holiday homework

Holiday homework! A bane for both parents and children. I thought I had graduated to the no holiday homework status but not quite as I am now parent to young Utpal who has reached class IV. Spending summers chiding children to get on with their task and then having to spend hours with paper and glue was never my idea of fun. But that is exactly what I am doing this summer. The two typed sheet that spells out all the work to be completed sits on my desk. Lists of what is needed have been made and several trips to local stationery shops have ensured that we have all that is needed.

The homework is daunting. Daily pages of handwriting from both English and Hindi newspapers, essays and grammar charts, tables and sums, models and art work, the list is endless and I am at a loss as the little chap has another definition of holiday all together: playing, watching TV, going out and eating! An unbelievable time is spent in coaxing and negotiating. Every day a small amount is done after a battle royal. We are getting there at a snail’s pace and immense wear tear on Ma’amji’s nerves. Maybe this is the plight of every parent.

Not quite as was revealed in an article in a leading weekly. Believe it or not you can now get your homework outsourced if you are willing to pay the price. Children do not spend time on creating models and projects: they take a trip to Nai Sadak and buy the home assignment, or go for a package deal: 4500 Rs is a total homework package. Reading the article made me uncomfortable. This approach to me is cheating, or should one say cheating with the blessing of your parents. Taking professional help definitely helped my children get top marks admits a mother quite guilelessly making one shudder. If I was the teacher I would give higher marks to a clumsy project that is undoubtedly the work of a 9 year old then to a perfectly executed one that is undoubtedly again the work of a professional adult! But it seems that in school today that is not the practice.

One could argue about the ethicality of those in the homework business. But it is simply a question of demand and supply. It seems that there are enough clients to make the business lucrative. Yet one is compelled to ask whether one is teaching the children to take the easy way out, a lesson they will continue to follow and one that can have disastrous consequences. A first lesson in corruption, speaks volumes for the kind of society we have become.

I agree that the holiday home work is tedious and irksome. I also agree that if you have planned to travel during the holidays completing the home work is close to impossible. But does it mean you need to cheat. Wouldn’t a simple letter the school be sufficient to explain unfinished homework? To my mind the only people who would need assistance to complete the holiday homework would be the brave underprivileged parents who tighten their belt till it hurts in order to send their progeny to a ‘good’ school. But how can they pay the money required? To complete the homework of our boarding school kids, we have a assigned a teacher whose sole task is to help the children finish their work at no cost of course!

For Utpal it is good old Maa’mji and her rusted knowledge. Thank God for Google! So the next days will be filled with cutting and pasting and making charts and models. Somehow I am beginning to look forward to it and if all is not done then tant pis, one has to remember that holidays are meant to be fun and that is what is important.

the case of the small entrepreneur

As I drove in my proverbial three wheeler to the market next door yesterday morning, I knew something was wrong though at first I did not quite know what. It took me a few seconds to realise that the streets were strangely empty.. something was missing. Then it struck me: all the small business persons were missing. Let me explain. On the short less than 500 meters run to my local market we pass by a street cobbler, a street tailor, a street barber, a street tea stall, a vegetable and fruit vendor. Yesterday they were all gone! As we reached the market I saw a posse of people, some cops and a truck where stuff was being loaded. What hit was the eerie silence that greeted me, as if the sound track of a film had been cut off. As I alighted from the scooter and started to walk towards the market I heard someone say in a whisper: komittee aaiye hai! The committee has come. In a flash I understood the script. This was a descent by the municipal authorities aimed at ridding our city of illegal businesses! I looked again and realised that what was being loaded on the menacing truck was the entire belongings of the little tea-cum-lunch stall that had thrived under a banyan tree for as long as I can remember.

This stall catered to all the workers and passers by in search of a cup of tea or a warm meal at a reasonable price. It had always been a comforting sight with its smiling owner doling out platefuls to waiting customers. The food was fresh, the place clean. No one seemed to mind its existence. But someone did: the local authorities and their illogical sanitising drives. I thought the Commonwealth games were over and life back to its old ways. But that was not so. The predators were back with a vengeance! I had forgotten our city’s preferred mission: get rid of the poor. Thank God someone had warned some of these people, that explained why barber, cobbler and vegetable vendor had gone AWOL.

I would like to ask the powers that be a simple question: how do they expect over half the population to live if they deny them their right to be small entrepreneurs particularly as now you have to earn less than 20Rs a day to be considered poor and have access to social welfare. Do read this article that gives the new Indian Fortune List @< 20 rs a day. It is an eye opener.

But let us get back to our small entrepreneurs who courtesy the authorities lost a day or more of earnings. The city is replete with such people. They assess the need of the hour and provide the service with efficiency. They cater to one and all and are not the prerogative of the poor. They are your water vendors, juice sellers, vegetable sellers, cobblers, tailors etc. They provide a meal to those who serve you and believe you me they are mean business minds as they gage the need of the hour with clock work precision. In winter they sell you peanuts, in summer cooling drinks, during festivals they bring you exactly what you need. Others cater to your small daily requirements: a broken shoe or a garment that needs to be altered. Wonder where one would go with a broken heel if the road side cobbler was not on call?

Now let us look at the other side of the story. The people we are talking about and who seem to disturb the powers that be are human beings tryings to find a way to survive. They have families who depend on them. They have dreams for their loved ones: education for their children, medicines for their elders and so on and though the Planning Commission thinks that you can live on 2o Rs a day, the reality is quite different. Most of the street vendors leave their homes and come to cities to look for a better life. They soon realise that they will not find jobs and have to create their own. Their common sense guides them and they identify possible avenues. Why not make samosas and sell them at the street corner, or walk the lanes peddling what a household would need. Come to gali no 3 where our centre is located at any time of the day and you will see a host of street peddlers selling an amazing array of things: brooms, plastic ware, clothes, bangles, pickles and more. The task is not easy but it keeps the pot boiling. At the top of the street stands a cluster of food vendors doling out hot meals or cups of tea or the famous bread/omelet and at any time of the day they have clients. They are there in the scorching heat, the freezing cold or the pouring rain. They never miss a day. I too have often stopped for a cup of tea or a plate of hot snacks and never regretted it. There is a also a very old fruit vendor who hobbles on his bandaged feet and sets up his cart every morning. Maybe this small endeavour restores his dignity in his son’s home. I often buy fruit from him.

If the powers that be have their way then I wonder where people will go for that reinvigorating break. Experience tells us that they will all be back. Some money will exchange pockets. One must not forget that each of these vendors pays a monthly tithe to local officials: the cops, the municipal agent and so on and no one is quite ready to lose their bounty. Corruption rules. And everyone knows that these small entrepreneurs are the lifeline of the city. I wish ways were found to give these unique small entrepreneurs their rightful place and accept them as a legitimate members of society.

and they danced…

Sunday was party time. A wedding in the extended family meant all were welcome. A good way to show our volunteers what an Indian wedding was all about! They were to say the least speechless and this was in no way an upmarket bash! Among the guest list two little boys from different worlds bonded by the illogical love of an old biddy. The biddy is yours truly, the boys young Utpal and tiny Agastya. After a long drive through parts of Delhi I had never laid eyes on we reached the venue, a wedding garden garishly decorated and brightly lit. The rains of the day also meant that the grass was wet and the carpets soaked. Much to the delight of my two heroes who enjoyed the water squishing under their shoes.

We were amongst the first to arrive and had the place to ourselves. The boys ran free stopping only to gorge themselves on the yummy snacks. At one corner stood the notorious DJ and soon dance music was blaring from the huge speakers. That is when my little boys made a beeline for the dance floor and started dancing. They did not stop till it was time to leave! They danced and danced, the little one trying to copy the bigger one. I am so glad someone filmed them!

I must admit I did not take time to watch them that evening but I have looked at the one minute clip over and over again and it has brought smiles to my lips and joy to my heart. These two little boys come from such different world. Utpal has a past even adults would find difficult to carry and Agastya my grandson came into our world with the proverbial golden spoon in his mouth. Both walked into my heart and taught me the meaning of pure unadulterated love, the kind you give without expecting anything in return, the kind that fills you with joy, hope and trust. They took to each other immediately, Utpal the caring big bro to rapidly growing Agastya. Agastya who lives thousand of miles away has never missed a PTM when in town. The two boys revel in each other’s company, the little one following the bigger one at each step. The sight of them fills me with happiness and lights up my darkest hour. How blessed I am to have these two little souls in my rapidly dwindling life.

In four days my grandson will leave after eight magical months. I know there will be a huge hole in my heart but I also know that another little boy from another world will be there to fill the void till he returns.

Living on borrowed time…

Living on borrowed time without a thought for tomorrow wrote John Lennon. I wish I could sing the same tune! But tomorrow bears heavy on me. And though I too like all mortals am living on borrowed time all my thoughts are riveted on tomorrow.

Perhaps I too could have happily sung the words had I not one day decided to take the long road home, the one that touches other lives and other dreams. I did and today I am in custody of too many morrows that need to be moored before my time is up.

Why did I decide to save a hopelessly scalded child, or give a new lease of life to a broken heart? Why did I chose to repair a pair of hands maimed by fire or give a handful of children born in abject poverty the chance of a lifetime? These questions can keep begging for plausible answers but the reality will not change. These children have fragile tomorrows too dependent on mine that need to be secured. And the questions do not end as every step I took in the last decade had someones hope fastened to it.

Then I was spirited and brave, having even forgotten that I lived on borrowed time. Today as the clock ticks mercilessly I find myself troubled if not distressed. How will I be able to meet my commitments and move on peacefully. Some time back everything was upbeat. It seemed we had a solution in the form of planet why the panacea for all ills! And it almost seemed that all would fall in place. Had we not succeeded in the impossible task of securing a piece of land beating all odds? Now we only had to find the funds to build. But the fates conspired against us and we hit a low when markets tumbled and everyone felt insecure and shaky. Things looked up again for a bit and we held our breath in anticipation of a miracle. The expected miracle has still not happened though we still wait. Our other efforts to secure the needed numbers did not quite take off though we are still looking for options. But as I said we are on borrowed time and time is running short.

When 2011 dawned, we decided that this would be the do or die year fro planet why. If nothing happened by 31/12/11 then we would quietly lay planet why to rest and seek other ways. Almost half the year has slipped by with nothing forthcoming. The wise would accept the writing on the wall but I still want to hold on to the planet why dream. It is only planet why that would secure all the dreams we hold in custody. Any other option would necessitate our truncating them.

Today I can only pray for a miracle and hope that the time left is sufficient to see it happen.

which ought to be paid

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted wrote Aldous Huxley. Over the past years I have learnt how true this is! And how it sometimes hurts. I guess in spite of my years of being in the doing good business, I have not been able to shed my human failings. But let me put all this into context.

Two days back the boarding school kids were back from school with their endearing smiles and large doses of holiday homework. Daily writing from the newspaper, charts of roman numerals, English grammar charts, crafts and science projects and what not. A handful for even one like me. Wonder why schools give so much work! Holidays are no more holidays. As I said it is bad enough for educated parents but how do illiterate parents handle this. I am of course talking of our seven little kids. So the holiday homework becomes another mission project why. A teacher has been assigned to handle just this and the children would have to come to pwhy at least for half a day. Everything was planned and ready to go.

The next morning Vicky’s mom came to in to inform us that they were off to the village for 2 months. When we told her about the homework she seemed unconcerned and a tad annoyed. She was unwilling to understand that there was a need to get the homework done and refused to listen. Reluctantly we had to get out the big guns and threaten to withdraw Vicky from the school. Ultimately the father got involved and understood the situation and the village trip was postponed post homework. The problem was solved but not quite for me as it once again brought up the nagging issue of gratitude, one that I am loath addressing but which nevertheless bothers me. I guess I am still human and not selfless enough not to expect a modicum of gratitude. I still have a long was to go, I presume.

I must admit that the lack of gratitude I have experienced over the last ten years has been troubling and even incomprehensible. I always thought, erroneously I guess, that people should be thankful for any help proffered. But that is not the case at all. It almost seems that if you give than more is expected and if the more does not happen then you become the villain of the piece. And this happens all the time. People do have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted to borrow Huxley’s words. So if you want to carry on, you need to change, they will not.

So you embark on the mission of trying to find excuses that will make situations more palatable even if they seem paltry: poor people have had such a raw deal; they have hardly seen good; they have always been in want and hence are always in need, do not know better and so on. But that is not the way to go. What is needed I guess is the ability to think like Rousseau and say:Gratitude is a duty which ought to be paid, but which none have a right to expect.

The one lot that has perfected the art of being grateful is undoubtedly our band of special children. Just walk into their class and they greet you with such warmth that it warms the cockles of your heart and turns the darkest moment into pure light. They do not expect anything in return. Their eyes are filled with love they are yearning to give and should you peer into them, there is no looking back, you will be touched by their magic. It is a unique experience that needs to be experienced.

On the other hand we mere mortals still expect gratitude and hurt if it is not forthcoming. Maybe the special kids have a lot to teach us and maybe it is time I walked the talk.

apologia for a strike

The auto rickshaws are supposed to go on strike today. This means pwhy will bear a deserted look as many of our children – the tiny and special ones – are fetched from their slum homes in such vehicles. The strike they say is indefinite whatever that means. The reason: the government’s insistence that all autos install a Global Positioning System by tomorrow or face its ire! The cost of the system to be borne by them: a whopping 7000 Rs installation and 600 Rs a month maintenance.

I too was once among those who ranted and raved about the behaviour of auto drivers till I was forced to enter their world. You see many of our kids are children of auto drivers and we at pwhy use them as a sole means of transportation. So I am well qualified to write this apologia.

Most of Delhi’s auto drivers come from other states having left their habitat of origin for economic reasons. Many after devastating floods or quakes. They come to the big city and manage against many odds to get their driving licenses and are ready to join the fleet. Now in Delhi you either own your vehicle or drive one on rent. In the later case you need to pay a hefty daily sum to the owner who are often hard core businessmen. You pay for the fuel, the minor repairs and take home what remains. This means that if you earn 1000 rs on a good day, you take home a mere 400. In case you own your scooter you have bought it on credit from wily creditors who charge a hefty rate of interest and work out some inane monthly installment that you more often than not are unable to pay – an illness in the family, the child’s school fees etc -. The cunning creditor then reworks your dues and your are landed with a higher installment. Sometimes you even borrow at a whopping 10% a month to pay your installment and have not one but two creditors a month. Owning your vehicle can take years if you are lucky and the creditor does not impound your vehicle.

Auto drivers have families to support and these families have urban dreams. School for the children, a TV for the house and so on, so life is never easy. But you carry on. There are no social benefits, no insurances you are on your own. Life is a struggle and the urban dream slowly turns sour. So when you are slapped with an additional 7000 Rs and 600 Rs a month you see red. It is not that you do not want the GPS installed, you do not know how you will meet your month ends. Like all people in the city you are not living but surviving.

One can of course also argue for or against the installation of a GPS system. The first thing that comes to mind is the safety of such a system in an open vehicle often parked on streets at night. Tongues are also wagging and it is being said that the company that provides these systems is owned by the relative of a high placed politician. Could be true as this is often an insidious form of corruption we are all too familiar with.

I do not know what the outcome of the strike will be. Probably not good for the auto drivers who will ultimately be forced into submission as is always the case. I also do not know what the day hold for us at pwhy as we too depend on autos to survive. I am bracing myself for a hard day.

message from a mother

It was mother’s day on Sunday in the anglo saxon world, it will be mother’s day in France on May 28th. I wonder why we need a special day to honour mothers, I remember mine everyday though she left this world 20 years ago. She made me who I am today. Not only did she gift me life but nurtured it carefully and lovingly at every step. She taught me every little thing needed to bloom and grow. She healed each little scratch and hurt and ensured that the scars would vanish too. She assuaged every blow that came my way and soothed the pain till it disappeared.

Though she smothered me with love, she also made sure I learn all the lessons needed. She could be firm and even merciless when need be. I remember one such incident. I must have been about 6 or 7. I had developed the bad habit of piling my plate with food and then leaving half of it. Mama had grown up in want and could not bear food being wasted. She first tried to reason with me but when it did not work she knew she had to pull out the big guns. One day after I had once again left lots of food in my plate she instructed the staff to put the plate in the refrigerator. It was to be given to me at the next meal cold and congealed. Stubborn as I was I refused to eat it. She did not relent. I got nothing and the plate went back into the fridge awaiting the next meal. This game continued for 2 days, by the end of it I was so hungry that I devoured the plate as if it was manna from the Gods. It is a lesson I have never forgotten, and even know after five decades I never leave food in my plate. It is only much later that I came to know that my parents had not eaten during those two days. Made the
lesson even more precious and poignant.

Life carried on and so did the lessons, each as powerful and as valuable. And as I grew older from child to adolescent and then adult she was always there, allowing me to write and play my own script, but ever present like a prompter in the wings of the stage of my life, ready to intervene whenever I faltered. I carried on safe in the knowledge that she was there and nothing could befall me. But the Fates intervened and she left this world two decades ago. I was shattered.

I picked up the pieces of my life as best I could, memories of her helping me to carry on. I did not know that she would still stun me with her incredible and selfless love. Many years after her death I was trying to cope with many things and was deeply hurt and angry. As always at such times I resorted to some serious spring cleaning as this always calms me down. As I was clearing old boxes I discovered a yellowed diary. It was a diary my mother had written a few months before her death and was an account of her day to day life, of her thoughts, of her dilemmas and reminiscences. In hindsight it was also an example of the power of a mother’s intuition as every entry seemed to echo some of my own angst and somehow heal it. Years before the idea of pwhy had even entered my head she had known what life held for me.

I reproduce the entry verbatim

I write this story for Anu to read.

There was a young beautiful girl; she got married and had children and spent all her time looking after her babies and her husband. Children were happy. The house was well run. Everything was almost picture perfect.

Then the children grew up. They did not need their mother. They resented her interference. Husband was busy in his work. The house ran beautifully. Time weighed heavy on her hands. She was miserable and tried joined a ladies’ club and playing cards. But it seemed too artificial. She was unhappy and her health started failing her. Something was amiss. She felt useless and unwanted.

One day an old school friend came to see her and she broke down and shared her despair. Her friend listened and promised to help.

A few days later she came and told her: I have a job for you, poorly paid but you will like it.
It was a job to teach poor kids. She began in earnest. The children were lovely, the called her maam and to her immediately.

Soon all her problems vanished: she was wanted, loved, respected and healed.

How had she known… I wonder but she did, almost to a T!

Shorty after writing these words she had a cerebral accident and was never the same again. This was her last coherent message to me. Every day as I walk into pwhy I am reminded of this. I do not need a mother’s day to honour Kamala. I do it every day.

five seven eight

578 is the maximum you can spend in a month to be considered poor by the Government and benefit from social benefits and subsidies. That is 20 rs a day! and that is if you live in a city. In a village the amount is 15 a day. Thus spoke the Planning Commission. The commission told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that a city dweller cannot be termed poor if his average monthly spends exceed Rs 31 on rent and conveyance, Rs 18 on education, Rs 25 on medicines or Rs 36.5 on vegetables. So if you spend more than 20 Rs day you are not poor! So according to the Government a mere 25.7% of the urban Indians need food, shelter and social benefits. Anyone spending more than this will be denied subsidized food, accommodation, pensions and medical treatment targeted at the Below Poverty Line population.This is shocking and ludicrous.

We work with the urban poor and have been doing so for the past decade. A hovel in a slum cost nothing less then 1000 rs a month. That is a hole with a tin roof and rickety walls. Now according to above stated statistics a family of five to be considered poor can only spend 31×5 or 155 Rs a month on rent. At that price you will not even find a hole in the ground! As for 36.5 rupees a month on vegetable or just over a rupee a day, I wonder what one would eat! Then why such strange and unrealistic figures. For one it helps claim that poverty in India is getting lower it also helps reduce the spending on social programmes.

But how long can we all play the I see no evil game? True we can boast of having some of the richest people in the world, people who can spend zillions on building a house or who flaunt their riches till it becomes galling and vulgar, but can we honestly deny that a child still dies of malnutrition every 8.7 minutes! How can a self respecting Government turn a blind eye to the stark reality that surrounds us all. And how can we, as supposedly self respecting citizens play along.

What is happening? We have an education system where a mere 33% gives you a certificate. This is apparently done to enhance the literacy figures. Now we have a laughable figure to define the poverty line. This is again apparently done to show that we are not so poor. It is all a game of manipulating figures. No one wants to address the problems and solve them. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer and no one seems to care.

When will my country awake!

lend them ours

According to a recent article in a leading newspaper 66% of Delhi’s slum children are malnourished! Startling statistic particularly in a city known for its lavish lifestyle, sparkling malls, opulent parties and luxurious ways! The article goes on to say that the conditions of these kids have worsened due to the poor functioning of Government run schemes like ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme). Yes corruption that is rampant in our day and age also trickles down to schemes designed to benefit the poorest of the poor.

Malnourished children if they get nutritious meals later, have shorter average life, low immunity and are not properly developed. The first five years are essential to the growth of a child. These children belong to poor families with low income and no resources. They barely survive in the urban jungle where everything comes at a hefty price. Many of our creche children come from such families. Often their lunch box for the day has just a roti or a few biscuits. We of course give them a warm and nutritious lunch but how can that make up for the early years!

The ICDS was a great programme. It was launched in 1975 and had it met is goals no child would have been malnourished. However statistics reveal that in 2010, 44% of children in India were still malnourished. It seemed the programme was short of funds and running in abysmal conditions. Children have never been a priority, or should I say poor children have never been a priority. You just have to look at the state of schools! On the one hand hefty promises are made in election manifestos, programmes are launched amidst great fanfare, education becomes a constitutional right and yet on the ground nothing changes. A child still dies every 8,7 minutes of malnutrition and only 50 % children have access to school and of those that do make it 50% drop out! And that is not all 3 million children live on the streets, 150 million children work as bonded labourers and one out of every six girl child does not live to see her 15th birthday.

Something is terribly wrong and we should be hanging our heads in shame. And yet we do nothing. We still drive by read lights inured to the plight of children begging in the scorching sun shooing them as you would a pesky flight or at best dropping a coin in their proffered hand. We still read articles on malnutrition of children without batting an eyelid or feeling outraged and will waste food at the next wedding we attend!

Things will not change unless we as civil society wake up and do something. Poor children have no voice, we need to led them ours.