from vedic maths to table manners

It was PTM day last Thursday! This was a an open house working PTM, a little different from the customary ones. This time we were all shepherded to a classroom where the Principal, we were told, would address us. We were given a paper to read, one that listed the school’s achievements in the past year and plans for the one to come. I must admit many of us felt that this was a preamble to a fee increase and were a tad apprehensive.

After a long wait as parents were few and slowly trickling in, the Principal arrived and the meeting began. I must admit that we all wished be very short as we wanted to be with the kids. They of course kept passing in front of the opened door trying to catch our eye. But we kept sitting stoically our faces serious. The young Principal began by highlighting the past year’s achievements that were many and laudable: the school had been awarded the Best Boarding School in Delhi award and many of its children had won cups and prizes. Then it was time to know about the coming year. We were told that there would be a new gymnasium, a reading and resource centre, space technology classes, vedic maths, tennis football and more. We were also informed about the fact that soft skills would be taught from class III: table manners, telephone etiquette, anger management and more. That is when the Principal gently told us that there would be no added costs and believe you me every one in the room heaved a sigh of silent relief.

The meeting ended and we were offered some refreshment. But we wre all in a hurry to go and hig our kids. It was then time to get the term results – as always the children had done exceedingly well – meet the teachers and staff members, click the customary snapshots and then finally steal some time with the kids. Most of our children’s parents had also arrived and everyone sat in the winter sun with their little ones. I too rewarded myself to a few moments with Utpal who was busy playing with my grandson Agastya. We played a little, ate the goodies we had brought and soon it was time to go.

As always the ride back was in silence. I was lost in my thoughts. Just a few years or months ago the eight project why wards that were today thriving and blooming in this school, lived in abysmal conditions. In hovels where you barely had space to move, where manners and tables belonged to another world and you were lucky if you had a plate and here they were all set to learn table manners and etiquette. Wow! What a miracle! My thoughts wandered back to the day when two socialite ladies had expressed their outrage at our nerve to be sending slum kids to a proper school. I wished I could tell them that not only were they in school, but were all set to learn dining manners and table etiquette! Would love to see their faces!

Yes we had made the right decision and selected the best school. These slum kids were on the way to conquering a new world and I knew they would succeed. I must admit I felt smug and could not help smiling.

the danger of being good

The danger of being good is the cover story of a leading weekly. Do read it. It is scary. Yet it paints a dark and accurate picture of present day India where to be good is not to be foolish but foolhardy. And yet some chose to do so no matter what. The article relates the stories of some of the bravehearts. It ends with these words This cover story is an alarming reminder that what should have been the norm has become the exception. Doing one’s duty is no longer an imperative in India. Nothing governs us as a society now except the miracle of individual choice. We are secured by the fact that some people choose to be good, no matter what. But there are myriad dangers in that. There is not just the might of the State to confront. There is also the temptation at every turn to just give up, part the skin and slip over into the silken side where one half of India is living a charmed life. If you don’t fight the ugliness of the State, it will behave in benign ways with you. That is one of the hardest lessons being good in India teaches you.

To all those mentioned in this article and to those like them who continue to make the right choice I say Chapeau Bas!

I too made a choice ten years back. To me it was not simply the right choice but the only one. And though my work is puny and insignificant compared to the stories related in the article, I too have faced the wrath of state and society. True it may not be as blatant or glaring, rather it has been insidious and surreptitious. The author of the article makes no bones about the state of our society when she says …just this small handful of stories will make you balk at the depraved society they reveal. Corruption in every pore: … Nothing is safe. Greed is the only propeller. We are not a society really: we are a termite nest, eating at ourselves. This is a far cry from the dying words of my father: have faith in India! I would still like to hold on to those words even if everything screams to the contrary. I would like to believe that things will change though how is a million dollar question! A recent ad on TV urges the Finance Minister to find some black magic to deal with black money. That is how desperate we are.

Coming back to my choices and the ire they leashed out, I would like to share some incidents that till date had remained hidden in some deep recesses of my memory. The article did make them come to the fore. I remember how outraged a local politico had felt when he realised that many pwhy students could read and comprehend English. That day I had become the enemy. You see the poor had to remain poor and illiterate and committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor had to be arrested. What ensued was veiled threats, the bulldozing of our school in the park, public slander where I was branded a thief as I supposedly pocketed huge amounts and just doled out a few pennies to espoused cause. Even till date the said politico does not mince his words when it comes to me. I guess what vented his fury was the fact that many of my staff exercised their right not to vote in elections. I had crossed the line. Since I have reined myself a little, not because I am scared or intimated, but in the larger interest of pwhy as I felt it was more important to carry on helping the children and the community rather than proving points.

Running an honest ship is not easy in our day and times. Corruption lurks at every corner. You get hounded by the electricity department, the water department, the municipal authorities, just about every one. Each time you need to renew your tax exemption certificates or file your returns, greasy palms appear from everywhere and if you decide to ignore them then every nook and corner of your soul is scrutinised and probed and you are viewed with suspicion and mistrust. The state does not like people who make individual choices.

One would hope that society at least would be kinder and more generous. You soon realise that this is not the case. For one who had been voted Citizen One in 2005, the city has given little. Every attempt to secure funding has failed be it the one rupee a day pitch or the individual attempts at getting funds. What has hurt me more than anything is the total disinterest that people show when one shares stories from the other side of the fence and how can I ever forget the total outrage expressed by two socialites when they heard about our boarding school programme: what was left unsaid and yet so audible could be translated as: how dare you send these children to what has to remain our hallowed turf! So be it state or society you were branded enemy if you dared disturb existing social patterns.

And yet you do not succumb to the temptation of giving everything of, of slamming the door and losing the key, of slipping into the silken side where one half of India is living a charmed life. You carry on doggedly facing every scorn and obstacle and finding ways out. Sometimes you wonder why and the answer comes to you loud and clear: because there is no other option, because you have made a choice and because you still have to look at your face in the mirror and like what you see. Ans above all because of all the little smiles that greet you every day and the dreams you hold in custody.

So help me God!

my never fail feelgood shot

Yesterday I had an extra dose of my never fail feelgood shot. You guessed right: a trip to meet Utpal and his pals at the boarding school. Sunday was the scheduled PTM day but a phone call on Friday informed us that the PTM had been postponed to the 24th. It would not have mattered but for the fact that we had one of the sponsors in town and she was leaving on the 23rd. So a special request was made and we were allowed a short visit.

We reached the school bright and early. Unlike the hustle and bustle of a normal PTM day, we were greeted by an empty ground and an almost eerie silence. Not wanting to disturb anyone we stood in silence in a corner whilst D went to inform of our arrival. We were informed that the children were in class and that admission tests were going on. We were asked to proceed to the boys’ hostel and wait in the Bursar’s room. We crossed the grounds almost on tip toes to reach the appointed place.

As usual we were greeted with warmth and offered a cup of tea. Someone was sent to get the children. A few moments later the smaller children arrived: Yash and Aditya and then the girls Manisha and Meher. They were all smiles and happy to see us. Then the bigger ones arrived: Utpal, Vicky, Nikhil and Babli. They were thrilled to see us and eager to share all that had happened since we last met. Vicky had fallen and hurt his head and got three stitches said one while the other informed us that they were all busy studying for their examinations, a little voice added that they had had Maggi for breakfat. We listened to all of them and then it was time for a few snapshots before the bigger ones were sent back to class. The smaller ones lingered on a little but soon it was time to go with promises to meet on the 24th, when the real PTM would take place.

We said our goodbyes and tiptoed out of the school.

As we were leaving I realised that my steps felt lighter. You see I had got my feelgood shot. Seeing these children always made me feel on top of the world and for a brief time all problems seemed to vanish. Somehow everything seemed right. A bunch of happy and content children running in the open, learning in the right conditions, eating to their heart’s content, dancing and singing: what more did one want. These children had reclaimed their right to be children. I only wished that I could give the same chance to many more. Was the God of Lesser Beings listening? I truly hoped so.

an appeal for help

Dear Friends of Project Why

It has been a long time since I have written. I guess I fell into the lure of comfort zones and believed that all was well and that we had finally reached a stage where pwhy was safe and on course.

Mea Culpa!

I can just add in my defence that one was preoccupied by the distant future and busy trying to secure pwhy long tern and thus overlooked the near future and the morrow. I also did not see the the writing on the wall and did not realise that the loss of our on line donation option – paypal – would ultimately be felt.

Today we are once again short of funds and the future looks scary.

But before I go on, allow me to share with you the brighter moments. Project why today is a thriving organisation that has entered the 11th year of its existence. At present over 700 children and young adults benefit from our presence and we have come full circle in more ways than one: many of our alumni are gainfully employed in good jobs having thus broken the circle of poverty in which they were born; some of our special students are also gainfully employed; our little boarding school kids are all topping their respective classes and many of the women we trained are now economically independent. We have had our darker moments too, the worst one being the loss of Manu, who was the spirit of pwhy and the reason why it all began. His loss was a huge blow that we are still recovering from. But we are certain of one thing: we have to carry on our work to honour Manu’s memory.

However no long term future can be safe if our present is shaky. And today we are once again in a precarious situation that brings to the fore the fragility of our funding model. We are aware of this fact and trying to take remedial measures but these will take time. Over and above our long term sustainability plans – planet why – we are exploring new avenues: a fund raising event that if successful would become a yearly happening but this too will not only take time but require start up funding and sponsors.

Today we have firm commitments for about 70% of our needs. The remaining 30% needs to be raised each month. Our on line payment option did take care of this as many of you always answered my regular pleas for help. Sadly that on line option is no more as new government regulations required us to stop that facility. Today helping us would require a little more effort, but I am sure you will once again reach out to us as you always have.

Some of you may say that we should trim pwhy to fit our regular commitments. This is indeed the most logical thing to do but as you know pwhy is all about the heart and I cannot begin to think about which part to chop: the babies, the special souls, the secondary kids who are on the threshold of success or the primary children who are just beginning their journey. As you see this is not a conceivable alternative. We just have to find ways of continuing and I assure you that this time we will not allow ourselves to sink into comfort zones.

I know you will help us. You always have!

with love and blessings

anou

Our donations options are available here.

anjali – on cloud nine

When I first conceived of planet why in my mind, it was to give our special children a credible future and a dignified life. True I wanted them to have a home but I also wanted them to be gainfully employed and thus live a life to its fullest. Hence the idea of a guest house that would not only give us the much needed funds to sustain ourselves, but also be a place where ALL my special souls would find employment. In my mind, even the simplest of souls, could at least water plants!

Many talk of equal opportunities for challenged beings. We want to walk the talk.

came of her own and surpassed every expectation we had. She was quick to learn and was soon handling things For the past few months we have been running a small home stay for our volunteers. It is located down our street and can accommodate up to 6 volunteers at at time. It is somewhat an embryonic form of planet why! This month our very own Anjali joined the housemother as an understudy. We wanted to see how our dream would unfold and boy were we surprised, Anjali handled most tasks independently. She was a pro at all housekeeping chores but more than that she soon became the darling of all guests. They spoilt her, bought her small gifts and believe it or not, took her on a day trip to see the Taj Mahal.

Needless to say, Anjali was elated. She cannot stop smiling and is on cloud nine determined to prove to one and all, that special people can better anyone if given a chance. We too are on cloud nine as all our dreams have been validated.

Special souls must be given a chance. Let them enter your world and you will be surprised beyond expectations.

When R came visiting

The phone rang and an unknown number sprung on the screen. I am normally wary of unknown numbers but did answer the incoming call. A warm Good morning Maa’m greeted me with a quickly added don’t you recognise me? The voice did seem vaguely familiar but I could not place it. Before I could voice a reply I heard It’s R, your old student. I was still slightly nonplussed but then it all came back. It was indeed R one of our first students way back in 2000. I want to come and see you he added, I have a proposal for pwhy I would like to share. We fixed a time for the next day and he ended the communication. I sat for a long time, phone in hand and memories rushing in my mind.

R was indeed one of the first boys to join our spoken English classes. He was in class X then and a bright lad. I remember the day when he came to class with welts on his arm. He had been beaten at school for not having worn the right shoes. I was needless to say, horrified. He was also one of the motley crew of boys that stood in the grim office of the school Principal whilst I spouted my take on corporal punishment to a group of teachers wielding sticks and who looked at me as if Ihad landed from another planet. He was also one of the band who was called gutter snipe by the same Principal who cockily stated that he and his pals would never be able to pass their Boards exams and was also the first one to state loud and clear that he would when I threw my cheeky challenge to the Principal and told him that ALL the boys would indeed pass. He was one of the 10 odd boys that came every winter morning at 7 am and sat on the roadside where we held the famed remedial classes. He was also part of our first batch of class XII students. After class XII he joined an evening college.

This was when a wily MLM company spread its tentacles in our slum and R was the obvious choice to lead the team. He even went on to own a car for a few months. I prayed to all the Gods in heaven that my boys not be hurt when Humpty Dumpty had his great fall. R lost his car but thank God came out with just a few bruises. I then lost touch with him till yesterday’s call.

R cames on the appointed day. He looked well and was brimming with confidence. He revaled that he was now assistant manager in an Events Management Company and earning a whopping 15 K a month! His company had just organised a very successful concert and R wanted to help organise a fund raising event for pwhy! Wow. I was floored and moved at the same time. This was awesome. Life had come full circle. Here was one of our very own students extending a helping hand. What a lovely story to tell. I must admit that I was thrilled.

I do not know whether the event will see the light of day. I hope it does as it will be a proud moment for us all. To be continued….

which way to go

It has happened again though after a long time. We are short of funds and do not quite know how we will make payments next month. You may wonder why this has occurred. I guess we just allowed ourselves to sink into one of those dreaded comfort zones and did not see the writing on the wall. We did not realise that the loss of our on line payment facility would make such a difference. We were a tad complacent and let things run. Our little cushion against rainy days got slowly eaten away and one fine morning we woke up to the harsh reality of not having sufficient funds.

Actually the we I have so candidly used in the para above should be changed to ‘I’ as for the past 10 years it is I and only I who has fund raised for pwhy. True I was always painfully conscious of the fragility of this funding model but the bottom line is that I did not do much bar make lofty plans for a distant feature (read planet why) forgetting the tomorrow. Today I stand exposed and sheepish. Can I afford to say that I forgot, or that it slipped my mind. certainly not: when you hold smiles and morrows in custody you do not have that luxury. Mea culpa! I am guilty of not having kept on my toes, of not having written my erstwhile appeals, of not having sought a alternative to the on line payment option. Time to soul search and necessary amends. This time though I will not got for it alone but keep my team in the loop.

So for the past days/weeks we have donned our thinking caps to find new funding options.

Last month I got two emails from leading NGOs. One invited me to join what they called the 100 rs club, and the other solicited me to become of the 6000 people they were looking for, people who would be willing to donate 10K a year. Both bought a smile on my tired face as they reminded me of our herculean efforts to infuse life into our one-rupee-a-day programme that was launched many years back but never truly jelled. I wonder how the programmes of these NGOs who ask for 100 and 800 Rs a month will fare. I wish them luck. Maybe they will succeed as both these organisations are high profile, something we never managed to be.

Another NGO we know well had their yearly fund raising fair. They do it every year with success as do many other organisations: fairs, carnivals, melas, concerts etc. So perhaps that was the way to go. Quite by chance we were contacted by an event management company who offered to organise a show for us but there was a catch: for it to be successful we needed to find a celebrity. As we were close to despair, we even tried to do that, posting on Facebook and making phone calls. The outcome was bewildering: Delhi did not have many celebrities, and even if a Mumbai celebrity would accept to lend her/his name there was another catch: we would have to pay airfare and 5* accommodation. Where would we find that kind of money. So bye bye fairs, concerts, melas

Maybe we should just try and revive our good old rupee-a-day deal. But how was the question. And that would take time and we needed the funds now. There was only one tried and tested way: writing appeals to friends and well wishers, the very ones who had always been there for us. I must admit I felt sheepish to do so as it has been a long time since I picked my virtual pen to write to them. There was a time not so long ago when I did write regularly, even when we needed nothing just to keep in touch. Then I stopped smugly thinking that people would read blogs and FB notes and keep abreast. Mea Culpa again. It was now time to once again retrieve the dusty begging bowl and solicit help. That was still the only way to go!

dare to dream

I have been wanting to write my take on corruption for quite some time now but did not quite know how to. The last weeks/months have been replete with scams and more scams and the corruption figures are mind boggling. I believe that an estimated 63 lakh crores of Indian money sits in Swiss banks. I cannot even begin to work out how many zeroes we are talking off! I get disturbed even by a mere rupee lost in corruption as that rupee is often robbed from a child or a lost soul. Groups against corruption have sprung up on cyberspace and I dutifully joined some hoping to add my voice to the chorus. Recent upheavals in faraway land where millions have taken to the street to battle corruption does make us wonder when we too will muster the courage to do so.

But let us get back to this post and the reason why it is being written today. A mail dropped by yesterday informing that one of my posts had been selected as one of the spicy Saturdays pick of the week by a well known internet portal. As I browsed the site in question my eyes fell on the title of another pick: I dare to dream. This brought a smile to my face as dare to dream was one of the bye lines that I had come up for project why long time back. Where children dare to dream was what we often wrote under the words Project Why till they got changed to because it makes that little difference. Wonder why that happened. Anyway dare to dream were words close to my heart so I clicked on the link and landed on a post on corruption where for once the author went beyond recrimination and stated: I hate what is happening and yet I love my country. I dare to dream of a corruption free India. Do you dare to dream? His words struck a deep chord in me and reminded of my father’s dying words: Do not lose faith in India. It looked like too many of us had. Even I who had meekly changed a bold dare to dream to a meek because it makes that little difference. It was time to redress the tort.

True corruption is all around us but how can we forget that it takes two to tango and if there are people who give, then there are also those who take. Corruption has simply become a way of life and a way that works well. And we are all part of the game in our own little way. To reverse the equation would require us to change ourselves and how! And to get to do that we need to dare to dream big. So let us see what we should dare to dream about: an India free of corruption, where promise are not mere lip service or empty pre-electoral promises, where compassion reigns, where children never got to bed hungry, where all children go to school and where all school have teachers and playgrounds, where health care is available to all, where women are not abused and humiliated and the birth of little girls celebrated, where difference is extolled and feted, where all barriers are broken and where all are free and safe. The picture is enticing is it not? And if we dare to dream I am sure we will also garner the will to make the dream come true.

the birth of a girl

A little girl was born yesterday in a big hospital in Delhi. It should be a moment of celebration and joy but the news filled me with extreme sadness as I shuddered at what life held in store for this new child of the God of Lesser beings. Here is why.

She is the granddaughter of Ram Bacchan the security guard of our women centre. Ram Bacchan’s story is a must read. A few months ago an agitated staff member came to me imploring me to convince Ram Bacchan to call his elder daughter to Delhi as she would otherwise die in the village.

I tried to calm him down to get to the bottom of the story. It seemed Ram Bacchan had an elder daughter aged about 19 who lived in the village. She had been married at 16 and had a little girl of 2. She was now pregnant and ill and her in laws did not care about her and forced her to go into the fields and work even if she had high fever. The husband was in Mumbai and totally indifferent to the situation. Needless to say the girl and her little daughter were brought to Delhi. She was in a shocking state.

She was slowly nursed back to health. Every one pitched in to help and soon the emaciated child started looking better. The husband and in laws however were not happy with the situation. They had lost a hand in the fields and could not understand the fuss. But we put our foot down and insisted that the child be born in a hospital in Delhi. So the young mother to be and her child spent the next few months in the tiny hovel that is home to this brave family and was looked after.

The child saw the light of day yesterday. It was a little girl. You can imagine the reaction of all around. There was no celebration at all. You see the birth of a second daughter is never feted even in better homes. A girl child is always thought of as a burden. The little babe still lies in the hospital unaware of what lies in front of her. And I feel totally helpless knowing what awaits her. In six weeks, as is custom, she will be shipped back to her village, an unwanted burden who will be chided and riled at every step. Her mother will have to resume being the beast of burden for her family. Her quiet pleas to secure vaccinations and medical care for her new baby will go unheard. The child will have to survive on the milk the poorly fed mother will produce and will grow into a weak and undernourished child like millions of her sisters across the land. There will be no school for and she will learn to play along with her sister till the sister is considered old enough to partake in household or field chores, then she will play alone or turn surrogate mother to the next child born.

The mother will have to bear the snide remarks of her in laws as is the case of any woman giving birth to girls. I often wonder why family planning programmes worldwide do not insist on the fact that the gender of the child is solely determined by the father. If that were the case many women would not suffer the humiliation they have to when giving birth to little girls. No one will counsel her on family planning and she will give birth to more girls till a boy does come by or she is to used and worn out to give more births. And the girls will follow the pattern of the mother and be married at a young age and become mothers before they become adults thus perpetrating a vicious circle there is no escape from. Such is the plight of millions of women across our land.

I do not know whether the God of Lesser Beings has charted out a different story for her. I find it difficult to believe as in this case even we do not have a larger role to play. Had the family been living in Delhi maybe we could have intervened. But as I said earlier I am helpless and that is why I am filled with extreme sadness.

The birth of a child should be a moment to rejoice and yet I am feeling despondent and dispirited. There is so much I would want to do but my hands are tied by social mores, illogical traditions and societal conventions and above all lack of resources. If I had my way I would gather the little girl in my arms and give her all she truly deserves. At present I can only pray to the God of Lesser Beings asking him to conjure one of his miracles. But then why is it that I feel that this time I will not be heard.