a special treat

The children of the special section never cease to amaze me. Each time you step into their class you feel lifted and all your worries and woes vanish – albeit temporarily! You have barely entered that a shrill voice greets you with a loud Namaste Maa’m. It is little Sohil. And then almost in unison you hear a loud greeting from all the others in the class. The greeting is touching as even those who cannot speak or hear join in their own inimitable way. They then resume whatever task at hand, be it the vigorous morning exercise session, the tedious math problem or the complex puzzle. You have many options: you can sit and watch them or join them in their activities: you are always welcome.

The wonderful thing about these children is that they never judge you, they just open their hearts for you to walk in. It is we, the so called normal people, who spend our time surmising, criticising, judging. If we see a person that does not look, act or think like us we are quick in labelling him or her as disabled or incapacitated. We deem them as inferior and want to teach him our ways and if that is not feasible we are quick to find a way to somehow shut them way. Special kids do not expect you or anyone else to be like them.

In our special class no two children are alike. Some have fractured bodies and others broken minds, some have both. Yet they all accept each other and reach out to each other in very touching ways. We may think they have limited understanding but that is not the case. The best example is the way they treat little Radha and her brittle bones. No one ever had to explain anything to them. They understand with their heart and even the rowdiest ones like Umesh or Munna never do anything that may hurt their little pal. Radha participates in all activities be it dance or musical chairs. Instinctively everyone makes room for her and ensures that she too has her share of fun. Sohil and Himanshu, the babies of the class, are cared for by their elder friends and a perfect synergy reigns in the classroom.

They have many lessons to teach of us if only we bothered to learn. They more than anyone else have understood the true meaning of compassion, tolerance, camaraderie and team spirit. They are not wasting time in proving points or oneupmanship. If only we had the ability to emulate them, the world would be a better place.

the unexpected puruskar

The mail simply said: iCONGO Team Congratulates you on your selection for the Karmaveer Puraskaar. I was stunned. A few months back a dear friend and supporter had written to me saying she was nominating me for this award. I was touched by her gesture and though I was quite certain I would not make it, I duly and diligently filled the form as required and sent it in. I thought that was the last I would hear about it and went on with my life. That was about two months ago. I must admit though that I did browse the net to find out a little more about this award, I guess it was but human that I do so. This what i found: Karamveer Puruskar: National Awards for Social Justice & Citizen Action are being commissioned to recognise individuals who have been pivotal for leading change beyond their business as usual by being committed on individual levels to work on social issues. The awards shall be given to individual for their contribution to promote social justice and action. As I read the words and perused the list of past recipients I smiled to myself: this was way out of my league. What was my friend thinking of.

Imagine my surprise when the mail informing me of my selection landed in my inbox. I fell of my chair. Why me? What I had done to deserve tis recognition? I had simply done and was doing what I truly feel everyone of us should do: give back a little of what life has generously bestowed upon you.

I would not have written this post were it not for another mail that stated: In your individual interest, you may go ahead and have your office issue a press release and announce your award in the media and on your blogs, websites, facebook, twitter and other networks. I have no office that can issue statements and pres releases, I can only blog about it myself and hope that my readers will forgive this unusual personal digression.

My selection for this award is humbling and overwhelming. It is an honour and makes one even more aware of how much more remains to be done and how little one has really achieved. It makes you realise that the journey is no way near over. The onus of proving that you are worthy still lies on you.

It has been an incredible journey. One that was started with the simple unsaid words: If I can change one life, it will have been worth it. I can say that in the past 10 years many lives have changed and that in itself is a huge reward. Getting this recognition leaves me speechless. All I know is that it could not have been possible without the help and support of so many, and it is their award more than mine.

Thank you!

the 1000 th blog

I cannot believe it. This is my 1000th blog! It took me four years and six months to get here. I took a trip down memory line and read some of my earlier posts. Their candour and naiveness brought a smile to my face. I must admit that taking the plunge was not easy and writing that first blog was a herculean task. I stopped at one of my earliest blog to take stock of the time gone by. The little boy who was then fighting for his life is today a little young man who lives in a boarding school and tops his class. He has indeed lived through many trials and tribulations and yet proved beyond doubt that life is worth living and fighting for.

During the past four and a half years I have written about the joys and the achievements, the failures and the defeats. I have blogged about issues that disturbed me and those that elated me. I have shared tiny moments of happiness and larger moments of frustration. I have poured my heart out time and again and been touched by the support and encouragements I have received. I have wept tears of joy as well as tears of exasperation. I have shared times when my heart filled with pride and also with despair. I have talked of my dreams, the fulfilled as well as the broken ones. I have pontificated and preached and sometimes surrendered.

For the past four and a half years this blog has been my true companion, the one that has made the journey possible and fulfilling. The canvas has of course been project why but I have allowed myself the liberty for small forays into my own life be it share a wedding or a new arrival.

The past four and a half years have truly been exhilarating! And these 100o blogs bear testimony to an incredible journey that I am privileged to be part of.

slumming it out

There is a new reality show in town. I read about it quite by accident in a leading news paper.The show website defines the show in the following way: Prepare yourself to witness a life-changing experience, as 10 seriously rich spoilt youngsters are plucked from their lavish lifestyles and dropped into the claustrophobic confines of a Mumbai slum… with cameras focused on their every move 24 hours a day! The rich contestants are paired with a slum buddy who guides them through the pitfalls and opportunities within the slum. Each week the contestants have to complete a task – the teams that perform the worst face the possibility of elimination from the show. Up for grabs is the big prize – the chance for the rich contestant to help fulfill their slum buddy’s dream.

The whole idea is perplexing. It sort of falls short of something and leaves me uncomfortable. The tasks that the contestant are expected to perform are push a cart across the street, sell trinkets, polish shoes, pick rags, wash clothes etc. While the show is being canned it is being visited by a string of celebs, all adding their glam quotient. The rick kids are expected to live in a slum for 14 days and the one who stays on the longest and manages all tasks earn a whopping amount to fulfill the dream of the slum buddy her or she is paired with.

On the surface the show seems to be worthy and even honourable. The contestant earn nothing, the celebs are coming for free and the winner is a slum kid who sees his or her dream fulfilled. But the more I look at the site and articles the more uncomfortable I feel.

For the slum kids it is a string of dreams come true: being on a TV show, meeting Bollywood celebrities, and perhaps getting a lot of money to fulfill some unfulfilled desire. Their excitement is almost palpable as they embark on a journey that can be life changing. Their thrill is touching as each plans a new morrow.

It is the coming together of the two Indias and I for one should be thrilled. Is it not what I have always wanted. Am I not the one who carps about the fact that we see too few volunteers from the rich end our own city at project why. And yet all this done been done in the public glare makes me thoroughly uneasy. An article states that the inspiration of the show is Slumdog Millionaire. I have shared my views on the film more than once. I have felt riled at the way the SM children were used by all and sundry. I would have preferred to see them safely locked in a good boarding school so that they could one day transform their lives. This show somehow seems to rob slum lives of their reality and turn them into some sort of joke. The kids are meant to live in a created slum and not truly share the lives of their buddies. Would have like to see that happen! A set a la Big Boss has been created with mosquitoes et al. The tasks seem more like fun challenges rather than real survival situations. A person who sells ware at a red light does it to survive. If he does not make it there may be no food at night. Pushing a cart is harrowing and back breaking and not fun. The same goes for polishing shoes or washing clothes.

As I said I would have liked the show to have each contestant live for 14 days in the home of his or her buddy and experience the life of many millions. This pasty slum experience is all wrong. Life in a slum is filled with dignity and courage, values that are strangely absent in this show. Choices are few and needs many. Try coming to work every day in spotless clothes when you live on the roadside like the Lohars do. I see it everyday. Try surviving with brittle bone disease in a hole and never loose your smile even if you loose your flimsy shelter and land on the street. Slumming it out in a created set is an insult to all those who dwell in slums.

Of the 10 slum kids, one will have his or her dream come true and the others will go back to their lives with a starry story to tell. Where are we going….

the special girls

They are our special girls! Champa, Anjali, Preeti, Ritika and Neha. When together they can bring the roof down! They love dancing, singing and giggling like any teenager, and like any teenager they sometimes sulk and fight.

Champa and Anjali live in our residential programme. Anjali is an orphan and Champa’s mom is too old to look after this very special child. Preeti who is as bright as any of us was struck by polio at a young age and walks on her hand. Her muscles are so atrophied and would not be able to hold calipers. If inclusive education existed in India, Preeti would have been in school like other girls her age and led as normal a life as possible. Instead she is shunned by her own family who find her an impediment. During the recent festivals she was left all alone at home while her family went out to temples and fairs. Anjali walks with a limp and is a little slow, but she too could and should have been in a normal school, but that was not to be. She lost her mother a few months back and was left all alone in an unsafe environment with predators lurking. Champa is perhaps the most disabled of all. Though she can belt one Bollywood hit after the other she is unable to even dress herself. She is so childlike that anyone could lure her with a simple toffee.

What is the future of such girls. Bleak is anything. And yet when you seem them together you get touched by their zest for life and their joie de vivre. It is for these very special girls and others like them that we felt the need to go beyond our initial mission – education of children – and think of a viable alternative: a place where such young ladies could live their entire lives in a safe and enabling environment. That is how planet why first came to be conceived. A simple residential option was not sufficient. We wanted to give our girls a reason to live, a place where they would feel useful and wanted. Hence planet why the guest house!

I can imagine my girls thriving on planet why. Young Preeti has all it takes to become the manager of the guest house and Anjali could become a great housekeeper. And in spite of her shortcomings and limited skills Champa would also find her place in the show. The journey that has barely begun, promises to be exciting and we hope to be able to reach our destination in a not so distant future. So help us God!

project paint!

The Okhla children wanted to paint their school for Diwali. Instead of coming to us and asking for money, they decide to do it themselves. They all contributed five precious rupees and bought all the material and then rolled up their sleeves and painted the school themselves. The result a pink school. Not my preferred colour for a school but that is what they wanted it to be an after all is is their school!

This make look like an innocuous piece of news to many. But it is far from that. This is the first time children have taken the initiative to do something that would make their school look better. And five rupees may look inconsequential to many but for these children it is a huge amount. They must have had a lot of convincing to do to get it from their parents.

It is a very special moment for all of us at pwhy and for me in particular. Okhla had from its very inception been a community initiative. It has also been steeped in the love of people big and small. It has been hit by problems big and small, bet it storms or trucks. And it has survived all as it is imbued with a rare spirit no one could ever destroy. The spirit of children willing to overcome all odds to reclaim their often usurped right to education.

It is these very children that we have let down time and again. We have done it again with the recent scrapping of the Xth Boards or the latest decision on IIT admissions. It is time we started thinking about them and making laws that would include rather than alienate them. But is anyone listening?

When I see the Okhla project I am filled with immense pride and joy. Way to go!

advantage the privileged child

I had written about my apprehension about the scrapping of Boards and marks and switching to grades in a recent blog. Recent news items about the modus operandi have made me even more uncomfortable. Eight hours training sessions are being planned for principals who, in turn will need to train their respective teachers. The rush in getting it all done is nothing short of frightening.

My fear was validated by a mail sent by a volunteer who had come to project why some time back. He writes: the removal of the class X board exams is something close to my heart, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the issue.

I am not exactly sure how high the stakes of class X board exams are for a child in India. However, I know that scrapping summative assessments in such a brute and unmitigated fashion and replacing it with what we call ‘formative/ continous assessment’ in education studies is a very very dangerous move. While it is true that formative assessment is becoming increasingly popular globally, in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the changes are gradual, often incorporating a part of school-based formative assessment (abt 30%) with nation-wide high-stakes exams.

Such changes have to be carefully steered with good frameworks and appraisal rubrics, meticulous curriculum planning, adequate teacher training and the support of academic research institutions. I cannot imagine how things will turn out when India has not even resolved the intricate pitfalls that together contribute to a flawed school system. How are teachers going to be able to assess students in a long-term, formative fashion when many go awol ever so often? Added to the issues you raised in your blog posts about the inequality of opportunities arising from differences in socio-economic status, I really worry for all the children from the lower spectrum of the social ladder.

It is believed that the new assessment will cover a student’s for scholastic (curriculum-based) and co-scholastic skills including life skills, attitudes, physical and health-related merits. It is sadly obvious that such system will broaden the gap between children of the two Indias, children from better homes are bound to have better co-scholastic skills. The marks system at least gave the less privileged a chance to compete with their privileged peers. Once again our law makers have widened an already gaping divide. Kids from better homes will have a huge advantage. That is only one side of the problem.

Let us look at the other. Grades will be awarded by teachers who till now have been awarding marks. A simple eight hours training is all that is been given to change mindsets and old ways. How can one be taught to assess skills and attitudes when one has never done so. I cannot even begin to imagine how this will happen. Maybe the teachers of swanky public schools will pass the test but what about the others. Advantage the privileged child!

Then there is a third player in all this: the parent! I know how many hours I have spent helping my children in their project and assignments. I wonder how a poor harried, illiterate mother is expected to conjure the skills and find the time to do the same. Once again advantage the privileged child.

Then how will the slum kid be able to run this race at par.

Changes and plans that concern children should never be undertaken to meet some political agenda or to seek instant gratification. They need to be tackled with care and understanding. An idea may look good and even be path breaking. However what is important is the implementation and enactment. If not done properly it can boomerang. One has to tread with caution in any situation where children are involved. Hope our law makers realise that!

angels at work

About a year ago a young teenager came with her parents to spend a few days at project why. Harriet is no ordinary girl. She has mastered the art of seeing with her heart and that is how she looked at project why. Since then she has never forgotten us and has conjured many a miracle for us.

Yesterday we were treated to one more such miracle. She simply wrote: Thought I would let you know that the cakes sale went really well yesterday. We raised £55. I would have said there were over a 100 cakes and all of them sold within 10 minutes! I have enclosed a picture of me and 2 friends if you would like to see it (both friends made cakes that they brought in.) I have just totalled up our collection of spare change that we have been saving since Christmas it came to £30 exactly!

To the day cynical or uninitiated this may look paltry. But to me these figures are inestimable. Let me tell you why. Fundings come in diverse ways. The normal one is to apply for large impersonal grants, fill innumerable forms and hope for the best. In such cases there are no bonds, no feelings, no seeing with the heart nonsense. The other one is to try and touch someone’s heart. And then sit back and watch miracles play out. This is what has happened with Harriet and project why.

Every penny that drops our way is blessed as it is imbibed with love. And in hindsight this is what matters as it gives the whole funding process a new meaning altogether. There is something touching about young school girls in an alien land finding time from their busy schedule to bake cakes and then market them for a cause dear to one of their friends. And we feel humbled.

Harriet and her friends are very special young ladies. God bless them always.

new clothes for Diwali

It is Diwali the festival of lights and new beginnings. Diwali is also the time when all, rich and poor buy new clothes at least for their children. Needless to say we too have been busy wondering what to get little Agastya, the new member of our small family. After much thought and much window shopping one zeroed in on a dhoti kurta!

As I set about finding new clothes for my grandson my mind went back to Diwali few years back when little Utpal still lived with his mom, way before he went to boarding school. On that Diwali morning he came to see us all spruced in the brand new clothes his mom had bought him: pants, jacket and even a tie and to crown it all little cardboard lined shoes. I do not know why but he reminded me of a pastiche of little Lord Fauntleroy. It was all the mom could afford and yet she wanted her son to look his very best, at least for this special day. Needless to say I kept my little packet of new clothes for Utpal hidden. That Diwali was his mom’s day.

Yes, Diwali is important to one and all. Every family tries to celebrate the festival to the best of its ability and make it as special as possible. It does not matter if the shoes are bought in a swanky mall or on a street market, it does matter if they are sturdy or lined with cardboard. On Diwali every child has the right to wear new shoes.

I do not why I remembered this small innocuous incident today. But I am glad I did. The sight of little Utpal on that morning was truly touching and precious, a memory I carry in my heart, one that makes every Diwali special.

Happy Diwali to all.