sustainable not charitable

Charity needs to be sustainable was the headline of a recent article in a leading magazine. Needless to say it caught my eye and I hastened to read it. It was an interview with a top honcho, a lady at that, who shared her view about CSR about charity. For her charity was a redundant term because it is a ‘one-time’ gesture and unsustainable. More power to you lady! I read on and could not but smile as once again it seemed our tale of forgotten biscuits was being revisited.

Ms Bali wants to make her biscuits healthier by fortifying them so as to fight rampant malnutrition ‘covertly’. Hence everyone who consumes the biscuits made by her company, and they are consumed by a large cross section of society, would be ‘healthier’! As she says: Our products are available throughout India. And, by fortifying them, if we are making them accessible to a large mass of people, we are not solving India’s malnutrition problem, but we are contributing to alleviating it. That is what she means by social corporate sustainability a new mantra I presume. Good wishes to her. I will not debate the issue here as this is not the aim of this blog. CSR has always been my ‘bete noire’ and I am yet to comprehend its true motives. I do wonder how enriching biscuits that are then sold amounts to CSR. But I agree with Ms Bali on the fact that charity has to be sustainable and not a one time gesture.

When we sought help to launch and sustain our nutritive biscuits programme, targeted mainly at the beggar children of our city, we were hoping to address the child beggar issue by making the business of begging non-sustainable. If one gave a biscuit instead of the expected coin maybe the handlers and mafia would look for other more lucrative ways. In the bargain you also gave nutrition; a real win-win situation. But sadly it did not work out for reasons I am yet to fathom.

The same happened with our rupee a day programme where we hoped to tap in the one perennial resource of our land: the numbers of people. What we asked was something that each and everyone could part with as one rupee got you nothing, not even a cup of tea. The idea was to make everyone a donor and make everyone participate in bettering the morrows of others. And it seemed so doable as all we were looking for at that time was 4000 such donors. In a land of a billion it seemed simple. But again we failed. And again I do not know why. It seemed so logical.

This has been my battle for 10 long years, a battle I am still nowhere near winning. Right from the outset, when I was handed over my first donation, I knew that this was just a temporary phase and that we would have to look at long term sustainability. The idea of depending on others is neither acceptable nor feasible. Planet Why still seems very elusive as we wait for the expert validation. And where it to go our way, the whole project is daunting in more ways than one. The other side of the spectrum is the tried and tested corpus fund, something I have always abhorred. But has not pwhy been a personal journey of getting over my own bete noires. What is at stake is too precious: the morrows of children and their dreams. So help me God!

who will ring te bell for her

When Ruchika’s tormentor was handed over a laughable sentence some months back, the nation was outraged. Television channels were replete with debates on the issue and everyone wondered how the matter would end. It had taken many years to nail the elusive perpetrator and all one got was a suspended sentence and a paltry fine that any one could pay. I too had vented my anger and sadness in a blog entitled will I be safe tomorrow!

Today, six months later, the high profile molester is behind bars. he has been there for a week and will spent at least three more weeks there. The law has caught up with him in spite of all his contacts, his connections and the power he once yielded. That it took over two decades is another matter. It took a public campaign to get him nailed. When young Ruchika was molested there was no 24 hour TV, no activism, no public outcry. The family could just knock at various doors that failed to open. And battle lines were drawn with one side playing dirty. The family was humiliated and scorned. The young girl took her life. Justice remained blind. Even today the accused is behind bars not for having caused the child’s death, but for having molested her. Whether he will pay for the bigger crime remains to be seen.

There are millions of Ruchika who suffer in silence every day. They often lock themselves and loose the key. They know that they will not be heard, believed , let alone protected and vindicated. They are far too aware of the reality that surrounds them. They know the might of the adversary and what is often worse is that they often have to continue sharing the same space as most of such cases are perpetrated within the so called safety of one’s home. They just suffer in silence and try to perfect the art of becoming invisible, living in fear day after day. How does one protect such children? How does one protect the little girl abused by a kin? Who will ring the bell for her?

I hope that Ruchika’s case will help us open our eyes. I hope parents and caretakers will begin to look with their heart and see the reality as it is. That they will reach out to the child who sometimes slowly and almost imperceptibly begins to ‘change’. That they will find the time to listen and believe and not be swayed social or other pressures. Till that day does not come little girls will never be safe from lurking predators who prowl secure in the knowledge that no one will dare challenge their power.

The magical garbage dump

I recently came across an article about a ‘school’ in a garbage dump in Mumbai. The article is uncanny. It could have been written for us. It almost recounted the story of our Okhla centre, a story I had never written. It was time to make amends.

My mind travelled back to the summer of 2004 when one of our teachers came and told us about the plight of a bunch of kids that lived in the slums near her home. Most of them, particularly boys, were not in school and spent their time loitering and were used by predators to steal and push drugs. The are in question was close to a railway track and the little boys were trained to steal from stopped trains anything they could lay their hands off. Moreover the area was home to some notorious drug dealers and little children were easy prey. A few coins or the promise of a treat were enough to get the boys to comply. I was deeply disturbed by this and asked her whether we could begin an outreach centre. Unaware of the lay of the ground, I asked her to find us a room to rent! She smiled and told me that barring factories and slums there was nothing else. I refused to accept easy defeat and requested her to look for something.

A few days later, she came back and said that there was a garbage dump that we could use. These were still early days of project why and I must admit teaching in a garbage dump was almost anathema but then children stealing and peddling drugs was a greater abomination. So I asked her to explore the possibilities. A few more days went by and she came back tome saying that she had talked to the local politicos and cops and got a tacit nod from them with a proviso: that we would move lock, stock and barrel the day the space would be needed. I must add here that the dump we are talking about is ‘owned’ by the government. Beggars cannot be choosers and in this case the need was too great. It was time I visited the place.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, more so because I was supposedly looking at it with a view to set up a children’s centre. The place was filthy with layers and layers of garbage and along side there were a handful of ramshackle huts that housed mostly physically handicapped persons, who were all known to be drug peddlers. They looked scary to say the least. But the space that lay in front of my eyes was huge by our standards and had ‘potential’. There was no way we could clean the place. How do you clean years of filth. So the next best option was to dump earth on it. We had to get several truckloads. And then keeping in mind the caveat we had been served and had agreed to, we set up a flimsy structure made of bamboo and plastic sheets. And on a warm summer morning classes began. It was June 2004 exactly six years ago!

The Okhla story has been one of ups and downs, of elation and frustration. A true pwhy story. It was launched by two very special women, who weathered every storm that came their way. It is a story of strange encounters. It is a story of a bunch of children and their teachers defying every odd be the heat, or the unexpected storms. It is a story of grit, determination and above all triumph. Today Okhla has a secondary class and even a computer centre.

Above all it is the story of a magical garbage dump that metamorphosed into a vibrant space that conjures dreams and desires and makes them come true

The last donation

The last donation! Sounds ominous but is is not, quite the contrary it is the harbinger of hope, and freedom.

For the past ten years we have been trying to make a difference in the lives of the less privileged and can say with pride that we have succeeded in more ways than one. We launched project why, with the aim of answering all the disturbing ‘why’s that came our way. With limited resources and an abundance of passion and fervor we have helped hundreds of children stay in school and complete their education, have brought smiles on the faces of a bunch of incredible special children and given them reason to live, have rescued a handful of kids who would have otherwise been condemned to join the ranks of child labour but who are now studying in a boarding school and topping their class, sponsored the surgery of a score of children with broken hearts and above all empowered almost fifty adults by giving them employment and dignity.

All this was made possible thanks to donations from people the world over who were good enough to trust and believe in us. Year after year, we shared our success stories with them in the hope that they would once again reach out to us. Whereas this seemed the only doable option in the early years, somewhere down the line came the surreptitious feeling that the pitch was becoming jaded and would not hold forever. Were they not millions the world over engaged in similar work who solicited help via donations and would not donors become satiated sooner or at best later. We needed to find another way, one that would lead us to the last donation.

Many may say, and quite rightly so, that all things must end, and that even a thriving and successful enterprise needs to come to a close. In our case it seemed that the day ‘donations’ would stop falling, the end would happen by force majeure. And more with us as all our fund raising was done by one person with a set of very personal skills. Me!

The unspoken and yet very loud question haunted me. What would happen to project why after I exited. Would it just be a simple swan song with a final curtain call, or would the performance continue. Would project why survive and become sustainable. This I know is the challenge every organisation like ours faces. And this I also know, is not an easy one. I weighed all options, even the one of seeing project why ebb but soon realised that this was not an option we could look at as some of the ‘whys’ we had answered were long term and could not be wished away. There was Manu who had been saved from a life on the streets and who now lived with us along with Anjali and Champa who also has nowhere to go; there were the seven children in school who needed support for many more years. These were the desperate cases but there was also a vibrant and spirited education and empowerment project that deserved to continue. The spirit of project why could not be wished away. Project why had to live on.

Thus began the search for a viable sustainability option, one that could take care of the lost souls as well as ensure continuity. We began to look for success stories to emulate, for organisations that had manage to become sustainable but did not find any. The one way that seemed to work was the one of setting up a corpus fund the interest of which would provide the needed sustenance. But somehow that seemed against the very spirit of project why. We wanted to be freed from the ‘charity’ status and be able to generate funds ourselves. This would keep us on our toes and prevent us from sinking into comfort zones. Project why had to mutate into something greater.

That is perhaps the time when someone mentioned a small project in Cusco, Peru where an organisation had set up guest houses to meet their fund requirements. It was a win win situation and somehow we felt that this was the way to go. We would call it Planet Why.

Planet Why would be a guest house with a difference, a social business generating income to support itself and enable project why to continue its mission, a place where Manu and his disabled friends would live and die with dignity, where project why alumni could be trained in a variety of marketable skills. Planet Why would offer its own brand of hospitality to travelers looking for a different experience. And above all Planet Why would be a green building, the first of its kind in Delhi. We were on cloud nine and felt nothing could stop us.

The first step was to find a find a suitable piece of land at a reasonable price. No mean task in a city like New Delhi where real estate is astronomically priced. We were lucky and located a piece of land not too far from the airport and in a still semi rural area. We shared our vision with our supporters and were fortunate to be able to purchase the land in spite of a few hiccups. It was then time to make plans and find out the costs. Needless to say they were mind boggling and way out of our league. But this did not deter us and we went bravely on the market trying to seek funding. It was not to be, as recession hit the world and all our plans went on to a back burner.

Today after two years in limbo we have decided to revive our dreams and those of the ones who depend on us. Planet Why has to see the light of day as it is the only way we can get out of the charity warp and become truly empowered.

Planet Why will not only enable us to continue our work with the less fortunate but become a real challenge for our team who will need to learn to run a successful business and thus validate all we held as true.

Once again we need you to believe in us.

sunshine in the dead of night

For the past two weeks Ram Bacchan has been guarding our house as the husband his away and everyone at the project felt that we (Shamika and I) needed to be protected particularly in the wake of a recent spate of murders of senior citizens ( I guess I qualify the appellation) in the vicinity. So they decided to send Ram Bacchan, the night guard of the women centre to our home.

Ram Bacchan is a little man, not more than five six inches feet. He has a sunny disposition and a huge smile. Moreover he is very dedicated and spends the night awake and alert. I sometimes wonder at the wisdom of having night guards, as is the practice in Delhi, as they are often ordinary unarmed men and would be no match to any professional robber or gang. But look around you and almost every home of a certain stature has one of them. Some even have uniforms of all shades and hues as if that alone would deter potential thieves. Anyway I am not one to complain as it provides jobs to many. I guess it is more a comfort factor to know that someone if awake while you sleep. Another idiosyncrasy of the rich I guess.

We normally never have one but as I said earlier my staff felt over protective and I had no option but quietly acquiesce. So Ram Bacchan has been part of the household for the past two weeks. His is another should I say, success story of pwhy. It began two years ago when one of our students at the women centre came to us and told us that they were being thrown out of their home by their landlord as they had not been able to pay the rent for several months, and thus the young girl said she may not be able to come to pwhy. Gita was and is one our brightest student and she and her siblings had been coming to pwhy for quite some time. We decided to find out what happened and asked her to call her mom. It transpired that the father had a good job in a factory but had been ill for some time and hence lost his employment. The meagre resources of the family had gone in his treatment and they had no money to pay the rent. The staff of the women centre was moved by the plight of this simple and brave family, more so because the children were exceptionally bright. They passed the hat around and paid the rent and found a job for the mother while the father lay convalescing.

A few weeks later, when Ram Bacchan was well again, the centre needed a night guard as the place lies empty post 6 pm, so we gave him the job and never regretted it. His pleasant temperament, his willingness to work and his dedication were appreciated by all. And now he is part and parcel of the women centre and project why! His children come to the centre without fail and are excellent students who often top their class. Gita again topped all sections of her school. His wife still works in the home of our coordinator.

A few months ago all seemed lost for this little family. Had help not come they would have had to move out of their home, the children would have dropped out of school and God only knows what would have happened to them. All it took was a little compassion to set things back on track.

In a day or two the husband will be back and Ram Bacchan will move back to his night post at the centre. It has been a pleasure having him. He brought sunshine in the dead of night. We will miss him.


BiharWhy! An incongruous and curious name. And yet this the one C has chosen for a the brand new education centre located in a little village in Bihar’s Supaul District. I must admit quite sheepishly that when C had murmured: to go to the village in Bihar and start a branch of pwhy after my long an exasperated diatribe, I had not believed him though I had lauded his intention and offered all support. Imagine my surprise when I got an email from C last week telling me that BiharWhy had been launched. The mail also had some pictures attached.

I sat for a long time looking at the pictures and slowly imbibing their stupendous meaning. The open air class, the little white mats on the mud floor, the lovely children and their teacher. It was a dream come true. I could not believe that something I had always held close to my heart had seen the light of day.

When one had taken the decision to only employ people from within the community to steer project why, notwithstanding qualifications et al, there was a covert reason: the hope that one day these very people would take ownership of the programme and take it back to their place of origin. That is why we had employed young people who had left their villages and come to the city in search of a better morrow. C was one such person. When he came to us with his half baked degree from Bihar and some vague skills (fine and art and electrical work!) we employed him to teach the primary children. Over the years C honed his knowledge, took extra classes and graduated to teaching secondary children as well as repairing broken fuses and painting the odd signboard! At that time he seemed set to continue as a teacher with pwhy for a long time. But that was not to be.

When we posted him to another centre he refused the move quite vehemently and I must admit that it was a shocker. I could have reacted as violently and dismissed him for dereliction of duty, but I have always been quite fond of this young man and even if that was not the case, the spirit of pwhy did not allow me the luxury of that decision. This was another why to be answered, a loud one that was a portent of things to come. So I gently proffered some options, one being to take back all he had learnt with us to his village. The seed had been sown. Time would tell whether it would take roots. If it did, then my absurd dream of reverse migration would have been fulfilled.

BiharWhy has seen the light of day. It is a reality today with over 50 children getting access to better education. C surveyed the area, met parents, the local authorities and everyone that mattered. Having been ‘in the city’ for almost a decade has paid as he is somewhat looked upon as the prodigal son that has returned. Everyone was willing to listen to him and wanted him to share his experiences and knowledge. So when he suggested he start a centre like the one in Delhi everyone was a taker.

But this is only the first step. The acid test is yet to be passed. BiharWhy has to survive and thrive and stand on its own. The road is along and not without obstacles. Bihar is not an easy place to operate in and had its own set of whys that will need to be tacked with caution. C will have to battle the administration, the local political power and the complex social problems with patience and determination.

I shared all my concerns with him as I know how difficult it is to survive and thrive! I told him of all the things we had done wrong in the hope that we would not make the same mistakes but it would be foolish to think that things will be easy. I juts hope and pray that he succeeds.

Note: C needs help and support. So of you think this brave venture is worth it, do lend a hand.

in limbo

Every year at about this time I sit down to write the annual report of the project. The report begins with a Directors’ message, and till date I have had no problems whatsoever in writing it. There was always something to write about: a special occurrence, a challenge, a success story, a knotty issue well solved etc. As I sat down to write these messages, nine of them till now, I always felt elated and on top of the world. This time however was different.

As I settled down to begin writing the 2009-2010 report, I drew a blank. I could not find the one small spark that would guide me through. I sat for a long time racking my brain but to no avail. I must admit I got a little worried: was age catching up, was I losing my memory? I decided to seek help and asked the girls, the one who run the project, to give me a brief on last year’s happenings. They came back to me a couple of days later and told me quite sheepishly that they too had drawn a blank. The year just seemed to have passed uneventfully and placidly, almost in limbo. I was stunned. Was this ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news?

I sat along time pondering. This was our tenth year on the field and the fact that we had nothing out of the ordinary to write about was cause of worry. Did it mean that we had perfected the model to the point where there was nothing more to add and it could thus run on auto pilot – not a happy thought – or was it that we had sunk into a comfort zone that had made us all forget the spirit of project why itself? I would veer towards the later and thus it was time for some serious soul searching.

Before I carry on I would like to set minds at rest. The year gone by was by all parameters a successful one. All programmes were on course and met their targets. Even the normally challenging issue of funding was well in hand. There must have been some minor irritants, but these were too small to leave an imprint. Then why was I feeling disturbed? What this not what one had wanted: to have pwhy run effortlessly?

I spend a long time wondering why I was feeling troubled. My mind wandered back to early times, when we had just begun, the day I had first set eyes on Manu and the one when I had come across the first child who could barely recognise alphabets though she was studying in class IV. And how can I forget the afternoon when a heartless secondary school principal sneered at a bunch of young boys calling them gutter snipes. I still remember the frozen January morning when a lady walked into our tiny office dragging four challenged children and telling us that they had nowhere to go, or the scorching day when a man hobbling on a stick walked in seeking help to fix his son’s broken heart. And the warm morn when I was told that a child had died of burns. And all this in the span of a short year. These were the deafening whys we had to address with confidence and compassion, the two Cs that defined the spirit of pwhy. We answered each one with success, some taking longer than others and that is how project why grew one challenge at a time. Manu was tended to till the day not so long ago when he moved into a proper home. A primary and secondary after school support was created, a day care for the challenged was set up and our heartfix hotel got its first inmate and the scalded boy is now prancing around in a boarding school!

The next years were spent fine tuning the show. Path breaking decisions were taken like the one to only employ people from within the community or the one to use whatever space we could access be it a pig park, a road side or a reclaimed garbage dump! The project grew and from 40 we became 400 and then 800! There was no stopping us. The results were for all to see: children passed from one class to the other. We had our first batch of class X and then class XII and they too did us proud. We were on a constant high. In hindsight I wonder if we missed something along the way.

I am not beating myself. I guess any project or programme does go through a growth process . It is inevitable. But I also feel that unless it is constantly infused with something new, it runs the risk of declining. Is this what is happening. Am I seeing the first signs of weakening? I hope not. But I know it is time to soul search with honesty. I have talked of the achievements but what about the failures or if not failures what about the downside, the challenges not met. The biggest one I guess has been our inability to achieve any success in our sustainability efforts, be it the small early inroads like candles, chocolates, soaps et al or the now seemingly half hearted attempts at fund raising like the one rupee a day programme or the failed raffles? Or even the apparently win-win option like planet why that today awaits expert validation. The reality is that all our efforts to stand on our own feet have not seen any success whatsoever. Project why has survived thanks to donations of people the world over who believed in our dreams of yore years. And whereas these dreams were once worth defending with zeal and passion, they seem a little jaded today. And the one who till date had sold these dreams effortlessly finds it difficult to repackage them.

I wonder what is missing. Have we really gone in limbo.

If I were to look at pwhy today without knowledge of the past, I would just see an after school education programme like so many others and that is no great achievement, even if our children pass their exams with almost obsessive regularity. True there are some add ons like the special children, the foster home etc. But that is it. There is no movement forward, no challenge waiting to be addressed. I do not have to be a soothsayer to say that come next year we will still look the same unless we break the circle and do something. And that is what I intend to do now.

I admit that the discomfort I write about today has been with me for some time and that is what had prompted me to launch the focus on quality programme early this year. Project why children had to imbibe more than just school knowledge, and we needed to stop our obsession with numbers. It has become imperative to give them an identity of their own. But that is not enough. What is needed is to go a step further and look beyond empowerment, it is time to hand over ownership of the programme to the staff and the community at large.

I have tried to do so over the years but met with stubborn resistance from all quarters. Somehow being an NGO – a word I dislike with passion – gave everyone the license to take things for granted. Parents felt we had funds in abundance and thus were almost outraged at our asking a meagre rupee a day, and most the staff found it easier to stick into comfort zones whereby they did their work and got their monthly pack, they somehow seem to think that fund sources are perennial. Even when one tried hard to get them to participate in any resource gathering activity be it the one rupee programme or selling raffle tickets, there was no enthusiasm leaving me to wonder how to shake them out or their torpor. I did tell them that I for one was not everlasting and that even if I were, we had to contend with something called donor fatigue.

Yes that is what is alarming me.

The recent visit by one of our regular donors was an eye opener. In the course of conversation candidly he admitted that it was easier for him to market – to use his expression – individual stories. He wanted me to ‘find’ more possible candidates for boarding school as he felt that was something donors ‘liked’. I will not go into details here, maybe in another post. What matters at this moment is what was left unsaid. Pwhy in its present avatar may not be easy to market. It was strangely devoid of heart wrenching tales. Even the loudest and most deafening why had finally found a permanent answer: Manu had a home!

So time has come to reinvent one’s self and while we wait for the verdict on planet why – should it not be the one we want we will need to put our thinking caps on again- we need to address the ‘what after me’ issue and thereby infuse a new breath of life in pwhy, one that will allow us to resuscitate the flat line. The way forward is to address the ownership issue head on, notwithstanding the resistance.

I must admit that a few days back I would not know how to do that but yesterday the sullen teacher who had refused to move to Okhla for incomprehensible reasons came to me and informed me that he has set up a Bihar Why in his village in a remote district in Bihar. He proudly handed me a set of pictures showing over 40 children studying in the open. I will write a post about this later. He wanted us to help him. My eyes became moist, my heart swelled with pride and I saw light at the end of the dark tunnel. This was the way to go. Staff had to be empowered to start their own nano projects. It would take time I know but it would validate all we had stood for.

Was this a ah ha moment. Maybe. At least it was a step forward, one that could withstand the test of time. I had found my answer. It was time to move on.

missing them….

The house is strangely empty. Just a few days back it had been filled with strangers of all shades and hues. There were people everywhere: plumbers, masons, painters, electricians, carpenters almost an invasion! It had been rather irritating at first as we got pushed out of our space with alacrity and almost banished to a little corner but somehow I had got used to it and I must say in hindsight quite enjoyed the novel experience. My days were ruled by the motley crew of workers and I had learnt to live with it. The first lot arrived by 8.30 and then by 10 am the house was buzzing with noise and activity. I was often called to one floor or the other tLinko sort some problem or the other: where to place a pipe, was the colour right, where did I want a shelf put and so on. Time flew till the house got empty by 6pm, that was on days when the workers did not decide to do ‘a night’, which meant that they would be in till midnight.

I must admit there were moments when one got a little irritated, but these were few and far apart. When not needed I found myself ambulating around the house simply watching the men at work. As I had written earlier, I was amazed by the happy mood around. Not withstanding heat or dust, no one complained, quite the contrary, they found time to laugh and joke or sing. Many had their own songs on their cellphones and they often sang along joyfully even if they were out of tune. Sometimes work stood still and you wondered why till you discovered the workers praying in a corner: it was namaz time! You simply tiptoed away.

At times I found myself shuddering with fright at the sight of a frail worker with a load of bricks trying to get across the wobbly wooden planks that led from one roof to the other, or when one worker hung precariously on the jhoola (sort of swing) painters use to paint high walls. I often walked away, too scared to watch.

There were a few young workers, but as I had written earlier, I had made my peace with the curious case of child labour. I just hoped and prayed that they would one day graduate to becoming masons and then who knows, small time contractors though I wished I could have taught a modicum of the 3 Rs so that they would not make the mistake their contractor Murtaza did. You see Murtaza must have begun his career just like them, at a very young age. Today he takes small contracts. In our case he had to tile the roof and had quoted a price. When the work was completed he was forlorn. He had under quoted and made a loss of a couple of thousands of rupees. He admitted the fact sheepishly and I simply smiled and handed him the missing amount. He was elated. In other places he would have had to take the loss, one he could not afford.

Slowly the house that had at one time looked like having been quaked, started to fall in place. And then came the day when the plumbers and then the carpenters and then the masons declared they had finished and walked away. Only the painters were left and they too would soon move outside. An eerie silence filled the once buzzing space and though everything looked pristine and new, it was almost as if the place had lost its soul, albeit temporarily. I realised that from this day on there would be no music and song, no laughter and chiding, no prayers in the corner. I knew that I would have to learn once again to live in my space, one I had shared with a band of merry men who could teach one the art of surviving with a smile.

Strange but true: I miss my workers!

I am not there, I did not die

Heera passed away a few days ago in her village in Bihar. I got the news two days ago. I still do not know what happened and may never know. I guess her young heart could not make up for all the years where it pounded in vain in her frail body in spite of all the holes. The operation had been a success in medical terms in spite of what the men in white called minor complications. She had been sent back to her home with the required medication and was to come back in three months for a check up.

I was numbed by the news, so numbed that it took me two long days to pick up my pen. Somehow this young girl that I met for a few moments touched me beyond words. When I first met her she stood quietly listening to all that was being said about her. She smiled briefly when I told her that she had to resume her studies after her operation. In hindsight I wonder whether she already knew what awaited her. I remember the day she spoke to me on the phone after her surgery and told me she was well and would soon be home. Did I miss something on that day too. I do not know. Even on the day she left, her smile was waned and her eyes evanescent but I quickly assigned that to the heat that was quite unbearable. When we said goodbye, I never knew that that was the last time I would lay my eyes on this brave and dignified child.

Today she has gone. I cannot begin to think how shattered her parents must be. Unlike many parents in India who often consider girls as impediments, Heera’s parents, though illiterate and poor, had left no stone unturned for the well being of their daughter. Not only had they educated her in the best available school, but had sold everything they owned to bring her to the big city and the best hospital. Today they had nothing left. Not even the one they fought for so passionately. I remember how her father use to come to us with hospital papers he did not comprehend and how we use to explain what was written to him and guide him on the steps to take. I remember how her mother, tired beyond her years by the weight of life itself, use to look at us with hope and the belief that maybe we were the answer to her prayers. I also remember how we truly believed that all would be well as it had in the past with all the other children with broken hearts. And then did not the doctors say that she would be healed after the surgery. Yes we all believed she would live. But God had other plans, plans we have to accept and live with. We all did the best we could.

Heera was a special being, one who touched our hearts, albeit for a few fleeting moments. I cannot believe she has gone. I share this poem as to me she will always be the laughter in children’s eyes.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there.

I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the snow on the mountain’s rim,
I am the laughter in children’s eyes,

I am the sand at the water’s edge,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle Autumn rain,
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the star that shines at night,
Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there, I did not die.

Author Unknown

I would like to thank all those who made Heera’s surgery possible. God bless you all. As I said earlier we all did our best.

up close and personal

A recent article on the other side of the Commonwealth games ended with these words: However, no amount of figures can mask the despair of those rendered homeless because of a mere 15-day ‘sporting’ event. “As a society, we have grown indifferent to equality around us. The poor are either seen as a nuisance or an encumbrance or embarrassment. Most of us are migrants to the city; if we are not being sent back, then why should labourers or beggars be made to go?” The article said much of what I have been writing for over a year now: displaced people, raised slums and so on: 3 million people will be rendered homeless by the time the show is on the road! Out of them the 1.5 million workers who were brought from other states to put the show on the road. I wonder why it took so long for the media to wake up to this realisation and to expose the sordid underside of things.

Now it is too late. We have become inured to too many aberrations and mastered the art of looking away.

For the past month I have been living with workers as my house is being repaired. It is true that there were instances in the past when I had come close to workers but that was before project why. In those days my eyes were closed as I did not see with my heart. This time is different. Workers are not just your irritating plumber who never comes on time or your loud mouthed mason, they are people whose life I have seen up close and personal.

All these workers are migrants who left their homes for a variety of reasons, the most common one being poverty. Many were brought by wily contractors and then just stayed on. Many have been in the city for decades. Murtaza is our masonry contractor. He came to the city 15 years ago as a young lad. He worked his way up slowly from daily wage labourer to mason, to small time contractor. He is the guy who will confidently quote you a price for a rood repair or bathroom tiling. Yet he is still illiterate. His acumen stems from his experience and common sense. Today his family has joined him and everyone works together: his father, father-in-law, uncles, nephews etc. So when he takes on a small contract the money remains within the family.

Nabi Karim is our paint contractor. He is also Meher’s uncle! He too works with his family. Over the years, as his work became more lucrative, he brought his brothers, nephews and relatives from the village. The women and children were left at home. The city was not for them. And the land had to be tended too. This was the best option for all as the land was too little to feed everyone. Though still humble and unpretentious, he is slowly becoming big time!

The workers are a happy lot. They may not quite work according to your expectations but just stop and look at them with your heart. They turn up every day notwithstanding the weather and work in terrible conditions carrying loads on flimsy ladders or breathing dust and paint fumes. They work long hours without complaining breaking just for a cup of tea that I never fail to send or for lunch.

If you come by do not be surprised to hear music at every floor. Today’s’ worker has a new addition to his tool kit: a cell phone, and one that has an MP3 player. As you stroll along the house you will hear different songs: nostalgic songs from Bihar where some hail from or the more recent Bollywood numbers. These are often played by the younger workers. Most of the workers sheepishly come to you and ask if they can use a plug to charge their phones. Of course is my answer! Music does make the work less tedious.

The work is taking forever, but I am not complaining. I am quite enjoying sharing my space with these incredible and brave people who have learnt to survive in the worst conditions and come out winners. It is these people that some call a nuisance or an encumbrance. I just wonder what our life would be without them.