a peek into project why

It has been a long time since I have taken you on a tour of project why. Somehow the picture of little Komal peeking through the balcony inspired me to do just that. True that from the pwhy building balcony you simply see another building but that is when you look with your eyes. Try to look with you heart and suddenly everything changes.

So let us talk a stroll through pwhy. It is 8.45 am. The office is abuzz with activity as most of the teachers have come to sign in after their early morning spoken English class taken by Jillian our long term volunteer. Instructions are given and everyone sets out to their respective class. By 9 am the office is empty. A walk down the stairs and we reach our creche. The toddlers are still coming in and little shoes are aligned in a straight row. Some kids are already settled. It is toy time and every is busy with hos or her toy of the day. We tiptoe out and walk own another flight of stairs and are greeted with a loud Good morning ma’am. It is the special class and morning exercise time. Whether you walk or not, hear or not, comprehend or not does not matter, morning gym is for everyone and everyone loves it. The music is blaring and everyone is happy.

A walk across the street and a climb up two flight of stairs and we reach our erstwhile foster care. The foster care kids are now in boarding school but their special roomies still lie there. Manu, Champa and Anjali still live there but while they are in class the space gets used for other activities. We walk through the second creche and the prep class. Every one is busy settling down. We leave them to their taks and peep into the junior secondary class. A score or so of boys are busy revising for their exam.

A short drive takes us to Govindpuri Nehru camp. We alight from the three wheeler an walk through a maze of lanes and reach the tiny jhuggi. A class is going on in earnest. We continue our journey and reach Okhla. About 100 children are busy studying. Two volunteers are also taking an English class. The teachers share their concern about a wall that has cracked after a truck banged into it. The matter is serious and we will need to find funds to redo the wall. A quick drop at Sanjay Colony and we are back to Giri Nagar where it all began almost a decade ago. Today the little street is host to our senior secondary and our computer centre as well as our library which also doubles up as a primary class. Everyone is busy and we quietly walk away.

A drive takes us to the women centre. We are surprised to see how choker block it is. Over 50 women are busys with their sewing and beauty class. A few children are left in the creche waiting for their parents and over 150 kids are packed on the terrace all lost in their work. It is impressive, 150 kids almost pin drop silence. You only hear the teachers!

Yes the walk has been virtual but it reflects the reality and fills me with a sense of pride and deep gratitude.

silent class

There is a new class at project why and like everything else it happened quite by chance. The special educator who comes thrice a week to work with our children came to me last week and asked me whether project why could provide some space for a bunch of deaf and dumb students who needed after school support to keep up with their studies. As you may have guessed we said yes immediately. That is the way we are. The logistics would be worked out and all would fall in place.

The reason for which I agreed to the request is that I more than anyone else believe in inclusive education and I more than anyone else know how things are on the ground in the government schools these kids go to. The extra support can and will make all the difference.

So a a few adjustments were made and space crated for these students who now come thrice a week to catch up with their school studies and what is wonderful is that little Bittoo, our hearing impaired child joins the class.

It is a wonderful silent class and I invite you to peep in:

the old water man

He leaned against his cart forlorn and dejected. No one seemed to want to drink his water today. He was a wizened old man who could barely stand, let alone push his cart. He had been coming to this very spot, year after year, actually at each Durga Pujo. He always placed his cart in front of the biggest Puja Pandal, next to the temple and every year he made quick business. Something had changed. This year he was alone. The usual food carts were absent and with no one eating food, no one needed to quench their thirst.

He was not aware of the new court ruling that now banned selling cooked food on the streets. He was illiterate and no one in his home spoke to him, let alone share with him the on goings of life. He felt like a burden and looked forward to leaving his son’s home early and spent the whole day out, even if he had sold all the water he had in his cart. He kept a rupee or two for himself and dutifully handed the balance to his daughter in law. At least that way there was no recriminations. But today, when everyone would be expecting a killing, he would return empty handed. he did not even want to think about what would happen.

The old man is part of what is known as the informal economy, the hawkers and street vendors; people who come to the city looking for jobs and then not finding any create their own. It is estimated that there are over 4 lakhs such vendors in Delhi. They make barely enough to live and have to pay huge bribes to be allowed to function. According to an NGO they pay over 600 crores annually! This was one of the reasons for the new law but what it amounts to is punishing the victim and not the perpetrator.

In the last ten days or so we have seen furious activity along side the main road in Govindpuri. All street hawkers are targeted by the police. Some try to slink into the nearby alleys. Others have just closed shop. Wonder how many new families now go hungry at night. Street food has been an age told tradition in Delhi and the hygiene factor is not really one that I buy. A hot samosa may send my LDL cholesterol flying but has never given me a Delhi belly. The idea of a cold samosa makes me lose my appetite.

Many of the parents of our children run food stalls. That is how they have survived for years now and looked after their families. They feed the poor and the middle class with affordable and healthy food. Such people cannot afford the swanky fast food joints which seem to be getting a thumbs up all the way and which are proliferating by the minute. The new order will make the list of unemployed swell. And with no new jobs on the anvil where will these people go. Are we just going to watch the death of an age old tradition and say nothing?

Just like the old man, many across the city are slowly seeing the end of their journey So help them God!

a good heart is better

My grandson will be with us in a few days. The excitement is palpable. Everyone seems tobe walking on air. The old house is being spruced up. The wood has been polished, the windows are squeaky clean and the ancient and worn out floor is almost gleaming. Everyone is busy and yet time hangs heavy, refusing to pass reminding me of Bergson’s theories. The same time will fly once the little fellow lands and then hang heavy again when he leaves. But the purpose of this post is not to write a treatise on time!

Little Agastya is just 8 months old. His whole life awaits him and as any dotty granny I wish it is filled with all that is good and beautiful. Do we not always wish that for our children! And yet what we forget is that we are responsible for what lies ahead. We adults hold the coloured crayons that will fill the blank canvass. The little child will become what he sees, hears, feels and experiences. It is for us to show them the very best.

In a recent TV debate on violence and aggressive behaviour, someone said that what we failed to teach the young of today were values such as compassion and empathy. In a world ruled by possession and control, principles like fellow feeling and tolerance seemed passé and outdated. Children grew up to believe that the measure of success is in the things you had to flaunt and vaunt. Hence you smothered your child with objects of all shades and hue, the bigger the better, the dearer the better!

A good heart is better than all the heads in the world wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I wonder how one teaches a child to have a good heart in our day and age. How does one teach compassion? How does one teach concern, tolerance, humanity. By example of course but examples are few and moreover the child should never feel alienated. I remember a friend who had no TV when her child was growing up. One day the child came back from school upset and crying. The reason was simple: she could not be part of the break time chat that revolved around the latest episode of the latest TV serial aired. So how do you strike the right balance in your quest to teach values to children. The TV programme suggested that compassion be taught as a subject in school. My mind went back to days where we had moral classes in school. But those days are gone too.

My little grandson is still too tiny but as he grows I would like to make him discover the true meaning of things: make him feel the caress of the wind, listen to the humming of the birds and the rustle of leaves. I would like to read to him passages of the Little Prince and make him discover the secret of the fox. As he grows I would like to teach him to celebrate difference, make his own choices and walk the road less traveled.

Change for 5$

A mail dropped by in my inbox. It was from an organisation that was launching a new funding campaign. My first reaction was to trash it immediately but something made me read on as the mail seemed to be personally addressed to me. I was curious to know what was wanted of me. The answer was in the last para: Your blog is extremely well written and read. A mention about Anand Charity, its mission, its current projects or the fundraiser would immensely benefit us. It would allow us to reach out to and touch more underprivileged people. We would be very indebted to you for your help.

How presumptuous! Did people not know that I ran project why and hence was also constantly looking for funds to survive. But again I did not trash the mail and decided to find out more about Anand Charity. I clicked on their website and as is always the case with me looked for the faces behind.

What I saw filled my heart with pride and joy. Seven smiling faces of young Indians, each from the best schools and universities, each with a message that went straight to my heart. They were, all just like me, paying back a debt they felt they owed. It had taken me half a life to get there. They had not wasted any time. They were true children of India and the very best. They had learned the fox’s secret in the Little Prince and knew how to see with their hearts.

Today their organisation is reaching out to help organisations like project why. They fund projects related to education, health and disaster management across India and they have launched a fundraiser urging people to part with just 5$. I wish them success andI hope they succeed. They have to so that they become role models for young Indians. And perhaps they can show me the right way!

It is only when more young Indians learn to see with their hearts that India will truly change. God bless them.

Restore not remove

Restore, not remove is an article I urge you all to read. In the wake of the decision of scrapping class X Boards, it comes as an eye opener and is quite unusual as it urges the powers that be to restore two jaded institutions namely the NSS and the NCC as ways of continuous evaluation of children as continuous evaluation seems to be the flavour of the day.

I must confess that I would not have thought of this and yet the more I ponder over this suggestion, the more I like it. I had blogged recently on the grade system wondering how it would actually work in situ. The task seemed daunting as one had to train teachers to accept new ways and that is no easy task. Kaveree Bamzai seems to have come up with the ideal solution, one that does not need any new inputs or training as both the NSS and NCC are part and parcel our education system. As she says in her article today’s over active and energetic children would be better off playing soldiers and doing real social work than watching useless TV programmes targeted to the young.

The NCC and NSS may at first sound a little passé and outdated. But I urge you to look at them with fresh eyes. The NCC teaches discipline as well as opens new avenues to young minds who can learn a host of activities ranging from battle tactics to para jumping. The NSS is a way of teaching compassion and responsibility. What better values than we think of. I myself can never forget the weekly visits to the orphanage during my school years in Saigon. I think somehow what I do today finds it first seeds in those visits. Instead of finding new ways of creating good citizens, a relook at these two institutions could do wonders. They just need some smart repackaging.

In earlier days free time was spent reading books. Sadly today children have stopped reading and watch TV instead. The slum children or their parents never savoured the joys of reading; they just jump started straight into the TV era. Parents both privileged and underprivileged have scant time for their progeny, schools have abdicated their real role and the huge void thus created had been filled by useless and often absurd activities. As the author of the article points out the youth of today, our so called good citizens go on UTV Bindass’ Dadagiri to look for cheese cubes in a bowl of leeches and eat sauce mixed with human hair.

We desperately need to look at education again and why not restore what was good and healthy like the NSS and NCC or the forgotten SUPW (socially useful productive work) which took children to slums and old age homes.

We cannot afford to have a generation of MTV roadies. If this does happen we would be responsible of having failed our children as children are just what you make them to be.

Bye bye boards.. hello grades

The recent scrapping of the class X Boards has been welcomed by one and all. Then why is it that I am feeling uneasy and slightly rattled. I sat for a long time trying to figure out what was disturbing me and why I was not jumping with joy. Was I not the one who had always been against examinations that tended to assess a child’s future on her of his performance on a single day. Was I not the one who once extolled the benefits of alternative schools to all those who would hear me. And yet here I was brooding over the news of Boards being scrapped. What had changed?
The answer was simple: then I thought of my kids, now the faces that came to mind was those of the pwhy kids whom I had seen toiling over class X exams for many years now and succeeding. What was disturbing me was how they would perform in the new scenario. What would we expected of them and how would they be able to compete with their peers from privileged homes and schools? I decided to try and find out what would be expected of them in the new continuous evaluation system.

The new CBSE grading system would comprise of a summative and a formative assessment. While the former would be based on the term end examinations, the later was far more complex and would evaluate class work, home work, assignment and project work. The system again seemed to tilt in favour of the privileged schools where project work and assignments were the order of the day. Sadly in government schools that was not the case at all. In such schools the only thing that mattered was learning and mugging for one exam and one did that with the help of guide books, past question papers et al. Now all this had ended and much of the performance of the student would be assessed on work done in class along the year.

I read somewhere that special training classes were soon to be held for teachers. I wonder how they will achieve changing mindsets and old ways. Extra classes and tuition days are now passe. Every child will have to perform day-after-day. Knowing the situation prevalent in government schools one wonders how that will happen and one also wonders how one needs to reinvent one’s self to address the new situation. I guess things will fall in place after a few batches and that in the ultimate analysis it is all for the better but I still ask myself how a student whose family can barely buy her guide books will be able to come up with all the resources needed to complete an assignment or project that the child will have to complete in a cramped tenement she shares with many.

a little bundle of joy

Sohil is the new kid in the special section. He is 6 years old and has hydrocephalus. He also has spindly legs and malformed feet making his gait unsteady and awkward. But that does not deter him from doing everything his new pals do.

Come dance time and Sohil surreptitiously moves towards a wall and takes his position. In this way he knows he will not fall. And once the music plays, Sohil dances with his heart, his huge head and tiny body gyrating and moving just like any Bollywood star.

Little Sohil is very talkative and loves asking questions. He is extremely friendly and goes to every and anyone. He is the darling of the class and is loved by all but his special friend is little Radha and they are often together. My heart misses a beat each time I see them. Do they actually realise that they are soul siblings? Do they know that they both have truncated lives and can not dream of many morrows? Is that why they are so attracted to each other.

Radha and Sohil are both extremely bright and intelligent kids. In spite of their handicaps they are extremely independent and have a rare thirst for knowledge. They are like little sponges wanting to imbibe everything that comes they way and always wanting more. Their joie de vivre is infectious. They deserve to live long and fruitful lives and yet we all know that their sojourn on this planet is short, very short. Had they been born on the other side of the fence they could have perhaps dared aspire to more. But that is not to be.

When Radha and Sohil are in class there is no space for gloom or despair. Everyone gets touched by their special brand of optimism and moods get lifted by magic. Life is celebrated in its purest form and everyone is joyful. And for a brief moment all is well on planet earth.

Watch Sohil dance, you too will be touched by his magic

all the way

For the past almost ten years now, project why has been giving what can best be called after school support to hundreds of slum children. For the past almost ten years we have basked in the glory of knowing that all our children passed their examinations and that no one dropped out. For the past almost ten years this seemed to be our mission and we were true to it. The challenge now was to see our work become sustainable and thus freed of any vagary that could hamper or even halt it midway.

Thus was born the idea of planet why, and though its primary function was undoubtedly to raise funds for our work. But that is not where it stopped as, almost intuitively and even surreptitiously, silent yet deafening whys were heard and needed to be addressed. One of them was simply: after this, what? Or in other words what would happen to our kids after they completed their schooling keeping in mind ground realities. Let me elaborate a little. It is a fact that in spite of our best efforts most of our children will never be top of the class. What must remember that they run the race with huge handicaps: a late start, a hostile environment, no support at home, no English at home, no access to extras (books, computers, internet), no positive stroking, no encouragement and much more. That they even manage to complete their. studies is nothing short of a miracle. But the question that begs to be answered is what do you do with a class XII certificate with poor marks? The answer is: not much. And the reality is that with no extra skills or learning the child is often doomed to follow the father’s footsteps and become what he could have without his long school years.

Parents of such children do not have the means to give them the required added skills needed to change their lives and break the cycle in which they are caught. The long school years look like a terrible waste. This has been disturbing me for some time now and that is perhaps why planet why was conceived the way it has been: a way to take the children a step further and give them the skills they need to become productive. Hence after school they could learn an added skill: be it in the guest house (housekeeping, catering, gardening etc) or in the courses we envisage running when we have the space and infrastructure to do so: plumbing, electrical work, TV repair, mobile phone repair etc.

It is imperative that we do so and sooner than later. Otherwise the very spirit of project why is defeated.

of long legs and state-of-the-art gyms

The austerity debate has been going on for too many days! For the past week we have been treated or should I say subjected to innumerable debates and parleys on whether Members of Parliament and others in so called power should fly economy or business. Innumerable tweets and blogs have been written on the subject.

The debate seemed to have been triggered off by news of two Ministers living in 5 star hotel suites pending availability of their Luytens bungalow that were being spruced off. And before one knew it the battle had boiled down to business versus economy class travel and the ensuing parleys laughable: one dignitary talked of his long legs while the other of his need for a state-of-the-art gym. Well my dear Sirs, have you forgotten that you belong and represent a land where there are millions who go to sleep hungry without a roof on their heads. That a whole week was needed to discuss whether one should travel in one class or another is frivolous. It is just matter of status symbol as in fact both classes get you from point A to point B in exactly the same time barring the fact that one saves a little of the tax payer’s money.

The austerity debate should have led to some serious soul searching about whether each one was discharging his of her duties in the best manner possible. It should have led to course corrections in functioning and delivering. I have often held that if all government projects and schemes delivered 50% of what they promised, India would be a different country altogether. A simple scheme like the ICDS launched in 1975, that is 34 years ago, would have taken care of malnutrition and immunisation for millions of children. And the list is endless.

We cannot be fooled anymore by cosmetic actions like the ones proffered in the on-going debate. We have earned the right after six decades of independence to be taken seriously. I was shocked by the tone and words of a political party spokesperson when he said on national TV that he was willing to travel in the cargo hold if he were given the permission! This is not a game dear Sir. If the government has felt the need to talk austerity, it is because the country is facing a severe crisis and we expect our representatives to behave in a befitting manner.

No one would grudge first class travel to anyone, if all else was going well. We are fed up to see our so called leaders waste precious time on frivolous debates.