Manu has been back home for over three weeks. His body is devastated by his terrible ailment but his spirit is intact and soaring. Yesterday we got his latest blood results. His liver and kidneys have not been able to withstand the medication and hence they need to be stopped. In lieu the men in white have prescribed daily shots. Shots in a body that is just a bag of bones is in no way easy. And yet that is the only way out.

A friend who is a healer and who realises my pain has time and again tried to tell me that Manu’s spirit is immortal and cannot be destroyed. I know she is right . I see his spirit every time I go and sit with him. Though he may not be able to walk or move on his own, Manu always reaches out to me and takes my pulse and then looks me deep in my eyes and says: you do not have fever! If I am standing, Manu, the impeccable host, insists I sit down and then looks for Aunty to order my proverbial cup of green tea! He will sit with me at the dining table for as long as I am there, reassuring me that he is well and that I should not worry. Yesterday he even asked me to get him grapes as no one else was getting them for him.

A friend has dropped by a couple of days and we had sat with Manu for some time. What a saintly soul, pure as snow was what she said as we left him. I realised how true her words were. Manu is just that: a pure soul where no ill can dwell. In spite of everything he has suffered over the years, Manu has never shown any resentment or rancor. In many ways he is a blessed soul.

His pain is unbearable. I have spent many nights praying for his well being. I would like to see his body heal and his suffering stop. I cannot begin to understand why the God of Lesser Beings has ordained so much pain for him. When we finally found him a real home with a bed, I really thought we had come full circle. And yet that was not to be. I can only wonder at what lies ahead and hope for the best

water woes

Last week at a staff meeting many teachers asked us for mayur jugs (large flasks) so that the children could have clean and cool drinking water this summer. In many cases the teachers requested us to send the flasks filled with clean water as there was no clean water in the slum where they taught. In some cases the sewer and drinking water lines had fused due to endless digging; in other cases there simply was no water and people has to make do with a tanker that came erratically.

Elections are around the corner and many candidates are promising water to their voters. In a slum in Delhi voters stated quite candidly that they would give their vote to the one that would solve their water woes. There is a shortage of water, we all know that. The water table is diminishing, wells and ponds are drying and water is getting scarce by the day. Yet we continue building on flood plains and digging tube wells. No one is willing to listen to environmentalists or green warriors. We may nod our head in agreement at every speech given but how many of us walk the talk. Do we shut the tap while brushing our teeth? Have me given up our jacuzzi, tub bath, shower and reverted back to the bucket and mug bath? Do we make sure that our cars are not hosed when washed? Do we harvest rain water? The list is endless.

The fact that there was no proper drinking water in most of the slums were we teach was a true wake up call. It is time each one of us started doing something to conserve water and treat it like a precious resource and not something we can take for granted.

the useless plastic bag

I sometimes purchase magazines. A sort of virtual retail therapy! I often do so quite absentmindedly. It could be a weekly political magazine or a monthly women’s one. Now if you have bought such magazines you would have realised that since some years they come protected in pristine plastic covers that need to be ripped apart to get to them. Now are we not a city that has banned plastic bags!

I recently read a very touching piece entitled : the orphaned plastic bag. It ends with these words: You humans talk about “Ban of Plastic Bags “If I could speak, I would scream out loud – Please do not create another Plastic bag. It will end up like me on the street, orphaned forever … and ever

The question that arises is quite valid: why create more plastic bags when the same are banned. I sat pondering on this for a long time and realised how many useless plastic bags are created every day. For instance does one need a plastic covering for a magazine. For years we had been purchasing our magazines without such protection. What is more disturbing is that these bags are made by the very people who talk about and print articles on the ban of such bags.

Perhaps, if we truly want to ban plastic bags, the first step would be to stop creating new ones. Then maybe we could see what to do with those that already exist.

yet another senseless death… and a tale of two Indias

A young girl died on Monday. She died in her school. She suffered an asthma attack and the school was unable to give her the required care. What is shocking is that this was one of the most reputed school of the capital. This is the second death of a child in school in a week. Little Shanno lost her life after being brutalised by her school teacher.

In both cases it is the friends and family of the two girls who have taken up the cudgels for them. In both cases pathetic and deplorable cover up operations are being carried out by those in power. But that is where the similarities stop as Shanno and Aakriti belong to two different Indias.

In little Shanno’s case the witnesses are little slum kids whose voice cannot carry far. In Aakriti’s case the witnesses are young articulate English speaking kids of rich India whose voice is loud and purposeful. Whereas Shanno’s family and friends did protest they were not invited to talk shows and TV programmes, their voices soon died out and no much happened. Instead of seeing the arrest of the teacher, one saw her boldly and brazenly denying facts and clamouring her innocence. Aakriti’s friends were heard and the principal of the school has to resign. Ministers promised prompt action as they made the right noises.

Both cases highlight different issues. In one case it is abysmal and inhumane practice of corporal punishment that prevails in schools in India and in the other it seems to be gross and unacceptable negligence. I would like to share with view what a volunteer who had come to pwhy some time back wrote after hearing of Shanno’s death:

It is sad to read about Shanno’s departure first thing in the morning. This thing about corporal punishment is something that bothered me a lot when I was with Pwhy in 2007, and till today I am still intrigued. I am no sociologist or anthropologist, but my belief has always been that common social practices are often present at more than one site.

The way I see it, corporal punishment in school is highly relevant to parenting beliefs, which in turn affects how children view themselves in situations of physical abuse. My own observations of pwhy children are that they do use physical force on one another – they seldom fight, but they give each other a strong hit on the back to express satisfaction.. and even when just playing they push each other around. The same goes even for some Pwhy teachers – “pats” on the back is common, and in my opinion, both children and teacher alike think nothing of their behaviour or perhaps they are not even aware of what they are doing.

Extend this to the community and I believe this is how children interact with one another (they even showed this in “Slumdog millionaire”), and I think it is also how parents educate their own children. Schools are viewed as an extension of home education, so it isn’t surprising to see teachers behaving in the same way or to walk around with a long thick cane yelling at the latecomers. Singapore was once like this as well in the early years of Independence. My parents grew up being punished physically, so they used the same tactics on me when I was young. Mishaps are viewed as “accidents”, the only difference is that parents will feel remorse at their own actions while teachers may not. Thus, my own opinion is that such practices, what is termed as a disciplinarian “hidden curriculum”, cannot be mandated because the jurisdiction of school leaders and teachers have a lot more weight than regulations on paper.

To change how things are, I would think start with convincing the parents (maybe at parents’ meeting). I believe there will be a lot of skepticism and doubt as to whether such change in ways of children education will raise effective kids. If this resistance can be overcome, then kids need to be educated too. They need to stop believing that adults have the right to punish them physically, and that no matter what happens they need to tolerate. Shanno may have survived if she had known that it isn’t right for her to stand under the sun for 2 hrs and learnt to protect herself. I’m not participating in the blaming game, but I think the solution should be bottom-up instead of top-down. We need to try starting with the community, because if parents make principals and teachers accountable for all actions of corporal punishment, that is when such behaviour will begin to diminish. As for students I think it is important to alert them to the need for “defense” – not to fight back in defiance, but to know how to protect themselves if they were treated unreasonably.

I will leave you to react on the above but I feel that it makes a lot of sense. Corporal punishment cannot be abolished by laws and orders alone. It is endemic to our society and a bottom up solution needs to be found. At pwhy we do try to raise awareness about the dangers of corporal punishment but the road is a log one as lifting your hand of a child seems to be ingrained in almost indelible ways.

Aakriti’s case is different. It is a case of gross negligence that even reeks of arrogance. The school in question is one of the best up market schools, where getting admission is almost viewed as a privilege only given to the few. That the child was not given proper attention is unforgivable. We are a very tiny organisation with meagre resources but even we have a drill that is t be followed in case of any child being sick or hurt. We have a contract with a local nursing home which attends to any problem that may occur. Teachers are told to rush the child there in case of any mishap. No one needs to await any instruction. It is an absurdly simple model that works.

I do not know whether enquiries and probes will solve corporal punishment or negligence. The issues are far greater and very complex. They require well though of solutions and answers. In my humble opinion it is the entire school system that is at fault and the two deaths we have witnessed are very representative of this: little Shanno’s death reflects the sad state of the state run schools which are going from bad to worse, and young Aakriti’s death reveals the almost hubristic attitude adopted by so called good schools that seem to have become impervious to any form of censure. What is worse is that there seems to be no end to this situation. Once again I will make my plea for a common school but know that too many vested interest will ensure that I am never heard.

burgers, ice cream and lots of fun

It was treat time for our prep class! The whole class had been invited to Mc Donald’s for burgers, fries, and lots of fun. Little notes had been sent to all parents to ensure that the kids came to pwhy in their Sunday best. And they did, each in a set of sparkling clothes.

Most of our prep class kids come from very deprived homes and for them it would be first time in a car, first time in an air conditioned environment and probably a very first acquaintance with a burger and pack of fries. The host for the day, a group of volunteers from iVolunteer, landed at the exact time. There was a palpable excitement in the air as the children, twenty of them, wore their badges and slipped on their shoes. A short ride in two three wheelers took them to the waiting cars were everyone piled in.

I did not go with them. I just saw the pictures and got a debrief from the two teachers who had accompanied the children. The smiles on the faces said it all. Never mind if the burger was too large and the ice cream cone somewhat messy. Everyone had a ball. If some enjoyed licking the sauce from the packet, others preferred dissecting the burger before eating it. But what the heck. It was a very satisfied lot that returned to pwhy. I would have given anything to know what went on in their little minds filled with new sensations and images.

You can share some moments of this every special outing here

A big thank you to iVolunteer!

kid for sale

I am livid. The whole of yesterday was spent watching a news item that was splashed on all channels: a sting operation that revealed that the little girl who acted in Slumdog Millionaire was up for sale by her father! The sting operation had been undertaken by a British tabloid.

The article makes sordid reading. Is this not the worse kind of child abuse! Starry kids enjoying the delights of a five star hotel – be it the mattress you can jump on or the ice cream and cold drinks you can gorge on – while adults are discussing the price they would be sold at.

I had always been weary of the plight that awaited these star kids. I has watched in silent horror as the children were paraded by a fashion designer and used by a political party for electioneering. I have watched with sadness the innumerable articles about these children each highlighting the innumerable goodies offered to them: be it money, homes or trust funds. I have watched with dismay these children slowly losing the anonymity and safety of childhood and feared for them. Everyone was in the race for its pound of flesh and no one was bothered about the children and their future.

I will reiterate what I have said earlier. If anyone had the interest of these children at heart, they should have been quietly sent to a good boarding school without any ado. There was no need to herald and trumpet what was being done for them. The reality is that whatever has been done for them till now has been done to fulfill selfish agendas. No one is concerned about the children themselves. They are just be used like circus animals.

The truth is that no one is truly interested in the plight of slum children. I can talk with authority as I have spend a fifth of my life trying to muster help to do just that. The little children in the picture are all in a boarding school and are doing well. I wish I could do more but I have no glamour to barter. I simply have the hopes, dreams and morrows of children to give in exchange.

another senseless death

A little girl died yesterday. She was 11 year old. She died because she was not able to recite her alphabet. She died because her teacher hit her head against the table and then made her stand in the sun for two hours. She died because her frail body could not withstand the brutal punishment.

My heart goes out to little Shanno yet another innocent victim of the beast called corporal punishment. The question I ask is how many more such deaths will it take for us to wake up and do something? This is not the first case and sadly this will not be the last. Corporal punishment is too deeply ingrained in our system. Once again the same drama will enfold: outrage and anger, some cosmetic dismissals and suspensions, some platitudes mouthed by people in power and then as always little Shanno will be laid to rest in more ways than one.

We too at project why had tried long ago to take on the hydra headed monster called corporal punishment. I remember the case of a child who had been mercilessly beaten by his school teacher and how we had taken up the cudgels on his behalf. I recall the innumerable visits to the education department, the endless petitions to one and all. The end result had simply been a cosmetic transfer of the teacher to another school. But that was not all. From that day onwards pwhy children were singled out in the school and beaten for no apparent reason.

Wonder what punishment will be meted out to the teacher whose cruel action resulted in little Shanno’s death. The whitewashing act has already begun. The blame game has started. As always in all cases of child abuse the victim is made the offender. The teacher has given her defense and the system will undoubtedly protect her.

But there are deeper questions that arise from the present situation. This is not an isolated incident. Children are beaten every day in schools in India. One wonders why? What is it that turns an apparent sane human being into a monster? What gives the right to a teacher to physically abuse a child? And why does it happen over and over in spite of laws and court directives. Questions that need answers.

Little Shanno may have been a child with a learning disability. Maybe she just was not able to cope with her studies. But the existing system has no place for children like her. And in all probability teachers are not sensitized towards such children. The disturbing yet inevitable reality is that even if the teacher is brought to book there will be many other Shannos unless the whole education system is reviewed and altered. But who will bell the cat?

the last turnaround

Recession, recovery, turnaround are notions I have always found hard to understand. Perhaps it is because I decided a long time ago to invest in smiles, hopes and tomorrows! But one cannot remain impervious to the happenings around us. One realises that one is in the midst of a deep crisis and that every one’s morrows are uncertain.

Yesterday I was sent a link to a note on the popular social site Facebook. The note was simply entitled The Last Turnaround and talked about a Golden Era that would come after some terrible apocalyptic times. The author urged us to prepare for such times just as you would for an impeding calamity. A true doomsday scenario that one would like not to believe, and yet…

I am no economist or specialist of any kind, but in my humble and limited opinion what we are facing is a moral crisis more than an economic one. If we do not mend our ways we are heading straight to the times our friend predicts. In a former post I had tried to unravel the mess we are in and had submitted my views. I still feel that we are living in a void that we are trying desperately to fill with the wrong things. We live self centred lives with scant regard for the other. We break laws and rules with impunity and revel in doing so. The way we treat our planet is a perfect example of what I am trying to say. In our city in spite of laws banning plastic bags or disallowing tube wells, everyone is carrying such bags and tube wells are being dug everywhere drying up the much depleted water table. And the list is endless and depressing. More cars, more ACs, more lights, more of everything as long as it meets my needs.

We are not interested in the other, whether it is one who lives on the other side of the fence or the one yet to be born. I was deeply moved by my elder daughter when she walked into the kitchen holding her child and urged us to stop wasting water for his sake. It was a true wake up call.

But let us get back to the morrows that await us. If we are going to be taken by the lure of the ephemeral turnaround that is around the corner and continue doing what we do so well: borrow senselessly and spend carelessly then we are paving the way to the kind of crash predicted by our friend. Sadly it seems we may just go that way unless we realise that we need to look within and accept to change.

Once again I will quote the little prince and his friend the fox: if we want a tomorrow then we need to look at everything around us with our hearts.

Dream a dream

I do not write about TV programmes and reality shows. And yet today I write about one such show that is the buzz on the Internet and the talk of many a town. The reason is a rather cryptic message that accompanied the link and simply said: this video reminded me of pwhy!

The clip in question for those who do not wish to waste precious time for the download, is about a middle aged, frumpy, unemployed woman taking part in a singing contest. Everyone laughs and jeers at her when she says that her dream is to be a singer. When she starts singing everyone is stunned. When she finishes every one is blown over. Even her choice of song seems perfect as she ends her song with the words: Now life has killed the dream I dreamed. (I dreamed a dream from Les Miserables).

Like millions who have watched the clip I too felt moved. Yet I wondered for a long time why my friend had been reminded of us as she watched Susan Boyle sing. Then it struck me. She was an underdog just like all the children of project why, a little guy with huge dreams. One that people will always jeer or scoff at. The one no one believes in. The little child in his tattered clothes who dreams of being a star, the boy who sits in front of his hovel and dreams of being a pilot, the little girl who watches her sick mommy and dreams of becoming a doctor. The message was clear: if the little lady from a remote Scottish village can make it big, so can each our children. You just have to dream big and hold on to your dream. That is what we do at project why!

no books no school

A recent mail from an activist friend brought to light the plight of senior secondary government school girls who were told not to come to school if they did not purchase all the school books needed for their class. Most of these students were from extremely poor families and could not afford to buy the said books. Many of the girls had actually stopped going to school for fear of the reprimand they would be subjected to. It seemed that the latest reason for dropping out off school could just be the inability to purchase school books.

That girls from poor and deprived homes reach senior classes is nothing short of a miracle. Very often parents who are more than willing to provide tuition classes for their sons, find doing the same for their daughters a waste of money. Girls are often left to their own devices. Moreover their study time is often truncated as they are given innumerable house tasks: from looking after their siblings to cooking and cleaning. Parents would rather see them drop out of school than purchase books for them. And if the schools sing the same tune, the girls are doomed.

Every election manifesto has heralded the need to look at the girl child and better her plight. Yet while such lofty ideas are being trumpeted, girls in India’s capital city are at the risk of dropping out of school because they cannot afford to buy school books. There has to be a way out. Schools could keep a pool of books and lend them to needy students. This would be eminently doable if curriculum did not change every year, as the books could be passed on to the next batch. A fine could be charged if the books were spoiled.

It is unacceptable to have children drop out of school in senior classes because they cannot buy books. Something needs to be done… now!