cheers @ 1.25 lacs!

Two unrelated incidents occurred yesterday. They were in no way linked but somehow painted a graphic image of India. The first was the trials and tribulations of the week end of a dear friend in the heart of Uttar Pradesh. The second an article I stumbled upon aptly titled: Rs. 1.25 lakh for a small peg of cognac at Delhi hotel. True these were not sold every day but we were promptly informed that a champagne bottle priced at Rs 1. 75 lacs was quite popular with our guests and sells pretty well.
But let us take them one at a time. Last week a friend volunteering with us told me that she was planning to visit Mathura with the family of one of the student she was teaching as they belonged to Mathura and had offered to be her guide. I was a little concerned as my friend is in her seventies but did not say anything as she was really excited and keen to go. The experience she said was one of a kind as she visited the sights on a motorbike! But what truly disturbed her was the squalor of the places she went to and the abject poverty around her. A far cry from the Delhi of malls and starred hotels just three hours away. She told me that the slums of the city were luxurious if compared to what she had seen.
Was it then synchronicity that I should come across the article just a few moments before hearing about the famed week end. I remember jumping out of my skin some years back when I heard of a bottle of champagne being sold at the galling price of 50K! Well prices had gone up. If daily articles cost more then spirits had to follow I guess. So a peg at 1.25 lacs should not make us jump. Welcome to India the land of the uber rich and the abjectly poor. The land where some gorge themselves whilst others starve. Yet another tale of two Indias!
True you cannot and should not grudge anyone for their success, their riches, their prosperity. But can you turn your eyes away from the terrible pictures of children dying or the chilling statistics on malnutrition. Can you keep mute when you come across a child begging? Can you simply pass the abysmal living facilities that dot our city unmoved? I guess you can as most of us do with our myopic view of life contained within the four walls of our existence. How many of us would like my friend visit a place with someone who we considered ‘lower’? My friend did and what she saw was first hand: people living in cramped spaces with doorless bathrooms, where words like privacy have no meaning at all, where in a few square feet the old and the young eat, sleep, pray, cook, laugh, cry, fight, love and live or should one say survive. How many of us would share this space albeit for one night as my friend did and not be critical or horrified but humbled. How would you like to live in towns and shanties everyone has forgotten with no civic amenities where garbage and refuse lie everywhere and walking becomes an obstacle race? Yet many do, without grudging or complaining, forsaken by all.
Forgive my ranting but when I stumble upon a peg @ of 1.25 lacs my blood runs cold. There is something obscene and revolting about the image of someone sipping in a few minutes what another would never dream of in a lifetime. But that is the way we are. When will this country awake!

who will light a candle for the 5013 children

Last week a real estate tycoon threw a birthday bash. It took place in a palace in the middle of a lake where special duck shaped boats floated on the lake providing a novel dancing floor. The tout India was there: a true reunion of the uber rich and famous. And to crown it all the waka waka girl was flown in a special plane to entertain the guests. It was some show!

As the rich feasted danced and caroused, children died without a murmur . It is estimated that 5013 children die each day in India of malnutrition! India has the dubious distinction of having more than a third of the world’s child mortality. Should we not hang our heads in shame! I do. Yet the haves keep on celebrating. Children die while food grain rots. Children die while some gorge and waste. This is nothing short of unacceptable.

What is infuriating is that many sound programmes have been set up to deal with the situation but you guessed right they have been hijacked on the way and money siphoned to greedy pockets. The best example is the famed ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) aimed at children below 5 and that would have ensured, if it had run as planned, that all Indians below the age of 35 were well nourished and inoculated. The reality is that almost 5o% of our children are suffer from malnutrition.

Last week one of our staff members was asked to visit a slum by local dwellers. The reason: they wanted us to open a primary outreach in their slum cluster. She was taken to the local anganwadi (creche) run under the (ill)famed ICDS programme. The so called creche was housed in a dark, airless, damp hole as I refused to call it room. There were a handful of toddlers sitting on the floor and a so called creche worker busy on the phone. There were no weighing machines, no toys or books, no pencils or crayons, no visible food supplements or at least plates and cups that would prove nutrition was given. The children were meant to sit and do nothing. This was how the ICDS programme was translated into reality. This was in the heart of the capital, a stone’s throw away from a swanky 5 star hotel! This was the place meant to monitor a child’s growth and development and take remedial measures. Frankly the child would be better running the in slum lanes. At least s/he would be in the sunlight and get some vitamin D! No wonder children die if programmes meant to protect them run like this.

5000 children die everyday and we remain silent. A statistic like this one should, if we had a conscience, make us take to the streets just as we did when one man gave his stop corruption call. It is true that in a convoluted way corruption encompasses the proper running of schemes but I am ready to bet my last rupee that none of US ever thought that we were taking to the streets or to our preferred social media to espouse the cause of dying children. We were there because we were fed up of the corruption that affected us. Civil society as it is called is made up of educated and aware people. Is it not their duty to raise its voice all all aberrations one encounters: children dying, children begging, children working in your neighbour’s house. But we are selfish and self centered and the dying children are not part of our minute horizon. So children keep on dying as we keep on living our myopic and pathetic existence. We pretend to be aware of things, well read and informed but will at best pontificate from the comfort of our homes or at cocktail parties with words that remain useless. If one of ours dies in suspect conditions we take to the streets, light candles, write articles and ensure that justice is restored. But the child that dies because of our apathy and indifference does not even affect us. We carry on the party while a child passes away every 18 seconds.

These 5013 are also our children. They have the same rights our children have. Their only sin is to have been born on the wrong side of the fence. Someone needs to take the cudgels on their behalf. Someone like us but will we?

Bye bye kitchen

Agastya my darling grandson finally left yesterday after 3 glorious months. A deafening silence pervades the house. It is almost eerie. Gone are the pattering of little feet and the giggles. Gone is the delightful prattle that got us all mesmerised. His last words were enchanthing. When asked by his mom to say bye to the staff in the kitchen Agastya set off on a mission to bid farewell. After saying a bye bye kitchen, he ran out and started a litany of byes: bye bye house, garden, bicycle, flowers, grandpas’ office and so on. He was so excited that he forgot bye bye nani! I did not say anything as I was busy fighting my tears.

The past months were a whirlwind. Every things was centered around this two and a half years bundle of joy. Our sleep time, waking time, eating time and above all playing time were orchestrated by the exacting yet adorable ring master. I was reminded of a quote by Sam Leveson: “The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent“, a role I gladly played. At times I was on my fours playing with toy cars. But the preferred game was his version of Simple Simon: he led and we followed. Up, down, on your knees, touch the floor, wave your hands, roll them, hop, skip, jump. There was no respite as you followed the little man who got cross if you dared sit down. Forgotten where the creaky knees, or the hurting back. You just became a child and the special God children pray to ensured that the batteries of the toy were always charged and the pain on hold. All you skills often forgotten were tested: running, drawing, painting, singing. Even if you had never done it before you were commanded to draw a car and boy you did and even if it looked like nothing on earth it still brought a huge smile on the loved face.

There were special treats: a visit to the local the park, a day at Utpal’s school, a trip to the rides at the Kalka Temple and above all trips to the toy shop. Each was laced with oodles of fun and merriment that warmed the cockles of my old heart. Then there were the goodies: the hugs and kisses lavishly dealt out when he was in a good mood. They were heavenly and had the mysterious capacity to make you forget all your worries and woes. Life stood standstill and perfect. Time raced at the speed of light, each day melting into another without respite. One was so taken in by the magic that one forgot that this special time was limited and the day would dawn when the little one would fly away and leave you with your aches and pain and a bleeding heart.

Today time hangs heavy. The stairs that one ran up and down behind a little elf now look daunting as one climbs then slowly a step and a moan at a time. All the pains and worries put on hold loom larger than ever. The house is still replete with the toys, cars and clothes of the little one. Slowly they will be put or given away and the house will again regain its adult look. The pedal cars, scooty, and bicycles that the little fellow parked so painstakingly next to his granddad’s one before he left will soon be removed. How I will miss them. I remember how vehemently I had reacted some years back when little Utpal had left for boarding school and someone decided to put his bright yellow pedal car aptly christened ‘yellow submarine’ away. I wanted it left there, for me to see everyday. This time I did not murmur a sound when the neatly parked toy vehicles were put away. They would adorn the drive again when Agy came back.

I will slowly pick up the scattered threads of my life as it was before the bundle of life and energy landed upon us. The aches and pain will reclaim their lost place. Problems and fears will also once again take centre stage. The laughter and giggles will soon give way to frowns and worry lines. The sleepless nights that had vanished will reappear with a vengeance. New games will have to be conjured to fill empty time. I will have to learn to live on two time zones to catch a glimpse of the beloved face on a screen. Bless technology. Yes an old woman to have to live again till her little buddy comes back and makes her feel again.

Bye Bye little one. God bless you!

another day in paradise

Got up this morning to some shattering news. A donor we had counted on to carry on our work has rescinded on his promise. This meant we were in deep trouble. In normal circumstances I would have been completely devastated were it not for the fact that I was on a high: you see yesterday was PTM day and I had been injected with my dose of my preferred stimulant:the smiles and hugs of my eight little Angels. That also meant that their dreams and morrows took centre stage and thus the option of dejection and depression was a no no!

Sunday was a perfect day, a lovely blue sky, a warm sun and the feel of winter in the air. We reached the school early and as it was also result day we headed towards the classes of our proteges. But as we reached the first floor we were greeted by a smart class XI student who requested us to first visit their science project.Needless to say we did and spent time looking at the models and listening to the young voices as they talked about their creations. The models were innovative and interesting and it was a special moment. Then it was time to make our way to each class for the anticipated result. I was a little anxious as any parent would be. Took me back many years when I use to do the same for my girl. But all anxiety was in vain as I got glowing reports in each and every class. Our kids had once again excelled. What a proud moment it was. I signed all the report cards with delight.

Our serious task completed it was time to have fun. We sat in the grounds and all the children came and shared their stories. There were many, each one special and blessed. It was really rewarding to see these very special children happy and brimming with self confidence. A far cry from the day they first entered the school. Even little Manisha had her tales to recount. Then an excited voice told me that the tuck shop was open. All eight kids charged to the shop and had their fill of frooties, chocolates and biscuits. Agastya my grandson who never misses a PTM when he is in town as Utpal Bhaiya is his special pal was having a great time running all over the place and playing with the kids and of course eating all the goodies usually not on his menu! We basked in the balmy mood as long as we could but the clock was ticking too fast and it was time to leave. So goodbyes were said and Agatya gave Utpal a special hug. Did they both know they would not be meeting for some time?

The ride back home was quiet as usual as one was lost in thoughts. The question up most on my mind was undoubtedly: Will I be able to fulfill the fragile dreams of these wonderful kids?

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walk the talk

I entered the world of disability quite by accident. In hindsight it seems it was preordained. My first encounter with the Giri Nagar slums was for purely personal reasons. I had gone to meet Mataji, a healer, with the hope that she would cure me of the depression I had allowed myself to seek in post the demise of both my parents. She did much more than that. She was a true changemaker. But that is another story waiting to be told.

I often spent long moments sitting on the step of Mataji’s home watching the world go by, a world I felt strangely comfortable in. Perhaps it was because it was so very different to mine. Anyway it is while sitting on the doorstep which was on the street that I first saw Manu and got my first exposure to the plight of one who is disabled. Manu touched a deep chord in me and stirred emotions that I find hard to describe. Let us simply say that even today when I think of that instant I am covered in goosebumps. At first I just watched too frightened to ask any question. But then mustered the courage to hear a story that was heart wrenching. I do not know how it happened but I heard myself making a silent promise to myself, one that no one heard but me: One day you will have a home Manu.

The journey had begun. It took years to build the home pledged. And a very circuitous route with many milestones: a spoken English class, a day care for special kids – you see Manu had to have his set of pals – after school support, early education and so on. Till one day we had enough strength to open our residential facility for special people. Manu had his home. It is there that he spent the last days of his life and passed away gently leaving me completely lost. It is then that I realised how much Manu had given me and what an special soul he was. If not for him project why would not have seen the light of day. He proved beyond doubt that NO life is futile and worthless.

Over the years I have pontificated about the plight of special children and adults, about how tenuous their morrows are, about how insecure their life became once they lose their parents, about how little society has done for them, about how much they need to be accepted and loved. And it was for them that Planet Why was conceived. You can understand my dejection as I slowly begin to grasp the fact that Planet Why may never see the light of day and my special children may have to face indignity and disrespect.

All these sombre thoughts have been running in my head as I slowly watch the quietus of planet why and I wonder whether I truly gave it my best. Had I pushed the project adequately? Had I put my heart and soul into it? Was I paying for my new found reclusion that resulted in my isolation from the rich and famous? Should I have shed my disdain for page 3 soirees and slipped into my my high heels more often? How I regret not knowing those who have money. I know that I could convince them were I able to cross their threshold. But what is the point of lamenting now when it is too late. Or is it?

A few weeks back I lost a close one. Strangely this demise came with a rider. It is was not one that could be dealt with an adequate amount of tears and eulogies. This untimely death came with a deafening question: can you walk the talk! Let me elucidate. The one who left us also left a younger sister. She is challenged though no one ever accepted that reality. She lived all her life in a golden cage, jealously protected by those who loved her. No one was willing, as is often the case, to accept that she was special and thus needed special care. All her life she had been made to believe that she was like all others and kept away from the world, as her close ones built one for her within the confines of four walls and peopled by a handful only. Everything in her life was controlled and managed. She had no say whatsoever and the ones who ran her life had no knowledge whatsoever of the needs of a special person. We too never intervened as one would not have been heard and sometimes it is easier to let things be. But the God of Lesser beings had another plan. He took away her close ones in a short span of time leaving her alone but strangely also free. The question was would anyone help her enjoy her freedom.

One could have left her with what remained of her family and done the bare minimum: a few visits, a small gift thrown in, some hugs and comforting words not really meant. But as I said it was time to walk the talk, to remember the spiel on dignity and respect, on care and love. It was time to act and let the long imprisoned soul free. So barely a few days after the departed had been laid to rest I decided to get her out of her walls and into the big world. She would come to project why and be part of our special class. I must admit a little sheepishly that I was a tad apprehensive at first. How would she react? How would the others react? Would she like it? What can I say: she took to the project like a fish to water. She was all smiles and everyone took to this new aunt, for want of a better word. For the first in her life of almost half a century she had something that was really hers: a place to go to every day, friends to interact with, dance it, share a meal with and above all laugh with. I cannot describe how humbled I feel and how overwhelmed.

Was it time to make a last ditch effort for planet why!

it ain’t no easy task

We are again on the look out for a spoken English teacher as Smita our Okhla English teacher is leaving us next month. The search is on and we know it ain’t no easy task. We need someone whose spoken English is good and who is willing to work in a reclaimed garbage dump and who loves children. We remember how tough it was last time.

Last week a young woman came by for an interview. She was armed with certificates, one being an English Hons degree. She seemed a little shy and hesitant but was quick to tell us that this was a her first job interview and she was very nervous. As Smita is still with us we decided to try out this lady as an understudy and take a final decision in a week or so. No week was needed to realise that in spite of her degree, her English was abysmal and non existent. The class was learning opposites and when asked to write the opposite of fat one of our kids confidently wrote THIN on the white board. The new teacher decreed this was wrong as there was a letter missing. Every one was nonplussed: the children, Smita and even the other primary staff. The new teacher then added a G. You can imagine every one’s reaction. At the end of the session students went to the supervisor to tell her that they did not think the new lady could teach them anything. The die was cast. And to crown it all the young woman was constantly mixing yesterday and tomorrow. We knew she had to go. The hunt for an English teacher was still on.

This post is in no way meant to belittle the young person in question. Far from that. My heart actually goes out to her. Imagine the hard work she must have put in, the sacrifices the family must have made so that their daughter could study, the joy she must have felt when she passed her examination not to forget what she must have felt when she was told the job was not hers. This post is meant to once again expose the state of education in our country, particularly education of those who are born on the wrong side of the fence. If you come from a non English speaking home then your only encounter with the language is in school. Now if you go to a Government school it is very likely that your teacher does not speak the language well. I can never forget my first brush with what transpires in an English class in a secondary school. One of our students came to me one day way back in 2001. She was in class VII. She handed me her book and asked me to help her. It was an English course book that was a compilation of essays and extracts from known writers. The page was open on an extract from Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince. The girl brandished a pencil in my direction and asked me to underline the text. You can imagine how perplexed I was. I sat her down and asked her what she wanted me to do. She repeated: Underline! I then asked what happened in class and she told me after some prompting that the teacher sometimes read the lesson, or sometimes didn’t and then explained the meaning in Hindi then told the students to underline the answers to the questions that appeared at the end of the text. The students then learnt the lines by heart and could answer the questions in examinations. Needless to say none of them really knew what the underlined lines meant. As she had been absent for some days she needed the lines underscored so that she could learn them for the test on the next day.

That is what goes on in an English class and if you mug your lines well, as the young teacher must have done, you got good marks, and if you got good marks you could apply for a university course in English (correspondence or evening classes as their marks are never enough for an admission in a DU college) and get your degree. This is what happens to many students from poorer homes and it is when they apply for a job that they often face a reality check. You may wonder what happens to a rich child who does not have sufficient marks. Well he has s/he has many options: a private university or the option to go abroad and sit for a school leaving again. Needless to say these options come at a hefty price and are out of reach for students from underprivileged homes. Yet all the children of India have a right to education, and I would assume a good one. But that is not what happens. The divide exists perennially.

You may wonder how children from humble homes would fear fare in a rich school. Believe you me they would do exceedingly well as they are survivors who know intuitively what is good for them. And I speak first hand as we have 8 such children in what could be called a good school. All eight are top of their class. So if given the chance they deserve, all kids would shine. It is time we thought about them and did something.

growth and development

The recent success of the F1 tamasha proved once again the terrible and growing divide between the rich and the poor in our country, a divide growing by the minute. A thought provoking essay in a leading magazine poses the question that we all need to ask ourselves: Is India doing marvellously well, or is it failing terribly?

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realise that India may look well to some but is in a abysmal situation for a vast majority. The incisive article throws some disturbing statistics. Believe it or not Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of a wide range of basic social indicators: life expectancy, child survival, fertility rates, immunisation rates, and even some (not all) schooling indicators such as estimated “mean years of schooling”. Not something to be proud of. And that is not all. We in India have the highest proportion of underweight children in the world! Something that should make us hand our head in shame particularly when one thinks of the food fiestas we see on the other side of the fence be it at nuptials or holy festivities. And what about the enormous quantities of nourishment that finds its way into the garbage of many.

One again does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that at one of the spectrum India is going richer by the second: glitzy malls, seven star hotels, opulent homes, luxury hospitals, fancy schools are some of the visible indicators of this fact. Yet at the other end of the same spectrum schools are pathetic and health care practically non Growth growth can be very helpful in achieving development, but this requires active public policies to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are widely shared, and also requires—and this is very important—making good use of the public revenue generated by fast economic growth for social services, especially for public health care and public education. So if all had gone well the growth that is so blatant should have entailed significant development. But here once again our rulers have failed us completely. What we seem to be witnessing is the opposite. As the rich get better schools, schools for the poor get worse and worse. As the rich get swankier hospitals the poor are left with quacks and overcrowded ones. And so on.

Growth that should in an ideal situation have promised marked improvement in social indicators seems to have done nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary. The article cites how biscuit manufacturers attempted to hijack the government’s midday meal programme and though they have not managed to get what they sought, they are still at it and despite much vigilance and resistance from activist quarters (and the Supreme Court), they seem to have made significant inroads into child feeding programmes in several states. The share of the pie is too tempting to let go.

Why has there been such a massive neglect of the interests of the poor is the question that needs to be asked. The authors offer some insight: could it be a reflection of the good old inequalities of class, caste and gender that have been around for a long time though it does seem that these are diminishing. Or could it be the growing influence of corporate interests on public policy and democratic institutions does not particularly facilitate the reorientation of policy priorities towards the needs of the unprivileged. A good example would be the growing medical insurance business and the private hospitals nexus. I guess it is both. But I also think that there is another cause for neglect of the poor and this is first hand knowledge. It seems that greed and money power have leached us of all compassion and sensitivity and turned one slice of Indians into heartless and unconcerned souls. We encounter aberrations every day and turn our face away. It could be a child begging, a child working and we simply turn our face away. But will the fragile castles we have surreptitiously build stand the test of time. I wonder.

The authors conclude by saying; There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress…. Food for thought.

you take care of them God

I know the clock is ticking and it will soon be time to lay planet why to rest. Yes we have just 2 months left. 31/12/2011 is D day. This was something decided upon some time back. I had written about this at the beginning of the year and left it in the hands of the God of lesser beings. And I know I must walk the talk.

For the past year we have put our best foot forward and tried to ‘sell’ planet why to the best of our ability. For me it has always been first and foremost a home for my special children. A haven where they can live and laugh their way through life. A place where their dignity remains intact no matter how disabled they may be. A place where they would be cared for till the very end. The remaining part of Planet why was always secondary: what was needed to make it all happen. I wonder if I too had forgotten my priorities while pitching for planet why. Two poignant occurrences brought me back on course.

The first was consequent to the demise of my cousin last week. His sudden and untimely death was most felt by his younger sibling who is mentally challenged. With her brother gone she has no one left in the world, no one to love her. True there are some who will take care of her because of duty or fear of social reprisal but not with their hearts. And who can blame them: the sister is middle aged, not pretty and can be extremely demanding. As long as her mother and brother were alive, she reigned supreme, today she is relegated to a corner as what was her home is now her sister in law’s and her kin’s. This is a situation I have often talked about whenever children with disabilities are the subject of conversation. Today the situation is at my doorstep. We have stepped in and the orphaned sister now comes to our special class every day. Needless to say the family was more than eager to send her. But it is not easy for someone who never stepped out of her home let alone meet people with disabilities to leave the only safe environment she knew and step into a world that has always been kept away. Poor soul she is trying her best to adjust. Maybe she knows deep in her heart that this is the only option she has. Planet Why was conceived for people like her.

The second occurrence was a message on FB urging me to read a note written by the mother of a special child. I have never been so moved as I was reading the poignant piece entitled: will you let him drink the wind. I urge you to read this brave and moving piece where a mother shares her angst at the plight of her child. It is an extremely raw, powerful and passionate picture of the reality of one who lives and loves a special child. It reflects the utter helplessness of a parent who cannot begin to imagine what would be the future of her child when she is gone. Something she cannot bear. So the ultimate cry, the ultimate entreaty to God: You take him, God, before us. Well before us. Before we lose the strength in our limbs to care for him properly. Before by his constant never-ending demands, he leaches away our love for him from our souls. You take him. I can only say Chapeau Bas!

Reading those words was by far the most heart wrenching experience. I sat stunned and silent for a long time. She had by her words brought to light all the issues that had been tormenting me since the day I decided to throw open the doors of project why to special children. What would their morrows hold and how did one safeguard them. Or could one really do so. That was the question thrown by this moving appeal. Had I been too naive or daring thinking I could. How small I feel and how humbled.

Maybe it is time I said : you take care of them God.