Petition the Lord with prayer

This picture was taken at the Diwali evening puja . My grandson praying! Watching him was a truly special moment. Such innocence and belief. I wonder what the barely three year old was asking God. I would have given so much to get into his tiny head. I am sure that God heard this very special petition. But it will remain a secret between Agastya and his special God. Was it a visit to the toy shop or his favourite pasta for dinner? Keep guessing grandma you will never know. And come to think about it is better to keep the mystery, it makes it that much more precious.

But do the Gods listen to adults when they petition him. Jim Morrison felt otherwise if you remember the opening lines of the Soft Parade. Are prayers useless and superfluous. I do not know. All I know is that there are times when I send my entreaty to someone I call the God of Lesser beings. And since project why began I believe I have been heard more than once.

Over the past decade we have had some very challenging moments, moments that left me no option but to pray for a miracles. And they occurred one after the other. Children got their heart surgeries, Utpal found a school and a home and above all we kept running day after day, month after month. I asked and He gave. It was as simple as that.

Yet for the past months or even more I have been praying for planet why and this time I have received mixed messages. Sometimes it seems just around the corner. But just as we think we are home, something happens and we are back to square one. Is there a sign I am not comprehending?

Boy they have grown!

Our gang of eight are back to school after their Diwali break. They dropped by on the way to fetch Utpal and say hello! Boy they have grown. It is truly amazing. They looked happy and eager to go back to school with their quilts, their warm clothes and many stories to share. Yash even had a burn on his leg courtesy Diwali crackers and proudly showed it to me as if it was a battle scar. I refrained from any comment to avoid being a wet blanket.

Manisha was all smiles though she waylaid them for the snap. She was happy to go back to school and meet her friends. Meher was her ebullient self and had her own tales to tell. Nikhil has lost some weight and seemed more active. That is good as I was a little worried about him. Babli was serious as usual, much the big sister responsible for the brood. Aditya and Vicky were poker faced a far cry from their habitual naughty selves, guess it was to impress Ma’am.

Utpal of course was a busy body, making sure all packets and bags were loaded in the waiting car, very much the man of the house. And why not, the only home he has now is mine and he is entitled to after all he has been through. He has truly earned his right to reclaim all he has been denied for long.

There they were with their dreams and hopes. I watched them pensively. Maybe I was the only one to realise how fragile and tenuous their dreams were. They all depended on my ability to secure them. The thought frightened me. It was such a huge responsibility. When the journey began with Utpal it was just a case of force majeure. We had no other option. Then came a man with his set of dreams and four more kids joined Utpal. The man walked away without a word and I was left holding the baby. They became five. Three more were added again because there was no other honourable way. What future did Meher have with her scars and Yash who had been abandoned by all. And when a kind man came offering a future to little Manisha could we refuse. Had we done so instead of being top of her class she would have joined her mom picking rags on the street. So we became eight.

True there are kind people who ensure the fee money. But over the years the fees have increased with the cost of living and fees alone do not meet the needs of a growing child. Those who have kids will understand me. There are shoes to be brought as feet grow at the speed of light and clothes winter ones and summer ones, toiletries, uniforms, books, school bags and more. They have to be fetched and dropped at each school break necessitating two vehicles now. All this adds up, yet all this is needed. And to the cynics before they materialise I would like to say that yes they deserve the best even if they happened to be born on the wrong side of the fence. When you assume a responsibility you go all the way. Selective benevolence does not exist.

It is with our eyes wide open that we decided to educate these children and nothing can or should come in the way of our commitment. So help us God!

true blue

We have a new teacher in our primary section at Govindpuri. But this one is truly special. Wonder why? Well she has been a student of project why since, hold your breath, she was in Nursery. Anita is a true alumni of Pwhy. This year she cleared her class XII boards and is now enrolled in B com 1st year at an evening college.

Anita lives in a slum. Her father has a small job in a factory and her mom is a housewife. She has two younger siblings. Anita has worked hard to reach where she is today and is determined to carry on and change the course of her life. We are very proud of her as she is an example of what pwhy can and does achieve.

Anita is the perfect example of what a small effort like ours can do. Our presence ensured that she sail through school with all the support needed. She passed every class with good marks and succeeded in her XIIth Boards. Today the job she has with us ensures that she can continue her education without being a strain of her family. Far from that. She even contributes to the household expenses.

Anita is a true project why success story, one we are very proud of.

The jury is out

I think both Formula 1 races and philanthropy can and should coexist in society. In fact, the former should actually facilitate the latter. When there is prosperity in society, charitable donations should go up was the comment left on of my recent blogs. I would like to clarify that I am not against Formula 1 races or any pursuits of the rich and famous. I do not bear grudge to anyone for spending their money. Prosperity is something we all strive towards and wish for. But I am not the only one to question the wisdom of hosting such sport against the backdrop of poor India. Some have bemoaned what they called the misplaced priorities and superficial showcasing that India’s recent economic growth has come to symbolize, in spite of deep poverty and chronic malnutrition.

The jury is out on this one. I quick frankly agree with those who call this a superficial showcasing. And my reason for doing so may seem odd. Were charity to follow the exponential growth of prosperity I would have no problems at all. But the situation is quite different. It seems that as prosperity increases compassion plummets. And thus all the showcasing becomes suspect. Is it a novel way of concealing reality if not from others than at least from one’s self. So swanky malls, exorbitant stores, F1 Racing and more of the same becomes a wily way of blotting out the other realities: children dying, rampant malnutrition, extreme poverty etc. The rich seem hungry for new thrills and the sky is the limit.

The question is how does one get the privileged to understand that prosperity cannot coexist forever with abject poverty. To think it can is nothing short of suicidal.

How many children must die before….

In the time you will take to read this blog, let us say one minute, four children will die across our country. Yes you got it right: 4 children die every minute in India. The killer: malnutrition! Of course you do not die of malnutrition. But a malnourished child’s immunity is very low and s/he is more likely to fall prey to diseases like diarrhea and malaria which he s/he is unable to fight. So in fact four children die of preventable diseases every minute in India. Can you read this statement and simply move on. I cannot. The death of any child is something that is and should be unacceptable. It should make us look up and then hang our heads in shame.

Yesterday the lead item in news bulletins across the country was the death of 12 babies in a hospital in Calcutta due to negligence. The hops ital of course has been given a clean chit. One commentator expressed outrage not simply at the untimely death of these infants but also at the total lack of indignation be it from civil society or from the authorities.

These two stories have one point in common: they happened to children on the other side of the fence, those who bear the label: poor. Children who simply do not exist to those who have a voice and the ability to express their opinion. 4 children a minute due to malnutrition, 12 children in a hospital due to negligence, 500 children in a remote town due to encephalitis are not numbers sufficient to make us shed our cynicism and apathy. However when a child from the other side of the fence was kidnapped a few years back everyone stood up and screamed. The administration moved heaven and hell to find the child. So my question today is how many poor children must die before we stop pretending that we cannot see. Today rich India is busy preparing for its first formula 1 race. The roar of cars speeding is too loud for it to hear anything else, certainly not the tears of a mother who has lost her child.

the princess and the butterfly

I am an only child. I had an elder brother but he died before I was even born. I also had a bevy of cousins but most remained remote as we met occasionally. There was one however that had a special place in my heart and was undoubtedly the closest. He was my maternal uncle’s son and was affectionately called Johny. Johny died this morning. He had a massive heart attack and did not survive the complex surgery he was put through.

Johny was a free spirit and and somewhat an enfant terrible. Perhaps that is why we were so close as he mirrored by own rebellious ways. We got along from the word go. My first memory of him was when I was six and he four. This was during my visits to our grandparents in Meerut. He would follow me around and imitate everything I did. But strangely I did not find it annoying. Far from that. It was rather pleasing and tickled me pink. The next time we met I must have been eight or so. That was the time I had the great idea of staging plays for the elders. These were two character plays featuring Johny and I. We made tickets that were sold to my grandfather and others and performed every night. I was often the princess and he the butterfly. Something he never forgot or forgave as even recently he mentioned this fact to me.

Time passed. As always we met sporadically and always got along famously. I have memories of bicycle rides in the colony, of shared meals, of movies watched in boxes, of listening to cricket commentaries, of making scrapbooks, of singing and dancing. I led and he followed, always game for anything I would come up with.

When I got married and had my first child he lived with us for some time and was the greatest support I could have wished for. When I decided to dabble with conference management he followed and was a great asset. I can never forget the nights and days spent in conference halls, the crises we solved, the tension and nerves, the thrill at a work well done. He was by far the best numero two you could wish for. Whatever the emergency or even the mess, Johny got you out of it with a smile. He was unique. Ultimately it is the career he chose for himself while I went seeking other pastures.

Johny was also a great uncle to my girls. He would spoil them silly and cater to every whim of theirs. Over the last years we met oft and on though we lived quite close. He dropped in once in a while and the time we spent together was always precious and comforting. His presence was always reassuring.

Johny did not a have a mean bone in his body. He was the most humane and kind person you could imagine. He was devoid of any ego and was caring and giving to a fault. He lived his life a tad recklessly though not caring about himself. He only had time for others. I remember chiding him time and again about this and he simply smiling and telling me he would take my advise some day. He never did.

Today I wish we had spent more time together. There was so much left to say. Today I wish he had heeded my advise. We often think we have all the time in the world. But alas, that is not the case.

The world will never be the same without Johny’s smile. I guess the Gods get jealous sometimes. I will always have a bone to pick with him though: the butterfly always followed the princess, then why did it decide to fly leaving the princess alone and forlorn.

happy diwali to all

It is Diwali again. Time of festivities and cheer. A new year beckons us. Wonder what it holds. For the past few weeks now little Radha and her friends have been painstakingly painting diyas. Each diya is first painted then decorated with utmost care. Many of these have found their way in homes across the city and land. On Diwali night they will shine and augur good tides for many.

Every year I sit down to send Diwali greetings and find myself pondering about days gone and those yet to dawn. I am glad I spent time with the children a few days back as we had visitors and saw them bursting with exuberance and energy. Had I not done so then my message would have been somewhat flawed. We had a great year at project why. The children thrived in more ways than one. Not only were school results good but so much more was learnt. The children perfected their dancing skills, their creative ones and wonder of wonders have even begun to express themselves in English. On Friday they showcased all they had achieved to our spellbound guests. And no one was more enchanted than I. I watched them with immense pride and delight. The dances were executed perfectly, the lines of the English play delivered faultlessly. The children were full of energy and brio. Their smiles said it all. So no need to wallow on the past and look for faults. There were none.

Yet while my family of almost 800 thrived and blossomed, it was not quite the same story at my end. While all seemed to run like a clockwork orange in all our centres, I accumulated sleepless nights wondering about would happen to project why next year and the next and the next. Time was moving too fast and age catching up mercilessly. And with each passing day the fear of the future was looming large. The past year had been a tough one. Funds were short more than once and needed masterful handling from my side. It was also apparent that I was not as feisty and active as when the journey began. My steps were slower and my fingers did not move as speedily on my keyboard. The once indefatigable woman was now unable to produce the endless emails once sent with regularity or keep up with a mind that still conjured thoughts with breakneck speed. The chasm between though and action was frightening.

Planet Why seemed a very remote dream fading away by the minute. Now it was not only a matter of garnering enormous resources but also having the strength to put it all together. It all seemed herculean. How could I forget that I had earmarked 31/12/11 as the day we lay planet why to rest and look for other options. So the year to come is crucial as it determines the future of 800 children. And looking at them last week made me more convinced than ever that I have to fight for their morrows till my last breath. So this Diwali I will say a special prayer for the children of project why. Hope you will spare them a thought too!

Happy Diwali to all!

Remove the Poor

Remove the Poor screams the headline of an article in a recent magazine. These words seem to have become a mantra of the rulers of our city. We have heard it time and again. We need a stadium, a mall, a new swanky hotel, a cinema complex, a gated community easy peasy just find a slum, bring your bulldozer and raise it to the ground. Voila! You have your piece of land and all you need to do is start building. Oops there is a problem. Who will build them. The poor of course. There is something wrong don’t you think so. But anyway we have been mute and indifferent spectators to this game played with obsessive regularity in our very city.

They are at it again. Slums are being removed while the like of us are busy shopping and preparing for Diwali. The goal is to create a ‘world-class city’ in a ‘slum-free India’, but since the government has not been able to wipe out unsightly poverty, it just removes the poor states the article. It goes on to say that illegal squatters who build our roads, our buildings, our Metro, look after our children, wash our dishes and work in our factories do not have the same right as those who can boast of laminated cards in their wallets. This is the new duality of Delhi.

I have time and again brought this reality to light as I have seen first hand the agony and pain of homes being destroyed in a jiffy. What is even more galling is the fact that the Government has time and again mooted low income housing schemes but these have failed miserably. The failure is almost Freudian. How can we give precious land to house the poor. But we need them so we get them from their far away homes to build our desiderata and then leave them to fend for themselves in the big bad city. Hence the slums.

The article gives some interesting and mind opening stats. The poor comprise 24% of the city’s population but occupy less than 5% of land. You will be surprise to know that there is no land scarcity. 7000 acres only would be needed to house the poor in dignity and the Government owns more than 15000 acres. But that is not all hold your breath slums are a fab mean for collecting illegal gratification. Slum dwellers pay cops, politicians and officials a whopping 6840 crore rupees a year. Profitable isn’t. Now you understand why slums are allowed to exist

There is more. Demolitions are carried out citing public purpose. But there are hidden agendas as recently people were rendered homeless in Delhi to build a 5* Hotel and a cluster of malls. True there have been relocations of slums and one would like to believe that this should solve the problem. Far from that. In 2000 the slums on the banks of the Jamuna were relocated to Bhalaswa a place not fit for humans as it is located next to a garbage landfill. There is no water and all the people can accede to is hand pumps that draw water contaminated by the garbage next door. 7o crores were sanctioned for schools, roads, water treatment, shops etc but needless to say none came up. There is one school located at 90 minutes walk for the 4000 households. New schemes are conjured particularly near election time but nothing happens on the ground. Or if they do see the light of the day the schemes are wrought with much red tape and ensure that a large part of potential beneficiaries are found to be ineligible.

So as you and I look forward to Diwali and celebrations, there are many who wait for the bulldozers to roll and for their lives to crash. Adults will loose their possessions and livelihood, children their chance to education. Does this seem right in a country where citizens are protected by constitutional rights? But who cares for the voiceless children who hanker to go to school.

We at project why has lost bright children to slum destruction. We have seen families loose everything they possess. How can I forget my Lohar camp that stood proud and vibrant for years before being raised to the ground? Once again I feel helpless and can only share my angst in words. Over the years I have been witness to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, but I have also seen how bright and smart poor children are and how rich their potential if given a chance.

Those who planned our city a long time back envisaged a city where all would live side by side. One of the starkest example of this vision is the presence of Government schools in almost every nook and corner of the city. Yet every day the poor are being pushed to the farthest limits of a city growing in quantum leaps. One has to find a way to give humane dwellings to those who are undoubtedly a dynamic and vibrant part of city life. When will our rulers realise this, O wonder.

The forgotten children of India

Every morning as I drive to school I am greeted by a band of beggar kids at the red light next to a flyover. I normally carry some eatable or sweetmeat to give to them. Every morning as I see these children I am reminded of the forgotten biscuits and the fact that they were the children I wanted to help when I took my first faltering steps into the world of charity (for want of a better word). My little beggar girl is now all grown up. I still remember her innocent face that has now hardened. I just feel hopeless and helpless and all the work I have done till now pales at the sight of these innocent souls whose every right has been usurped.

This morning another article on the plight of these children made my blood run cold. According to a report by the Human Right Commission children are kidnapped for various purposes: working as cheap forced labour in illegal factories, establishments, homes, exploited as sex slaves or forced into the child porn industry, as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries, as child beggars in begging rackets, as victims of illegal adoptions or forced marriages, or perhaps, worse than any of these, as victims of organ trade and even grotesque cannibalism. The words made me gag. When had greed made us so callous and monstrous. Even animals did not fall so low. Children are meant to be celebrated. They should be loved, protected, cared for, pampered and sheltered. They depend on us adults for their every need and above all for their morrows. They are not meant to be used and abused for personal gratification. And yet this is done each and every day openly or surreptitiously. And we sit mute, pass by in our cars at best tossing a coin in the outstretched hand, never meeting the eyes of the child knocking at our car window.

We read news items on the plight of children: malnutrition deaths (one every 8 minute), encephalitis deaths, child labour, child abuse and so on without lifting a finger. Recently an article on the plight of children in Melghat was blood curdling. In 4 months 266 children died. What is worse is that there are fake NGOs run by politicians using the cause to line their pockets! Where are we going. Every child that dies is a national shame. There are many schemes but they remain schemes on paper. It is time we woke up to this reality. Something is terribly wrong and it is time civil society woke up and did something. True a child dying in a remote village does not move us. It should as it reflects the state of our society, our values and our collective conscience.

dil deke dekho dilli

It is 10 days to Diwali and our very own Dilli has not found its heart. Yes we still have very few orders for the diyas our special children are industriously fabricating. It is a joy to watch them, the older or more able ones helping the younger and less functional ones. But everyone is participating in this activity.

I am really heart devastated at the fact that orders from Delhi have been so few. Where is Dilli’s dil (heart) gone! Have we lost it or are we so beholden by brands and high priced ware that a simple earthen lamp decorated with paint by tiny hands has no appeal left. Why are so blasé? Have we lost the ability to see with our hearts altogether. Delhi has always been a difficult city to conquer and in spite of the fact that we are located in its heart, few reach out to help us. Yet I refuse to give up.

When I look at the two kids in the picture- young Preeti who walks on her hands and little Neha who is yet to learn to communicate- labouring over their diyas my heart bleeds and I wish I could buy all their lovely lamps. I could indeed but that is not what they want. They refuse any pity sale. They want to be recognised in their own right and to have people believe I them. They want to retain their dignity.

Friends from the world over have reached out and we are grateful to them but we still want to be able to sell our diyas in our city. This is my last appeal before it is too late for this Diwali.

Note: with the money they make the special children plan to have a big Diwali bash filled with fun and laughter. Is this asking too much.

For orders contact Shamika at 9811424877.