let us pray

Our Chief Minister is now praying for the success of the games and urges to pray too. And what should we pray for? I only keep praying that we won’t let the country down says she. But dear lady who is the we, kindly don’t include us common citizens as we have not let the country down.

A befitting answer to her plea was given by author Chetan Bhagat in an article entitled Please don’t cheer for the 2010 loot-fest. Do read the article. It echoes much of what many of us feel. He writes: The CWG is an amazing opportunity because all Indians have been robbed at the same time. Add to that the fact that the government is desperate to save face. Now is when we can get them. And the way to do it is simply what the father of our nation pioneered in his time — non-cooperation. Yes, and i’ve deliberated long before saying this — do not watch these Games.

But let us get back to the prayers we have been solicited to offer by none other than the CEO of our city. What do you want us to pray for I ask again? For the success of what can best be termed as the most obnoxious display of corruption. For the success of the best example of mismanagement. For having frittered away our heard earned money? For the years we will have to toil to pay for your misdeeds? Do I have to pray for what you call national pride when the whole world is laughing at us? Do we have to pray for the rains to stop and the mosquitoes to vanish so that the corrupt Games can have their place in the sun?

You say we all have to pray for the success of the Games. I wonder who is this we! The ones who lost their homes and jobs? The ones who sleep hungry or die for want of a proper meal? The ones who fight each day simply to survive? I am at a loss.

Yes I will pray Ma’am but not for the success of the Games. I will pray in the hope that no child ever sleeps hungry in my country, that every one has a roof on his head, that every child goes to school. I will pray for the Heaven of Freedom that Tagore dreamt of. But I will not just pray I will continue to do my tiny bit to ensure that one day this does happen.

the day did dawn

The day did dawn. The lohar camp was raised to the ground courtesy the commonwealth games. And this time we knew it would not be allowed to be rebuilt no matter how large the tithe. The camp had been in existence for over 35 years. Over time it had acquired what we could rightly call civic recognition: a postal address – Maharaha Pratap Camp -, ration cards and voter’s ID card for all its inhabitants, electricity etc. Over the years promises were made by all and sundry – politicians, social do gooders, administrators – that the camp would be relocated and its inhabitants given proper plots with space to carry on their trade. Let us not forget that these are nomads and nomads were promised rehabilitation by none other than our first Prime Minister. I would also like to add that in most other states they have been properly rehabilitated.

For the past 35 years they have lived in this camp. Children are born, they grow up and get married and have their own families. Sanjay and Vicky both teachers at project why were born in this very camp. Over the past 35 years their camp has been raised regularly and then allowed to be rebuilt after payment of an adequate bribe. It was almost a game that we too have watched from the wings helplessly as for almost five years we ran a small creche and primary outreach and got to know and admire this proud clan.

A few years back the head of the clan affectionately known as Tau – elder uncle – brought some papers to me. These were bits and pieces of a file, very official looking with green sheets and heaps of bureaucratic notings by senior officials. A quick look at the papers showed that a rehabilitation plan had been mooted and surveys done. The Lohars of Delhi should have got their place in the sun. But that was not to be. The plan got hijacked probably by land mafias as is always the case and the Lohars remained where they were. We decided to do something and try we did! A PIL was filed in the High Court and a case was also filed with the National Human Rights Commission. Had not the rights of these proud souls been hijacked with impunity. They had been used and abused by all and sundry: hungry politicians prowling for new vote banks, uncaring bureaucrats, greedy land grabbers and so on. No one seemed to care.

The Lohars continued to live with their head held high refusing to give up, their legendary resilience intact watching impassibly the will it won’t it game that was enacted in front of their tiring eyes. And somehow each time we thought the game was over, some extra time was doled out to meet some new wily agenda. Till yesterday when the final blow was dealt courtesy the commonwealth games and the tiny camp was finally destroyed forever. Our Lohar friends are now scattered all over this uncaring and insensitive city.

I will miss them. Over the years I had learnt to love and respect this proud people. I often found myself walking to their camp whenever I felt in need of a shot of optimism. I would spend hours over cups of tea talking to Tau and imbibing his age old wisdom. I would watch the beautiful children playing in the dust breathing the fumes of the cars revving up at the red light. Were they not children of Indian born with the same rights as others, then who had usurped and hijacked their rights! What could one do. The PIL in court was lost in translation.

Sanjay and Vicky have not come to the centre for the past few days. They are busy picking up the pieces of their shattered life and building a new one. I know they will succeed as they have the wisdom of the gypsies in their veins. I cannot begin to imagine what it feels like to have your home and life destroyed in front of your helpless eyes. I just feel angry and sad at the way those in power play with innocent souls and ultimately always win. Is this the India our freedom fighters fought and died for? I just think we have let them down. Is there a way out. I do not know.

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Is anyone listening

How can we forget that for Rs 28,000 crore we could have established primary schools and health centres in tens of thousands of villages? Can we ignore this splurge the next time a malnourished child looks at us in the eye? writes Azim Premji in today’s morning paper. I have been saying this for quite some time. I hope that when an eminent personality echoes the same it would be heard. Then why do I have the uncanny feeling that it will not.

I fell of my chair when I heard a Member of Parliament and also an industrialist state on National TV that 80 000 Rs a month salary was no big deal! This was in the course of a debate on the raise in salaries for Parliamentarians. The MP felt that 80K a month was not such a big salary and wondered why it was being made into such an issue. I would like to remind our esteemed MP that the present minimum wage is about 5000 Rs a month and many across our country do not earn even that. According to recent statistics over 37.2 % of Indians live below the poverty line and 5000 children still die of malnutrition every day.

The question is not whether one should or should not hold international events. The question is one of priorities. And these seem to be totally skewed. But then we are missing the point: such events are wonderful ways of making money and these Games have given us ample proof of that. What is worrying however is the total lack of concern of those in power for what I call the other India. It almost seems as if for them it does not exist. Though if you care to look, it is at our very doorstep. Be it the malnourished child who taps on your car window, or the poor labourer toiling under the rain to meet some new impossible deadline.

The Games are an eye opener to all that is wrong in India. Anyone can see that but we seem to have lost our ability to do that. We are too inured, or perhaps too ensconced in our self created catatonia and unable to move when we should be screaming. If at nothing else than at least at the helium balloon hired at the cost of 40 crores for the opening ceremony, mind you in case you use it for the closing ceremony then you pay more! And let me remind you lest you have forgotten it is you and I and our children who will toil a lifetime to foot the bill. Yes I said let us at least scream at this wasteful expense as we seem to have lost our ability to do so when hundreds of thousands have lost their homes, their livelihood and more.

I have now words left.. I will simply quote Mr Premji again. He ends his article with the following: At times like these, it will serve our leaders well to recall Gandhiji’s talisman: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Is anyone listening?

Steve Bhaiya

Volunteers are an intrinsic part of pwhy. They come from all corners of the world, from the most unexpected places: Senegal, Azerbaijan, Turkey, UK, USA, France, Spain, Singapore, Canada, Sweden. They have one common denominator: their love for project why and their conviction about our work. They spend a few days, a few weeks or even a few months and when they go, they leave a little of themselves in each one of us. They are undoubtedly a very important part of our success.

For the past four years now we have had volunteers from Cambridge University and this year it was Steve, better known as Steve Bhaiya!

I remember the day he landed in our world. It was incredibly hot and his flight was meant to land at 11 am so we expected him around 1pm. The plan was to have him wash up, have a cool drink and then send him to the women centre where we had planned to have him volunteer for the next two months. Steve arrived at my door at around 2pm. He had been stuck in traffic jams and was looking miserably hot. I was immediately charmed by his gentle and warm voice and his heartwarming smile. I asked him whether he wanted to rest or would be agreeable to go straight to work! He agreed to the later and hence began Steve’s tryst with our women centre.

Let us fast forward to two months later. Departure time has come. For the past week Steve has been trying to tell his students that he had to go back to his country and to say the least the news was far from welcome. The no, please dont’ go, stay here, when are you coming back abounded all expressed in the English Steve had painstakingly taught our primary students during two whole months. And every one’s feelings were summed up in Kajal’s words when she said: were are so grateful because that you all the way over from England just to help us. She somehow echoed what I would like to say to him.

You may ask what Steve did during these months. His meticulous blog gives an account of his weeks with us and I must confess I enjoyed reading it as it gave me a insight into our work seen through someone else’s eyes. I of course had only second hand knowledge of his work. As luck would have it, Steve came at a time when our spoken English teacher had taken long leave of absence and we were in a quandary about how we would manage. The pupils in question were those of classes II to V and a lively lot at that. But Steve was not one to be deterred and took the task head on. 128 primary kids divided in 4 groups was quite a handful for anyone but Steve did a super job. Everyone was impressed. I use to get bribes of the going ons either by our coordinator or by Steve himself. I was told about the small pranks, the occasional mischief and antics but also about the incredible progress the children made under Steve’s guidance. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that even the parents felt that their children were learning English. This was a huge moment for me as how could I forget the very first words uttered to me well before it all began: teach our children English. It had taken a young college rugby player and stellar student to do that. Hats off to him.

But there was another side of Steve, one I have the privilege to be privy to quite inadvertently. It was a Saturday morning and Steve’s day off. We on the other hand were all set to take little Manisha to boarding school. We had all gathered in the kitchen of my home and were waiting for the car when Steve came down for a late breakfast. On hearing that we were off to the boarding school he decided to come along, breakfast forgotten. It was a memorable day in more ways than one. Steve truly liked the school and was even treated to a spot of colonial spin off as he was feted by the house master who fell backwards to please him. We all had a merry laugh though in hindsight Steve felt a little sheepish. That day I saw another side of Steve one that I can only sum up with a reference to my favourite book the Little Prince: Steve knew the fox’s secret and saw with his heart. In the weeks to come Steve was to visit the boarding school twice: once on PTM day, and on Independence Day where he was even seated on the VVIP sofa! Each time was special for him and us.

During his two months with us, I have had the occasion to share my thoughts, dreams, fears, angst and more with Steve. He always listened and strangely made me feel better as he managed to chase my blues and fill me with quiet optimism. I deeply value the moments we spent together.

Soon Steve will leave India leaving fond memories in our hearts. The children will stay in touch thanks to the web camera he gave them as a parting gift. I, on the other hand will find myself browsing photographs and remembering this very special volunteer.

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The interrupted game

Sanjay did not come to the project yesterday. The reason: an eviction notice by the Municipality. Sanjay is a Lohar who lives in what is known as the Maharana Pratap Camp but is actually a motley assortment of 40 ramshackle tenements made of plastic sheets and tarpaulin. The Camp has been in existence for 3o years and Sanjay was born there and for the last 30 years there have been innumerable evictions notices. Along the way the camp gained respectability and recognition with a postal address and voter Id cards for its residents: you see they were after all a sizable vote bank. As for the eviction notices, they were warded away with a few coins. It was almost a game being played to perfection, with every protagonist playing its role faultlessly. This by the way is a play running in many locations across our city. However this time there was a new entrant in the plot: the Commonwealth Games and it seemed that this time the denouement could be different.

Sanjay to say the least was definitely worried. Would this eviction be for real? The red letter day dawned and passed. A hurried visit to the local politicos revealed that perhaps the camp would be saved and the ludicrous idea of hiding it, the one mooted by our Chief Secretary, be enforced. The camp would be hidden not behind bamboo screens as once thought, but behind some kind of screen, maybe even publicity ones to rake in more moolah! The jury is still out on this one.

This incident raises once again the question of our attitude towards what we call, for want of a better word, the poor. With the advent of the Games this attitude has come out of the closet and is out in the open. We are ashamed of our poor and yet unable or rather unwilling to address the situation and find lasting solutions. We just want to brush the problem under the carpet and hope it goes away.

A TV show aired yesterday tried to debate the issue. Sadly most participants did not get down to addressing the real issue but simply tried to defend their position rather unconvincingly. The debate was on the lack of concern of the middle class towards what was termed as the other India. It actually became a weak defense on the said lack of concern. This is the sad reality. We have lost our heart and soul in our quest for riches. Yet we forget that to acquire these very riches we need the other India be it to construct our new homes and malls or simply to make our every day life easier and better.

The question that begs to be asked is how long will the other India remain silent? How long are we going to simply ignore the facts that glare at us: children dying of malnutrition, people living in inhumane conditions, farmers committing suicide: the list is endless. It is time we addressed these issues if we want our good times to continue. As one participant tried to say: we need to empower the poor and we need to do it now.

The last few weeks have been replete with stories of corruption in the CWG. Yet nothing much was said about the people who lost their homes and livelihood, about the children who worked on construction sites, about the labourers who lost their lives. They do not make news. Nor does Sanjay and his kin. They may lose their homes or may be hidden behind a screen as we are too embarrassed to accept their existence. And after the games the screens will be removed and the eviction game will resume after a brief interruption.

Every child in our country….

Today, almost every child in our country has access to primary education. It is our endeavour that every child, irrespective of whether he is rich or poor and which section of the society he belongs to, should be given an education that enables him to realize his potential and makes him a responsible citizen of our country. These words were part of the Prime Minister’s address from the ramparts of the Red Fort on India 63rd Independence day.

How I wish this were true! Sadly it is not so.

Allow me to share a story with you, one that is true. It happened on August 14th 2010, just a day before our Prime Minister delivered his speech. We had gone to the I Day celebrations of the children’s boarding school to be part of the festivities which were to end with the launch of a Literacy programme in a nearby slum cluster. We were very excited as this is the very area where God willing planet why will one day be seated. The rain Gods were bountiful on that cloudy morning and by the time we reached the slum cluster it was pouring the proverbial cats and dogs. The programme was to be launched in the tiny roofless community centre of the cluster where a small tent had been erected.

A few days earlier someone had visited the cluster and made a list of children interested in joining the programme. The names of around 40 children figured on that piece of paper and they were to receive a small token: a notebook and some pencils in a smart plastic folder. The show began. The flimsy tent was not able to hold the rain and soon the piece of paper was soaked and the names washed away. This was almost providential as we soon realised that there were not 40 but hundreds of children in the small tent with the same amount outside. Children of all ages. I was moved to tears when a young girl, about 16 or so, who looked married also held out her hand and said she too wanted to study! The books and pencils were soon outnumbered by the little hands held out in anticipation.

I moved away and started talking to the parents. I was soon told that most of the children did not go to school though the parents were keen they do. The reason :the sole municipal school in the vicinity had more than 100 kids in each class and even an illiterate parent was aware of the fact that no learning could happen in such abysmal conditions. Children passed from class to class without any learning! This was the situation a day before the PM’s speech just a few kilometers away for the Red Fort. Where was the access to primary education the PM announced with such confidence. Was this the way Independant India hoped children would realise their potential and become responsible citizens!

There is a universe of difference between what is on paper and the reality on the ground Mr Prime Minister. The children of your own capital city do not have access to education, let alone quality education and nothing seems to be really happening. It is time we did something. I do not know whether you will, but we at pwhy certainly will.

To the God of Lesser beings

I was recently asked by a friend to make a selection of my blogs as he wanted to publish them in a a small ebook. I must candidly admit that I was thrilled. He also mentioned that maybe I should chose those where I talk of the God of lesser beings. There are over 1200 blogs and I did not quite know where to begin so the suggestion was more than welcome. My blogs are like children to me, some perhaps smarter, better looking and nicer than the other, but each one as precious. Thanks to the wonderful search tool I was able to zero in on the blogs in a jiffy. As I started sifting through them a smile on my lips, I began to wonder how, when and why the God of Lesser beings had come into my life and who he or she actually was.

I realised that there were moments in my last ten years when everything went suddenly dark for more reasons than one: it could be the total lack of funds that made me wonder how the next day would dawn, or the helplessness of a parent who needed help to save her dying child; or an absolutely incomprehensible and terrible situation that needed a solution that was not forthcoming. In those moments I needed help and had no one to turn and yet felt deep inside that there was somehow out there I could reach out to, someone who would rescue me. There were also times when I felt lost and dejected and ready to give up. At those times I needed someone to steer me back and give me the courage to carry on. And believe me there was someone who again heard and sent a miracle my way. But I never knew who it was.

One day little Utpal romped around the house a God mask on his face stating he was Hamoumam! At that instant I realised that he was the one who helped me, the God of Lesser beings, the one little boys prayed to and the one that heard prayers forbidding Gos did not, the one who did not need to be propitiated with costly offerings and complex rituals. The one who only heard those who saw with their hearts.

He has been the one who has walked by my side each and every day for the past ten years and has strangely become the only God I pray to!

Happy I day

There is a post waiting to be published but I have decided to hold on to it, maybe till just tomorrow, as I wanted today’s post to be one of celebration and joy and the post I refer to was to borrow the words of a friend the kind that drives one to utter despair. But today is Independence day and in spite of everything, it is a day we need to honour. I must admit that two days back I would have been at a complete loss to find something to share with you but the God of Lesser beings decided otherwise and gifted me another perfect day.

Normally Independence day and other such celebrations are closed door affairs in the children’s boarding school but this year the school decided to launch a Literacy Mission in the slums near the school and were graceful enough to ask us to associate ourselves with them. The mission was to be launched after the I day school festivities. We were on cloud nine as this is the very area where Planet Why was to be located. And I must admit to be privy to what happens in school on days where parents are not allowed was indeed a rare treat.

The day was cloudy and humid but we were hoping and against hope that the rains would not play spoil sport. We reached bright and early and were greeted by a walk of honour where children held little flags and wished us Happy I Day! Utpal was one of them and I was terribly proud to see him smile and wave his little flag. We were then escorted to the tent where the show would take place. I must admit that I was a little weary as I wondered how long we would have to wait for the proverbial chief guest. We were seated on the front row making us sort of VIPs! A short while later a young student came to ask us to come for the flag hoisting and we knew the real VVIPs had arrived. The flag was hoisted as the school band played the national anthem and then there was a march past.

Once we were again seated the show began. I must again admit that I was on the look out for our kids and wondered when they would appear on stage. We had seen some of them all dressed up and were eager to see them perform. There were a few items by the older children and then it was time for the little ones and there they were Aditya, Meher, Yash and little Manisha who had been in school for barely a month. They performed what is called an action song to perfection and my eyes misted – as they always seem to do in such occasions – as I watched them dance and sing. It was a touching petition to God and I think that the God of Lesser beings was moved too as the heavens opened and it started pouring. The tent came down and every one ran for cover. My heart stopped. What would happen now. What about all the kids who had not performed yet. I dared not ask, too scared of the answer I may receive. I just waited with bated breath for what would happen next.

We were soon asked to move to the Principal’s room where the customary ‘refreshment’ was hurriedly served. There was tea and cold drinks and an array of eats. Then some time later as we were still guessing what would happen next the good news: the show was to continue in the dining hall. I was truly impressed by the speed at which everything had been reorganised. The show as the young MC said must go on! Babli danced in a lively number on national integration and Vicky was part of an enthralling yoga display. A few more songs and a great performance by the school band closed the show. There were a few speeches and then it was time to go. But the day was not quite over as the school had planned to launch its literacy mission on that day.

It was still raining but we were all very excited. The school had identified a nearby slum cluster and children and parents were waiting in spite of the pelting rain. A distribution of pens and notebooks had been planned but soon we realised that there were far more children then notebooks! The number of children was overwhelming and each one wanted to be part of the programme. Parents were eager too as the only municipal school in the vicinity did not really seem to be working as there were more then 80 kids in each class and not much teaching, and many children just did not go to school.

The literacy programme envisaged by the school was to be held on week ends when students would come and teach their little underprivileged peers. It was undoubtedly a great idea but we knew from past experience that much more was required. What was needed was an outreach programme like the ones we ran and I knew what had to be done. We had to start one as soon a possible. My mind went on overdrive trying to work out the logistics: how to start, when to begin etc. And as innumerable thoughts crowded my mind the rain stopped and the sun came out and somehow I felt that the God of Lesser Beings smiling.

I had been given my very special I day gift, one that showed me that for me the show was no way near over.

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more loo tales

They came at 1 crore ( 10 million a piece) and were touted as the best ever. They came in all shapes: mausoleums, Indian fort, glass boxes a strange and bizarre mix of style. Prototypes were built and the deal was that the one selected would be cloned in 200 locations while the others demolished. An absurd waste of money in my book. Residents of the chosen colonies went up in arms calling them monstrosities, something I second loudly. According to the latest buzz they will all be demolished!

I watch numbed and speechless. Do we need loos at this cost in a land where many still do not have access to a proper toilet. Oops I stand corrected: by many I meant the ones living on the other side of the fence, those no one cares about.

The reason for this blog is to vent my ire about all that is happening. I have reined my pen for a few days watching the on going saga of the Commonwealth Games or should I say Corruption Wealth Games. People lying unabashedly in front of cameras, letters appearing contradicting the lie and then more lies. People being made scape goats at the drop of a hat, others vanishing altogether like the technicians who were to man the ill famed giant balloon that cost over 38 crore rupees to the poor Indian tax payer. Every day some new scam is brought to light leaving us all bewildered and sadly helpless.

A small question does blink in our exhausted minds: who will pay the bill? And the answer is loud a clear: we! Be prepared dear Delhizen to pay more for everything, even the air you breathe. The likes of me who are in our twilight years will probably pay the bill till we breath our last. The other question that one dares ask is will the guilty pay and the answer is as clear: no! Some poor scapegoat will be found and axed publicly while the real culprits will simply disappear for a while till they regroup for the next kill. This is the sad reality and we are the ones responsible for all the mess as we have allowed our democracy to be hijacked by brigands. So grin and bear it all.

More questions come to mind, at least for those who still care: will those who have been rendered homeless get a roof on their heads; will those who have lost their livelihood be able to earn again once the drama is over – I mean the vegetable vendor, the cobbler, the iron man et al – and the answer is perhaps as the hungry mouth they once fed – the local cop or official – will start lurking again as he misses his weekly tithe. Who knows. Only time will tell.

Your email made my day….

Your email has made my day (and if forecasting is allowed, perhaps my whole life! 🙂 ) Your words have given me the confidence to steer my life in the direction that I have always wanted to take. These were the words that dropped into my inbox late last night. It all began the previous day with another email that began with the words: dear Maam’ji and immediately caught my eye. Maam’ji was hallowed ground. I read on. The mail came from a young woman engineer working in a big corporation. She wrote about herself: her work, her dreams but what again caught my eye were the following words: occasionally, I accompany my grandfather and my mother to an old age home and an orphanage…and perhaps those are the only moments that make my life worthwhile. My eyes misted: here was a young woman who could see with her heart! What she wanted was to come and work with us in our special section. My heart went out to her. I wrote back to tell her it would be an honour to have her with us. Her reply were the words that begin this post.

This was indeed a very special moment for me. Let me explain why. When I set out on the pwhy journey my primary objective was undoubtedly to help make a difference in the lives of those less privileged and I must admit that we have not fared badly. But unknown to many if not all, there were many head fakes consciously strewn along the way and one of them was to be able to touch hearts of those on the other side of the fence. I always hoped that our work would inspire young educated souls and act as a catalyst for change. This is perhaps why I have spent so much time writing these blogs that as you all know are not simply a journal of our activities, but have over time become passionate musings on what I like to call the real India. I know that often what I write is old news, but I somewhat believe, or would like to do so, that I anchor it into a different reality. The hope being that the words would touch some heart. They did touch one and that in itself is nothing short of a miracle. I did begin my journey with the words: If I can change one life it would have been worth it. So I feel vindicated and elated.

But nothing comes easy. Today a young woman is willing to steer her life in a new direction and though I feel almost euphoric I also know that the road she wants to travel is not an easy one.It is wrought with obstacles, humiliation and hurt. Though you do see the best of what life can offer in the eyes of a trusting child you also see the worst: the callousness of people, the lack of concern, the cynicism and more. And yet if you want to carry on you have to battle them all holding on to the memory of the child’s eyes. It is not easy. In spite of my years and grey hair I often did come to the verge of giving up but the little child who christened me Maam’ji ensured I did not. You see I held all his morrows in my hands.

Today a young woman seems to have entrusted her morrows to me. Was I not the one who dreamt of being a mentor. Well the day had dawned. I hope my friend Godji will once again show me the way.