In the midst of winter….

In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer
Albert Camus

The recent rape of a 9 year old in Goa has once gain brought to fore the extreme vulnerability of children who are easy victims to lurking predators of all kind. The perpetrators of the heinous act have been arrested. Will they be convicted or with they one gain easily slip though the gaping holes of inadequate laws? One does not know. The sad truth is that in crimes against children, adults often go scot free. Rape is undoubtedly the extreme aberration. What we often do not see is the innumerable insidious crimes that are committed each day against innocent and hapless children. And what is even more dangerous is that children far too often accept the offense in total silence, each wound simply scarring their little souls forever. The perpetrators on the other hand, carry on the abuse with impunity, protected by written or unwritten laws that cover them with a cloak of false respectability.

Sadly again, the worst crimes on children are committed by people who the child trusts, looks up to and sometimes even loves. Is not the adult child equation one of trust and credence?

Last week a little girl came to one of our centres with a bruise on her cheek and a cut on her lips. When questioned she simply answered that the one on the cheek was a blow by her father and the other by her mother. There was no anger, no wrath, nothing.. the child simply accepted it.

My mind went back many years, to the day when I had seen a little girl in her school uniform crying copiously as she walked back from school. When i asked her what had happened she answered she had been beaten by her teacher. When asked why she simply added I must have done something wrong. The need to challenge a wrongful act was absent. The child seemed once gain conditioned to accept abuse when it came from an adult you trusted. And with each act of abuse that misplaced belief is alas strengthened. When things get too bad children take the unthinkable step and end their lives. Helplines are of no real help. An abused child has scant self esteem. She or he are incapable of seeking help. Abusive adults ensure that, and if that is not enough the family and social environment extol the code of silence.

How then does one get the child to break out of this vicious stranglehold? How does one get the child to break the unjust code of silence she or he are compelled to accept? It is not easy and that is where civil society, or at least those who have not abdicated their power to defend what is right, should stand up and shatter the oppressive silence. One of the most effective campaigns against domestic violence has been the Bell Bajao or Ring the Bell campaign. It urges each one of us to ring the doorbell when we come to face to face with an incident of domestic violence. The bottom line is do not keep quiet and walk away.

The same needs to be done when one sees child abuse in any form: bet it in homes, schools or on the street. Only then will innocent abused children begin seeing a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark tunnel and will slowly regain their lost innocence and take their first step on the long road to healing. Only then will they be able to pick up the pieces of their broken self worth and start believing that each one of them carries withing her or himself an invincible summer no one can rob them off.

So what are we waiting for…..


The clock struck one .. and still no one

Yesterday was the Annual Day of the Shanti Gyan International School, the little boarding school where five of our kids study. The show was to begin at 11 am, and we were there on time! None of us were prepared for what was to enfold. More than just a school function, it turned out to be a taste of India in more ways than one.

Needless to say we were the first to arrive, guests I mean, the children were all there, dressed up and ready to put their best foot forward. And boy they did. The show was enthralling and that is what I first want to share with you. It started with a beautifully executed Saraswati Vandana by the senior girls, a delight for the eyes and the soul. Then the school orchestra took the stage and my heart swelled with pride when I saw Utpal come on stage tugging his little Casio. The piece was a foot tapping percussion and keyboard original composition and we were again spell bound. Next was the turn of the tiny ones whose action song got the audience clapping and cheering. We were then treated to a patriotic song, befitting the coming Republic Day. I was amazed at the perfect rendition and beautiful arrangements.

The moment we were all waiting for was finally there. A dance medley that included four of our pwhy stars: Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Utpal. The children put the best of Bollywood to shame as they executed the intricate steps to perfection, swaying their hips with abandon and swinging their arms with the expertise of a professional. They were true stars and I was moved beyond words. What a journey it had been for these children of a lesser God. The next part of the show was a beautiful ballet entitled the Golden Rules. All religions were portrayed in an enchanting way: the Jewish wedding dance was perfect, the Gurudwara scene was touching, the Qawali got everyone clapping and the Bhumi dance was mystical. The finale was filled with energy and enthusiasm, a perfect ending to a perfect show. But there was more: the stage was slowly filled by the entire cast with faultless entries and all the children sang the National Anthem again impeccably.

As I watched the intense little faces singing, my eyes filled with tears and I quickly mouthed a silent prayer to the God of little beings beseeching him to always walk by the side of these five little kids who had braved all odds and done us proud.

Please spend a little time and see the pictures below. They are nothing short of small miracles. Enjoy the pictures before you read on!

The picture I conjured above should have been the one that played out in reality: an uninterrupted show by a bunch of lovely kids for all to enjoy and revel in. It would have been the case in any other land but ours. What if I told you that the show that was no longer than 2 hours at best, lasted almost 5! That the children who were dressed in their costumes at 11, appeared for their final tableau at 16.30! Never mind if some of them were tiny, never mind if some costumes were too flimsy to withstand the winter! Sadly that is what happened as concurrently to the children’s show we were unwilling spectators to another one, this one produced and staged by adults and whose main protagonists were Very Important People – or should is say Irritating -, the necessary component of any celebration in India. My heart went out to the management of the school and above all to the young and charming principal who stoically defied all odds and never lost his smile or composure.

Before I go on to describe to you the happenings of the day, I must stress on the fact that in India, the very existence and success of many business and other activities depend entirely on your ability to garner adequate support from the powers that be. No honest or hardworking soul can ever master the intricacies of the laws that govern us: they seem to be made in such a manner that help is always needed. The help comes at a price, one being the compulsion to include personalities in any celebration you organise. So the annual day of a school needs to have its plethora of VIPs!

As I said earlier the children were ready by 11.30 and so were we. But the clock ticked on and the front rows remained empty. An announcement was made requesting us to go and have a cup of tea. We did. The clock continued ticking. The children were seen peeping from behind the curtain. The head boy and head girl of the school stood patiently at the lectern, their big sashes gleaming. Another announcement informed us that the chief guest was on his way and should be with us in a few minutes. The clock struck one and still no one! You could see worried faces and people talking frantically on phones. The children waited in the wings. Then some activity as one of the guest had arrived. The show could begin. It did. It was 1. 45. The first three items were performed after the guest had been duly welcomed with flowers and speeches. We were to say the least relieved. But our relief was short lived. Around 2.20 the show was stopped. The chief guest had arrived. More speeches, more flowers.. and the children waiting.

After some speeches, prizes were distributed to a batch of kids. Great photo ops for the VIPs as I have forgotten to mention, there was a band of pressmen and photographers in attendance. The guests were plied with refreshments as is custom in our country, while we could amost hear our stomachs rumbling. This drama went on. One had to go through 4 VIPs each seeking their place in the sun. Finally it was over and the children could perform their final acts.

What got my goat and left me speechless was the fact that none of the so called VIPs had bothered to even remember the name of the school whose function they were attending and had to be prompted. The speeches were mutually or even in one case self adulatory. One wondered who their were being addressed to. The whole act was to say the least galling. A necessary evil one could well have done without. A total disregard for the hundreds of people who had waited patiently and for the little children whose day it was and who were the real VVIPs. But I guess we were all parents and thus vulnerable. Even I waited patiently. Had it been any other occasion I would have walked off!

As is often said: Oh darling this is India!

need not be one or the other…

I have often been faced with dilemmas, some more challenging than others. And each time a message from what one may, for want of another word, call the heavens has come my way and dispelled all clouds. For the past few weeks now I have been pondering about how to bring about the qualitative change we seek and need at project why. The first option that came to mind was to try and bring about the change slowly, a class or two at a time, and add a class each year. The reason for doing it this way was dictated by our limited resources, both space and funds. It would have been unrealistic and unreasonable to do otherwise, or so it seemed.

I set out to write a small proposal for what I called a pilot project. Should have been easy but somehow it just did not get off the ground. I must admit that I was extremely frustrated and annoyed. I just did not realise that this was a gentle message from the heavens urging me to stop and review things. I left the unfinished proposal but found myself sharing my thoughts with friends and well wishers individually. Many warmed up to the idea. But my writer’s block refused to go away. Then a mail dropped from someone unknown till then. It was a person who had stumbled on our site and wanted to help us. I of course was prompt in sharing my new quality mantra! That is when another message from the so called heavens dropped my way, this one louder and clearer: why not quality for all. The writer reacting to my mutation idea simply asked: is it just an idealist’s expression of dissatisfaction at the natural gap between ideals and reality, is it a strategic internal brainstorming on improvements, perhaps both? Can quantity be maintained while striving for improved quality, even if it costs significantly more? Would it be possible to experiment with increasing to 2 hours instead of 3 on a trial basis, and grow gradually and in a more manageable fashion?

The words hit me like a bolt out of the blue. The whole idea that had seemed so right, was actually preposterous if you viewed it within the spirit of project why. Was I not the one who had always clamoured high and low about the unacceptable reality of having different schools and systems of education for different sets of children? Was I not the one who extolled the virtues of a common school? Then how could I have thought even for a moment that I could have within project why two parallel approaches? This was against the very grain of all we stood for. I can only say in my humble defense that I put forth this idea keeping in mind our limited resources. But were we not the ones who always managed some way or the other, who always rose up to any challenge and met it with a smile. And while I debated all these issues, another mail dropped by, this one from a dear friend and young mentor. My hope is that your “quality vs. quantity” debate need not be one or the other he gently chided. The writing was on the wall. Quality it had to be, and for all our primary kids! True we would have to sacrifice some small things like individual copy books for all or monthly outings for every kid, true we would have to crowd children in the limited space we have, but the small impediments would be amply assuaged by large dollops of enthusiasm and commitment.

The writing was on the wall, only I had been too blind to see it. It had to be quality for all right from the word go! Was that not what project why was all about.

a very special birthday

I don many hats, some by choice, others by conviction and still others by compulsion but there is one that was bestowed upon me as a blessing and that is the one of a granny! Exactly a year ago, on this very day my life changed forever. A bundle of pure joy landed in my existence: it was Agastya Noor my grandson.

Today Agastya celebrates his first birthday and I once again beg your indulgence an allow me to share some personal thoughts. I wonder if becoming a grandmother has changed me in any ways. Outwardly life is very much the same and I continue donning all hats and giving each my very best. Yet I realise that I do it all with a song in my heart and a spring in my gait. You see Agastya brought hope into my life. He has given me the strength to laugh in adversity and to truly believe that tomorrow is another day. He has made me understand that every child is precious as each comes with dreams and unlimited possibilities and shown me how blessed I am to be able to fulfill a tiny part of those dreams. He has shown me that life is a wonderful gift that has to be lived to its fullest. God bless him always!

Martha who knows how to see with her heart..

Martha lives in Mexico City. She came to see us for a day and got touched by what I have oft called the magic of project why. Back in her country she thought of us and wrote these words I want to share with all. Maybe she more than anyone else, intuitively understood the true spirit of project why.

Why feel pity when you can feel hope?

Why stand by as a spectator when you can jump in and be a participant?
Why feel indignation when you can feel commitment?

Why conform when you can transform?

Project why was born to answer these questions. It was born out of a powerful desire to say no. No, I will not accept this as the way it is, as the way it has always been. No. I will not accept dispair as an unescapable reality. No. I will not be handed my destiny. I will have a say in writing my story, and the story of those around me.

But why try to change the world if it seems such an impossible task?

Maybe you should ask little Utpal, who survived devastating burns against all odds thanks to the help summoned by Project Why.

Or Heera, a young lady who has the hope to heal her heart and maybe live beyond her 16Th birthday.

Or Himanchu, who is learning to read, and write, and speak a new language, and dream of posibilities rather than obstacles.

We CAN change the world. But we have to do it one child at a time. And we are alreadyLink behind schedule.

Get your heart involved. Today.

Visit projectwhy and join this celebration of opportunity, life and future.

Why? The answer is simple. LOVE. Pure. Raw. Undying love.

Martha Soler

if the rumour mill is right…

If the rumor mill is right the slum where it all began may soon be raised to the ground. Yes I am talking about the street where I first met Manu, where we began our spoken English classes, where we started our tiny special section by the roadside in a word where project why saw the light of day. It is the street that even today houses our library, our computer centre and our senior secondary classes. For those of you who have never been to project why, the slum I mention, better known as Bhagat Singh Camp, or Giri Nagar slums, is a cluster of about 4o houses tucked away along the wall of the erstwhile Bhagat Singh College now the AND College. It has been in existence for more than three decades and is home to more than 200 souls.

Like in all supposedly illegal slums in Delhi, the residents of this JJ Colony have a valid postal address, ration cards, voters cards and all that supposedly makes one a legal citizen of the city. It even has a community centre build by the slum wing of the town municipality! And though the slum, like all slums in this city, is on government land, the tiny strip of land that houses it, is too puny to accommodate much else. Yet the rumor mill is buzzing and it seems that the college next door is in for some major makeover and is likely to acquire this small strip and turn it into a car park.

The Damocles sword that hangs on millions of residents of this city is about to fall on what we too have called home for a decade now. For the past few years I have been aware of the precarious nature of slums in our city and have often blogged about it. This is also why we felt the need of having our own centre and hence conceived planet why! Yet like all human beings we held on to the hope that things may not really happen. How puerile! The reality is that the Giri Ngar slum could soon be raised to the ground rendering many homeless, people we have lived with for many years, children we have seen being born and grow, homes we have witnessed being tended to with love and care. True the law has to prevail but what we will soon be witnessing is nothing less than a human tragedy, one that we are an intrinsic part of. I cannot even begin to think where all the people will go. Most of them work in the area and may lose their jobs. Rents are sky high. Options are few.

I cannot imagine the day when my morning will not start with a visit to this very street and my morning cup of tea with Rani’s mom in the little temple that is her home. It is where for me this journey actually began and the place where I need to go every morning to remain rooted to the true spirit of project why. Of all the trials and tribulations we have faced, this is undoubtedly the one that may cost us our very soul.

advantage… not India

An article that appeared in today’s paper revealed the tragic state of primary education. The article begins with these ominous words: the scare raised by the Supreme Court on Thursday about China being poised to overtake India in English proficiency is about to come true. The article further states that just about 44% of class I children know there English alphabet. Which really translates into the fact that these children will seldom master the language, irrespective of whether they are taught English or not. Unless we do something about teaching English, we may lose an advantage we do not realise.

The reason for this deterioration is manifold: misplaced political agendas, poor teaching methods, lack of interest and so on. But whatever the reason it is ultimately the child who bears the brunt. Knowledge of English is undoubtedly a huge advantage to anyone seeking to better his or her employment opportunities. The fact that English was part of our colonial heritage should be viewed in a positive manner and not rejected. And teaching English to underprivileged kids could be the elusive leveler we all seek.

At present the teaching of English is government schools is truly abysmal. Children learn by rote and thus are never able to use the language as a communication tool or ever read a book. Alter the question slightly and the child is lost. Children may no there colours, animal names, vegetable names, and more such lists but would never be able to combine them into a sentence. In higher classes they learn there comprehension answers by heart and can change an affirmative sentence into a negative one without understanding the words! So even if on paper all looks great, the bottom line is that even with years of study of the subject children are not able to comprehend or speak English.

In today’s world knowledge of English is a real advantage, it opens doors previously closed and can give you the head start you so need. And yet far from recognising this advantage, we are slowly letting it perish. Even we at project why have been overtaken by circumstances and have let our own advantage fade. Did we not begin our work almost a decade ago with spoken English classes? And was it not in answer to a need expressed by the community: Teach our children English?

It is time to wake up and salvage the advantage we have. To make course corrections and give our children the one advantage they truly need. It is really time to mutate.

Compassion brings us to a stop,

Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves wrote Mason Cooley. The recent appalling incident of total and shocking indifference that seemingly shook the nation brought to light the distressing lack of compassion that permeates our social fabric. The sight of the bleeding policeman begging for help may have disturbed us but would it lead us to act were we ever placed in a similar position is the question that begs to be asked.

This incident brought back to memory another incident that occurred 5 years back. One morning I was informed by one of our staff of the presence of a young man who had been lying in the area and seemed hurt. When I went to the spot I found Babloo Mandal, a man in his twenties writhing in pain. He had a huge maggot infested wound on his leg and he cried for help in agony. It seemed he had been hurt in an accident some time back and had been left there, perhaps by the driver of the car that hit him. This was a Monday morning and I discovered with horror that the man had been lying there since late Saturday night. This was a crowded area with flats and shops and people passing regularly but NO ONE had extended the boy any help. His words seemed incoherent but if you bothered to stop and listen he was simply begging for someone to save his life. The stench of his wound was vile and people simply walked by hurriedly.

I also discovered with renewed horror that the police had been called the previous night but had refused to take him to a hospital. We decided to spring int action and while we set about calling the cops one of my staff went to him and held his hand and told him that help was one the way. We realised that Babloo was simple minded and mentally challenged. The cops did eventually turn up but no one was willing to pick him up, so I sent two of our teachers with them. I thought that we had the matters in hand but I was soon to discover how wrong I was.

An hour or so later I got a call from the hospital saying that the doctors refused to attend to him and had handed some disinfectant and cotton to my teachers. Babloo was left on a stretcher outside the emergency hall. Enough was enough. I called a friend from the press and set out for the hospital. My journo friend reached the hospital a camera man in tow at the same time as I did and  pictures were clicked before the authorities realised what had happened. Soon we were swarmed by security personnel and hospital staff. Babloo Mandal was finally taken into the emergency room but there too, no one was willing to cut off his shorts. It was again a pwhy staff who went and got a blade and did the needful. His wound was cleaned and dressed and we waited hoping the hospital would admit him. But that was not to be. The hospital staff told us tersely to take him away.

A few phone calls were made and we found an NGO that had a shelter with medical staff and were willing to take him. Babloo was finally taken to the shelter and then moved to a private hospital that took care of him. And though gangrene has set in, the doctors managed to save his leg. In the meantime, based on the few details he could give us, we managed to trace his family and after a few weeks Babloo was reunited with those he loved.

I had forgotten about this incident but the sight of the policeman begging for help brought back memories of Babloo Mandal. At that time what we did what was to us the obvious option and nothing out of the ordinary. True everyone else’s behaviour had upset us, but somehow we never found it necessary to delve upon the matter. I was just another day at project why. But today somehow many questions that should have been asked years back come to mind. Is compassion such rare quality? How can people watch and let someone die? Why did no one go near the bleeding man and at least reassure him? How does one teach another to be compassionate? Why don’t we stop and rise above ourselves when needed?

I do not have the answers. All I know is that I will stop each and every time it is needed.

If you’re alive, it isn’t….

Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished : If you’re alive, it isn’t.” wrote Richard Bach. I stumbled upon this quote last week. Somehow the words seemed to be an answer to many unformulated questions that often crowd my mind.

I have often been asked, the last time not later than yesterday, whether there were not times when I felt like giving up. The truth is that I have, and the truth also is that I am still here. Over the past 10 years many obstacles have come my way, some harsher than the others and yet one survived them all, be it the cynicism and lack of compassion that one saw all around, or the unveiled threats and dark moments when day never seemed to break. But each and every time, when all seemed lost, a little flicker of light appeared from nowhere: a little hand that held yours a tad longer than usual, a smile that warmed your heart or a look of unadulterated trust that made you spring back with renewed confidence. And above all the myriad of hands that reached out from the across the globe to make sure your steps did not falter.

I must admit that many a times I have thought of project why as a mission, one I have not chosen but been destined to fulfill. I must also admit that I have spend many sleepless nights wondering how it will all end, wondering whether I will be able to set things on course so that project why can sail on smoothly even after I am gone, and whether my mission has ended. I got the answer in Bachs’ words: If I am live, it hasn’t.

tender spinach for little bunnies

Yesterday was a very special day at the project why creche. Twelve little creche kids had been invited by Navakriti School to spend the afternoon on their premises and in spite of the bitter cold the children were very excited. The morning was spent sprucing everyone up, making badges, combing hair, washing faces: in a word getting ready for the big outing. At last it was time to go. The children walked to the waiting car and piled in. The adventure had begun.

Navakriti is a lovely school with large playgrounds, swings and slides, a kitchen garden and even little bunnies. Our kids were taken back. They had never seen such things having all been born and bred in the squalor of Delhi slums. They did not know what to do and simply stood frozen for a while. After a small welcome it was time to go out and conquer a whole new world. The first task was to go to the kitchen garden and pluck tender spinach leaves to feed the rabbits. Not an easy task for children who had never seen vegetables grow. But soon everyone got the hang of it and everyone had his or her leaves in their little hands. Feeding the rabbits was another ball game as most of the children got scarred of the little furry balls in their cages. But slowly they got over their fear and handed out the leaves to the hungry little animals. The children also saw the large cauliflowers, the big radishes and every thing else growing in the garden. It had been a wonderful discovery of nature.

Then it was tome to play and out came the bat and balls. The children played to their hearts content running with gay abandon in the wide open spaces. Their little faces glowing with excitement and joy. After the bat ball game it was time to explore the swings and the jungle gym. What fun it was and how easy it is for a child to reclaim an usurped childhood!

But the weather soon got the better of everyone as it was extremely cold and getting dark. However there was still a treat left: story time. The children sat enthralled and listened to the wonderful story of the little bird looking for his mother.

The day ended with hot pakoras made from cauliflowers from the garden and warm halwa. The children sat at little tables and devoured the lovely snacks. It was time to go and the children thanked everyone and climbed in the waiting car, their little heads filled with images they would never forget.

Here are some pictures of this wonderful outing

We would like to thank our friend Rahul and the Principal and the staff of the Navakriti school for giving our children this wonderful opportunity.