If I can change one life….

If I can change one life, it would have been worth it is something I often say when asked about pwhy! I must admit that over the last 9 years we have managed to change many. Be it turning a failure into a topper, or fixing holes in broken hearts. I must confess that in most cases the realisation that we had achieved something was in hindsight, when one sat writing reports or reviewing times gone by.

I must again thank a little boy for having allowed me to experience one of the greatest moments of my life. Let me tell you how it happened.

Yesterday was the day when we had decided to take Babli to her new school. Everything was fixed and one of our staff was to accompany the little girl. On the eve of D day, I decided to call little Utpal in school and ask him if he wanted something. I was not breaking any rules as Mondays are when when one can call him. After the normal hellos and how are yous I asked my question. After a few seconds he said biscuits and chips and then in his tiny voice he added: tum bhi ajao (you also come). It was enough to get the old biddy to change all plans. Calls were made and plans altered. Ma’am had decided to accompany Babli to school.

On the scheduled morning we sat in my home waiting for the car to come. Babli sat quietly on a small chair and as I looked at her little determined face I suddenly realised that I was witnessing a stupendous moment: the transformation of a life. Nothing short of a miracle. Babli should not have been sitting here at all. Just a couple of years ago she was barely able to breathe, her little heart in need of serious repairs. And even after the much needed operation, she should have been at best in a government school and coming to pwhy like all little girls, in the afternoon. But that was not to be. We found her one day manning her father’s cart, and the sight of this bright child sitting on top of a cart selling tobacco was blood curdling. We set out on a damage control mission but it fell short of what we truly wanted for this child. And yet at that moment we were helpless as we had no options. Is that when I sent a prayer to the God of lesser beings? Maybe I did. I do not really know.

Babli went back to her municipal school, one where in her own words, teachers do not come and if they do turn up they do not teach. We continued looking for better options but nothing was forthcoming. I must confess that we felt desolate and a tad helpless at seeing this bright child waste away in front of our eyes but there was nothing we could do. We did not know that the God of lesser beings was at work, setting the stage for the miracle to come. Time went by, we were busy in our little lives and forgot about Babli. Fabulous things were happening: a potential donor had entered our lives and we were busy dreaming grand dreams. Actually we were counting our chickens before the eggs were hatched. Our dreams came tumbling down but not before another prop was set for Babli’s tomorrow. The foster care programme that was thrust upon was an indubitable reality and as we set out looking for kids, the first name that came to our minds was that of Babli. The rest is history. Babli took to her new life at our tiny centre like a fish to water and one year down the line she is ready to take a giant leap into the future. The script that had looked awry many a times was now revealed and the miracle that took 3 years in the making was now there for all to see. This was no celluloid tale or Kodak moment. This tiny slumGirl was ready to take on the world and become a millionaire in her own way. As I said earlier it was truly a phenomenal moment and I was privileged enough to witness it thanks to the pleading of a little boy.

Every step of that incredible journey from my kitchen to the little bed in a dorm was picture perfect and moving. Babli sat in dignified silence throughout the journey, only answering when talked to. She was lost in her thoughts and I would have given up my life to be privy to them but I simply kept silent. We reached school and again Babli waited patiently while we completed the formalities. By then it was 12pm and refreshment time. As we walked towards the hostel, a little hand caught hold of mine: it was Utpal. Babli was his old pal and soon they set off to stand in line to get their two bananas. Babli’s journey had begun and Utpal was there to guide her. We were already de trop!

After handing over Babli to the hostel staff, it was time to say bye bye. I mouthed the required: take care of yourself and listen to your teachers etc but it was really not needed. A simple look at Babli”s face was enough to know that this little woman of substance knew more than anything one else that she held the reins of her destiny in her own hands and she was not one to let go till she reached the end of the race.

jai ho

Jai Ho sang India as Oscars dropped Slumdog Millionaire‘s way. It was a day of celebration indeed and India was on cue, a fact dutifully reported all day long by all media channels. Larger than life images were aired again and again for all to see. India walked the legendary red carpet in more ways than one. Bollywood heroes and little slum kids in smart tuxedos and designer dresses walked side by side. For a few hours at least all differences seemed to have been forgotten.

I do not know how long the Slumdog euphoria will last. How long will it take for India to slink back into its usual indifference. And quite frankly I do not know what the real excitement is really all about. Slumdog was undoubtedly an excellent film and deserved all the kudos. it got but what I ask myself is whether anyone really looked and saw what lay behind the stunning pictures and lilting music. What actually set my thoughts this way was the reaction of a friend after he saw the film. He was simply horrified at the blinding scene in the film and was aghast to learn that this was the rule rather than the exception. And I guess this must have been the reaction of many, as in India we rarely look beyond what we want to see.

I watched the film again, this time trying to look beyond the glitz and glare, and realised that Slumdog Millionaire touched upon many issues that I have tried to highlight for many years now be it the abhorring plight of the beggar racket, or the desperate predicament of women caught in the spiral of the flesh trade, or the hijacked childhood of little children born at the wrong time in the wrong place. The film touched upon these issues in a poignant way but then follows its course and transcends into a story of love and hope, culminating in its Kodak moment both in the film and in reality: the boy getting his girl on a railway platform or the final walk on a red carpet!

My story does not end there. I have tried over the years and to the best of my ability to take the story further and highlight the uncomfortable reality that permeates our social fabric. What I mean is vindicated in the success of Slumdog Millionaire. It has taken a film made by an outsider to see what lay under our noses. I only hope that we are able to keep on looking and seeing.

Anjali’s mom

Anjali’s mom died last night. She died as unobtrusively as she lived. She died in a hospital bed, her daughter by her side.

Dorothy came into our lives nine years ago, when we began our work in the Giri Nagar slums. A diminutive and withdrawn woman, her story was one that would move anyone willing to hear it and yet one shared by so many women. She came to Delhi from her tribal village in search of much needed work. She was lucky to get employment in a good home where she worked for some years. Her employer, a kind hearted old lady, passed away and left her some money. That was enough to set predators prowling. She was lured by an already married man who offered her what every woman seeks and fell in the trap. The man ‘married’ her and impregnated her with a child. The child, young Anjali was born with a mental and physical handicap. Needless to say, after after having used and abused her and spent all her money, he left her high and dry.

Dorothy began to clean homes, her little girl sitting by her side and slowly picked up the threads of her shattered life. It was not easy, but the brave woman did not give up. However with Anjali growing up, it was not easy to get work. When she came to work for us we were just beginning and had no special section, so we got Anjali admitted to a residential centre where she spent a year. When we opened our day care for special kids, Anjali was back with her mom.
The mom worked in the day in a private house and mother and daughter lived together in the tiny hovel that was there home. Life was not perfect but it was held together by the love of two desperate souls.

Dorothy was in poor health and we were concerned about Anjali’s future. We knew that if anything was to happen to her, Anjali would be left alone and prey to all kind of predators in search of fresh blood. When we began our foster care last year we tried to convince Dorothy to send her daughter but is was not easy come. Perhaps they each needed each other too much and were not ready to be separated. We were worried about Anjali now a young woman as she spent many hours alone in her slum. We did not give up and a few months back Anjali came to live at our foster care. Mother and daughter still spent their week ends together.

Dorothy’s health started worsening and she was unable to work. We gave her a small job at our women centre and tried to convince her to come and live with us. She refused as she wanted to hold on to her small jhuggi in the slum, one she had bought with great difficulty and which was her only possession in the whole world. Some time back she became very sick, her frail and worn out body swelling beyond recognition. Anjali left the foster care to look after her mom and it was heart wrenching to see her tend to the one who gave her life, albeit an imperfect one, with love and tenderness. Last week Dorothy was admitted to hospital and again it was Anjali who was at her side 24/7. She breathed her last on Sunday morning. A tragic life had come to an end. I only hope that in her last moments she remembered our pledge to look after her daughter and tied in peace.

Dorothy’s life brings many questions to mind and highlights the plight of many women in India today. Force to flee the safety of their homes in search of work they land in the cruel world of urban slums. Danger lurks at every corner. If they escape being sold into the flesh trade, sometimes simply because they are unattractive, they may land into the clutches of an abusive employer. If like Dorothy they are lucky enough to find a good job, they are in no way saved; they have just bought themselves some time. In Dorothy’s case her ruin lay in the money that came her way. Predators are patient and crafty. Had her child been a boy or at least normal, she may still have had a chance but with a disabled girl child her death knell was sounded. It was just a matter of time. I could go on listing the pitfalls of Dorothy’s tragic life. They are simply endless.

Anjali’s mom was lucky in as much as she came into our lives and secured a safe morrow for her child. But I cannot even begin to imagine what could have happened to Anjali had we not be there. You see just as her mom had some money left to her by her employer, Anjali has the tiny hovel that her mother bought and that now belongs to her. A prize possession in a city where housing is a huge problem. The little jhuggi she possesses may be illegal but they have the papers and token that ensure that were it to be raised, they would get 12,5 square meters of land somewhere in the city. By tomorrow morning a new set of predators in the garb of grieving relatives will surely be at the child’s door step, crocodile tears in place. I just hope that we will be able to get Anjali away in time.

I am often asked why I stubbornly hold on to my planet why dream in spite of the fact that huge amounts need to be raised, no mean task in our day and age. True that one of the main factors I often cite is that of long term sustainability but the real reasons for planet why are much deeper. The very instant we agreed to have a day care for special children, we had taken an irreversible step: we became responsible for the lives of these children forever, particularly for those like Anjali who we knew had no one after the demise of their parents. For me personally it was impossible to think of the day where we closed this section and left the children in a lurch. Everything one believed in and held as true would come to naught. The unexpected demise of Anjali’s mom has just made my resolve to see planet why happen stronger.

We have everything we want from life

We have everything we want from life, we now want to reach out to others. Surprising words in a time when everyone is talking depression, recession and dark times. And even more surprising when you learn that they come from a young couple, with two young children living in the heart of Europe. But Kajal and Olivier are no ordinary people. They are one of a kind.

Let me simply tell you how they came into pwhy’s life.

About two weeks back these two souls landed in our world unexpectedly. They had got our address from the website and found their way to our computer centre. From there they were guided to our office. It took us a long tine to fathom what they really wanted as their request was rather unusual. Normally people do drop by and want to extend their help and often do so by writing a cheque or handing us an envelope, after a quick and fleeting visit of our different centres, spending at best half a day with us. But that was not what K and O wanted. Their plans were quite different.

We sat for along time talking and slowly it emerged that for K and O, this visit had far deeper meaning then the usual visit to a local NGO that is often on the menu of travelers. Their visit was to say the least a mission. K is from Mauritius, the land of my ancestors, and though she was born in Europe, she felt the need to come and reconnect with the land where her roots lay. I knew exactly what she felt as I found myself going back in time to the day where I stood looking at the village my own ancestors came from and whispering to myself: I have a debt to pay. I guess K felt the same way and O followed her dream.

They shared their idea: to make a film and thus garner funds for us. We were again in for a surprise. Many have made films about pwhy. Most have been shot in the span of a day or two. But this was not want these two incredible beings wanted. They had other plans. The next day they moved from a centrally located hotel to a guest house close to pwhy and set to task. After visiting all our centres they made a detailed script and started the shoot. It took over 12 days to complete as they imbibed the spirit of each centre and carefully and gently turned it into images.

It was not an easy task, as both K and O filmed with their hearts. On the second or third day, after they had visited the home of some of the children, K and O called us and said they needed to talk. It was a heart wrenching moment as they sat with moist eyes trying to share the pain and sense of the abject helplessness they felt. I talked to them for a long time, sharing my own journey and telling them how I too had felt powerless and vulnerable when I had begun, and how I had processed all that I faced and turned it slowly and painstakingly into what today was pwhy. I tried to tell them how what they were doing was huge and would truly make a difference. I tried to show them that change and transformation happened one life at a time, one day at a time and that there were no miracles or quick fixes. One had to walk the road less traveled, and often do it alone.

My heart went out to this young couple who had left their young children in the care of another and traveled thousands of miles to bring hope and smiles in the lives of children they did not know. I was gratified to see that they both understood what I was trying to convey. The filming was resumed and completed. Along the way K and O made many little friends and were touched by the plight of many be it little Nanhe and his incredible smile, Preeti and her indomitable spirit or spunky Meher. And if classes were diligently filmed and interviews canned, I know it is the smile of these little kids that K and O will take back in their hearts and remember for a long time.

a palette of dark colours

Yesterday an acquaintance dropped by. A is known for his apocalyptic view of live and his almost legendary pessimism. Even when things are looking up, A has mastered the art of whipping up his palette of dark colours and painting everything black. So needless to say, the present world situation is the right canvass for his sombre creations.

A talked about days to come, about impeding wars to be waged for all the wrong reasons and dark times lurking around the corner. He of course gave seemingly logical reasons and had us all nodding with him as he spoke on. I listened on for a while but soon found myself lost in my own thoughts. There was no denying the fact that things were bad and getting worse but could one allows one self to wallow in the mire and get lulled by doomsday vision. To give up without a fight and sink into despair was not my cup of tea.

The next morning brought more of the same: a mail from a staunch supporter that stated: the economy is tanking and there’s a general sense of unease .. I am feeling a bit jittery about the fund raising situation. I can imagine what you must be going through. Strangely I was surprised at her words as frankly, things had remained quite the same for me and my fund raising saga. I wondered whether I needed to look at both these occurrences as an ominous warning of things to come. It is true that we have had some funders citing the economic situation to explain their decision to stop helping us but other than that the struggle seems to be the same as always.

At pwhy we have no corpus funds invested on some market or the other. Our bank balance just about covers us for a month or at best two. I must admit that our hand to mouth existence that seemed a drawback to many, has in its own warped way protected us. My mind goes back to an earlier post where one had talked about reinstating values like compassion and understanding in a world that seemed to be in free fall. To my cynical friend who insists that only wars can redress the plummeting economy, I would like to answer that perhaps the time had come to look at ourselves, and at others with new eyes; to redefine our needs and wants and to create a new palette of bright colours with hues called love, compassion, warmth, empathy, understanding and so on and paint startling and heartwarming pictures of hope.

That is just what I am busy doing!

Two little women

In a few days the destinies of two little women will be transformed forever. Spirited Babli is busy packing her bag for boarding school and spunky Meher will soon be undergoing the first of a series of reconstructive surgeries to repair her maimed hands and scalded face.

It was almost four years ago that Babli came into our lives. I remember her frail body and thumping heartbeats as if it was yesterday. I also remember her determined voice as she asserted time and again that she wanted to be a policewomen. Babli was born with a congenital heart defect and needed surgery. What endeared her was her will to live life at its fullest in spite of her debilitating disease. Babli was operated upon and the holes in her heart mended. We heaved a sigh of relief and thought that things were now back on tracks for little Babli. How wrong we were as this was just one of the many false starts in this lovely child’s existence. Six months after her surgery Babli was seen one day manning her father’s ware on a cart while he played cards near by. Needless to say we were livid. We ensured that Babli return to school and set about finding a long term solution for this lovely child and her dreams. We found an organisation that we thought would accept her but once again fell victims to administrative imbroglios. One more false start. Babli’s dreams seemed to be in jeopardy.

But as I have always held, there is a God of lesser beings who watches on his children and intervenes in unexpected ways, usually when all seems lost. A set of complex and unexpected circumstances led to our setting up our foster care programme and needless to say Babli was our first choice. And in spite of many hurdles Babli is now ready to join her boarding school.

I am no crystal ball reader or star gazer but I know that Babli is about to take her first steps into a whole new world where everything is possible. True the road is along one but knowing our little woman of substance I know she will come out a winner.

There is another little woman whose life is about to change. Meher hopped into our lives a few months ago and from day one she heralded loudly that she was there for all to see and acknowledge. Her maimed hands, her scarred face and bald pate were no deterrent as she made it all up by her larger than life presence. Severely burnt whens she was but a baby, Meher had no real morrow. Her completely destroyed hands ensured that she would not even be able to make it through school. We were all worried and somewhat helpless. But our God of lesser beings was at work as once again a set of unforeseen circumstances made the impossible possible.

In a few days Meher will have the first of a series of reconstructive surgeries that will not only give her back the use of her hands but also take care of her face and scalp. It will be a long journey again but one that has to be taken. But it does not stop there, Meher needs a real future, one where education is the real cornerstone. So if the God of lesser beings is truly at work, the day will come when this little woman will also take the road to boarding school and begin her tryst with destiny.

Meher and Babli are true survivors. Nothing can break their indomitable spirits be it a heart full of holes or a maimed body. They hold on to their dreams with alacrity and make sure you dream with them too!

all about love

Yesterday was St Valentine’s Day. Sadly it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons with moral brigades out to chastise lovebirds in the name of religion, culture and misplaced morality. Once again the media has had a field day defending the right to love and so on and as usual politicians and other have jumped in the fray and given their two penny bit.

It is true that St V’s day is often equated to romantic love, but are there not other forms of love that need to be celebrated and extolled: the nurturing love of a parent, the affectionate love of a friend and above all unconditional love, the one that you give without expecting anything in return, the one that is often expressed in covert ways and furtive gestures. St V’s is not simply about candy boxes and heart shaped cards, but about the most wonderful gift given to mankind: love.

A simple message from some dears friends dropped in my mail box. It simply said:

It’s Feb 14th, and here in Europe it’s Valentine’s Day, a day when people show their love with flowers, chocolates, champagne, jewellery, etc. Instead of spending money on those things, we’ve decided to make an extra donation to Project Why, to share a little love with the beautiful children of pwhy. The words were not only touching but reflected the true meaning of days such as St V’s.

To answer those who rabidly profess that St V’s is against our culture and tradition one would like to say that any celebration of love cannot negate any values or heritage. The most one would concede is that it has been commercialised to the hilt but is that not what ails our times. On the flip side maybe it is not such an outrage to be reminded to show one’s love for those we care for most and often take for granted or praise one that deserves to be acknowledged.

What makes me see red is the undue importance given to such a trivial issue be it by politicians, media or even supposedly educated citizens. What happens to the same troika when real aberrations take place be it the slaying of a girl child, the burning of a bride or simply the sight of a young child used as child labour by the family next door. I had to agree with a participant of one the innumerable love debates aired yesterday when he blamed the media for abetting the moral brigades simply by giving them the exposure they craved for.

Why can we not look at S V’s day as one when flower sellers will sell a few more flowers and each one of us will remember to take a little time and salute those we care for and love.

with new eyes

I have often talked about the lure of comfort zones, and the ease with which we sink into them. For the past too long now I have kept away from the day-to-day activities of pwhy. What began as a very conscious and intended decision turned unwittingly into a habit .

I remember early days when I use to check myself from jumping into my three wheeler and setting off to one of the pwhy centres or from picking up the phone to call and find out what was happening. The reason for my voluntary absence was to enable the staff to taken on responsibilities, make decisions and become truly empowered and I must admit that they did a great job making me slowly redundant. True I was informed and briefed about everything and all important decisions were never taken without my consent, but as time passed I realised that everything was going the way I wanted. I had trained my team better than expected.

Was it not what I strived and hoped for. And yet I must confess that there were times when I missed the good old days when one was forever on the field and in the thick of things. My new avatar as the one stuck in front of a computer screen playing with numbers and keeping them in check was not what I had envisaged for myself! So recently when a spate of visitors and new volunteers came to pwhy, I decided to be part of the grand tour!

We went from one place to the other, spending a few minutes at each location. Everywhere we went we were greeted by cheery faces, huge smiles and loud good mornings or afternoons. Classes were filled to the brim and surprisingly tidy and everyone was busy. My mind could not stop itself going back to the day when it all started and to the tiny jhuggi where a handful of kids sat quietly learning their first English words. I could not have imagined then that nine years later over 700 children would be part of the pwhy family. I felt an immense sense of pride laced with immense gratitude. What a journey it has been!

kidSpeak

I always enjoy Utpal’s PTMs. For those few hours I get off the spinning wheel, cast my woes aside, forget about funds and balance sheets and set out for the day with a song in my heart and a spring in my ageing and aching feet!

It is always exciting to set out early morning for the long drive and the journey is filled with happy thoughts. Yesterday was one such happy day. We reached school in time and the first task after a few hurried hellos to the guard and staff was to reach his hostel and find him. As always we were greeted by the posse of small kids crowding at the door, each on the look out for his or her parents. Utpal was among them in his read hooded shirt, a tad shy as his warden looked on. After a few minutes spent with his warden it was time to set off for the day. First stop his classroom where we needed to collect his report card. Once again he had done us proud. After a further few minutes spent with his Kamala Ma’am who showed us his craft work and drawings, it was time to fly the coop for a few hours. As always I asked him what he wanted to do and promptly came the answer: pizza khana hai (i want to eat a pizza).

In the car, Amit who had come with us handed him over a box with some cake that he had got from home. Utpal opened the box, a big smile on his face, and then looked around expecting someone to hand him over a spoon. Needless to say we had forgotten to get one. Utpal looked at us with a mischievous smile as he said: should I eat it as my horse does! We laughed our guts out and took the box away telling him we would get him a spoon later.

At the pizza parlour, Utpal regaled us with his usual antics. He sipped his drink his eyes closed and his hands behind his back, danced to the blaring rock music, ate his pizza and ice cream and fed us some too. Time flew, as it always does when one is happy. It was time to leave. Next stop the local grocery to buy his monthly tuck. Biscuits, peanuts and dates where the choice of the day. Then the dreaded moment arrived, the drive back to school. We were going to leave him earlier than usual as I had some work in the afternoon. In the car I gave him the little packet of toys I had bought earlier and that lay hidden in my bag: a small car, a yoyo and some other trinkets. Utpal was all excited as he explored the bag and opened each item. He started telling us what he would do with each of them.

We reached school and he got out of the car his precious packets in his hand. As we set off to walk him back to his hostel, three little boys who were sitting in the school ground whispered: they did not even feed him anything, they just took him out and bough him some things. To which Utpal quipped back: I ate pizza.

We reached the hostel and needless to say the lump in my throat was on there on cue, and the burning in my eyes heralded the dreaded tears, but Utpal the survivor par excellence was already busy with his pals making plans for the remaining part of the day. He had moved on and I realised that it was his way of showing me that all was well and that I could move on too!

where do they go now

For the past one year now a motley crew of six have been sharing a home. For the past one year they have learnt to live together, love and respect one another and have shared some unique and wonderful moments. Funnily of all our programmes and projects this is the one that never got a proper name: from foster care, to children’s chance, to happy home each always falling short of what it truly was. Even its genesis was complex. Does it lie in the dream conjured silently almost a decade back when I first lay eyes on Manu, or in the almost clinical vision of social change foisted upon us by a potential saviour who came and went leaving unfulfilled dreams in our custody. Or perhaps in both.

In a few days or weeks at most, four of these children will leave the safety and comfort of their little home and begin a new life in boarding school. And in a few days or weeks at most we will need to find a new option for their their three remaining roomies: Manu, Champa and Anjali. And as they enjoy the last days of their time together, I find my pondering about the year gone by. Was it only a year back that I sat vehemently opposing the idea mooted by our erstwhile potential funder who wanted to include what he called a foster care cum scholarship programme in our planet why vision? As he juggled numbers and worked out projections, I sat stunned wondering how anyone could play with children’s lives in such a way. To me the whole approach reeked of social engineering, something I could and would not accept. But beggars cannot be choosers and at that precise moment the person in question was willing to back our own dreams and vision for the future. One had to find a via media, and one did: a small trial programme with four carefully selected children in order to assess the viability and validity of the proposed project.

Things did not turn out to be what we had hoped for, and the person disappeared leaving us holding the dreams of these four kids in our hands. There was no going back even if we could not even begin to fathom how we would pull this one through. We walked into uncharted territory boldly and bravely if I may say so. The little foster care programme began in earnest. The four children – Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Aditya – were sent to a small prep school where they learnt was would be needed to take the big plunge in a world normally reserved for the privileged. They surpassed themselves and past the litmus test: their entrance examination to the boarding school. Today they are all set to join it, once we manage to muster the funds needed for them to do so.

While the children played by the rules and never faltered, we began the uphill task of finding people who would help us fund the education of these incredible kids. Easier said than done as we came up against unbelievable opposition. What we were doing was crossing the invisible line and that was anathema to many. But we have not given up hope as to us it would be anathema to send our little slumdogs backs to the slums. Wish we had a millionaire show where we knew all the answers.

The story does end here. As we sat wondering about how we would manage the days ahead, we realised that once the four kids have left us, our present premises would be too big for the remaining three inmates. The obvious choice would be to rent a smaller flat and hence save some pennies too but oh daring yeh hai India and people do not rent homes to disabled human beings and Manu, Champa and Anjali belong to the kind our society rejects and would like to wish away. For the past weeks we have been looking in vain for alternative accommodation. It looks like we may not be able to find any.

As I sit in what looks like a twilight world I ask myself a simple question: where do they go now and wait for a miracle to come my way!