A very proud mom

My daughter Shamika was awarded the  Karamveer Chakra by iCONGO yesterday evening. This award was instituted for the real unsung heroes, the people who work silently and in the background to make change possible. She more than anyone else deserved the recognition. her citation read: Shamika was 9 when she first told her mother she wanted to work with special children. She could not finish school and at 15 began volunteering with children with autism. It did not take long for everyone to realise that she was made to take care of children with special needs. She trained for 6 long years and brought smiles to many children but soon felt she wanted to do more. Shamika joined the Project Why special day care centre when she was 19. For the past years she has been looking after 20 children with special needs and bringing joy and laughter in their lives. She passionately believes that special children need to be treated with respect and dignity and can have a future if we care to give it to them.In spite of her young age she can take on any parent and fight for the rights of her children. She has proved that you do not need degrees or pieces of paper to care for those in need. What you need is the ability to look with your heart.

Every word stated is true but there is so much more in the life of this young woman of substance. Shamika has always seen with her heart and continues to do so every minute of the day. My thoughts got back 31 years, on that beautiful morning when I first held her in my arms. She was beautiful. Like all moms I counted her little toes and little fingers and looked into her tiny face. I knew she would be very special. Many had hoped for a boy as I already had a daughter but in the nine months I carried her in my womb I knew she would be a girl. That is what I had prayed for and my prayers had been fulfilled. She was an adorable baby and a delightful toddler. But it did not take long for me to realise that she was different and would not fit the mould. She tried poor child, as best she could. Those were difficult years when too pushed her mercilessly to fit frame that was too small for her. She was made for far larger things. Even today I am not proud of myself though I could find million of reasons to justify my actions. It would take many years for me to hear her deafening yet silent screams and  have the courage to break the mould. I am glad I did and though everyone was dead against my decision to have her drop out from school, I knew it had to be.

It was time to fulfill Shamika’s biggest dream: to take care of special children. I did to the best of my ability. The rest is history. There was no looking back. From the moment she entered their world, things fell in place and her course was charted. She was home safe and sound.

Shamika put to test the very essence of motherhood, wherein a mother is the one who can and should hear all the unsaid words of her child and having heard them, take on the world if need be. Shamika made me do just that. I can never tell her how proud I am to be her mother. To be a mom is to stand by your child against the whole world if the need arises and I stand very humbled yet very tall. Shamika also proves that you do not need to walk the well trodden road to succeed. Success comes to the one who has the courage to walk the road less travelled.

I am so happy that she has got recognised by the world at large, she more than anyone else deserves the honour. I know the world awaits her. I also know that I will be by her side for as long as God allows it. After that I will watch her from the heavens above.

PS The husband and I are the worst photographers in the universe. These are the two pictures taken yesterday.

“I love you- I am at rest with you- I have come home

Utpal spent Diwali at home, like he has been doing for many years now. It has been four years since his mom vanished and six years since he has been in boarding school. Things have not been easy for this little braveheart as he has had to deal with many disturbing questions, questions that do not sometimes have obvious answers. The most poignant has been: where is my mother? The only answer I could honestly give is: I do not know. One cannot and should not lie to children, even if one knows one is hurting them. So Utpal gets the truth even if it sounds shallow and flimsy. His mom did leave one fine morning. No one knows where she went. For the past three years the little chap has been trying to deal with this absurd reality. What can a 7 year old do? He tried being aggressive, impossible, demanding and challenging, hoping against hope to get our attention and make us tell him what he needed to hear but we remained mute: we had no answers. His behavior become so impossible that we had to seek help.

It began with sessions with a counsellor. Each session was a nightmare: he refused to go, kicked everything in sight, banged doors and howled. Nothing worked: cajoling, bribing, scolding. The situation was hopeless and we all felt helpless. At home questions after questions were thrown at me. Every attempt to soothe was met with a counter question that stunned me. The sessions with the therapist were going nowhere. It was time to take out the big guns. A visit to the child psychiatrist was scheduled. The verdict: SMD (Severe Mood Dysregulation). Popples was put on medication. His sessions were to continue. The outcome was miraculous at the beginning. Gone were the mood swings and the pouts. But not the questions. They were still there, crowding and choking his little mind. They surfaced many a time and were met with the same answers. We did not have new ones.

Time went by, interspersed with sessions with the therapist. Slowly the fears were expressed and then dealt with. Utpal realised he had no home. We had to build him one, with a family and all that it entailed: love, care but also discipline and counsel. It was not easy. True a piece of paper had made me his legal guardian almost 3 years ago but it was just a paper. We all had a lot to learn, to deal with and to conjure. It was an adventure with unknown morrows. They had to be crafted one day at a time, one challenge at a time. I would have given the world and more to know what was happening in his little mind. But I could not rush matter; he had to take his time.

It isn’t easy for anyone, let alone a 9 or 10 year old. Imagine having to close a chapter of your life, however bad and then walk into a new one, however good. Many may think that the choice is obvious: from slum to big house! But that is not the way it works. Slum was where mom was and that made all the difference. And the big house does not have mom. The challenge was huge. Would we be up to it?

Slowly we began to notice imperceptible changes. One had to find a way to his hurting heart and be accepted. The biggest achievement was when one day he came to me and said quite candidly: Maam’ji you are old, you will die. The rest of the question was left unsaid but I guessed it: What will happen to me! I was on cloud nine. The battle was won, he had adopted us.

This Diwali, Utpal was an angel. He took interest in every aspect of the festivities, from helping to make sweets, to purchasing ornaments, to decorating the house. He even made a beautiful paper garland for the temple. And he sat doen for prayers and shut his eyes, I knew he had come finally come home.

I was reminded of Dorothy Sayers’s words: I love you- I am at rest with you- I have come home.

Welcome home little man!

Diwali

This picture was taken this morning. Diwali morning! For this young rag picker it was just another day. He had loaded his rags on his hand cart just like any other morning and was now going to set about sorting the trash so that it could be sold by the evening maybe just in time for Diwali prayers with his family of he was one. There are many children like him, children who should be in school and not rag picking or panhandling at red lights. Children who are born with the same  right are our children and yet who do not have anyone to ensure that their rights are protected. Laws are passed, and more laws are passed: Right to Education, Prevention of child Labour and so on and yet one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that millions of children are denied these rights every single day. These kids are not invisible as many would like us to think. It is just that we have lost the aptitude to see them and by we I do not just mean you and I, but the very people who make the laws aimed at protecting them.

Even today as we will whizz through the city to make our last minute shopping or drop the now proverbial box of sweet and/or Diwali gift – ranging from a set of cheap glasses brought from a China market or a box of the finest crystal from branded stores – we will not see the little girl who taps at our car window, and even if we see her and even give her a coin, we will not get outraged at the fact that a child of India, protected by the same Constitution we have such pride in, is begging. We will not remember the laws that exist and certainly not ask ourselves what we can do to make sure that the childhood of children that are not ours is protected.

How quick we are to take up the cudgels on behalf of our children if they are slighted in the least? How we run to school to meet teachers and principals if we feel that our child has been hurt? Then why is it so difficult for us to feel a light empathy towards the child that begs at a red light or the one that works at your neighbour’s home? These are questions that have always disturbed me and continue to do so each and every time I see a child in pain. How I wish I could take each and every child and give him what he truly deserves: love, security, care, education and the right to see his dreams come true. Even after 12 years of working with underprivileged children and trying to fulfill their dreams, I still feel extreme sadness and helplessness.

It is only when we all feel responsible for all that is not right that things will really change.

Happy Diwali

with a conscience

Some astonishing statistics have been in the news lately. Let us start with the 1 crore (100 million) dais for a politician’s daughter’s wedding. Most of the money was spent on flowers imported from faraway lands. What happened to flowers grown in the country? And come to think about it was just a one night stand. The flowers withered the next day and must have simply be swept away. Not to mention the outrageous use of official machinery courtesy you and I. And all this while his party is busy polishing its tarnished image by highlighting its concern for the common man.

But that is not all. What was a bigger shocker to me, though it may not be to others was the cover story of a prestigious weekly entitled: where’s the party tonight? The article is about the new partying habits of urban Indians, the rich of course.  I urge you to read it.Your grandchild turns eight, you bring snow to hot sweltering Chennai. The tag 20 million rupees. Your husband is busy and you are bored, you catch hold of a few friends and take off for some exotic location thousands of miles away. Every thing is good for a celebration and nothing too expensive. Millions to fly international stars, 30 million for a party, 50 000 for a bottle of sparkly. And wedding can now cost two thousand million dollars! Birthday cakes all the way from Paris@ 300 000 Rupees! Mind boggling? Outrageous? Galling? I am speechless.

Please do not think this post is a case of grapes are sour. I do not grudge anyone for spending what they earn honestly. That is your right. I only ask a simple question: where is your conscience as most of the people who are indulging in partying as if it was the last day on earth, rarely reach out to the less privileged. I am sure these people leave their ivory towers and golden gates and even if the windows of their luxury cars are heavily tinted and their eyes shielded by luxury sun shades they see the reality around them. At every red light some child must be tapping at their window; along their speedy travel they must be coming across building sites where malnourished women carry unbearable loads on their heads; and how can they not go by the innumerable shanty towns that exist every where being the only habitat the poor have. Does these not make them stop and think? Does it not disturb them?

In spite of having spent the last 12 years of my life reaching out to the less privileged in every which way possible, my heart still bleeds each time I see a little child holding his hand out. A few days back at  the Nehru Place red light a beautiful little child with light eyes and a heart warming smile came to me. She must have been 6 or 7. In her arms was a tiny baby perhaps a couple of months old. The little girl held out her hand with a smile. Sadly I had no toffees of biscuits in my bag. By then an older child who knows me told her that I never give money. The little girl simply went to the roadside and sat on the curb hugging the baby and smothering it with kisses. I had tears in my eyes. I wanted to whisk the girl and the baby away from this terrible reality but knew it was hopeless. The light turned green and we drove away.

The image of the two children stayed with me throughout the day and a big part of the night. My helplessness vis-a-vis their plight was tormenting. My mind travelled back to the first few days after the creation of the Trust and the very first thought/idea that came into my mind: the beggar children. Way before project why as you all know it when our dream was to try and find a way out of children begging. Our simple but naive idea was to get people of our city to hand out biscuits instead of coins to every beggar knocking at their car window. What was truly troubling was not the beggar children who were quite happy with their biscuit, but the attitude of the likes of you and me who could not see the core issue and how they could help.

After 12 years of having doors banged at my face when I dared seek help for the poor, I am still shocked at the widening gap between the two Indias separated by invisible yet impregnable walls. If the people who spent with alacrity and impunity spared a tiny amount for the less privileged every time they went on a spree, what a difference it would make. Spend. It is your right. You have earned the money but spend with a conscience.

How does one get people to look with their hearts. The pride in the eyes of a child when she hands you an A report card after years of failing is worth any party you can host; the fast steps of one who could not walk or the first coherent word of one who could not speak is worth more than the crores you can ever spend, particularly if these miracles happened because you were there!

Project Why really rocks

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Guys I sometimes need a dose of project why for want of a better expression! This happens particularly when I am down or worried and these days I have been both. 2012 is nearing its end and we have not been able to find the money needed to build planet why, which is in no way a delusion of grandeur, but  an essential means to keeping project why alive and kicking even after my last hurrah. Though it began as a dream it did transform into a sound business model that would have kept the morrows of many children secure. I had hoped 2012 would bring the miracle we needed but it seems almost chimerical. I must confess I had not delved on this for a long time, but it all came back when my Finance Director called me to inform me that funds were getting desperately low. Bam, the old story was back on track. Shortage of funds and need to conjure new tricks. Easily said than done. There was a time when I would have taken the bull by its horns and jumped in the fray: hundreds of emails would have been sent at the speed of light, calls made and voila the challenge would have been met. But today the fingers are slow, the mind exhausted and the bones creak. What was once easy-peasy now looks like an herculean task. I saw myself sinking in a new kind of despair. Questions I had never asked myself surged to the fore: had I not done enough? Was it all worth it? Was it not time to slowly wind up? How could I do it over and over again.

The blues has taken over and though I knew that ultimately I would pick myself up: exhausted mind, creaking bones and slow fingers, it would not be easy. But the heavens had something else in store. When I woke up and wound my way to my computer as I do every morning in the early dawn, I found a a data stick on my keyboard. I opened it and it was a series of pictures taken by Jon over the last month. I began to look at them one after the other and found myself grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Wow! How wonderful to see all these children smiling and being happy. There it was my needed dose of project why! My heart filled with pride and tears of joy started prickling my eyes. This is what 12 years of toil had achieved and there was no way I was given up creaking bones or no. My spirit lifted and I knew there was only one way to go. 

Project Why all-stars

When I first dreamt of project why, in the days when I was still a green horn and did not know the reality, I conjured a lovely and enabling space where slum children could come and spend time after (or before school as even after 65 years of freedom our capital city has not been able to build sufficient schools for its children and thus the same building runs 2 shifts a day) school. I envisioned a place where there would be some tutors to ‘help’ with the homework and loads of fun and creative activities. Board games, paint and colours, musical instruments, computers and whatever else a growing child and fancies. In hindsight I was a little like Marie Antoinette when she was told about the people not having bread and quipped: Let them eat cake! (Though it is said that it was another princess who uttered these words). You may wonder why I am using this simile. Well the bread and cake of French royalty are   akin to the studies and extra curricular activities of Indian underprivileged children. How could I offer them extra curricular knowledge when they were no way near getting to terms with their basic studies.

The lovely enabling space had to be sacrificed and replaced by a down to earth school support one. So Project Why became what it is! Creativity was quietly laid to rest or so I thought.

A few days ago an organisation contacted us. Their aim was to promote art and institute an Art programme in pwhy. They asked me to write a proposal in which I was to highlight all the artistic pursuits we had undertaken till date. My first answer was almost a loud None but I held myself back and promised to get them what they needed asap. Time to put the thinking cap on and revisit the recesses of my ageing memory. Quite frankly I was not expecting to find much creative activity. When I think of pwhy I see a multitude of little heads bent over books and looking extremely serious. But then    I had to get over this image and delve deeper. It just took a little time and wonders of wonders a found a real treasure trove. How could I have forgotten the three Annual Days we wad in the first three years of our existence. They were a mine of creativity from the unusual decor made with bits and pieces as we was as always short on funds to the terrific performances.

There were dances choreographed by our staff often inspired by evergreen Bollywood but executed to perfection. There were action songs by the tiny tots in an English taught to them by our Ugandan volunteer Stone and sung with great aplomb in an accent that was almost impossible to fathom where circle sounded like socko! And what about the plays written by the older children with the help of the teachers and touching on issues that disturbed them or felt important to them: importance of education for girls, alcoholism and its effects on families and dowry and bride burning. The play had even got a scene where the young bride was burnt. It took a lot of persuasion to made them change the ending and have the young bride saved by her sister-in-law! Talk of creativity! It was there in ample measure. Oops and how can I forget the piece de resistance of one our Annual days. It was a Bollywood dance but three of our senior boys and had been choreographed by the local Michael Jackson, a young man who had christened himself Michael in hommage to his favourite star.

In our shows every one performed and the most touching item was the one presented by our special children often an action song where all the class was on stage. Sometimes a kid or teacher wanted to sing solo and sometimes it was not quite in tune, but who cared, they were ours and deserved a big hand.

But the the project grew and spread out in different locations. Annual Days were given up as they were a drain on our meagre resources. Stage performances had to be abandoned. But creative activities were insidiously present though not center stage. In each of our locations however all festivals were celebrated and children put up small performances in their class space: dances, folk songs and even little plays. There were two plays in English performed by our Okhla kids and our Khader kids. They may not have been the best but they were unique as they had all been written and produced in-house and were loudly applauded.

My memory is on over drive now and long forgotten things surge from everywhere: the lovely friendship bands the children made with the help of some  volunteers and what about the candles and diyas made by the special children Diwali after Diwali? Are they not creative pursuits? And how can I forget the liters and kilos of paint and paper that have been diligently turned into works of art week after week in each class during drawing hour. True it took a long time to graduate from the mountain/river/sun/tree syndrome that seems to be the preferred theme of all Indian kids but we got some stunning paintings along the way. Should have kept them. And what about the brown paper gift bags with a child’s drawing pasted on it that we made one Xmas. They too were one of a kind.

Oh and I just remembered the lovely hand shaped Xmas decoration made by our special children and hung on their tree. A true treasure.

Our kids have made papier mache masks, terracota objects, bead jewels, finger and vegetable printing, face painting, murals and much more. The special children do face painting once a week and the results are really something!  The Khader children even painted pictures of two fairy tales for a Pantomime in Bedford (UK) and have made many drawings that were used for greeting cards. We have had a dance teacher come and work with the children. Praveen a young student from our Khader centre expressed his desire to learn singing and is now attending regular singing classes sponsored by a friend.

We have also held drawing competitions of specific themes, one of them being pollution. The results were truly impressive.

And that is not all. Some children of Khader and Okhla participated in photo workshops and mastered the art perfectly. They gave us some stunning pictures. I am sure that if I had time to scroll the tens of thousands of pictures I have, I would find more examples of the creative ventures of project why. It is simply that they got forgotten and ignored in the face of the dreaded exams and ensuing studies. We are truly all stars!