popotamus and boman

Thanks to the wonder of Skype I get to see and talk to my grandson every day. Never mind that the 12 hour time difference muddles our good mornings and good nights! Anyway we get to live a few moments together and that is nothing short of wonderful. Agastya treats me to his version of daily trivia. The latest was his visit to the zoo where he saw a popotamus! He then went on all fours to show me what the popotamus was all about. Then it was showtime for the new toys he had be bribed with: the transformer, the car, the truck. Yes the kid has to be bribed because he does not like the new school he goes to. Understandable as till now he was attending the project why creche where he was king of the castle and the centre of all attention. This despite my repeated pleas to treat him as any other kid. But all pleas well on deaf ears: he was Anou Ma’am grandson.

I keep or at least try to keep a straight face when his little face crumples, his radiant smile vanishes at the mention of school. I try to convince him that his school is nice, his new ma’ams kind but my heart is not there. I guess both of us will have to get used to the new reality. I need to accept that he is growing up. But I know that from now on in our home a hippopotamus will always be called a popotamus just as an AC is a thanda machine (cold machine) and cars are vroom vrooms.

My thoughts go back to another little boy, now all grown up, who added the word Boman to my vocabulary. It was ‘bhagavan‘ or God and was to this little fellow anything that was big, made of inert material and had to be shown respect. Never mind the creed! The little boy has grown up and now does not use the word anymore. His God has now assumed an identity and a creed. I only wish all Gods remained Bomans. The world would be a much kinder place. I still find myself praying to Boman when things get tough. Maybe he is the real God of Lesser Beings I so often quote. Children make the world a better place and give us the best lessons in life. Why then do we not listen.

Far from that. We commit the terrible sin to letting them down and even abusing them. Every day stories of such abuse hit us in the face but we chose to look away and shut our ears. I urge you to try and listen, just once if you can. And if you do miracles will enfold and light your life. And if each of one did then the world would be a safer place for children at least. I wonder what would have happened to Utpal, Babli, Meher, Manisha and so many others if I had not listened.

Today little Falak is fighting a lonely battle. Every breath she takes is a loud scream that she wants us to listen to, if not for her, at least for all of India’s suffering children. Will we hear her?

Nobody’s child

She is battling alone for her life. She is just 2! She was named Falak. It means star. Wonder who gave her that name. But it was the right one as this little girl refuses to stop shining. Her story is nothing short of barbaric. She has been abused in the most inhuman way imaginable. Broken bones, smashed head, burnt and bitten, not by a animal but by the worst predator possible: a human being. If she lives the doctors fear brain damage. A beautiful little life has been maimed forever. And the whys scream to be heard but only silence resounds. A disturbing silence… the silence that always surrounds abused children. It is time we heard her cries and with her the cries of all the abused children of India! The children who have no voice, the children who are no one’s vote banks, the children we refuse see, hear let alone help. The children who beg on the streets, the children who are abused in orphanages, the children who are abused in their homes by those they trust most. The children who remain invisible.

Falak’s poignant story has to be heard. Maybe this little star’s life has its own meaning: to be the voice of all the suffering children of our land. How much more will it take to make us get up and scream. Are we so inured, so insensitive, so cynical, so heartless, so cold blooded, so blind.

What dark secrets does little Falak’s story hide: abuse, trafficking. Why did she land in the home of a minor who also seems to have been abused. What was the sinister game plan for this little toddler. What made it all go so terribly wrong. Questions that may never be truly answered. And even if they were what punishment will be meted out to the perpetrators. A few years in jail?

How long will we remember Falak. I guess as long as another story takes her place. One that will engage us for some time till another comes along. Switch on your TV and you will see that it has already happened: the cricket debacle is now the order of the day, then will come elections and so on. Falak will soon be forgotten by the media.

Falak deserves more than that. She cannot be made into another political issue and used to settle scores. The CEO of our city promised help. Let the report come out. Delhi Government will extend all possible support. We will do whatever is required said she!

What report! And what does whatever required means. Let me tell you what it means: it does not just mean some money for her treatment but it means life long love and care for this child who may be scarred for life in more ways than one. It means giving her a home and not throwing her in an orphanage where she will soon be abused like the little girl like her who died a few days ago. It means walking the talk all the way. If she lives, Falak may suffer permanent brain damage and that means she will join the sad rank of the mentally challenged girl child. In one of the numerous debates that aired the day Falak’s story broke, a lady did ask the question of who would adopt this child of God and take her into their home and above all heart. I would like to have said: I will but stop short of it. At my advanced age can I really give her what she deserves? Do I have the strength to be there for her 100% for times to come. No. Even if I do have the heart, I do not have enough time. Nurturing a child like her needs much more than I can give. I know it as God has already sent me a little Angel named Utpal whose life and dreams he has entrusted me with.

Falak is battling like a star all alone in a big and scary hospital. She is battling so that we can hear the voice of children who are abused and hurt every day. Her life has a meaning, a mission just like Manu’s had. No life is useless. Every one is part of a plan we have to unravel. Maybe she simply wants us to see with our hearts and take up the cudgels for all the suffering children who have no voice. Children are not vote banks hence they do not matter. I was appalled and amused when the Leno remarks got the support of UK politicos. But come to think of it they were just protecting their vote bank!

But who cares about vote banks. We are talking of a child who has been abused in the worst way possible and whose every breath urges us to hear, see and jump out of our comfort zones. Will we before it is too late for Falak and all the hurting children of India.

I am proud to be in Indian

I will never forget Ram’s dying words: Don’t lose faith in India! I won’t. I refuse to! In spite of all that urges me not to: the innumerable scams, the rampant corruption, the sinister agendas. I do hang my head in shame at the grim statistics that stare you in the eye: the 5000 children dying of malnutrition each and every day, the 40% of undernourished the children, the 60% of stunted children for whom no hope remains, the 21 million children who do not go to school. I am outraged when I hear that children in our capital city have to study in the cold because their school is a flimsy tent. What about the ones who sit on a cold floor because the purchase of desks takes 3 long years and more because those whom we have chosen to rule us cannot get their act together. I am incensed at the failed promises, the usurped rights, the hijacked hopes of voiceless people. I am repulsed at the cynical attitude and unacceptable immobility of those that have a voice but do not use it. Yes there is a lot that pushes one to lose faith in this land, but I still refuse to and say with loud and clear I am proud to be an Indian.

I am proud of the millions who in spite of being let down in the most abject way continue to live with dignity and grace. I salute the man who each and every day wakes up at unthinkable hours to go to the vegetable market and buy his ware, then patiently and lovingly sets up his cart before going to his appointed area where he walks lanes after lanes notwithstanding the scorching heat or biting cold, selling his vegetables till late at night so that his family can eat and his kids go to school. I salute the woman who brings up her family with courage and dignity bearing the burden of a drunk husband she never chose; the carpenter who sits on the roadside in the hope that someone will need him that day; the farmer who tills his land with grit and determination to ensure that we do not go hungry; the soldier who stands watch in the most extreme conditions  so that we are safe whilst his superiors perfect the art of enriching themselves at his cost. I salute the children who study in unthinkable conditions and still manage to dream and hope. I salute the millions who have turned survival into a dignified art of living. The millions who will not give up the values we are proud of. They are the ones who allow me to scream loud and clear: I am proud to be an Indian. They are the ones that make me want to continue walking the road less travelled until the very end.

It is with immense pride that I hoisted our national flag with the project why children this morning and sang our national anthem with fervour. It is for these very children that I have to hold on to Ram’s dying words and never lose faith in India.

Happy Republic Day

an absolute shame

I normally do not check my Facebook account in the day. I did this morning. As I scrolled through the home page I was appalled to see a post that said:ONE TENTED CLASSROOM & 390 STUDENTS OF DEL GOVT CO-ED SEC SCHOOL! There were pictures to substantiate this unbelievable fact. The school is in Sundar Nagri, New Delhi 10093. A part of the city the likes of you and I may not exists but is still very much a part of our Capital. The very capital where two days from now India will celebrate its 63 Republic Day and showcase its misplaced might.

In all likelihood the children of this school will, perhaps tomorrow hoist a flag and proudly sing the National Anthem with fervour and enthusiasm. Now I ask you a simple question. Are these children not citizens of India? Don’t they have the rights enshrined in the very Constitution we are celebrating? Do they not have the Right to Education that states that schools should meet certain basic infrastructure requirements like a building, a library, toilets etc. Then why this aberration!

Imagine your child having to spend hours in the cold without a proper roof on his head, let alone a desk and chair. Having to learn in the biting cold when hands freeze and minds numb. What about summer? Imagine 320 children crammed under a flimsy tent that must be hot as hell? I guess you would bring the roof down! And yet these children bear the ordeal day after day with a simple hope: that of getting the much lauded education that is meant to open new doors. These children dare to dream and dream they must. But should we not all lend our voice to their inaudible one and set matters right. Is this not a cause that we should espouse or are we only going to champion causes that affect us.

How can the powers that be accept such a situation and allow it to happen. It take minutes for our Parliamentarians to adopt a bill to raise their own salaries. Why is it that such a glaring aberration does not make them budge and speak. When will we stop letting our children down. I am livid and want to hang my head in shame.

The Republic of…..

On January 26th India celebrates its 63rd Republic Day. There will be the usual parade with all its pomp and drama. On display the might of the armed forces, the famed tableaux representing our diversity ans skin deep progress, the school children, the folk dancers, the horses, camels and elephants. India will put its best foot forward for the world to see. Watching all this will be our so called rulers eager to take ownership of all on show. Forget about the price tag attached to this spectacle. Millions will tune on to their TV sets and feel a sense of national pride. Are we not the biggest Democracy!

For a day we are pushed to forget what goes on behind the show. But can we. It is time we asked ourselves what we are truly the Republic of? The choices are many. Let us start with hunger. In spite of the glitzy, high tech and affluent image we want to project – we have the maximum billionaires in the world; guess it goes with the size of our population – we  have the worst record when it comes to malnutrition. 5000 children still die every day of malnourishment. Our statistics are worst than those of sub Saharan Africa. 42% of our children are malnourished! Recently our CEO declared that this was a national shame. Wonder why it took so long and what will be the outcome of his statement. So are we the Republic of Hunger?

Let us continue to find the right definition for our Republic. Corruption is what comes next. I guess everyone agrees on that one. 2011 witnessed a lot of hue and cry on the issue. But again to no avail as voices of dissent were overpowered and futile and pointless solutions set into motion. We all know nothing will happen and corruption will remain intact. And this across the board from the small street vendor who wants to eek a living to the big corporates who want their pitch accepted, everyone will have to grease a palm confidently proffered. It almost seems that we cannot live in our dear Republic without mastering this art. Are we the Republic of Corruption?

Are we then the Republic of failed promises. Perhaps. Look at all the lofty promises made by the powers that be, promises meant to be a panacea to all ills but that get hijacked on the way and become new avenues to enrich the executors. The examples are endless. Look at all the grand schemes that are heralded ad infinitum and bear complex acronyms: ICDP, MNREGA, XZYZ and so on. One of our erstwhile leaders did admit that not even 10% trickles down to the beneficiary.

Are we the Republic of the absurd where politicians of all hues promise free laptops in a land where millions still sleep hungry. Where a politician asks a school child to tie his shoe lace at a public function and when admonished simply answers that his doctor has advised him not to bend. Has he not heard of slip on shoes, maybe one should send him a pair!

Are we a Republic of extremes where the rich get richer and the poor poorer by the minute. The gap is widening in every walk of life.  Let us talk about our children. Instead of progressing our children are  are regressing. The education infrastructure is abysmal. According to a recent article India has a shortage of 1.5 million teachers. Now don’t tell me cannot find teachers if we truly wanted to. Sanctioned amounts are never released. On the flip side schools for those who can pay are proliferating. Education is a lucrative business. The state of health is no better. Health care for the poor is lamentable: overcrowded hospitals where you need to wait for months and even years for a simple surgery, quacks who fill in the gap with their half baked knowledge. The rich however are wooed by luxurious hospitals that burgeon by the day and cater to your every whim provided you have the moolah.

Our Republic does not have the will to house its poor. They are left to fend for themselves and come up with solutions often illegal but that soon get the blessings of those in power always on the hunt for new vote banks. You cannot imagine what some of these dwellings look like and what living in them means in the heat of the summer or the winter freeze. Can we called ourselves the Republic of  shame.

We could also be called a republic of feudalism, forgive the paradox but what else would you call a country that is divided along every line possible: caste, religion, gender and economic status. Invisible and impregnable walls separate them and some arrogate to themselves the right to trample others.

You may think that all these are just generalities. Not quite. In the last few days we have had the above stated shoe lace aberration, a woman mercilessly beaten up by a cop, 12 babies dying in 2 days in a state run hospital and more.

A sad picture is it not? But I would like to look at matters in another way. In spite of all the chaos and failures millions of Indian live one day after the other with infinite dignity and courage. Millions of children defy all odds and dare to dream and build a better future. Thousands of Indians have the grit to take the road less travelled and bring usurped smiles back. Faceless millions continue to protect the values and principles many have waylaid. Millions of Indians refuse to give up on their cherished country. We are the Republic of smiles, hope, courage and dignity.

God bless India!

200 points below the best

I have always held that the education system in our country is abysmal. Many like throwing facts and figures at me to prove the contrary but I hold my ground. And I have reason to as I have for the last 12 years seen things first hand. In spite of highfalutin and grandiose programmes launched time and again and in spite of the fact that education has become a constitutional right of every child born on this land, the reality is quite different.

I would have liked to be proved wrong but two recent studies sadly validate my take. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide by the OECD India ranked second last among 73 countries. Even in maths considered India’s forte they only beat Kyrgyzstan. In English reading too they were second last. When scores were compared an Indian eighth grader is at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills. And that is not all Pratham’s seventh Annual Survey of Education Report released last week tells a sorry tale: rising enrolment but declining attendance, over-reliance on private tuition, decline in reading and mathematical ability of children in the age group between 6 and 14.

And yet when Indian children are given a enabling environment they top the chart. So when one reads with profound sadness that an eight grader from India compares to a second grader in China one knows that the fault does not lie with the children but with the system and with each one of us. Just bear with me a little before wondering why I say that we are responsible too.

For the past 12 years we have been working with what one could call Children of a Lesser God: the ones born on the wrong side of the fence, the ones whose parents can barely afford school let alone tuition, the ones who often go astray, the ones whose childhood is hijacked for more reasons than one can count, the ones who start life with a huge handicap and run an unfair race in an insensitive world. They too have rights, education being one of them but here again things are not as should be. The schools they go to are fraught with aberrations: little or no teaching, abusive teachers etc. They move from class to class courtesy the no fail policy. We have students who have ‘passed’ class IV or V and can barely read. The immediate reaction would be to think that something is wrong with the child. Not all all. The same child with a little help and support not only makes up but goes on to top the her or his class. Over the years we have had many such examples, the most stunning one being a young girl who failed class VII thrice an went on to secure the 11th position in Delhi in her XII Boards.

So the fact that the Indian eight grader compares to a second grader from another country is not due to the child’s ability but to the sorry state of affairs in our system. And this state has been aggravated over the years with the widening of the gap between rich and poor, a gap that has percolated to every field even education. Over the years we have seen the commercialisation of education. Education is now a lucrative business that answers  market demands. Hence we have schools for the uber rich, the rich, the not so rich and so on. On the other side of the spectrum, state run schools that now seem to be catering to the poor have seen their standards drop by the minute. Some of the stories the children tell us are beyond belief. Municipal schools in our capital city have no toilets, no drinking water, sometimes no desks. Teachers are indifferent and often brutal and uncaring. How children survive this ordeal and keep their smile and humour is ample proof of their desire to study.

It is time we looked at our state run schools and did something. These schools cater to the millions of underprivileged kids and need to be run efficiently. I have often mooted the idea of a common school for ALL children, schools that should be centers of excellence, schools that should really celebrate the much extolled  unity in diversity, schools were your children and their children would grow and learn together. But as I said earlier we too are responsible for the sorry state of affairs as we will never accept to have our children study with theirs! So a common school however good will remain a chimera.

And then let us not forget that schools now top the charts of lucrative business where the demand is much higher then the supply, and everyone wants a share of the pie. Even our politicians! And then of course let us not forget that poorly educated masses are needed to keep our version of our democracy alive. Till then Indian children will remain 200 points and more below the best.

We however have set in motion our own version of a ‘common school’ by sending 8 of the most deprived children in a good boarding school to prove that the most disadvantaged child can hold is on and outshine others. Till now they have validated our theory in every which way imaginable. They will one day prove indubitably that they are the best.

Missing my boys

My boys have gone. Agastya my grandson is now in the US ready to begin a new chapter in his life. Soon it will be school and new pals and Grandma will have to take a back seat. Utpal also left for his boarding school after spending his winter holidays with me. The house feels empty and Ma’amji a tad lost.

2011 was a very special year as both my boys spent a lot of time with me. Agastya was with us for a good part of the year and even began his schooling in the Project Why creche! The boys spent a lot of time together as even if Uptal was in school, Agastya never missed a single PTM. They got on like a house on fire. When Utpal was at home, Agastya followed him everywhere. They played together, ate together, went to the park together and even bathed together. It was a joy to watch them.

Today is Agastya’s third birthday and I miss him so much. We will connect on skype thanks to the magic of the Internet but it will not be quite the same as having him romp around the house. The tone has been set for 2012: the year of the virtual Nani! Not to mention the disquieting time difference where you do not know when to say ‘good morning’ or ‘good night’. I guess the old biddy will have to get used to it. I must admit that these time zone issues are still alien to me, I belong to the generation when we travelled my ships and body and soul journeyed together.

With Utpal it will be back to the weekly phone call that one never misses and the quick exchange of love filled words punctuated by small demands. I must again admit I look forward to those. So time to organise life around the tow little souls I so dearly miss.

Sunday at the mall

Utpal loves malls. He loves the thrills of the games, enjoys the rides and even had a go at bungee jumping, the kind they have at malls. I must confess that I am the one responsible for introducing him to such activities as when he first went to boarding school the only place close enough to school where we could take him for a treat was the nearby mall! I must also add that he has never been demanding specially as he grew up and was quite happy to go the ersatz option namely his beloved Kal Mandir. But a special treat will always be a visit to the mall. So last week as a reward for having been exceptionally endearing and compliant during his entire winter break, I decided to give him that special treat and find out a mall near our home which had some options for kids.

Before I go on I must be quick to add that I abhor malls and what they represent. I have often penned my views on the subject. To me they are the absolute antithesis of what I think India should be. I shun them and it needs nothing short of miracle to push me in one. But Utpal is an adept at conjuring miracles and this was yet another of them. So on a chilly Sunday morning we set out, my daughter, Utpal, Deepak the young lad who works at home and is Utpal’s best pal and me to conquer the mall. The deal was that Utpal and Deepak would go to the kidzone and Shamika and me would wander around looking at the famed sales. After a few hiccups – the kidzone opened only at one so we had to find an alternative so hurray for the video game parlour – Shamika and I took on the mall. We walked by empty glitzy shops looking at price tags that seemed outrageous even after 40 or 50% mark down and walked around aimlessly. Shamika did manage to find a deal though. 

I spent my time looking around the alleys of the malls that were slowly filling up. The people one saw were not at all potential shoppers but seemed to have come for a Sunday outing. There were middle class families children in tow and of course numerous young couples in need of a place to spend private time. This was quite an eye opener for me and a totally different take on malls. It brought a smile on my face. Unable to afford the exorbitant prices on offer, middle class India has adopted their own own brand of mall culture: the new place to hang out. Not a bad idea, warm in winter, cool in summer and dry in the monsoon. There are free places to sit and some not too costly coffee shops. And no moral policing as is the case in parks! My thoughts went back to times gone by and I remembered with a smile our  hang outs of days of yore: the zoo, a park  or a roadside dhaba in winter and probably a morning movie show in summer!

After our stroll meant to kill time till Utpal had his fill of games and rides we went to join him at the kidzone situated next to the food court. Here again we saw middle class people enjoying a meal has the eateries are still affordable. Many of the ones located in normal markets have outlets in malls. Andif shops were quasi empty the food court was filled to capacity with long queues at the coupon sales counter. Needless to say I did stand patiently and Utpal and his pal got their fill of chips and other fast food fare. 

Thankfully it was soon time to go as Utpal decreed he had had his fill. I had had more than enough. One the drive back I wondered whether the likes of Radhey our three wheeler driver and his family would one day also join the throngs of people enjoying a lazy day off at a swanky mall. Maybe not though am not certain if malls have a ‘rights reserved’ tag. I do feel that they too should adopt their own brand of mall culture and increase the much sought footfalls. Cheers to incredible India.

the art of giving – Uptal’scycle

Utpal got a new bicycle for Xmas. He was thrilled and rode it all day with a huge smile on his face and proud to show off that he could ride a cycle without trainer wheels. The same evening he took it to the nearby park to show it to all his friends. The next day when it was park time again he came into my office and asked me softly whether he could give is old cycle to Amit. Amit it transpired was his special park friend and the son of a daily wage labourer. Of course you can were my words! I gave him a big hug and off he went both cycles in tow.

After he left I sat in my office for a long time, my thoughts going back in time to the day when I first held this very special child in my arms. What a long way he had come. He had been born on the wrong side of the fence and suffered unbelievable pain at an age where children should know only love. From the excruciating pain of third degree burns to the agonizing pain of seeing his mom simply vanish, he had seen it all. At the tender age of four he was sent to a boarding school where he cried himself to sleep night after night his head filled with questions that he could barely articulate let at all convey. He slowly adapted to his new life and healed somewhat when he was again faced with court appearances and tough decisions he had to take. The questions multiplied, the answers were still not forthcoming. That is when he almost broke down and we had to seek medical help. The smile that once was his trademark had simply disappeared to be replaced by anger and rage.

In the last months Utpal has slowly accepted to come out of his shell and voice his fears and we have tried to assuage them gently. The smile has come back and with it a new found confidence. Today his simple request was a true gift not just to his little park pal but to his Ma’amji. His gesture was proof that he was finally feeling secure and protected. It was also proof that over the years he had imbibed values dear to me and understood the true meaning of the art of giving. May God always bless him.

When will they get their act together

It is nursery admission time again. Time for schools to raking in the moolah! The sale of roms is expected to bring in 1200 crores rupees. Now we all know the situation on the ground: not enough schools and too many applicants. This has been the same story year after year. Parents have to apply to umpteen schools each charging a whopping amount for a mere form. How can I forget the little boy rejected by 18 schools for no fault of his. That was three years ago!

I was appalled and bemused by the answer given by our eminent CEO when quizzed on the issue:  These days one is seeing news items highlighting how parents are worried over children not getting admissions in schools. This is happening because our government has been building awareness that children from all sections of society must go to school. Hence, now all parents want their children to go to school said she! Now Dear Lady this has been going on for the last three years at least if not more.

This year the problem was closer home. The coordinator of our women centre is seeking admission for his 3+ year old. He has already collected and filled many forms, some at the cost of 700 Rs and more and is running from pillar to post. You see he lives in an area where there are no good schools in a 3km radius, his child is male, he is a first child and hence has no siblings, his parents are not alumni of any school so he runs the race with a huge handicap. That is not all. Some schools have introduced new criteria. It has been named RAA or Representative Affirmative Action. Wonder what that is? Well private schools have decided to reserve 15% seats to children of Doctors, Engineers and Lawyers. India really seems to be fine tuning the quota syndrome. And the logic mooted is strange and perplexing and stated as follows: The purpose of introducing this criterion is to provide a common platform of education to children belonging to families working in different fields. This is an effort towards building a glorious nation. I am at a loss of words.Some schools are also offering extra points for twins, and of course there are extra points for the children of single parents. Our little candidate has none of these advantages. The situation is Dantesque.

Whether he will make it to a good school is a million dollar question.

Is Government school an option? Not quite as one knows of the reputation of these schools. Sadly they have not become the centre of excellence they should have been and remain in a poor if not abysmal state. We have first hand knowledge of this as all project why children attend them and share their day-to-day experiences. You have to hear them to believe them. Dickensian schools seem like heaven compared to what goes on in some of our state run institutions.

Every child now has the right to a good education. That is what our law makers wants us to believe. By this yardstick all schools in our country should be enabled to provide quality education. Education should in no way be a commercial enterprise an a way of enriching one’s self at the expense of helpless parents. Why should forms cost from 500 to 1000 Rs? The solutions proffered like the lottery system also do not make any sense. Come on! Should a child’s future be left to lady luck.

It is time the Government seriously walked the talked and not trivialise the issue as it seems to be doing. It is time they put their act together. The children of India deserve the best.