Milk for the Gods, why not for a child

Today is Shivratri. Millions of devotees will pour millions of gallons of milk on Shiv Lingas across the country. I have always found the ritual of pouring milk over stone deities deplorable particularly in a land where millions go to bed hungry every night and thousands of children die of malnutrition every day. 5013 to be exact. This is no exaggeration, it is the sad reality substantiated by cold and harsh statistics. Nothing to be proud of. And the milk devotees will pour today will find its way to a gutter.

A Facebook messages urges us to offer only a tablespoon of milk on the Shiv ling. In India 1000’s of children die of malnutrition, donate the milk to children and gain blessing from their families. I could not agree more. I am a Hindu and proud of being one, but I also feel that my religion gives me the flexibility of interpreting rituals with sagacity and keeping in mind the reality I live in. So if I am asked to offer milk on this blessed day then it could be a teaspoon or even a drop or why not just touch the packet to the deity and then give it to one of the innumerable children that crowd the lanes of temples. I am sure God will approve and send the sought blessing.

My mind goes back to the teachings of Ramaksrishna so lovingly taught to me by my father. Ramakrishna coined the term  daridra-narayana, God in the form of the poor, and asked us to serve Him: ‘Where should you go to seek God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first?’ And what better way then by giving the milk we earmarked for a stone deity to the first hungry child we come across.

It is time our rituals got revisited. The situation in our country is alarming: 42% of all the underweight children in the world live in India. 5000 children die every day due to preventable diseases and about 47% of adolescent girls in India are undernourished. Keeping this in mind waste of food of any kind is unacceptable be it the honey and milk of our religious rituals, the waste at weddings and other celebrations or the grains rotting in the open. True we can blame the government for not having sufficient silos or for not implementing pertinent legislation but the buck does not stop there. We as a nation are also responsible and must do our bit. Perhaps we could start today by donating the milk pledged to lord Shiva to hungry children who are the true image of God.

Shocking but true

This picture was sent to me this morning. Look at it well. The picture was taken in a Government run school in, hold your breath: Delhi! You may recall the fact many schools are bereft of desks. This school is not. But the desks provided to the little ones are too big so the poor dears have to study standing!

This is yet another aberration doled out by our  rulers. One wonders why they always get it so wrong. It is a known fact that many state run schools are in an abysmal condition. The only asset they have is a piece of prime property. I guess someone did get it right once upon a time. But then it all fell apart. Instead of enabling buildings many schools are still run in ramshackle tents that barely protect the children from the vagaries of the weather. Then if building there is then these are often poorly maintained. The loos have no doors. The classrooms have no bulbs and so on. Then comes the furniture. Many schools have children sitting and learning on the floor.

One hoped that if furniture was provided it would be at the least fit to be used. Alas the picture above shows you the sad reality: desks that are far too high for small children and with such desks who needs chairs. The kids can learn standing. While I can still see the logic of children sitting in the floor and learning- we do that at project why- I can not begin to comprehend how anybody can think of children learning while standing at their desk. One would have thought that had the desk been wrongly made, the school authorities would reject them rather than put them to use as we see in the snapshot. I presume a carpenter could have solved the issue for a few rupees.

Such an absurd situation makes one see red I agree but also raises many questions. Do those in authority not care about the education of poor children as seems evident? Poor children have no voice and neither do their parents. Try doing this in an upmarket school and see what happens. Is the Right to Education only for a chosen few? Seems so as no one cares about the condition of state run schools, particularly those in the poorer areas of the city. Schools should be centres of excellence where a child can learn and grow and carve her/his future. With such desks it almost seems as if someone is playing a cruel joke on innocent souls.

another form of gender bias

Strange but gender bias has hit me hard. Perhaps it was because of a recent invitation urging women to ‘look pretty‘. I must confess it did bring the point home. I was in combat mode. The anger had barely subsided when another aberration was heard on the news. Women demand mobile phones, they are not demanding toilets stated our esteemed Environment Minister. Now what does that mean, I guess only a man can enlighten me. Needless to say the women activists are up in arms. The polemic will be fun to watch! I will just say that I cannot see what phones and toilets have in common. Beats me.

However gender bias raised its ugly head in another way altogether. I was asked by a funder to provide details about the number of children we had at project why. I asked my staff to give me the latest figures and was astonished to see that at the women centre the number of boys in the primary sections had fallen. This was very surprising and led me to ask the coordinator why this happened. The answer was most astonishing. It seemed that parents were enrolling their sons in private schools. These ran in the morning and hence the boys had stopped coming to the project. The schools in question were what I call teaching shops that have mushroomed all over the city, particularly in less privileged areas. They run in small buildings but boast grandiose names like ‘Rose Valley’, ‘English Academy’, ‘Sundar Public school’, ‘SK Convent’ etc, each stating that they are ‘English medium public school’. My forays into some of the them revealed that English was barely spoken by principal and staff. The fees in these schools range from 300 to 500 a month. The parents who are eager to send their sons to such schools are reluctant to send their daughters to the English stream of government schools for reasons better known to them.

Public school is the name private schools go by in India. The lure of these public schools was first brought to light by Kiran in the most candid way possible when she asked me whether my daughter had been to one! Kiran now studies in a swank public school. Her admission was nothing short of a nightmare.  Kiran is also the one who told me last week that there were only 10 girls in her class though the number of boys was 35. In her matter of fact way she added: parents send their boys to better schools. Yes you are right darling child this is a sad reality that cuts across society. Boys get a better deal. Girls have to fight every step of the way. Time we did something!

All ladies to look pretty..

All ladies to look pretty were the words inscribed on the bottom of an invitation to dinner next to the usual ‘dress code’. Needless to say it made me see red. The invite in question was from highly respectable, well educated etc people. To many it may seem innocuous. To others a tad cheeky. For me it was yet another sad reflection of gender insensitivity. Women are meant to look pretty. Full stop. Never mind their intelligence, ability, skills. Eye candy, that is all that is important. I was livid. That such words should come from educated people made matters worse. What is the point on harping over gender issues if people do not walk the talk. Some may argue that I should have taken the words at face value: someone trying to be trendy. True I could have, but somehow they disturbed me deeply as they were directed at me. Gender bias had entered my home.

My mind went on overdrive. How could anyone write such a thing? In spite of women having conquered every field imaginable with success, what mattered was whether they were pretty or not. And what does pretty mean: well dressed, well groomed, well proportioned? I do not know and do not care because my canons of beauty are quite different. But I am digressing. Let us come back to the main issue: gender insensitivity.

Gender bias is rampant in our society; why else would we mourn the birth of a daughter and celebrate that of a son. I can never forget how the film Matrubhoomi was shunned by one and all and what disturbing questions it raised. When I did manage to see it I felt physically sick just as I had after viewing Leaving Las Vegas. You and I may not realise it but being a girl is a curse in large parts of our society. A girl is unwanted in the very land she is worshiped in. We even fall so low as to kill her in the womb if we can. Statistics are proof of this. And if she is allowed to live, she is never made to forget that she is only a girl. We see this every day in our work. Girls are not fed the same as their male siblings, their schools fees are not paid, they are never send for tuition and as soon as they are old enough, their childhood is hijacked and they become mother’s little helpers. When they grow they are married to someone and their role widened: cook, clean but also produce children and preferably a boy. I still cannot understand why family planning programmes do not include awareness on gender determination which is the sole prerogative of the man. How many women are abused for not giving birth to a son! It is time the equations were set right but how is the question. We are trying to do this every day but it is not easy task as we need to deal with deeply seated mindsets.

One would have thought that things were different across the fence. But the words on the invite proved me wrong. In high society too women have their role defined: in the present occurrence to be pretty. True money has freed us from the cooking and cleaning roles. In lieu we have been given a new avatar that of looking good. How many girls suffer for not meeting the standards. The growth of the slimming industry is proof of that. The new credo is cosmetic surgery and Botox mornings that have surreptitiously replaced the Tupperware ones. The look pretty industry is on the rise.

I am not one of the burn the bra brigade. I like my femininity and am proud of it. To be a woman is a wonderful journey I would never trade. Yet I am a person first with hear and brains and would like to be respected for that. I guess I speak for many.


A valentine day surprise

Valentine Day has never meant much to me. I have not been one to be swayed by hearts and red roses. I have fond memories of making cards for my father as a little girl but that is where it ended.  The rank commercialisation of the event has led me to shun it and to me 14 February is simply another day. Quite frankly I had even forgotten today was St Vs! On the other hand though I do not quite understand the hype attached to the day, I feel indulgent towards the young ones who celebrate it and let us not forget the flower vendors who make a killing. Celebrating love can do no harm.

As usual I came to my office in the wee hours of the morning and switched my computer. A quick check of my inbox and then a browse on FB. There was a comment addressed to me that read:  reading your book. was an absolute delight. Thank you so much for penning it and teaching me so much as I read through the letters. I was pleasantly surprised as it had been some time any one had mentioned Dear Popples let alone write about it. I clicked on the link provided and stumbled upon a write up entitled: coffee, a book and some love. I read on and was overwhelmed to see a review of Dear Popples the book I had written a couple of years back. It was a perfect Valentine treat as Dear P is a love story written with abundant love. Revisiting it made my day special.

The author of the article has summed up better than I could ever do the essence of  this book: Dear Popples is a favorite evening ritual, reading, re-reading and understanding. It helps me imagine a future for love, selflessness and happiness. It shows me the importance of being human, and understanding that every child is a miracle born with dreams. It awakens me to the beauty of growing up, and guides you with a motherly compassion: an ageless whisper urging you to make a difference, to bring a smile, to join hands. Thank you Lakshmi.

I browsed the thousands of images of Popples I have and selected this one. I must admit this heart sways me.

If you wish to read dear Popples you can order it here. And should you read it and enjoy it do let me know.

Say a little prayer for her

We heard some terrible news. Meher’s father is on his death bed. Too many years of drinking hooch have had their toll on him. He is in his village and everyone has given up hope. He wants to see Meher one last time and in a few hours Meher will make the journey to bid farewell to her dad. I cannot begin to imagine what she will go through. Children have their won way of dealing with tragedy and pain. She has had more than her share.

My mind leaps back to the moment she came into my life almost four years ago. On that fateful day she walked into my heart. There was no looking back. A road map was made for her: plastic surgery to give her back her hands and then a sound education to ensure that in spite of her scars she can craft her destiny. I knew that once again it was the God of Lesser beings at work as everything fell in place. A set of protagonists appeared on cue and Meher took her first steps in a new life, far removed from the dark hole in which she lived and the garbage dumps she searched for food. Post surgery it was time for school and that day too dawned. Meher has now been studying in a boarding school for the past two years and will be promoted to class II in April.

Meher kept her side of the deal to a T. She bore all the pain of her complex surgeries that lasted over a year like a champ. Then she took to her school like a fish to water walking in every heart that came her way and bringing back exceptional report cards. We were on cloud nine. Till yesterday when the news of her father’s condition was broken to us.

As I write these words someone has left to fetch her from school and in a few hours she will board a train that will take her to her father’s death bed. My heart goes out to her. I know she will need all our love and compassion when she gets back. Till then all I can beseech you all to do is say a little prayer for her.

victims of our defeaning silence

Little Falak is still battling for her life, her battered body stubbornly fighting infections and fevers. She is holding on as the sinister series of events that brought her to this scary hospital bed enfolds. She is holding on as best she can so that we hear the silent and desperate cries of little girls like her. She was born in the deadliest place in the world for a girl child. I do not say that; the mighty and credible UN does. When the Fates wrote her destiny they must have conspired to alter it a little. It was time said the Parcae to give a voice to the suffering little girls of India. Falak’s life was to be a mission. Is she an Angel of God.

In all likelihood she was battered by her present minder. In her case a 14 year old whose life seems to nothing short of a horror tale. When we first heard baby Falak’s story everyone wanted the person who had committed such atrocities punished in the worst way imaginable. I would like you to hold your verdict and hear her story. She was first abused physically by the one who should have loved her, cared for her, helped her take her first step, hugged her when she scraped her knee, made her feel safe and secure: her dad. But he did not. He was in jail for murder and when he did come out on bail all he did was beat her mercilessly with belts and sticks. Her mom who could have tended to her incomprehensible pain was also abused and one day just gave up and died. The young girl was now left to the mercy of her first tormentor who  threw her into the den of sexual predators. She was sexually abused cruelly time and again. The so called boy friend was nothing but her pimp. One day he brought a toddler home and asked this physically, mentally, emotionally abused girl to look after her and vanished without giving her any money.

The young girl must have tried to do her best till the day the child became a handful like all 2 years old. She apparently fell and howled the whole night. It was too much for the young teenager.  For a brief moment she snapped. Memories of belts and sticks on her raw skin, memories of unspeakable pain as her still nubile body was ravaged by wolfish predators flooded her mind as she found herself in a yet unknown position of power. For the first time she held the stick. A rage that must have laid dormant for too many years gushed out. Sanity vanished as she hurt the child without mercy doing for the first time what others had done to her for too long. Before she could take hold of herself the harm was done: Falak was broken beyond repair. I wonder how the girl must have felt when she regained her senses. Let us not forget that she was the one who brought her to the hospital. The question I ask is: do you still feel she should hang?

I don’t. The ones that should hang are her father, the so called boy friend, the women who led her to her to the flesh trade, the men who used and abused her, and above all the society that lets this happen over and over again and remains mute, unconcerned.

I had thought of ending this post but before I could do so more news came in. The horror continues relentless, never ending. The search for Falak’s biological mother far from bringing some healing has unearthed another tale of abuse. Falak’s mom is herself a victim. Forced into prostitution by the one she married, sold to another, her children taken away. The whole sordid tale seems to be a terrifying mix of flesh trade and child trafficking.The mother wants to see her child but this will be only after a DNA test. Maybe little Falak is holding on just for that moment. Last heard: her sister has been traced but no one knows where her brother is. One can only hope he is safe.

Falak made headlines a few  days ago. But today she is only a news item. This is so reflective of the society we have become. True the human bites and battered body were sensational enough to ‘hog’ headlines for a short span of time. Now if there are more sensational inputs we will hear them too. But what about the real issues? Will they ever be addressed? I was horrified when a police officer in a press briefing refused to qualify Falak’s story as proof of child and women trafficking. She was quite content to term it an isolated incident where ‘everyone knew everyone’ whatever that means! My mind goes back to the Ghaziabad girls and their abuser. Though the sting operation that unearthed their tale went on to receive recognition and accolades, the plight of the girls remains unknown. I wonder what happened to their saintly abuser who is apparently on bail. Everyone lost interest. It just became yesterday’s news. Will Falak also become yesterday’s news.

All this makes me terribly sad. I had hoped, naively I guess, that Falak’s ordeal would be a wake up call. But I guess I forgot that she was born on the wrong side of the fence. The so called civil society would not take up her fight, as they would for one of their won. The outrage, if any, will be short lived. I wonder what makes us move. Every day we hear of some form of child abuse. We just carry on unmoved and dry eyed. Falak’s story will remain an individual one. Many will and have offered help. If she lives, Falak will be cared for. But about the other Falaks. Will we fight for better laws to protect our children. Maybe not as our children are not targets. It is time we change our attitude. It is time we start seeing with our heart. Falak’s pain can not be in vain.

Congratulations, your kid’s name is….

  Congratulations, your kid’s name is in the shortlist. You will have to pay Rs 1 lakh in cash. This is what many parents seeking nursery admissions for their children were told in school after school. The words and sum sought may have varied but the essence remained. You want a seat for your kid, you pay! You do not get any receipt and of course no refund. Hard to believe. But we have it from the horse’s mouth!
A recent sting operation by a leading News Channel exposed the shocking reality. What is even more distressing is the reason proffered by some: “We have no management quota. We only have EWS quota, where we have to teach kids for free. Earlier, 100 per cent of seats were liable to pay fee. Now it is not so. It is such a big school. How else do we recover our money spent?” Can you believe it. We had been led to believe that the 20% reservation in schools for poor children was an option to the common school which is something I dream of and was a way forward towards implementing the Right to Education Act. However we forgot that we are in India and ways would be found to circumvent the law. Now if schools thought of passing on the cost to the helpless parent, parents found their way too: resorting to getting fake EWS certificates. What gave them away their ability was their faultless English! I was always held that English made all the difference. Oops there is one option I forgot to mention: the tout! Give 250 000 Rs and your child gets his seat.
All this makes a mockery of the RTE bill and the whole EWS process. For me, the whole EWS was flawed and doomed to fail. When quizzed about the matter our CEO gave her jaded answer: I have not got any complaint, if I get one we will take action! But who will bell the cat, Madam. We are talking of harrowed parents worried about their child’s future. Sad but true: education is now a business with its own market forces. 
Many uncomfortable questions come to mind and need to be addressed. To do see we need to take a little time and view the education scenario prevalent today. There are many kinds of schools. At one end of the spectrum the ones for the uber rich that are the prerogative of those who can afford them. Fees are astronomical. On the other end of the spectrum are the municipal schools that are in  a pathetic conditions and hence not an option. In between you have the whole range of what goes by the name of public schools and the few better run government schools. There are public schools of all shade and hues that cater to the different strata of society. Some have a well established reputation and often in Delhi you have children traveling hours in buses to reach the school chosen by their parents. I remember how my own daughter had to travel to almost the other end of town as her school had shifted from a close location to another one. Blissfully we got transfered and the inane rides ended. 
 Admissions to schools has always been a nightmare. Many of us remember the interview process, the testing of toddlers and the rejection trauma. Every school has its own admission procedure and what ensued was mayhem. It was then decided to streamline the procedure and moot a common admission system. After much debate and discussion by all stakeholders a policy was drafted and a 100 point system established. So you were at an advantage if your child was a girl, lived in the school neighborhood, had a sibling in school. If you were an alumni then all the better and your qualifications mattered to! It all seemed flawed and unfair. So if you are a boy, a first child, and your parents are not well educated you run the race with a huge handicap. As for the neighborhood criteria I know first hand parents who were busy last month making fake tenancy agreement from diverse locations. So much for a transparent system. And as for the recommendation of having an affordable and common admission form.. forget it! Schools have individual forms that can cost anything from 200 to 1000 rs. So if you apply in different schools then be prepared to dish out a hefty sum. Admissions are a big business with good returns for the schools.
So what are the solutions. If we are to honour the RTE then it is time to address realities. A growing middle class means that capacity has to be increased and state run schools improved. Government schools sit on prime property and are well distributed across the city. It is time they were made a good if not the only option for the middle class. Over 700 such schools dispense early education but the quality is abysmal and thus not an option. As long as the state shuns its responsibility the yearly nightmare for young parents will continue and public schools will continue their aberrations. The children of India deserve their Right to Quality Education.