I hear, I see, I care

Altogether your investment of yourself into the project is getting to be a magnificent obsession which is very commendable but deserves caution. So what is it I wonder that so relentlessly drives you. I am trying to understand were the words written by someone I dearly respect. He went on to say: The scope of Project Why is exponential. This is what is concerning me. Is there an indication for rationalising the endeavour. I wonder. If your father was alive what advise would he have proffered.

The words would have irked me had they come form anyone else. But the person who wrote them was someone I cherish dearly, someone I know cares deeply for me. And moreover it is someone who was very close to Ram, my father. So somehow a simple email metamorphosed into a message from the heavens, one that needed to be deciphered gently.

So let us begin by trying to find out what it is it that relentlessly drives me? The answer is not hard to find. For me it is inconceivable to sit doing nothing when faced with disturbing whys, be it a Manu begging on the street or a troubling statistic like the one that states that a child does of malnutrition every 8.7 minutes, be it the sight of a child made to beg on the streets when s/he should be in school or the plight of a woman used and abused, be it the pain of a parent running helter-skelter to garner the money to save its child or the sadness in the eyes of children of a lesser god that no one cares for. Can trying to seek answers to any of these whys be termed as a magnificent obsession or is it simply the only option. I tend to think it is the latter: simply the only road that one can travel. So what drives me is no magnificent obsession: I simply see, hear and care.

But there is more in the mail that needs answers. Yes the growth of pwhy is exponential but that is simply because whys keep coming our way, almost as if they were guided to by an invisible hand. This is what I have felt right from the outset. The feeling that this time, no matter what I may seem to others, I am not in charge. A first for me who has always liked being in the drivers seat. But not this time. From the day I first walked the tiny street where Manu was born and where the first stone of pwhy was subsequently laid, I intuitively felt a presence gently propelling me forward. And there was no looking back, with each why that was thrown my way, came an answer that miraculously worked. Pwhy had wings of its own on which I had scant control!

So what was the message. The words caution and rationalising perturbed me. Where we going or growing too fast? Was planet why too big a venture for me to handle? Did I have the required skills? And did rationalising mean slowing down, pruning the project, finding another sustainability plan that was less onerous? And yet as I have said time and again planet why seemed to have a life of its own, each time we have been close to giving it up, something has occurred to save it. 2011 is the last year we are giving to the project so if the God of Lesser Beings want to see it happen, then he needs to conjure a miracle fast. In spite of my best efforts I have been unable to dictate what happens at pwhy. Pwhy grows organically. One just tends to it with care and heed.

And last but not the least, what advise would my father have proffered. Knowing him he would have encouraged me to continue on the path I have chosen without doubt. True he would have, like any caring parent, been concerned about me, but would have always advised me to carry on hearing, seeing and caring.

happy R day

It is Republic day and all across the country there are celebrations. The project why children celebrated R Day yesterday at Okhla and the women centre. At both places I had the privilege of being the one to hoist the flag. When I accepted I did not know how emotionally intense the moment would be.

It all began at 10 am at Okhla. I reached in time and found a rickety pole with a folded flag waiting to be hoisted and a motley band of children standing at attention waiting for the ceremony to begin. Some children where bare feet, some had sandals, some shoes. Some were in their Sunday best and others in everyday wear. Some clutched a withering rose which I discovered later was meant for me. The sight of these children of India, children of all shades and hues, of different faiths and origins standing in the cold morning waiting solemnly for the flag to be hoisted was moving and disturbing. They stood in a partially reclaimed garbage dump, their heads held high, their faces serious, their port dignified, waiting to sing the National Anthem and celebrate our Constitution in the bests way possible. I must confess I began to feel very small.

The flag was hoisted and the Anthem sung. Then the saluting party joined their friends in the classroom and the celebrations began. There were patriotic songs and dances, a wonderful play in English that warmed the cockles of my heart and then a tiny little boy came forward and declared that he would recite a poem in English. I was expecting him to render some silly english rhymes and almost fell off my chair when the tiny lad began reciting Tagore’s famous poem: Where the mind is without fear. I sat spell bound ecah word resonating in my mind and making me feel proud and ashamed at the same time.

Were the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

The rendering was perfect. Every word clear and well enunciated and as every word was voiced my heart swelled with pride. What a long journey it had been. Seven years of patient endurance, of battles with local mafias, of not giving up and today this little school in a garbage dump had come of age. But as each word echoed in my mind I also felt how we had let down these very children and how far we were from Tagore’s dream. Knowledge was not free, truth hijacked, and perfection a distant dream. Even the tenets of our Constitution were not respected so what were we celebrating. here were a bunch of kids who had been let down in every which way, all their rights usurped. Where was the justice, equality, liberty promised to them on this very day 61 years ago. Where had we gone wrong and why. My head hung in shame. The sight of these children innocent and trusting children was a gentle reminder that all was far from well. So much needed to be done.

The women centre children displayed the same faith and trust as they hoisted their flag, performed in English and sand their patriotic songs with fervour. True there was a sense of pride in seeing what we had achieved, but at the same time came the realisation that so much more needed to be done and above all the land needed to be awoken from the deep and senseless slumber it allowed itself to sink in.

So let me country finally awake is the message I would like to send today.

happy R Day to all!

2011 – a watershed year for planet why

A recent mail from of our staunchest supporters suggested gently that one should consider 2011 as a watershed year for planet why. Give it our all but accept to let it go by the end of the year of nothing happens. A bit fatalistic I must admit. But then am I not the one who had always felt the presence a guiding hand since the day it all began, it being project why! The hand of the one I christened: the God of Lesser beings.

So when did it all begin, this planet why idea, at least in my mind. I guess here too there were two distinct ideas: the shelter for lost souls and the hope hotel as some call it or the guest house that was meant to churn the much needed resources. The former was seeded almost 11 years ago when I first lay eyes on Manu. The later was much latter, when all other options had failed: the cards and candles, the chocolates and jewels, the tshirts and bags, the one rupee a day venture, the soaps and oils, all meant to help us move from charity to sustainability.

It did not happen overnight. One was at one’s wits end to find the best solution and an innocuous remark introduced me to the ninos hotel in Cusco. The rest is history. With every passing day the idea of dovetailing hospitality with development became stronger. It was richer in possibilities the all previous ventures as it also allowed us to take a step further in our journey and take the kids beyond simple school education.

There were up and downs, times when we were ready to give up but like the proverbial bad penny planet why kept springing back with obsessive regularity. When we were let high and dry by a potential donor, other appeared and we managed to purchase our land. When the world markets plummeted we again thought that the planet why idea had crashed with it but then it bounced back. When a friend suggested that we get the plan vetted by professional consultants I was convinced that the outcome would be negative, but far from that, it was found to be very lucrative. When the final costing was worked out, I recoiled at the figures but others found it normal. When our innumerable mails seeking support and finance were answered with polite nays, out of the blue came people who were willing to ensure that planet why see the light of day. When Manu left us and I was shattered as in my mind Manu and planet why were synonymous, every one else felt that Planet Why was the only way we could honour his memory.

This where we stand today. And yet I tend to agree with the friend who has decreed that we consider 2011 as a watershed year for planet why. I guess it simply means that we once again leave it in the hands of the God of Lesser Beings!

i love you…maam’ji

The God of Lesser Beings operates in strange and mysterious ways. I must confess, a little sheepishly, that ever since Manu’s demise many of my beliefs have been shaken and I have been feeling somewhat dejected. The task ahead looks daunting and my steps feel a little wobbly. True, things have to continue to honour Manu but I must admit that the feeling to give it all up has crossed my mind more than once. Blissfully no one seemed aware of this as I have kept a brave face!

Yesterday we made an unscheduled trip to the boarding school as a funder was in town and wanted to see the child she sponsored. The morning was crisp and sunny and it was a pleasure to be out in the open. We reached the school later than planned and thus missed the refreshment break and all the the children were in their classrooms. We waited patiently for the children to be called and soon they trickled in one by one, the bigger ones coming in later. A always it was a pleasure to see their smiling faces and hug them. We were taken on a tour of the school and for some time Utpal seemed to have disappeared. He reappeared shortly clutching his red pencil box, the very one we had bought together the last time he was home. He insisted I take it home with me as according to him others were eying it. I was a little bewildered but did as I was told.

Soon it was time to leave and we did quite reluctantly as always. I held on to the little red pencil box a little tighter than required. I sat in the back seat of the SUV fiddling with the box and opened it inadvertently. Inside was a little piece of paper folded in four. I opened it. Scrawled in pencil were the words : I love you… Maam’ji! I was stunned. It was a message from Utpal. But I realised it was much more, it was a message from the God of Lesser Beings, the one had been unconsciously seeking, the one that meant that I had to go on no matter what. It was his way of reminding me that many depended on me, that I did not have the luxury of banging the door and losing the key, that I could not throw my hand up simply because things had not quite gone the way I would have wanted them to. And once again in had been this special child of God who had intervened in my life to call me to order.

The moment was precious and blessed and I was glad the others in the car were silent. I sat quietly taking in the meaning of the four little words scribbled in a child’s hand. It was awesome and wondrous and reminded me once again that I was but an instrument in the hands of one that had plans for me, plans I was not fully privy to but that I had to follow no matter what. I love you too Utpal and will never let you down.

a farewell to Manu

Yesterday was the thirteenth day after Manu’s demise. This is the day of the final send off, according to Hindu rites. I presume his family must have done the needful, but his project why family did it their way. A little table was set in a corner of the special section with his photograph, flowers, incense, bananas, his favourite food and of course a packet of biscuits Manu’s peche mignon! An oil lamp was then lit and would remain lit for the entire day. His classmates and three roomies sat in silence in front of his smiling picture. When all was ready, we observed a minute of silence. The room was filled with wondrous energies and we all felt Manu was with us.

After the minute of silence it was time for his friends to say a few words in his honour. The first one to do so was Umesh, our spastic child who speaks with difficulty, but he rose to the occasion and floored us all. He remembered Manu’s love for food and sense of humour: my dear brother I will miss you was how he ended his little speech. Anjali his roomie was next: I forgive you for all the times you made fun of me dear Manu, be happy wherever you are were her words. Raju who had looked after Manu for years, helping him in more ways than one simply said: I will be lost without you. You were very special, you liked your puzzles and loved to draw. I will miss you. Champa remembered his love for food as she said in her simple way: I use to be the one to give you your dinner every night and little Radha prayed for his soul wherever it rested. Preeti was the last one to render homage. She said: Manu may your soul rest in peace and may you always find biscuits wherever you are. Needless to say we all cracked up and wept. This simple and heartfelt homage to this special child of God was moving and touched us all. Every word spoken was from the heart and true. There was no artifice or pretense.

It made us also realise how much Manu was loved by his friends and classmates. Some like Umesh had known him for years. Some had come into his life more recently like little Radha or young Sohil. But he had touched them deeply. True he had his moods and his bouts of temper but no one ever minded them. He was above all the big brother everyone cared for and loved and today every one was lost. The classroom seemed strangely empty reminding me of Lamartine words: You miss one person and the whole world is deserted.

I sat on a little stool in a corner watching all these children of a lesser God bidding farewell to their dear friend and was filled with a range of emotions I am unable to decipher fully: sadness, love, tenderness, compassion, wonder, awe. It was as if God himself had descended in this tiny room to bless this farewell to Manu. I did not want it to end as I held on to my tears and watched these very special children do what we supposedly rational adults have forgotten: see and speak with our hearts unabashedly.

Manu had once again woven his magic and I realised how bless we were to have stumbled upon him and made him ours.

May he rest in peace.

new teacher on the block

Utpal spent his winter break in a novel way. True he had his fill of screeching battery operated cars and spins on his new gleaming scooter, but his morning were spent at project why where he patiently taught the tiny ones. As son as we reached the project he headed straight for the first floor where ‘his’ class was located. He then patiently waited for the children to arrive, helping with their bags and shoes and ensuring that they settle down.

He then spent the whole morning helping the teacher and taking his role very seriously. When it was alphabet learning time, he climbed on a little stool next to the alphabet charts and was busy making the children repeat their letters. It was lovely watching him do so! He was our new teacher on the block.

I remembered the days when he had been a pupil of this very class and use to waddle in joyfully and participate in all activities with great seriousness. He was a bonny fellow and at that time nine of could begin to imagine what lay ahead. Those were the days when we still hoped that his mom would redress her ways and that he would have a home like all his pals did. But that was not to be. The God of Lesser beings had other plans for him, plans that we were not privy to and were yet to discover. He soon lost his home and in a manner to speak whatever little family he had. A few months later he would enter the portals of his new home: his boarding school.

I think Popples never forgot his past and coming to pwhy is like homecoming. His little stint as a teacher proved that. Children are extraordinary and never fail to astound you. God bless him.

all grown up

I remember the days when Popples use to cry his heart out when it was time to leave for school after any break. His wails use to wrench my heart and bring tears in my eyes too. Popples left yesterday afternoon. No wails, no sobs, not even a whimper. He waived us a cheerful good bye and jumped in the car where his school pals waited full of stories and things to share. He was all grown up now.

Not quite I must admit. The day before he vanished in his room stating that he wanted to play alone. This was quite understandable as little Agastya my grandson, often appropriated to himself Utpal’s toys and Utpal the kind big brother was always ready to share his toys. But Popples is only 8 and a kid himself and I guess playing big brother was not always fun. So his desire to be ‘alone’ was not questioned.

When he did not come down for quite some time, I sent Gita to his room to find out what was happening. Gita found him crying. No wails or sobs but silent tears that ran down his cheeks while he played with one of his favourite cars. When she asked him what happened his answer was a simple: I do not want to go to school but I know I have to. You see he was all grown up.

When I came to know about this I cracked up and ran to see him. By the time I reached his room the tears had gone. What remained was streaks on his cheeks. I took him in my arms and rocked him gently, like one would a child. He hugged me tight and we remained like this for a long time. No words were needed.

It was also time to ease matters so the next morning we set out to the cake shop not only to select my grandson’s birthday cake for the 21st, but also one for Popples whose birthday fell on the day he would be back for his next break. It was fun and laughter all the way. The choice fell on a gleaming bike cake that would be ordered in time. The dark clouds had dispelled and all was well!

But not quite as Popples tears had touched a deep chord in me. These holidays he had time and again mentioned his mom in overt and covert ways. Be it the lost box or the many instances she appeared in the course of conversation or the most poignant time when the little boy stated that his home was where mom was. How did one explain to a hurting child that his mom was awol! That she had just left town and never bothered to keep in touch; that a court had given his custody to his maam’ji. True maam’ji was precious and someone he loved but she was not mom! And custody or person deemed fit, as the court order stated was too abstract a term to be comprehended by a still tiny little boy.

This time I was also treated to many kisses and cuddles. Normally Popples is quite reserved when it comes to expressing his feelings. He has been so since he left for boarding school and became a little man. Yet the past few days I have been hugged unabashedly. Maybe Popples needed reassurance, needed to know I was there, needed to know he was loved. It was time to put my deemed fit status to test but how. Did I need to ferret the mom out from whatever hole she had dug herself in? Did I need to start explaining to him that mom’s sometimes chose to change the course of their lives? I must admit I am a little lost.

Children should be brought into this world for the right reasons. They never ask to be born. We inflict the gift of life on them and then sometimes wash our hands away leaving the child bewildered and hurting. Today I need to redress the tort, to heal the pain and above all to fill that little boy’s life with abundant love and joy. So help me God.

Give him his dinner

Yesterday Auntyji, the housemother of our foster care called out to Champa and said: Give Manu his dinner! You see it was Champa’s duty each evening to serve Manu’s plate and hand it to him. Auntyji realised her slip as everyone looked at her dumbfounded. It took some time before things came back to normal and everyone settle down to dinner without Manu, his empty chair a sad reminder of the terrible loss.

When we decided to give Manu a home exactly three years, we also had to give him a family. We crafted one for him. A very special one. It all began with Champa a very special young girl , 4 little kids, a house mother and a special educator. Life was really bindass as this motley crew learnt to live together and create bonds that defied all logic and withstood the test of time. And their joy was palpable if you cared to look with your heart. You just had to watch Manu dance.

For me it was a long home coming, one that began on a scorching day in May 2000 and ended in 2008. Eight long years were needed to build a home and craft a family for Manu. But it was worth every moment, every challenge, every hurt, every kick. When Manu felt terribly sick his little family was shattered and lost. When he came back home from the hospital they all sprung into action to tend to him in what ever little way they could. When the kids left for boarding school, Manu missed them and often asked when the next holidays would be. When they came home for summer Manu would spoil them in his own way and you could see the joy and care in his eyes. When young Anjali joined the family after she lost her mom, she was accepted with open arms. She became family. And recently when young Radha joined the gang, she too was taken in in a jiffy!

The day Manu died, his family was shattered. The girls sat alone in a room in stunned silence, tears rolling down their faces. Soon Manu’s real family appeared out of the woodwork to reclaim their own, the one they had forsaken and left on the road. True predators looking for an ounce of flesh. It was galling to say they least, but we withstood it stoically not wanting to mar Manu’s last journey.

Today three little girls and an old lady are trying to learn to live without Manu. Not an easy task so help us God!

Harriet’s Album – let’s build the Hope Hotel

Once upon a time not so long ago, a young girl came to project why with her mom and dad. Her name was Harriet. She spent five days with the special children and made many friends. In those tiny five days Harriet looked with her heart and saw beyond what others see. We shared our joys and apprehensions, our successes and challenges and of course our big dream: that of seeing Planet Why become a reality. This was in 2008, when no one really gave credence to our dream and many even pooh poohed it as pure fantasy. How could a tiny inconsequential project like ours think so big! But Harriet sat silently and imbibed it all. I could not even begin to think what this lovely girl was already conjuring in her mind.

Harriet also knew that project why was a hand to mouth organisation that needed constant shots of fuel and as soon as she got back to her school, this young pixie got to work: bake sales, collections in her school and so much more and whilst many forget and move on, Harriet never did. I often use to share my thoughts and angts with her, and she was my little ray of sunshine who always wrote back saying all would be well. She once wrote to me way back in 2009 and her words warmed the cockles of my heart. She simply said: … hopefully this will help towards the building of planet why which I am determined to help happen!

Our mail exchanges continued and each was the shot of optimism I truly needed to carry on. And Harriet, like an industrious and enchanting elf continued to weave her magic and ensure that we were never in want.

Harriet never forgot her promise to me: to ensure that planet why saw the light of day. A few days back to my utter surprise she informed me that she had come up with a big idea to help raise funds for planet why: an on line net campaign aptly named: Harriets’ Album! Her idea: to create the World Family Album and to set a record! The campaign would generate funds to build Planet why: the Hope Hotel!

The project is still in its nascent stage but it is fuelled by so much love and compassion that I have no doubts it will succeed beyond expectations. When a young girl with a heart of gold decides to do something, then I know that the God of Lesser Beings becomes the wind beneath her wings.

So let us all help her realise the dreams of hundred of children of a Lesser God and help Harriet create the World Family Album.