Reforms not Reservations… the right R

Listening to our new HRD Minister outlining his proposed educational reforms was music to the ears and balm to the heart. He said his mantra was “expansion, inclusion and excellence” and this was not possible “if you deny access to education to every single child in the country”echoing in his own way what I have been harping about for almost a decade now.

A grading formula instead of the inane mark systems, a common Board for all the children of India, making the Xth Boards optional it all sounds too good to be true. For once the right R word is being used Reforms and not Reservations. Unifying and not dividing.

The new Minister seems to have his heart in the right place when he proposes: for instance, a municipal school building has two floors vacant. A private player can set up his classes and charge fees, while he imparts the same quality of education free to those studying in the municipal school. Personally I would have liked to hear the word common school but perhaps that is still a long way coming. I still hope it will happen one day.

This is the first time one is hearing a Minister talk for the children and not trying to fulfill and pursue some hidden political agenda. This is the first time one feels that education is in safe hands. Emboldened by what I read and hear I would like to suggest going one step further and institution an Indian Education Service on the lines of the IAS. This would bring about quality and unity in the teachers and give primary and school education the much needed acceptance.

Education is the corner stone of our society and it is time that we have it the place it deserves. I just hope that our new Minister will continue to address the situation the way he has begun. It is high time someone thought of India’s children.

no more Kodak moments – a trip down memory lane


It is the end of an era. Kodak is taking Kodachrome away. For those of us that belong to the Paul Simon generation we cannot but remember the words immortalised by him: They give us those nice bright colors. They give us the greens of summers. Makes you think all the worlds a sunny day, I got a Nikon camera I love to take a photograph So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!

At times like these which are almost like rites of passage one is tempted to take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about times gone by. Those of my generation will remember the camera as a prize possession. It required some handling and one of them was the art of placing the film roll correctly. I was never good at that and often had to seek help. Taking a snapshot in those days was no instant gratification. There was a fixed number of shots in each roll you bought and once you had clicked those you had to fulfill one more task: that of rewinding the film and getting it out of the camera, and then place it in the box you purchased it in and then take it to a photographer’s shop to get it developed, hoping against hope that your shots were in focus, and not overexposed. Then you had to wait for a day or more before you collected your pictures. These we given to you in a folder along with your negatives. Only then did you know whether you had your Kodak moments or not.

Today with digital cameras all this is long past. You click your image and can see it on the screen of your camera moments after you have shot it. If it is not to your liking you delete it and shoot another. The digital era has dawned and taken away the film reel. Many may not know it, but Kodachrome was a process invented by two musicians a violinist and a pianist know as God and Man (Leopold Godowsky Jr and Leopold Mannes) way back in 1935.

But what were the Kodak moments we so loved to capture. My mind travels back to the late sixties and early seventies: my college years. What did we do with our free time? Where did we go? What did we enjoy doing? Slowly images trickle from the recesses of my memory, images of parks and open spaces, of poetry books and strummed guitars, of syrupy cups of tea and oily omelets in between slices of white bread, of overstuffed jholas (cloth bags) and worn out chappals (sandals). Those seemed to be our Kodak moments, the ones we wanted to immortalise on paper as this is what we did in our free time. A free afternoon with friends was often translated into a walk in a park or in the zoo, a poetry reading session or a heated debate on some philosophical subject or the other. We made and remade the world and felt on top of it. You were appreciated and liked not by what you wore or possessed, but by your ability to share your knowledge and talent.

And if you wanted a lasting memory you had to select what you wished to consign on paper. Even today, after many decades I find myself looking at the innumerable yellowed photographs that tell the story of my life and lie not in a computer hard disk but in some old drawer, or stuck in the pages of well worn albums.

Today everyone wants instant gratification and all good moments are measured in the amount of money spent. I recall a newspaper article where a journalist decided to spend an evening with a bunch of high school kids. The night was spent zipping from one five star hotel to another and buying an expensive drink that was left untouched as the gang felt bored and needed to move. The evening cost over 10K a head and resulted in not a single Kodak moment.

It is with a sense of nostalgia that I read the about the demise of the good old photo reel, the one that had given people like me hordes of wonderful moments that now lie yellowed in some corner of my home.

reinvent the world for you

Children reinvent the world for you said Susan Sarandon. Today I wonder how 800 children are going to help me reinvent our world, the project why world.

Much has happened in the last few months or should I say weeks. I guess we had again sunk into one of our comfort zones, when one thinks and believes that one has finally reached home and that nothing can come and disturb things. We had a respectable number of children, our teachers were doing a commendable work as not a single child failed, our funding pattern seemed to be on course as we had regular and seemingly sound partners and the problems encountered en route were all more than manageable. It was time to throw one’s self wholeheartedly into our long term sustainability programme and start seriously looking for funds to build planet why!

And then recession hit the planet! At first we did not take it too seriously. We, like many others thought or wanted to think that it would pass without creating too many ripples in our lives. But then a few weeks back, two of our partners, the ones we relied upon the most informed us that they would not be able to meet their commitments, at least for the months to come. We were taken aback and thrown out of gear for a brief moment. But then we realised that we could not close down shop, send kids back and sit in a remote corner to wait for things to change and improve. We had to carry on no matter what, recession or no recession.

I must admit that this not the first time we have been at such crossroads and I know it will not be the last. The last will be when planet why sees the light of day. But that is still some time coming till then we need to reinvent ourselves once again. And once again it will be the children who reinvent the world for us, or perhaps we who reinvent it for 800 of them!
Link
Our new avatar is the sponsorship programme where we ask each one of our friends, and thus you, to spare a little money each day and use it to protect a child’s future. In an earlier post I had asked the simple question: does recession make us less compassionate? I would like to believe the contrary and urge you to prove me right. Sponsoring a child was never the way I wanted to go and yet it is the one I chose today as it seems to fit the prevailing situation. I have always believed that our redemption lay in expanding our donor base so as to be able to deal with the occasional drop outs without bleeding. What seemed ridiculous and laughable to many, seems to make sound sense today.

Our sponsorship programme is defined here. Please drop by that page and find it in your heart to help our children reinvent their endangered world.

You can write to us at: sponsor@projectwhy.org

numbing numbers

It never rains, it pours goes the saying, and nothing could be truer for Radha’s little family. The day after the TV crew came and went, the authorities came and took away the family’s food cart and every single utensil they possessed. They did not even leave a plate, a spoon or a glass. The little family lost they sole mean of livelihood and also the basic utensils needed to cook their own meal.

True it was to happen as all street food is now illegal in Delhi but somehow one did not expect it all to happen so soon. It seems the few carts in the area were linked to the wrong political party and hence the haste in getting rid of them.

Now begins the numbers game. If Radha’s mom wants to retrieve her belongings she needs to come up with a whopping 2500 Rs plus Rs 100 per fay in demurrage. A herculean task for a family that barely earned 1500 rs a month. But then without their belongings the family cannot even cook a meal for themselves and the cart was bought for over 5000 Rs and could fetch them some money if sold as they know they will never be able to revive the business. The predatr family who had come out of the wood work after Radha’s father’s demise have simply packed their bags and left. The only one left is Radha’s younger aunt who toils in factory from 9am to 9 pm for a paltry 2500 Rs, way below the minimum wage. And in her case, like in the case of thousands of others, no worker’s union comes to the rescue. They are quietened by hefty amounts paid by the factory owners who find numerous ways to circumvent laws.

Radha’s mom is ridden with debts, the ones she occurred after the demise of her husband as she was made to do complex and expensive rituals. Our offer to come and stay at the women centre went unheeded as perhaps it was not an option for the extended family. Or perhaps was it that very extended family that saw Radha’s mom as a potential money spinner. We will never know what truly happened.

Today Radha’s mom has very few options. She cannot work in a factory like her younger sister as her soon is too small to be left alone and then her other children do come back from school and need to be tended to. We now have to rack our brains to find a workable option. We will probably ask her to come and work at the women centre as it is not located too far from her house and she can bring her little boy along. We need someone to clean the place and cook the staff lunch. And then she can after her work, join the sewing class which could be an added skill that would help her earn some extra money. She must earn enough to look after her family.

That is where we stand today. As I wrote in an earlier post, the story on TV did not translate into any form of support. We will have to find a way to help the family get back their belongings as some can be sold and others are much needed for the family to survive. The numbing numbers game will have be unravelled and won!

Jump…

Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall” wrote Ray Bradbury. I was reminded of this quote when I saw this picture. It is our very own Popples aka Utpal bungee jumping during a recent outing. Amazingly, though he was the youngest in the queue, he was not afraid or nervous. He found the experience simply exhilarating! I could not resist putting this picture on the blog. The sight of this little fellow with his hair raised like a comic book character was too much to resist.

But a usual my mind wandered and I found myself thinking of the number of times I have found myself having to jump without quite knowing how and where I will land, praying each time that I will find the way to unfold my wings as I fall. My jumps are one of a kind. They occur at times when I have sworn to myself and to all others that I will not add anything to the existing structure of pwhy. And then something happens out of the blue, a child needing help, a woman in despair, a family rendered homeless and all promises are forgotten as I jump to their rescue not knowing where and how help will come from, having totally forgotten that we have barely enough to survive, hoping against hope that I will grow the much needed wings before it is to late. And miraculously each and every time it has happened.

Many may not understand as it defies logic and sane thinking, but many do not know that when I began pwhy I promised myself to try and answer all the whys that came my way, no matter what they were. So I guess just like little Utpal, there will be many more jumps and free falls and I hope that no one moves the ground from beneath my feet and that each jump is as exhilarating as the previous one.

I wonder why

I wonder why there has not been much interest in little Radha’s story aired on national TV. Last time we sought help for an open heart surgery, we were flooded with phone calls and offers of support. The child in question is now a strapping young boy in class VIII.

Radha’s story came and went as quietly and unobtrusively as little Radha who can sleep on a roadside and simply tell you she did so and get along with the task at hand. We did find her a little home, more a burrow then a living space fit for human beings. She was so pleased at not having to sleep in the open that she danced her heart out the next day. You see she had slept right through a dust storm.

What had we hoped to achieve by making her story known to all? Some financial help that would have enabled us to move the little family into a proper home? Some medical advise about her rare disability? Some hope that her morrows be safe? But that was not to be. The very next day the authorities took away the cart which was their livelihood and all the utensils they possessed. Radha did not come to school today.

The death knell of all street food vendors has tolled. The cat and mouse game has begun. Bribes to be paid for a few days of reprieve till the next predator comes and removes the reclaimed cart again and so on. Wonder how long it lasts. Politicos jump in the fray for a potential votes. All is fair you see.

But that is not what I am disturbed about. My mind keeps going back to the one question we began with: why has no one come forward. And the answer is there for all to see: little disabled girls are not sound investment. Their truncated lives are not worthy of even the loose change that jiggles in your pocket or lies hidden in the folds of your drawing room sofa. After all Radha is only a little girl with a disability.

Could I forget the plight of our dear Preeti and her lunch box, or that of the sad people locked away behind impregnable iron gates? Little Radha is just one of them. Her story may result in a few chuckles of sympathy but does not translate into action of any kind.

We would like to see her thrive and grow, even if it is for a short time. She deserves every bit of happiness that can come her way. And we shall strive to ensure that this happens. So help us God.

the new celebrity

Radha is definitely the new celebrity in class. Yesterday a TV crew came to the special centre to film her and then today the whole class went up to the foster care to watch the programme. Radha sat very quietly not quite understanding what was happening. She had never seen television.

After the programme was over, some of the boys of the junior secondary came back to look at her. Radha felt she was on top the world and could not stop smiling.
You can see the story here.

dancing with the heart


Dancing with the feet is one thing, but dancing with the heart is another
and little Radha did just that. Yes Radha, the one who cannot walk, the one with brittle bones disease, the one who dreams of being a dancer danced with her heart, and I know that even the Heavens stopped to watch her.

Radha never dances. Sometimes we take her in our arms and dance but rarely does she dance on her two little useless feet. But yesterday she did. Was it because she knew that tonight she would sleep under a roof and not on the road side. She danced non stop for almost an hour, twirling like a dervish and her arms moving gracefully to the beat of the music

Dancing faces you towards Heaven, whichever direction you turn said Sweetpea Tyler. Little Radha proved just that. It was moving, touching and overwhelming to watch her. There was not a dry eye in the room, even her classmates, those who cannot hear, or walk or speak watched her mesmerised.

Apologies for the poor quality of the video, but there was a power outage and we knew that perhaps we may never see Radha dance like this again.

How long will a footpath be her home

She still sleeps on the footpath with her family, under a tree with no protection from the heat, dust or lashing rain. Her face is the kind Modigliani would have painted and she does look pretty as picture. But one look at her frail, distorted body is enough to tell another tale. Little Radha has brittle bone disease, a rare condition that affects 1 in 60 000 children and where the prognostic is grim. Little Radha’s life is bound to be short.

In spite of her distorted bones and frail body, Radha has an incredible spirit and wants to do everything her friends do in class. She plays every game even if that means running on her hands. When asked what her dream was she simply said: to be able to walk!

She lived in a house so tiny that you could not stand in it, and yet that is where she and her family laughed, cried, hoped, and dreamt. It is there that her father died and that her young mother tried to rebuild a life: one of simple survival. Not an easy task for a young widow as predators lurked everywhere. We had hoped that the young mother would agree to come and live at our women centre with her 4 children but that was not to be. Perhaps she was too free a spirit or was it her extended family that did not allow it. One would never know. Radha and her family continued to live in their tiny home till it was destroyed two weeks ago by the municipal authorities. The family lost what they called home and the protection it gave them.

From that day onwards the little family slept on the roadside
without any protection from the heat or the rain. Their few belongings are carefully arranged on the kerb, or packed in plastic bags. When it rains each member of the family covers him or herself with a plastic sheet and waist for the rain to pass. A small earthen stove is built in a corner to cook the meals. The family sleeps in the open an easy prey to any kind of predator. The mother runs her food cart in the day and feeds her little family. And little Radha whose fragile bones can snap at the slightest touch navigates herself on the tiny pavement of what is now her home.

This little story is replete of deafening whys that need to be answered. Why is a child with a rare and complex condition born in a family that can barely look after a healthy child? What does a child like Radha do in a land where social security and sound medical care are non existent? Why is there no proper habitat for the poor and why can anyone be allowed to live in the abysmal conditions Radha’s family did for years? Where are the laws that protect children? Where are the rights enshrined in our Constitution and why are people like Radha’s family deprived of them?

For the last 15 days I have asked Radha every morning where she spent the night and for the last 15 days her answer has been: on the road! What is touching as well as saddening and infuriating is the calm with which little Radha answers the question and then goes to finish the task at hand with a smile. I do not know the answers to all the questions posed above. Perhaps only the God of small creatures can answer them. I only know that we need to do something, and do it now. We will find a new home for Radha, one that is livable and move them off the street today and help them with the rent if need be. I cannot hear another: on the road anymore!

Remembering mom

She left this planet nineteen years ago. Yet it feels like it was just yesterday as she lives in everything that surrounds me and above all in all the little faces of the children of project why and in the hope and dreams of all the women that come to change their tomorrows at the centre that bears her name. For me she lives in very nook and corner of my home and in every fragrant plant that blooms in the tiny garden that surrounds it.

Kamala was one of a kind. A woman born well before her time who managed to instill in many a rare zest for life, no matter how difficult that life could be. As for her life itself was too precious a gift to squander away. Perhaps that is why she fought a painful cancer without the help of any treatment as for her dying in her sleep was unacceptable. She breathed her last in my arms fully aware of what was happening to her.

I often ask myself whether I have been worthy of such an extraordinary mother, one that fought every battle of life with courage and dignity. I have tried to the best of my ability to emulate her ways and stand for what I believed was right, but I find myself a very pale imitation of what Kamala was. And yet I strive each day to do a little bit more and will continue to do so till I too leave this world.

Much of what pwhy is, stems form what she wanted to do and could not for reasons beyond her control. Even in her very last moment, Kamala wanted to reach out to those how suffered or were less fortunate. I have just tried to translate all her dreams and wishes into reality.

To say that I miss her would be a euphemism. I miss her wisdom and sagacity; I miss her inimitable way of turning the darkest moment into a bright sunshine, I miss her ability to infuse courage in at times when all seemed hopeless; I miss her love and her smile. And today I miss her more than ever.