letter to a father

Dear Papa

You left us 18 years ago today. Since that day I have missed you every single day, sometimes days more than others, but not a single day has passed without feeling your presence, be it just the smile I give your lovely picture every morning when I sit down to work, just about the time when you and I shared a cup of tea when everyone else slept. Today I just drink it alone.

You taught me so much! From absolute surrender to a greater force to unwavering faith in the destiny of India, from the delights of life lived king size to the joy of sharing a humble meal; from erudite books of diverse cultures to the soothing lilt of the Bhojpuri lullaby your mother sang. I have carried each of the precious lessons you taught me and tried to abide by them even when it has been difficult to do so, as you where you also not the one to have taught me to always chose the road less travelled.

For the past ten years I have done just that though I must confess, it has not always been easy. But I have muddled through as best I could and never given up. But today Papa my feet are faltering and I feel like the little girl who awoke at night frightened by a dream and who called out in the dark. Only the dream this time is real and the father who always came to make things right is no more. Yet today I need him more than ever.

Project why is the gift you gave me to fill the abyss I had fallen in after you left. In the eyes of the little children that come each day I slowly found myself and the reason for which I had come into this world. For the past ten years I have nurtured and tended to it with all the care and love I could muster and protected it from one and all. But time is not on my side anymore and the moment has come to find the right way to ensure that pwhy lives on beyond me. After many false starts we have a found a way to do so. For project why to live, planet why has to happen and all seems to be pointing that way. But Papa, I am scared as it seems way beyond my capabilities and strengths. Yet when I look at the children around me, I know I cannot give up. I also cannot afford to share my angst with anyone but you and today Papa I need you more than ever before. I need you to hold my hand, just like you did when you taught me to walk, I need you to guide me just as you did each time I faced a dilemma, I need you to be my strength and show me the way. You see I cannot let down all those who have entrusted their dreams in my care. My shoulders are frail and ageing and I need your help to carry the final burden that has been laid on them.

I have often called pwhy my swansong. And it is. I need to perform the last act with brio and then maybe I too can come and rest in your arms forever.

I miss you…..

Rarely is love instant

Rarely is love instant and yet once in a blessed while it is. For the last month we have been touched by a very special kind of magic conjured by two lovely souls called Alan and Em! Alan & Em have been volunteering at pwhy for the past one month and for the past one month we have all rediscovered the true meaning of words we adults often forget like fun, joy, exultation, delight, cheerfulness, gaiety and more. But that is not all they also renewed our faith in values like trust, honesty and goodness. Alan and Em are like rays of sunshine and breaths of the freshest air.

They came with their bag of goodies and enthralled the children with magic tricks, bubble shows and mysterious machines and somehow what had always seemed so boring and tedious became luminously simple. Science, physics, maths were just games to be enjoyed. And yet the children learnt more in this one month than they had ever before.

Alan and Em are like two happy children ready to discover all that the world has to offer to them and enjoy it to its fullest. In the past month I have never seen them frown or scowl. Even when they were hit by the Delhi bug, they never lost their smile. And not only the children, but we adults, and me in particular, got some precious lessons in the art of living. Their joie de vivre is infectious to say the very least and shows that it takes very little to live life to its fullest. It is amazing how nothing ever gets these two down. You never hear a complaint or even see a fleeting sign of discontent in their eyes. They are always happy. Ask them how their day went and you hear fabulous, awesome, amazing. Ask them how the food was and you hear delicious, yummy even if you have served them a simple innocuous meal.

A & M have also given a whole new meaning to the word charity. Their generosity brings to mind the old proverb that says; A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog! They simply have an implicit trust in human nature.

Knowing Alan and Emily has been a privilege and honour and we all feel blessed. Love is rarely instant yet once in a while it is: this was just one such instant.

For sixty years

A young couple belonging to uber rich families will tie the knot later this month in our city. Bollywood stars will attend the wedding and perform. The tag for this filmy nuptials is 25 crores or 250 million rupees. That is 5 planet whys or what is needed to run project why in its present form for 60 years! I am speechless. I remember how shocked I was when I heard that a celebrity florist was in town and would charge 2 to 4 crores to decorate a wedding venue.

A few months back a couple tied the knot in a small village in Europe. They decided to send the the money they collected during the church ceremony to project why. I also remember how touched I had been when a simple email from a young couple I had never met informed me that they had decided to donate the money normally spent on bonbonieres – traditional wedding favours – to the children of pwhy. In the past many young couples from faraway lands have donated part of their wedding bounty to the children of project why, thus creating invisible bonds of love and friendship between two young people starting their life together and children who strive for a better one.

What a difference between the two worlds.

250 million rupees to have some star gyrate at your wedding for a brief moment or shake hands with your guest is nothing short of galling. It is something I find difficult if not impossible to fathom. I do agree that everyone wants a special wedding and deserves it but there has to be some limits. A wedding is undoubtedly a precious occasion and does need to be celebrated. It is a day every young bride and groom wants to remember and perhaps having a star at your nuptials makes for lasting memories and wonderful photo ops. But one needs to cap the show. In a land like ours where a child dies of malnutrition every 8.7 minutes, 250 million rupees for a thrill is terribly misplaced. Maybe it would become more palatable if one star was given up and the money thus saved -ranging from 10 to 40 million – was spent on a charity of your choice. Imagine if that money could build a home for some destitute children, or a school, a hospital. The possibilities are endless. That structure could bear the name of the newly weds and would be a proud memory to recall.

What makes someone want to spend galling amounts of money for a single event is the question that begs to be answered. The sad reality is that anyone attending weddings looks for things to criticize and takes the rest for granted. True that one gets bedazzled for an instant but all is soon forgotten and one is seen recalling the terrible parking facility, or the long queues at the buffet table rather than the bride’s jewels or the gargantuan spread! It seems that the desire to over extend one’s self while organising such dos stems from a desire to impress and a sense of insecurity. You have to show that you have arrived and nothing is too over the top for that. Hence you invite not one, not two but a dozen stars in the hope that they will shine on your parade. That is all that matters. Never mind the tag attached. A sad reality but one that pervades all rich and poor. The only difference is that the poor do it by borrowing sums that they will take a lifetime to pay back. But reason does not prevail in such situations.

It seems that the big fat Indian wedding is here to stay.

an apologia for a dream

The 3 D images of planet why truly gave substance to a long time dream and brought in a new set of apprehensions and nerves. What till now was a sedate yearning tucked away in the recesses of one’s mind suddenly sprung to life. Dreams were becoming reality and it was scary.

Many found the images amazing and wonderful and the kudos came pouring. In the midst of it all came a much needed dampener: would the idea work at all. I normally would have pooh poohed the note of caution as I often had in the past when planet why still lived in the realm of dreams but not now. I had to listen to all voices. Particularly today when we were a step away from realising a dream. It was perhaps the last chance one had to review things calmly and dispassionately before it was too late. So no matter how difficult and wearisome, it was time once again to write an apologia for planet why.

So what is planet why and why should it see the light of day? That is the question. Right from the outset planet why addressed two almost existential questions that had been plaguing us at pwhy. The first one was humane and concerned the plight of our very special children and young adults. These were the handful of lost souls that had been guided to the portals of pwhy by an unseen hand. We all knew that they needed to be cared till the end of their lives and thus was seeded the idea of a residential programme that had to outlive those who steered pwhy. Planet why was thus born. The second question was more materialistic in nature and addressed the issue of the autonomy of project why and its ability to raise its own resources. Planet why would also be a guest house that would generate funds and thus support not only the residential programme but the rest of pwhy’s initiatives.

It is easy to vindicate the first question as everyone would agree that our special children deserve but the best and keeping in mind the realities prevailing in India we know that they need life long care and the chance to live and die with dignity. Planet why would ensure just that. The second one, the sustainability of project why, is perhaps a little more difficult to defend. Some may contend that it borders on hubris. Many successful ventures close when time comes and why should it not be the case with pwhy. Others may profess that the price tag of planet why is too huge to be justified and that there may be other ways to ensure sustainability. The more cynical ones would argue that nothing needs to be perennial, and that wisdom lies in knowing that.

I will try and address each of these issues. There is no misplaced ego in wanting pwhy to live beyond me. I admit that the idea of seeing it all dwindle and fade away is difficult to accept but that in no way is the reason to seed planet why. I have often been asked what would happen to pwhy after I exit this world and the thought has kept me awake many nights. And not for any hubristic reason at all. My fears have been for those who depend on us in toto be it Manu and his friends who might find themselves on the street or the eight little souls who study in boarding school and still have a long way to go. What would happen to them? They need to be secured and planet why is for them. One could rebut this by saying that there may be other less expensive ways to do that. Touché! Yes there are. One could for instance create a corpus fund the interest of which would pay for the needs of these children. But somehow that defeats the very spirit of pwhy. Let me elucidate.

Pwhy was set up to create a model that could be replicated. One of its main mission was to empower local communities to not only steer the education of their children but also take hold of their lives and destinies. We did succeed in a certain manner as all pwhy staff is from the community. The one area however where we were left wanting was undoubtedly fund raising. All our attempts failed or at best fell very short of the targets be it our one rupee programme, our varied sales of products or our sole attempt at running a raffle. Till date fund raising remained in one hand and skills that could not be transferred. The real litmus test was to find a way that could be successfully handed over to the team. When the idea of planet why was first mooted it seemed to be one that could be steered by our team and that is why we decided to explore it further. Running a business is definitely something that can be taught.

But that is not all. Over the past years we have come to realise that imparting education, no matter how efficiently is not sufficient to change the morrows of slum children. While a small percentage of our kids move on to higher studies, the vast majority is unable to do so keeping in mind the present education scenario where either very high marks or large sums of money gives you access to higher education. A simple school leaving certificate with average marks does not get you anywhere. The need for going further was felt by one and all. Planet why could answer that need as it would provide a platform for training our kids in a host of vocational skills thus enabling them to access employment. Not only would be able to train our alumni in hospitality and related activities, but having our own space would allow us to run training workshops in many other fields. This was indeed very tempting.

So as you see planet why has been a well thought idea that aims to cover more than one issues. From providing a dignified life to those forsaken by all to ensuring that eight children complete their education and prove themselves; from ensuring that 500 children complete their schooling to allowing them to learn skills that would ensure their gainful employment, and above all giving to have to those who have steered pwhy till now the chance to show beyond doubt that they are able to run a business successfully.

Two points still need to be addressed to make this apologia honest. The doubt raised was: would it work? Or in other words does the idea make sound business sense. This was indeed our worry and we decided to take a professional approach to the question. With quivering hearts we handed over our busines proposal to world class consultants for a feasibility study. The conclusion is for all to see: In our opinion, the proposed development at Planet Why is a lucrative and financially feasible and one which would be able to generate much higher returns than are typically found in guest houses operating across Delhi.

The last slightly uncomfortable question that needs to be asked as it is one that is in every one’s mind is whether the project is worth the cost that will need to be incurred. May I simply state that the cost of planet why equals what is needed to run pwhy for 5 years and will allow the work to continue for times to come. Is that not reason enough.

now put the foundations under them

Yesterday evening, our architect delivered the first 3 D representation of planet why! I must admit that I was floored. Over the past 3 years I had conjured many images of planet why. At that time it had been a piece of barren land that held unimaginable promises. I would close my eyes and see it come to life. I must admit that what I saw were the smiles of my special children, what I heard was their laughter and what I experienced was pure joy. The building remained elusive. I am no builder. Yet when I gave my brief to our wonderful architect I tried to pour out my heart. But no matter how hard I tried I never saw planet why!

So imagine my excitement as I waited for the file to download yesterday and my delight when I finally saw planet why come to life, albeit yet on a screen. My eyes filled with tears of joy. I was watching the morrows of project why as if and when this building came to life, my children would be safe and I would be able to go in peace. My promise to Manu would have been fulfilled.

I was reminded of Henry Thoreau ‘s words: If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. It was time to do just that.

ersatz education

The Right to Education Act should have guaranteed free and equitable education to all the children in India. Alas that is not the case and the sad part is that most of us are unaware of the surreptitious games being played by those in power. An article that appeared this week in a well known magazine brings this fact to light. Want to sit on the same bench as America is worth reading. Those of my vintage will remember the days a few decades ago when state run schools worked well and universities were easy of access. Come to think of it there was no or little choice outside these.

How many of us know that way back in 1991 the Indian government accepted the conditionality of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by the US-led World Bank-IMF regime. This required that public expenditure be reduced on education, health and social welfare. From 2000 onwards, these dilutions and distortions were repackaged and ‘marketed’ under a new label called Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education for all). The failure of SSA to provide elementary education (Class I-VIII) to India’s 20 crore children in the 6-14 year age group by the target year of 2010 meant that policymakers rephrased SSA goals downwards and did not undertake a causal analysis to rectify it. This may have again gone undetected by the likes of us as it was all happening on the other side of the fence and did not affect our children. But think about it and your blood runs cold. On the one hand the children of India get the constitutional right to education but on the other the state starts abdicating its duty to provide the same.

The commercialisation of education had begun; PPP (public private partnership), subsidies to profit making institutions, education loans and a cynically orchestrated media campaign buttressed by internationally funded high-profile NGOs to destroy the credibility of the public-funded education system rung the death knell of state run education both at the school and university. The State abdicated its constitutional obligation. Markets needs would now dictate knowledge content and we would become a major global provider of low-cost skilled but subservient ‘foot soldiers’ who reinforce the subjugation, hegemony and greed of global capital

The cruel reality is that millions of children who could have aspired to better morrows were the state education system running, will now be forced to remain where they are not because they lack the skills and ability but because they were born on the other side of the fence and can never afford education which now comes with a hefty price tag.

The little girl in the picture was also born on the wrong side of the fence, yet her brave family scrapped the barrel, tighten the belts till it hurts to ensure that she and her elder sister go to a school on the other side of the invisible fence. It is not easy as there are so many bills to pay but they are not ones to give up and yet I wonder whether this little girl will be able to go the whole nine yards.

In this new emerging scenario what is available for children born on the other side of the fence is an ersatz education that cannot take them far. Sadly their parents are unable to comprehend the reality and react and the children themselves are voiceless and helpless. By the time they do gain a voice it would be too late.

Nani and Ma’amji

Two little faces greeted me this Diwali morning and I knew I was blessed. Utpal is here for his Diwali break and Agastya my grandchild is thrilled to have his best pal with him. The day was spent with these two little souls that the God of Lesser Beings was magnanimous enough to send my way as a precious gift.

Popples aka Utpal, came into my life almost 8 years ago when I still did not quite know what my morrows would be. At that time pwhy was still very fragile and tenuous and I must admit I was not even certain it would pass the test of time. Utpal’s terrible tryst with fire changed all that. Suddenly everything acquired a new meaning: Utpal had to be saved and this was no short term option, it was a life time engagement. Project why had acquired a life time lease and I became Ma’amji! Utpal had showed me the way I was seeking.

Agastya landed in my arms almost two years ago when the knees had just begun creaking and the gait was slowing down. The day I first held him in my arms I became Nani. It was a miraculous shot in the arm and the desire to live and see him grow made all aches and pain vanish in the air. It was time to live: two little boys ensured that. I must admit that deep in my heart, the desire to see these two bond and care for each other was paramount and yet I did not know if that would be. But the first time they met they took to each other and proved beyond doubt that all schismatic attempts to divide human beings and hence society did not and could not have divine sanction. It did not matter where you came from. Love knew no bounds.

So having them with me this Diwali was a rare treat. It was a magical day that passed too fast. I did not let the boys out of my sight as we shopped, played, prayed, danced and reveled. Even Agastya knew it was a special moment as we forewent his sleep and savoured every moment of the day. As I tucked the boys to sleep late in the night I mouthed a special and silent thank you to the God of lesser beings for having made me Nani and Ma’amji!