by warm applause and vehement nods of the head, it was show time: one the menu a 1915 Charlie Chaplin film.

The kids sat mesmerised, laughing at each slapstick moment. Everyone was having a ball, even those who could not hear. The giggles were infectious and we laughed with them, more moved by their enthusiasm and joy than by the on goings in screen. Everyone has a great time. It did not matter if you could not hear, speak, walk, talk: the show transcended all barriers. It was a runaway success.

Some may wonder why have a library filled with books in an alien language an a state of the art home theatre for a bunch of poor slum kids. I must admit that there are many who think this way, the kind of people for whom charity is a good way of getting rid of your rubbish and easing your conscience. In their parlance beautiful, enriching and elevating pursuits are the prerogative of the rich and not fit for consumption for the poor. But we at pwhy differ and believe that every child has a right to get the best of everything. So our little library and small cine club aims at just that: bringing to deprived children a little bit of the magic of books and the wonder of the silver screen.

Welcome to Cinema Paradiso!

free and of equitable quality

In a country where the constitution guarantees that the State shall ensure provision of free education of equitable quality for all children (Artice 21A), the Government of Delhi has approved a fee hike in what is known as private schools.

Do not think that private schools are only for the privileged and well endowed. In today’s Delhi such schools cater to a wide cross section of society. The reason being that the so called free education to be guaranteed by the state is in a state of total despair and not fit for consumption. Parents today, even the humbler ones look for other options, and these come with a price tag. But parents are willing to walk that extra mile and give their children a better start in life. And as the demand grew, in keeping with markets forces, private schools grew at an exponential rate. It was the boom of teaching shops that mushroomed at each street corner and event though they flaunted all rules in the book they nevertheless catered to the needs of the day.

Private schools big or small became laws in themselves and helpless parents had no option but abide by all the rules they imposed. Regular fee increases, development and building funds and even donations had to be paid. And as the power of such schools grew, the option of the free school dwindled by the day as state run schools went from bad to worse. We at pwhy have first hand experience of the state of such schools as most of our kids frequent such schools. We watched with dismay the booming school business thrive.

What was truly infuriating was the fact that with a little help kids from government schools were able to perform well. The question that needed to be asked was why nothing was being done to improve the state of government run schools and make them a sound and viable option. The answer was written on the wall: the private school lobby was too strong. The common school system that India so needs and that would finally ensure free and equitable education to all of India’s children has had a very troubled history and is nowhere near becoming a reality. Quite the contrary is happening as the government seems to be turning into the best advocate for private schools. Even the 25% reservations of seats in private schools for economically weaker students was quietly dropped by the government. One would have thought that governments were meant to protect rights but the rapidity with which the latst increase in fees was accepted shows what the reality is.

In a recent debate on this very issue, a rather pompous private school manager brushed aside a question asked by a parent by declaring that if parents were not happy with the increase they could take their children out and send them to a state run school. Well Sir, I wish this was a viable option as many would just do that.

Parents will cut corners, tighten their belts and meet this increase and maybe the next one too, but there will be a day when this will not be possible. I wonder what will happen to the children then as nothing is being done to improve the institutions that are supposed to be providing the free education of equitable quality that is the Constitutional right of every single child born in this land.

In whose name for God’s sake!

The despicable, abhorrent and loathsome attack on young girls in a pub has outraged the entire nation. The incident defeats all reasoning and has left everyone in a state of shock. What is even more appalling is the fact that the reprehensible assault on young women was done in the name of religion by so called and self professed guardians of morality who had the audacity to state that they are acting to preserve Indian culture.

As expected there is widespread indignation among civil society. Sadly the whole issue has also become fodder for dubious agendas and political bashing. What is even more regrettable is that the perpetrators may be go scot-free or at best with minimum punishment.

That women were treated with such contempt by a bunch of hooligans while many watched is shameful and speaks volumes about the prevalent state of affairs. How far will we stoop in the name of religion.

I remember a December day sixteen years ago when I felt ashamed of my religion just as I am today. It was the day a house of God was destroyed in the name of another God, in the occurrence mine. On that fateful day I questioned my own faith just as I do today.

I am a Hindu by birth and by choice. I was born to profoundly Hindu parents but grew up in lands of diverse faiths. My parents never imposed their views or beliefs. At home Hindu festivals were celebrated with fervour and some ritualism and the many questions I asked at different moments of my life were answered candidly and without fuss. It is much later in life that I discovered that my mother was not really bent on ritualism but it was her way of introducing me to my faith. I grew up with my set of questions and doubts and each one got cleared with simple honesty.

When I asked one day whether I could go to church and partake of communion as all my school friends did ( I was in a convent school) my parents simply answered that I could if no one had any objection. I guess I had expected a vehement refusal and was a little perplexed by their reaction. I did go to church often and even found a humane priest who allowed me to taste the holy wafer. Some years later while in an Islamic country I wanted to fast in the holy month of Ramadan and once again I got the warm approval of my parents. I celebrated the Sabbath with my Jewish pals too and with every such occurrence my belief got strengthened as I was proud of belonging to a religion that did not close any door in my face but on the other hand allowed me to embrace all faiths. I was proud to be a Hindu.

The tales my parents told me only went to reinforce my faith. I was delighted by the pranks of Lord Krishna and by the touching tales of Ram when he ate the fruits proffered by Sabri or rode in Kevat’s boat. I never felt the need to question the sagacity and humanness of the religion I was born in. Till the fateful day in 2002.

Once again my faith is wavering. Which form of Hinduism is supposedly being defended by attacking women in public? What culture is being preserved? Are we not one of the only religions that worships Goddesses with misplaced fervour? So how can anyone stoop down to such acts. Where are our so called religious heads, and why are they silent. I have often asked myself why our so called god men, the ones you see on TV and that have huge following never speak out when such incidents take place. They simply chose to remain silent. Be it the killing of a girl child, the burning of a bride for dowry, or the raping of a Dalit girl, one has never heard a public condemnation by the innumerable religious men. They seem to be stubbornly silent on burning social issues. And yet they have the power to bring about the change we so badly need.

At a time when my faith is vacillating my thoughts go back to a day when i had a terrible head ache and a little boy folded is hands and shut his eyes tight after informing that he was going to ask his Bhagwan (God) to make my ache go away. The headache disappeared as the little boy’s prayer was heard a faceless and nameless God. That is the one I want to believe in today.

a drop in the ocean

The slumdog euphoria is in full swing. Awards and kudos galore and the ensuing media blitz: slums have suddenly become the flavour of the day. Suits me as normally people are reluctant to hear the slum tales I often tell. I guess the hype will continue till Oscar night at least.

There have been a few detractors people who feel offended at the depiction of slum life, or others who want the word dog removed from the title, and yet others who feel that some scenes may whip up communal passion. But all in all slumdgog has been a a runaway success, even in the eyes of those who till now had never deigned to look at slums and its dwellers. Today slums are no longer invisible, they loom larger than life thanks to a story told.

In all interviews and talk shows the slumdog team has been pitching the film as a tale of hope and love. I am sure it is because slums are replete with tales of hope. And of the umpteen questions asked the ones that struck a chord with me was the ones pertaining to what one could simplify in one word: payback! Yes what did all those who won acclaims for the movie intend to do for the slums and their dwellers. And if I may be allowed to stretch the question further what do each one of us who are oohing and aahing about the film intend to do to reach out to them. I would like to believe that miracles would come by but experience compels me to think otherwise. It is true that the slumdog team has pledged substantial help to the Dharavi dwellers, the director even mentioned that children who acted in the film are now in school. Laudable indeed but a drop in the ocean. It needs much more than one film and its team to change things.

I would like to ask why it takes a film and images on a silver screen to shake us out of our deep slumber. Children like the ones you see running across the screen or on posters are everywhere if you are willing to look. But we have become inured to them and have stopped asking questions. I often wonder why the powers that be, the local authorities and civil society itself does not wonder why so many children hang around every red light when they should by law be in school? You do not even have to walk through a slum to see them. I wonder why we are not disturbed by the sight of people living in abysmal conditions like the lohars (gypsy iron smith) who live along roads we travel each day, or little Radha whose house is so tiny that you have to crawl into it. We simply pass by unfazed an unconcerned.

It is OK for us to sit in the audience of a talk show and ask what others are intending to do, but what about some soul searching. It is wonderful to applaud a story where a young slumdog becomes a millionaire but do we realise that it is within us to make this happen for someone in reality. What if I told you that it is within our reach to weave tales of hope and make dreams come true. At this very moment four little children are waiting patiently for someone to make it happen for them. Is anyone listening?

Happy Republic Day!

India celebrates its 6oth Republic Day! All day long there will be ceremonies and parades in different parts of the country. In a remote corner of its capital, on top of a reclaimed garbage dump a bunch of children celebrated Republic Day a day earlier. Two tiny flags on top of a battered speaker marked the occasion. If the props were few the spirit was high. Every child has prepared an item for the occasion.

Little Mithi danced with gay abandon. Her little feet tapping to the beat of the music, a huge smile on her face. There were songs, poems and skits all performed with utmost seriousness and concentration. Yes the little Okhla children celebrated republic day with aplomb! The same happened in other pwhy centres too! I could not be present at all centres and as is often the case lived the moments by proxy courtesy the innumerable photographs taken on the occasion. What was touching is that in each and everyone of them the children were beaming and happy.

These were children of India, protected by the very Constitution that was being commemorated today, the one that was meant to guarantee them a string of rights: justice, liberty, equality words that had scant meaning for these little children. Most of them belonged to extremely poor families, their parents having often fled a flood or a drought or some other calamity to seek greener pastures but sadly found themselves in situations often worse then the one they had left. The pot of gold that they sought remained a chimera.

The children sang and danced oblivious of what awaited them. They were still protected by the innocence of childhood when everything is possible. Tomorrow little Mithi will come to the centre her school bag in tow and will follow her lessons and painstakingly complete all tasks assigned to her. What no one knows is how long it will last: the arrival of a sibling may just put and end to her childhood and her school days. Is this not the plight of many a girl child?

Mithi’s rights are not protected by any Constitution. They simply depend on the vagaries of the reality of her life.

As we celebrate our Republic, my thoughts goes to the millions whose lives hang by a tenuous string in this country that is getting polarised by the minute. As one part of it grows by leaps and bounds to meet a glitzy destiny, the other seems to be sinking with the same rapidity to darker abysses. And yet this is the very one that infuses energy in our lives, the one when hope still lives in the tiny feet of a child dancing, the one where values still rule the day. The one that the world toasts today in a celebrated movie.

If one India is busy debating whether schools should be allowed to increase their already high fees, the other is wondering whether their overcrowded and only school will be sold to build a mall. That is the sad reality of how things as we celebrate yet another Republic Day. I wonder how many more will come and go before all the children in India will the rights enshrined in the very body being honoured today.

of hope, compassion, gratitude and other such trivia

In my newly acquired persona of a grandma, I find myself in a strangely contemplative and pensive mood, as if life itself is urging m to stop and take stock of times gone by and muse over those to come. I begin this journey by mooring myself on a real issue we are living now. The story of little Meher who has just come back from her first visit to the kind hearted plastic surgeon who has agreed to change her morrows. The verdict was promising though the road ahead is a long one: a series of surgeries that will repair her maimed hands and scarred face. No matter how long it takes, hopes looms large as it always does.

It all began when Nina a volunteer at pwhy decided to step in and do something for little Meher. The magic words at work were compassion and hope, words that can truly move mountains. Another journey of hope had just begun and I needed once again to start being grateful.

As I sat lost in my thoughts, I realised that the past decade has been a wonderful odyssey of hope, compassion and gratitude. It is true that there have been some choppy seas and harsh moments, but they pale in front of all that has been achieved. And what is truly magical is that each time one is at risk of delving too much on the darker side of things, a new journey begins and infuses one with the optimism and drive that had seemed in peril.

The year began with a sombre note. Many regular donors informed us of their inability to continue their support – recession woes – and we found ourselves wondering how we would survive. Hope, compassion and gratitude seemed rather useless values in the wake of the crisis looming large. But just as we were about to sink into despair, little Meher’s plight lit up the sky and all was forgotten. Hope has once again dispelled all doubts.

It is touching how over the years it is the little individual stories that have kept us going and given us the strength to carry on, be it our little braveheart Utpal, spirited Radha who refuses to give up or our super foster care kids who have broken all conventions and barriers. They show us each day that hope and compassion remain no matter how dark the days or difficult the journey. And as one looks back one cannot help feel grateful.

The road ahead is undoubtedly an arduous and difficult one, but as long as hope, compassion, gratitude and other such trivia are kept alive, you know you will overcome.

Agastya Noor

I beg your indulgence for this post that may look very different from the ones I normally write. I seek your understanding and request you to allow me to share one of the most beautiful moments of my life: the birth of Agastya Noor, my grandson.

He landed in our lives yesterday and though I have not seen or held him, I immediately felt lifted. Somehow the arrival of this little child made me look at life in a brand new way. Is it because in a split second one had been promoted to the next stage of life, one that always entails contemplation and reflection.

His parents chose to call him Agastya after the legendary vedic sage known for his wisdom and sagacity and Noor the Arabic word for light thus breaking barriers and walls and setting the right note for his entry into a world in need of healing and peace.

I sat watching his tiny face and wondering what life had in store for him. I thought for a long time what I would wish for him. Needless to say as any dotty granny I wanted everything for him and more! But as my thoughts settled a little I realised that what I wished most for him was that he grow up with the ability to understand the little fox’s secret : It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Yes what I wanted the most for my grandchild was the ability to feel compassion, the wisdom to know when to stop and feel the gentle breeze and hear the rustling of leaves, the strength to feel the hurt and pain of another, to look into the eyes of the beggar child and not walk away, to walk the long road alone if need be, for I knew that with this strength in him, he would be able to scale the highest mountains but not lose sight of the earth below.

Slumdog musings

Everyone is talking about Slumdog Millionaire. I have not seen the movie as it is yet to be released in India. I had read Q & A almost two years ago when the book had been recommended to me by a rather cynical acquaintance who felt I should read a book that talked about the world I had naively and bravely set out to change. I must admit that I was impressed by the clever and eminently readable way in which the author had managed to portray a world that no one is really interested in. And though it did seem a little far-fetched to think that all that was written could happen to one person, each story was a perfect cameo of the stark reality that I brushed everyday.

I had forgotten about Q & A till last week when it reappeared in its new avatar: a stunning movie that seemed set to bag every award possible. Slumdog Millionaire was the darling of each and every one and a world normally ignored and shunned suddenly became real. I myself received an email that said: I always knew about the poverty in India, but after watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I saw the severeness of what many young innocent children are going through.

I will not be cynical. I will not even begin to think how long will the euphoria last and how soon the world that so many are feeling disturbed about will once again be relegated to its usual status of anonymity and invisibility. I may have gone that way a few years back, but have since become inured to many things, and learnt to accept the world as it is. In the email I mentioned above I was asked many disturbing questions that all boil down to one loud and deafening WHY. Sadly I do not have the answers. I can simply say that I too asked myself those very questions many years back and not finding answers set down to finding my own. Today as the world toasts Slumdog Millionaire I simply hope that before the excitement dies down and gets overtaken by some other stunning tale, some whys are indeed answered.

However I would like to share some thoughts that have been troubling me for a long time and that once again beg to be aired. The plight of slum children that today looms larger than life on a silver screen is actually there for every one to see. Sadly there is not a red light in our big cities where a little beggar girl does not approach your vehicle or where a maimed child does not make you wonder how he or she got mutilated. It does not take much to ask one’s self why gangs that use children are allowed to exist. And yet one passes them by, wishing they were not there, quickly rolling down a window and handing a coin just to be rid of what one views at best as a nuisance. We have lost our ability to feel compassion or empathy.

It is not simply the plight of the beggar child that leaves us unmoved. It seems also to be the plight of anyone in need. And I allow myself to speak with authority as I have been walking this road for almost a decade now! In my years of soliciting and panhandling I have come across resistance of all kinds particularly when one dares step across the invisible yet impregnable line. No Sir, there are somethings that are not for the poor!

I would like to share a story here in some way our very own Slumdog Millionaire tale. Almost a year ago a set of circumstances made it possible for us to envisage giving 4 terribly deprived children the unimaginable opportunity of breaking the circle of poverty they lived in and getting the best education possible. The stage was set, the protagonists in place and everything seemed to be working to perfection. Our euphoria was short lived and the dream turned sour as the individual who had initiated the idea and promised to fund it simply walked away leaving us high and dry holding the lives and dreams of 4 little kids in our hand. There was no reality show with a pot of gold waiting to be won. We had to make our own.

What followed was a battle against all odds, one we are still waging as there was no way we could have sent these children back to the lives we had saved them from. What we were not prepared for was the attitude and reaction of those we sought help from: how could we envisage giving a slum child what is actually the hallowed ground reserved for the privileged! But we did not give up and for the last year these children were in our foster care programme where they learnt and thrived and did us all proud. Last week they sat for their entrance examinations for their new school and are now all set to join it in their respective classes. As I write these words we barely have enough funds to see them through their first year and we are looking a miracle. We know deep in our hearts that the miracle will come by. It simply has to.

Please admit my child

Take this said the desperate mother as she held out a 5oo Rs note but please admit my child. This incident occurred last week at the women centre. The women in question was a newly arrived migrant from Bihar. The child, a little five year old, watched in silence.

D, the coordinator, tried to explain to the lady that the classes were full, that there were long waiting lists and that there was no way he could do anything. She kept on insisting ad she waived her 5oo rs note. Someone must have told her that in Delhi, almost everything could be obtained with the right amount of money and five hundred rupees were definitely a handsome amount. D gently tried to explain to her that we did not function this way but she was adamant. I guess in her simple mind she could not fathom why this door was not opening, dis he not possess the magic key.

She did finally leave. D had promised that he would look into the matter and see what could be done. Perhaps in a month or two when new admissions would be considered. She put her note away still not quite comprehending why it had not done the trick.

Corruption is high on her minds these days with the Satyam Scandal. This is just another side of the same coin: the nameless and faceless corruption that permeates every aspect of our lives. It is ingrained in the very fabric of our society. It has become part and parcel of our lives. Even the simple migrant from Bihar was well honed in the ways of our world.

So how does one address the situation..

If we introspect a little, can anyone of us say with utmost honesty that we have never bent the rules? I guess not. It does not have to be money it can also be the phone call to the well placed friend, the office car used for personal work and so on. Have we not all at some time or the other paid a small bribe to avoid a fine, or to break a queue or to accelerate some paper work. Someone once told me that this was not corruption by facilitation money. I wonder what the difference really is.

The problem is that if you decide to take the long road home, the experience is nothing short of harrowing as we experienced some time back. Many of us quip that the few bills paid are well worth the wear and tear on nerves and the times wasted. They may have a point but it is my belief that corruption can only be addressed if we decide to walk the laond road, however arduous.

Can you blame the woman for brandishing her precious five hundred rupees in the hope of getting her child into what she was told was a good school. She was simply playing by the rules. It is time we took the first step towards defining new rules.

the impeccable host

Last Sunday was a very important day for our little foster kids Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Aditya. They were to sit for their entrance exam for admission to their boarding school. It was an exciting moment for them,as somehow they knew that they were about to take their first step in a brand new world. I watched them get ready with a sense of joy and pride laced with a tinge of sadness. In the next few weeks they would leave their pals and the comfort and safety of the tiny world we had created for them with love and care.

I knew I would miss seeing them every morning as I alighted from my three wheeler and they jumped into it to set off to school. Their bright and cheerful – morning ma’am – was something I really looked forward to. But life has to move on and was this not the day we toiled towards despite all odds. I should have been elated and I was. We had taken the bold step of breaking all barriers and ensuring that these little kids got the very best.

They left for their entrance exam with their teacher Prabin. It was to be a full day affair. The children did well I was told and we await the results with bated breath but what was truly touching was the welcome that little Utpal gave them. One must not forget that he is now an old hand having spent three years in school!

From the very instant he laid eyes on them as they entered the school premises, he never left their side. He gave them the guided tour showing them his school with pride. He waited for them outside the classroom while they wrote their exam. As they were also to be interviewed and that the interview would be later in the day, he ensured that they were not bored or lost. The five kids played to their heart’s content. They also shared lunch in the big dining hall and had their fill of swings and slides.

Interview over it was time to take the road back home. Utpal saw them off as any impeccable host would and waved bye till he lost sight of the car. The children rode back in silence, their head filled with images of a new world, one that would soon be theirs, one they never knew existed as they have rarely ventured out of their dreary homes.

My eyes welled with tears as I listened to the account of the day the next morning. When asked whether they would be happy to go to the big school all four of them had said yes with aplomb and conviction, their eyes twinkling with joy an expectation. It had all been worth it: the struggle, the snide remarks, the race against so may odds to ensure the required money in time, the daunting challenge of make sure that it would continue to be so for the twelve years ahead.

My incredible 4 had respected all the rules and never wavered. For the past 8 months they had played the game like champs. They had kept their side of the bargain. It was time we kept ours.

The journey has just begun. What lies ahead is yet unknown, but somehow I know that all be well, that somehow we will overcome every obstacle and win the race. The trusting eyes filled with hope are enough to move mountains and we will. Utpal is there to hold our hand!