How many buckets in my ‘list’?

Ranjan’s cancer, let us call it by its name as I always feel that is the best way to put things in the right perspective, has had a bitter sweet side effect: time to make our bucket list(s). I must admit that I had often thought of bucket lists and even written about them. Rereading the one I made on April 15, 2010 made me smile and cry at the same time. It all happened when I stumbled on a website that gave reasons for why we did not make bucket lists in time. I will quote the reasons stated:

– you’ve probably never taken the time to figure out who you really are, let alone ponder why you’re here.

– you’ve even avoided doing what really matters to you because you didn’t want to admit to everyone that you’ve got a hole in your blessed bucket;

– maybe you’ve just convinced yourself that, by some miracle afforded by the fountain of youth, you’ll never have gray hair or lose it, or ever have to “kick the bucket”.

Those were happy days! Healthy days! Days when you did not even think that anything could go wrong. Or were they simply days of hubris. Anyway I did start making a bucket list of sorts. In those days my list sounded rather airy and a tad flippant and I quote again:

As I sat pondering at what I would write on that my bucket list, I realised that I actually have already begun one surreptitiously and that it has one big item looming large and named: Planet Why whose bye line should be: ensure that my work of ten years does not go waste and secure the lives of those God in his wisdom dropped my way. Whether Planet Why will be the green haven that will house my wards, or a cold bank deposit that will pay its monthly deposits, or something still unknown I do not know. All I know is that this is the most important thing on my bucket list. I could expand it in many ways: see that Manu his pals live with dignity till their last breath, see Utpal and his pals graduate with honours and become worthy citizens, ensure that as long as God permits hundred of children are given the skills and education needed to break the circle of poverty they are locked in and so on. Ambitious maybe, but a matter of life and death for me.

I would also have a small personal and somewhat selfish list: see my daughter settled and happy, write at least another book, see my grandson grow, take that long due holiday with my life partner, heal all unnecessary hurts, be healthy and brimming with energy and exit with a smile.

It sounded as if I was in control of the rest of my life and quite content.

Let us forward to 30 September 2013, 3 years after I wrote those words. Planet why is now a distant dream, Manu left me but lived his last breath with dignity so that is a big check on the list; Utpal is fighting demons I could have never conjured in my hubris, and project why is thriving on the field on  very fragile foundations.

Never in my wildest and worst nightmare would have I thought that the opening lines of my personal list would be: see Ranjan survive his cancer! Cancer was banned for those I loved, it had claimed too many and I would have only accepted it if it were to hit me! So though all the other items on my personal list remain intact, they are now overshadowed by the arrival of Mr H and by the battle to boot him out. Everything becomes dependent on my victory.

But there is the other list. The one that concerns my extended family: my precious and adored team (even the ones that may have been troublesome or even hurtful) and my children present and future as God has given me the blessing of adding on kids by the day. No nine months here! All that is needed is a big heart and that is something I have. Here again I will make sure that hubris does not blind me. Planet Why will not be the fancy structure that would have raised funds and empowered communities. But planet why in its new avatar will certainly continue the dream, truncated, diminished but still very much alive.

This is probably, after resettling Utpal ( and the process has begun), the item number one on my project why bucket list. My thoughts are still hazy and vague but the idea is to find a small piece of land close to the women centre and near a legal resettlement colony and build a small centre. This will be made possible when we sell the land we had bought for Planet Why avatar 1! The appreciation and size of that land would make it possible to buy and build a smaller project. Of course it will built in the model Laurie Baker had created for slums! We will build as much as we can and later the succession can raise money to extend the building room by room!

The next item is more tricky as the funding model we have is fragile and dependent on one person. The miracle would be an Angel willing to place a certain sum of money in a trust fund. The capital would remain theirs and we would run with the interest. This is wishful thinking but I know the God of small things is listening. I also know he will test me before deciding to send me an Angel or not! In case of the later, I will just have to believe in the maxim: The King is dead; long live the King. At lest the new kind will inherit a building and the goodwill I have garnered over the years.

This is where I stand today with a small petition to all those who have helped, trusted and believed in me: please send a little prayer up in the sky to see that my bucket list is completed in time.

I will again end this post with George Bernard Shaw is poem which says it all:

True Joy of Life

This is the true joy of life.
The being used for a purpose
Recognized by yourself as a mighty one.
The being a force of nature
Instead of a feverish, selfish
Little clod of ailments and grievances
Complaining that the world will not
Devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life
Belongs to the whole community
And as long as I live,
It is my privilege to do for it
Whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly
Used up when I die,
For the harder I work the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no brief candle to me.
It is a sort of splendid torch
Which I’ve got hold of
For the moment
And I want to make it burn
As brightly as possible before
Handling it on to future generations.
I chose this picture because I know God listens to children

A matter of honour

There are many definitions to the word honour:  high respect; great esteemthe quality of knowing and doing what is morally right and so on. The juxtaposition of the words honour and killing is an aberration as to my mind, there is no honour in killing whatever the circumstances. However honour killing has also a dictionary definition: the killing of a relative, who is perceived to have brought dishonour on the family. The reality is that the relative is always a girl or a woman. This is patriarchy at its best. I do not know who or why someone decided that the honour of the family lay on the fragile shoulders of women and should she deviate then her won blood and flesh had the right to kill her.

A gruesome incident occurred some days ago just 80 km from the glitz and glamour of our capital city. A young girl who fell in love with the boy ‘next door’ was lynched and murdered and her friend beheaded by her own parents. Their crime was falling in love within the clan, a social taboo for people from this part of the planet. And clan is so largely defined that one would lose one’s way trying to find the blood line. The young couple had fallen in love something that is natural and often unforeseen. They knew that their families would not approve so they eloped to Delhi hoping I presume to get married. However the girl’s family called them back under false pretences and killed them in the most barbaric way. This was no on the spur killing in a fit of anger, this was premeditated. The punishment and execution were meted in public and the boy’s headless body left for all to see! This happened in 2013 and not in some medieval time. The sad reality is that this happens more often than we can imagine. The power of village kangaroo courts is higher than the highest court of law. The father, mother and uncle of the girl have been arrested but they show no remorse. In their book honour is greater than the life of the child you brought into this world.

I think that of all the ills of a patriarchal system the one that has to be denounced and condemned is the one that makes a girl the repository of a family’s honour. Maybe it is because God gave us the child bearing burden thus making us most vulnerable. I guess a man can sow many seeds and get away with it. If a son strays, it is taken as he being macho or just a boy. And any way is it not us women that are supposed to entice poor innocent lads by the way we dress, look, walk etc. How does a one year old do that is hard to imagine. Maybe diapers are sexy!

In a country where women are worshipped by the very men who kill their daughters and where people a campaign against violence against women shows bruised Goddesses, I am at a loss to comprehend what goes into the minds of parents when they commit such brutal acts against their own blood and flesh. And what makes it worse is that these are not committed in fits of rage but planned and executed with precision in public. What honour there is in killing your own child.

What is scary is that this practice is accepted by society in these areas where kangaroo courts hold such power and the law of the land comes a poor second. True some have been arrested, but those in their clan they are heroes who had the guts to murder their own in the name of misplaced honour. Local politicians are against having a different and harsher punishment for honour killings.

Local politicians who want to retain their seats defend such crimes. The Chief Minister of the state in question even went on to say that the (in)famous khap panchayats had no role in this gruesome killings. In India capital punishment is meted out to what is called ‘rarest of the rare’ crimes. Beating your won child to death and decapitating the one she loved is in my book the rarest of the rare. But justice has many loopholes and protracted trials before justice is meted out. It is far from being the deterrent needed for such barbaric acts.

Laws against social aberrations, or efforts to change mores and tradition, will be slow to take off. Education is the only way out and that will take time. If a belief that you can kill your child if she dares to marry in the same clan, is so deeply ingrained that murdering your own child is acceptable, then this is a long battle that cannot be won with a few reactions or shouting matches in TV debates. This is the pinnacle of a patriarchal society where women have no voice. Remember these are people who come up with ludicrous explanations for these deviations: eating chowmein, or banning porn sites.

To be able to kill your own child needs very strong beliefs. So what we are up against is something deeply rooted in the minds and psyche of these parents. When our children fall in love with someone we do not find ‘acceptable’, we reason with the child or just give in as to us our child’s happiness is far more important than traditions that seem obsolete and jaded. For us it is happiness against social acceptability and happiness wins hands down.

Many more young couples are going to face the wrath of their families if they ‘dare’ to love someone from their clan before we can find a way to prove the inanity of such customs. The clan or gotra issue is passé. Brahman are also supposed not to marry within their clan, but descendants we owe alliance to are the 12 rishis who lived eons of years ago. Their is no real bloodline, just some social diktats made by priests for reasons they know best. I think an AIDS blood test before marriage is a more sensible idea!

Honestly.. I am aghast

Today one of the front page headline in a leading newspaper is: Rivals allege ‘dirty tricks’ as Delhi Gymkhana polls turn ugly. I am aghast and perturbed. In our country as vast as ours with manifold issues that need urgent solutions, the elections of a la-di-da club I personally boycott though I am a member (will tell the tale later in the post) is in no way, in my non page 3 mind, national news. I am sure there is a lot happening in our city and country that warrants space on the first page after of course the larger than life ads. I must confess I have had to relearn reading my newspaper and am still not comfortable with these new advertorial front pages. That two candidates were seen dancing together is of no interest to me. The only thing that caught my eye was that there is a woman candidate and probably this is the best opening for my insignificant, and yet empowering to me, story.

The husband applied for membership of the club just after we got married. Then it was oblivion for 20 years. I had forgotten about the issue as I am not a club going person. One day a letter arrived. It was an interview letter that would decide if we were ‘worthy’ to be member of this hallowed space. I read the letter and one sentence jumped at me. It said: your spouse is expected to attend! The dormant feminist was up in arms and I told the husband there was no way I would go as I was not an object to be paraded, nor did any one have the right to expect me to do anything.

The interview was a few days later and I guess my better sense prevailed as I did not want Ranjan to miss the boat because of my high handedness. I however swore to never visit the club and have more or less stuck to my decision. The fateful day dawned. The get together as it was called was at 5pm. I would have liked to go in my frayed jeans and t shirt, but again I did not want my behaviour to spoil his chances so I wrapped myself in a sari and even painted my face and sprayed expensive perfume. Had go play the role. We were taken into what seemed an open enclosure. There must have been a dozen couples all in their Sunday best. We stood there like cattle at a fair waiting to be appraised. There was no tea or even water to drink and of course not a single chair. After some time a posse of men arrived and began the assessment process. Each wife dutifully stood by her husband. The forbidding looking posse would stop at every man and exchange a few words while we stood in silence. I guess they looked us up and down but we were neither introduced nor acknowledged. One felt like cattle at a cattle fair. Blissfully Ranjan got his coveted membership and I have rarely set my feet in that place.

But let us come back to the front page article. I am really astounded that such petty news should make front page. I know the club members read like a who’s who of Delhi, but honestly is is front page news. I know spicy and gory news increase readership, but who do the on goings of a vestige of the Raj which concerns a minuscule speck of our population, interest. But Darling this is India and nothing should shock you.

Newspapers have a role to play and it should be a responsible one. They can increase awareness and make people answerable. When in was elected citizen one by a leading media group way back in 2005, I had suggested to the editor of the news paper to run a column every week whereby they would follow the work of the one that had been honoured and make sure that they walked the talk. You guessed right, my mail was never answered.

There is a role that newspaper can play and that would be very positive. In a country where children still die of hunger everyday, where social programmes remain on paper, where promises made to the highest Courts of the land, responsible papers should not stop at reporting the horror stories, but go a step ahead and follow the story. I may not be clear so here is an example. If an aberration occurs in a midday meal programme then it would be nice to have an audit of all the midday meals in the city and those running well should also be highlighted and applauded. So many ‘stories’ make the India wants to know prime time show. India does want to know but is never told. So India wants to know many things but certainly not the on goings of a club election!

B & B

B and B. In this case it is not Bold and Beautiful or Button and Bows. I am talking of Beating and  Bullying: two ills found in most schools in India and accepted as a norm rather than an exception. Beating is also the norm in many homes, particularly in the lower and middle strata of our society. I cannot begin to count the number of parents who have come to project why and asked us to ‘beat’ their children if they did not study. And how can I forget the secondary school principal I met way back in 2001 who told me with great pride that: beating was his birth right! In that school all teachers carried sticks all the time. What adults do not understand is that these apparently innocuous occurrences leave life long scars on children.

Popples revealed to his counsellor almost a year after the sessions began that he was bullied at school and that made him aggressive and angry. Not knowing how to handle the situation he has even auto mutilated himself by trying to cut his wrists with a metal ruler. Thank God nothing happened, or actually did is I was informed of the same. Popples is physically scarred with scars on his head, upper body and both his arms. He is ‘different’ and anyone who is different easily becomes a target for bullies. More so he is also emotionally scarred as his early childhood was marred with violence both physical and emotional. To day his emotional immunity is very low and it will take time for this repeatedly uprooted child to find roots. The place he has lived in longest is his school that he entered 7 years ago. Imagine my sadness when I found that even after 7 years the child had not been understood by both adults and peers. I was shocked and angry when I was told that he was consistently called : burned banana skin or charred KFC leg! The few attempts we made to try and explain the magnitude of the problem to the school authorities were futile as child abuse seems to be accepted and even necessary to fulfil the mission of schools: good marks in examinations! No one wanted to even understand that bullying and beating can leave life long scars and that both the ones who bullies and the one who is beaten have long lasting effects.

As I was no heard and it seemed no one is prepared to hear me, I decided to take recourse to my writing and hope that someone will read this and at least ponder over it. I do not blame anyone. This is perhaps the only way they know. It is for law makers and those who design curricula for education courses and teacher training to rethink their approach.

A child who is bullied can become depressive, feel lonely, and lose interest in activities they enjoy. This may persist when they become adults. Their academic performance may decline, they may drop out of school and become violent adults. A frightening statistic: In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

The one who bullies fares no better. They are the ones who may abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in early sexual activity, be abusive in their relationships. The net is replete with articles on the ills of bullying. It also gives a list of early signs which caretakers and teachers should be sensitive to. There are many things parents and schools can do: from classroom activities to encouraging peer support but for that they must accept the fact that bullying is a serious problem that can scar a child for life. The problem is that schools do not accept this reality and have a tendency to play down bullying. Bullying has to be taken seriously, very seriously.

Beating in schools and boarding schools  is also prevalent. Here again beating can have a detrimental effect on the child receiving corporal punishment. First it is against the law and in violation of children’s rightsCorporal punishment interferes with the learning process and with children’s cognitive, sensory, and social emotional development.  Studies in Europe have shown that corporal punishment was the strongest predictor of current depression among children. This practice needs to be stopped and the reasons are multiple. Some of them are highlighted in this article. In India, 2 out of 3 school going children are physically abused

Adults often forget that children have self esteem and are individuals, even if they are tiny. Talking negatively of a child in front of his class is prevalent as I have sadly experienced and is according to me one of the worst things you can do to a child. What is needed is positive discipline. Much has been written about this approach and it should be included in every teacher training curricula.

In a country like ours were power seems to be an undeniable right change will be slow in coming. Yet it is incumbent upon each one of us to raise our voices against these B and B!

Back to square one

This is my darling Popples! And this is the way I would always like to see him: happy and safe! This is also what I had endeavoured to achieve from the first time I saw him scalded and in pain. That was when, I looked into his beautiful eyes and I pledged to myself in silence. That was in 2003. The last 10 years did not go as I had planned in my hubris. Heal his wounds, help his mother give up the bottle and settle the family as best I could whilst giving him a sound education. It that was not the big picture God had planned for the both of us.

A series of unforeseen circumstances, some truly terrible, landed me and him in front of a children’s court where he decided to live with me. He was 8.  He was in boarding school since the age of 4 years and 4 months, and seemed happy! Within months his mother vanished never to be heard of again till date and he found himself deprived of his natural family, however dysfunctional  it may have been. And then the questions that needed answers but had none, started disturbing him but the child was unable to mouth them, let alone find answers. He grew aggressive and impossible to manage. I needed professional help and once again the Gods were kind and we found the right intervention team. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and severe mood dysregulation and put on medication and long term counselling. It was a nightmare at the beginning as he would resist any form of counselling but as time passed he settled into a pattern and started feeling better. I heaved a huge sight of relief. But it was to be short lived.

As the disturbing questions that had remained in his mind were slowly voiced, he shared with his counsellor the pain of being bullied at school. His scars were the butt of hurtful comments that this child with little or no emotional immunity was unable to handle. His grades dropped and his usual smile became rarer and rarer. We intervened with the school authorities who promised to take care of the situation. We thought things would improve but they did not.

I requested  his counsellor to visit the school and talk to the concerned teachers and authority as I thought that it was important that they understand that this child was going through real psychological problems and was challenged in many ways and needed understanding and help. The experience was traumatic for the both of us: the counsellor and I. For me it was going back 13 years in time when I sat in the dim and forbidding Dickensian office of a Government school Principal trying to find out why my class X boys were beaten with almost obsessive regularity. The answers in both the cases were the same. Notwithstanding high court and supreme court judgements against corporal punishment, it seemed that beating was the only way teachers and school heads believed brought results. I froze as I remembered how pwhy kids were targeted in their respective schools after my intervention, almost as a retaliation. How could I not remember what the horrid and obnoxious Government School principal told me 13 years ago: You run your NGO and I will run my school the way I like. Seeing how my kids were treated, I beat a quick retreat. Was it going to be a repeat scenario in Utpal’s case?

Bullying is not considered a problem though we all know the extreme trauma that can ensue. Just last week a 12 year succumbed to the trauma of being bullied by her seniors in school. Imagine the trauma Utpal must be feeling when he is time and again called: a burnt banana peel or a charred Kentucky chicken leg! But to the school this just seemed par to the course, a way of toughening the child up. I guess that is the logic used to justify beating.

We were terribly disturbed when his class teacher decided to state in the loudest of voices the fact that Utpal had developed a new bad habit: he apparently ‘lied’ when he had not completed his task. This was said in front of Popples and his class. The counsellor was horrified and asked to talk to the teacher alone while I decided to practice French with the class. Variations on the same theme were experienced as we moved from teacher to teacher towards the grand finale in the hallowed room of the head of the school.

The counsellor tried her best to explain Utpal’s case and how this child was suffering in silence that was broken only when he met his counsellor. None of this was ever shared with me. My little Popples knew that I wanted him to study in school and be happy there. How could he break my dream! But for the past months his grades started falling and in hindsight I see that there were lots of cries for help that I did not decipher. When he left for school after this summer holiday he wept is heart out something he had not done for years. Anyway we did understand his pain and that is why we had made this visit. But somehow, even the head of the institution was closed to accepting that traumas and mood disorders were not serious enough to harm a child forever. He recounted an incident whereby he had to resort to two tight slaps – his words – to get a child to admit his fault. I think that was when the penny dropped for me and I knew it was time to find another place for Utpal.

The problem had gone beyond Utpal. Bullying is not just the problem of the one bullied, but also that of the one who bullies. The same goes for beating a child. These are power games played by individuals with low self esteem and their own demons. It is the reflection of the society we live in.

When we began pwhy, the on thing that shocked me was the amount of physical abuse children had to bear: at home because of their mothers frustrations or their father’s drunkenness; in schools because their teachers had come from homes where child abuse was considered ‘normal’. I cannot tell you how many parents have told us to ‘beat’ their kids if they do not study or obey. The adult-child relationship is one of power where kids are the favourite whipping boy. And when you look at things in this light then you are tempted to put up your hands and surrender. That is not the way to go. Many teachers in pwhy have lost their jobs when we came to know that they had ‘beaten’ a child. I could be just a little tap on the head, but the consequences are the same. Many years ago I asked a little girl who was walking bach home and crying what had happened. She told me her teacher had beaten her. When I asked her why, she simply said she did not know. My blood ran cold. Something was not right. Sometime later when we asked a group of Class X students what is the one change they would make in school if they were given a chance todo so, I would have bet my bottom dollar that they would say: stop the beating! But that was not the answer we got. They felt that the one change that would make things better was that they be told the reason for the beating they were to get. This was nothing short of frightening. Children accept violence as something normal. That means they accept power games and God forbid many of them would replicate the same when they become adults. Some may simply restrict their power game to the confines of their homes but others may walk a step further that could end in something as nightmarish as a gang rape.

I am told time and again that beating is necessary. Some of staff were quite aghast when I told them that they would lose their job if they ever lifted a hand on a child, and by child I mean 0 to 18! There are million of other ways to make a child understand her fault. Yes they are time consuming and not easy to implement compared to a ‘tight slap’, but you can get your way without lifting or your voice. We have been doing so for 14 years with success. We have also dealt with bullying and inclusion. Our children respect each other because we respect them as individual human beings.

I was frankly disturbed and saddened to see that this approach exists in what is known as ‘good’ schools. I would have thought otherwise. I guess the curriculum for education degrees do not give sufficient space to the adult-child equation. That is where things need to begin. Wishful thinking in a land where 99% teachers failed to clear the Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) 2012. And it is in the hands of these teachers that we entrust our most precious possession: our children. Need I say more.

Time out!

The past few days, weeks, months and year have been difficult, stressing and very trying. One year to figure out what was making my husband wane in front of my eyes, and the last 2 months or so dealing with an unwanted guest who has surreptitiously taken my life over, or almost over as I struggle to find the almost invisible cracks and try to fit in vestiges of life as I knew it. My moments of sanity have been in my writing as many of you may have realised. But today it was time out day!

Today was PTM day and an important one at that as I was also taking Utpal’s counsellor with me to meet his teachers but you will have to wait for another post to know what happened as I do not want this one to have even a tinge of negativity.

As some of you may remember from earlier posts, PTM day has always been by never fail feel good shot, and though I could not spend as much time as I would have wanted with the children, just hugging them made the dark clouds vanish. It was as if the moment I entered the gates of the school, I had stepped out the world of Sir Hodgkin and his retinue of injections, tests, and chemos and entered a place where hope and joy were the only guest allowed!

I have put two almost alike pictures as in each them the six kids (two were missing) have different expressions and each one is a masterpiece. I could look at these snaps for long and still find something new that hides behind what is seen. What a wonderful feeling.

When I think of the traumas each of these kids have suffered for not fault of theirs before they came to this place I guess goose bumps. Two of them, Utpal and Meher had to go through a baptism by fire before life smiled at them, one never knew if her rag picker mum would have earned enough so that she and her three siblings would not sleep hungry; one was almost adopted by a page 3 family and then dropped like a hot potato. Each one of them with a story that would wrench your heart.

But then miracles happen! I have seen so many over the past 10 years. So here they are: a bunch of kids many would have given up on, forging a new morrow filled with hope and love of course. And looking at them smile makes your worst fears vanish, at least as long as you are in their hallowed space.

Time out it was!


Here is a picture of the fab four that are running project why at present. You may recognise the three musketeers standing, but the fourth, sitting on a chair is someone I have not talked about much. And yet he has been keeping the project afloat and cruising since its very inception. Every one knows him as Mamaji. Mamaji means mother’s brother in Hindi, and Satish has been like a brother to me more since I lost my parents. I could not have survived the myriad of formalities that follow the death of an individual and it was only because of his help that I could overcome all that was needed to be done. When project why was a bare thought in mind, the first name that came to me was his. I felt a little shamefaced when I realised that I had never written about him in the numerous blogs that trace the project why story. And it is not just his role in pwhy but his life story which needs to be told.

I first met Mamaji almost 30 years ago when he started looking after my father’s financial issues: insurance, investments etc. My father’s bank manager had introduced Satish to him and somehow Papa liked him from day one. Papa was very intuitive about people and rarely warmed up to anyone at the first sight, but he did with Satish. In those days Mamaji use to come on a bicycle from the boonies and he later confided in me that he owned one shirt and had to wash it every night. Those were the days of terylene drip dry shirts. Many of those reading this blog would not even know what they looked like. Anyway Mamaji use to to pedal across the city and I must say was a far cry form the rotund man he is now. He looked after Papa’s affairs meticulously though he had one huge defect that made Papa very cross. That huge defect is still very much there but it is part of who he is, his unique identification number. That defect is that he is never on time, and by on time I do not mean a few minutes or more but it could be hours. Papa on the other hand was a true diplomat who always reached on time. I cannot recall the number of times we have circled around houses where we were invited before ringing the bell at the given time. This is something I inherited and totally out of sync with a city called Delhi where the expression ‘fashionably late’ acquires a new dimension.

I also cannot recall the number of times Papa delayed his afternoon tea as Satish was supposed to come at let us say 5pm. The pakora (fritter) batter was ready, the vegetables cut and the oil on low heat. 5 would become 5.30 and mama would urge him to have his tea. remember there were no mobile phones in those days! But the gentleman that he was would not. Mamaji would arrive at  6 or even 6.30 and Papa, who would have spent the previous hour cursing  and pacing as he was a man who could not bear hunger would not, as one would expect get angry at the young man who was all sweat, apologies and smile, but would welcome him with a big smile and a loud ‘get the tea’ meant for the kitchen staff. It must have taken mama and I a few more waiting sessions to convince Papa that he should have his tea and snack at 5 and we would make some for Satish when he came. I think Papa admired this young man who was honest, hard working and sincere. I also think the Heavens do stand by such souls as Mamaji graduated from bicycle, to two wheelers, to car and then cars! What is remarkable is that he never compromised on the values he respected.

I think Papa did have a talk with Satish just before he died and asked him to stand by me. He did and the reason why I could walk effortlessly into Papa’s shoes, was because of him. And he was the person I felt I could trust to stand by me when I decided to start Project Why. I could never have handled or handle the complex paper work administrative and financial, one has to comply with to run a charity in India.

Mamaji still comes late but we all have got used to it. When he tells me he is five minutes away, he could be miles away, I sternly ask him his exact location and get a truthful answer.  One of the reasons for this annoying habit of his, is that he cannot say no to anyone. And spite of being late he always delivers what he has promised. To me, he has been God sent as I could not have run pwhy without his presence and help.

True he can be brusque at times and lacks  savoir faire and such social graces, but his other qualities make up for his lack of tact. What he does is always for the good of any situation and one cannot ask him to sugar coat the bitter pill.

I have great admiration for this man as I know how much he struggled in his life and the price he paid to get where he is. He could be an inspiration for many, but today’s young want to get everything and get it fast.

For the past two months, he has stood like a rock next to me and handled all the ludicrous paperwork needed to get Ranjan his treatment. I do not know how many trips he has made to the airport to get the credit notes that are needed to benefit from Ranjan’s Air India insurance! I would have given up, but not he and the nicest thing is that he never looses his smile.

 True he can be infuriating at times, but which younger brother isn’t! 

Running with the wolves

In the latest issue of a popular weekly is an article about gang rape. I waited patiently for the said article to come on line before writing this post. I urge you to read this article as it differentiates between a gang rape and rape by a lone individual. The boys you see smiling in this picture are project why students from Okhla. They are great kids and yet if things went wrong they could turn into gang rapists. Why? Simply because children in India have been let down in every which way possible, all their rights usurped by one and all. The December gang rape got us out on the streets; we did get out of your stupor and broke our usual silence, just for the time we thought would be adequate before returning to our lives. I guess it was because the Delhi rape was too close for comfort and we seemed to pretended to be satisfied with a Commission, the efforts of which we must salute and the watered down ordinance that was promulgated in haste. We crawled back into our comfort zones completely oblivious to the innumerable rapes and gang rapes that happened with as much alacrity and impunity. Then some days back we woke up again or should I say paid attention without leaving our comfort zones to the gang rape of the young photo journalist in Mumbai. The death penalty we had so vehemently demanded for the Delhi gang rape was again heard.

In the nine months between the two gang rapes, the perpetrators of the first one are on the verge of receiving their sentence. One died in jail in. The other, a minor received the maximum sentence possible under the prevailing law of the land. The question of lowering the age of a minor for heinous crimes should certainly be debated and reviewed, but as it stand today, he has got the maximum punishment.

This blog is not meant to defend any one or any law. It is just meant to share my views on these issues given the fact that I have been working for the past 13 years with children who can, if not helped, turn into law breakers and even brutal rapist.

The article I quoted, and provide the link again, should be read carefully to understand why young people can turn to brutal predators in the social environment that they are forced to live in. According to a sociologist: One must separate rape from gang rape, a single person raping a single woman with a knife at her throat is one thing. But groups of boys getting together, for a ‘boys’ night out’, and having fun at the expense of a lone wounded woman is something else. The phenomena exists world wide. These gang rapes are power games meant to display their manhood. The leader is often the most insecure but being in a pack, like wolves or dogs, makes him brave and fool hardy and often the most violent of the lot. The article also gives a wide range of other scientific reasons for such terrible cases and unless these reasons are not addressed, gang rapes will continue.

India is sitting on a huge tinder box that will blow at hour faces if we do not something, and do it quick.  Soon we will have over 706 million marginalised, restless young people on our hands as is aptly pointed out in an incisive article by Anuja Chauhan. I know there millions who are very angry at the fact that the juvenile rapist has ‘got away’ with three years in a remand home. I would just like to draw your attention on what his life  was and it should have been if things worked right. I am surprised at the fact that even educated people are reacting in this manner. I would want the boy hanged if someone told me it would put and end to rapes in India. But sadly it is not so. His is the story of thousands of young boys who flee or are sent to the ‘big’ city to earn a living as there was no hope left in their village. He had dropped out of school, his father was mentally ill and his mother earned barely enough to feed her 5 kids. Like many others he got a job in a eatery always on the look out for such children who are cheap labour. He sent money home and then silence. His mother thought he was dead. She only heard of him after the rape. In the past 7 years nothing has changed in his home. It is still as hopeless as when he left it. Like many other boys he got involved in a pack, and that was his downfall. On that fateful night he emerged as the most violent as he was probably the one with the lowest self esteem, the one who had to prove himself.

True he will be out in less than three years because he was a ‘minor’ on the day he ran with the wolves. Will the three years be able to reform him. Keeping in mind the state of our reform homes, I wonder if anything will change. A reform home cannot make up for the lost childhood and the years this boy had to survive in a big city.

So where have we gone wrong and who is responsible. In spite of the innumerable schemes and rights that exist on paper or at best are poorly implemented, children from poor homes do not get what is their due. Schools do not run or are not enabling spaces, but spaces where brutality and abuse are the order of the day. The quality of education is abysmal, the child goes from class to class without learning anything and if he does not drop out then he often gets a certificate with 33%. This does not give him access to any employment at all. I work with children from such homes. Our Okhla centre was opened in a garbage dump simply because we found out children from the slums tucked away in between factories were being used by local mafias to push drugs and steal from the goods trains that often stopped on the tracks behind the dump. Today 300 children study at our centre. They are all mainstreamed and doing very well. They also learn computers and love it. A few years ago, I was told that the leader of the local gang was looking for me and wanted to ‘kill’ me. His name was Aiyya. I was amused and said I wanted to meet him. Someone went looking for him and found him. My would be murdered was a young man with a broad smile. He looked gentle. When I asked him if he really wanted to kill me, he fell at my feet.

I spent a long time talking to this young lad who I know was and addict, a drug pusher and probably indulged in many more crimes, I saw a child whose dreams had been crushed by circumstances. I could not hold my tears when he said: I wish you were here when I was growing up. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him now and his reply was heartbreaking. he simply said: we are now used to easy money and the life that goes with it. We will not be able to earn an honest living but please make sure these children do! Aiyya may one night be part of a boys night out and run with wolves and land himself in trouble, or he may just continue his life of crime till he is caught. There is no hope for him. I just pray he remains safe.

What can be done you may ask. There is a solution or many, but does our Government have the will to do so. Schools have to be run properly, but we cannot even manage to do that in our capital city. And most of all skills need to be taught from class VII itself so that a child that graduates or even fails knows a skill that will give him a start. I am not a Narendra Modi fan but I cannot but agree with him when he says:The nation’s priority is skill development. We have 65 per cent youth in our country. They are hard working but they lack skills. They have certificates. The Central government thinks that a certificate by itself grants a person skills for employment, just like they believe that the Food Security legislation by itself can feed the nation“. The question is whether these words are just political drama or whether he will walk the talk if need be.

Between 1971 and 2011 rape has grown by 873%! What has changed is the environment.Today the advent of contract workers has deprived migrants of any security. As Dipankar Gupta says:  They have no security, no roof over their head, no family support and as they are thrown together with each other by circumstance, they indulge in reckless behaviour and do not think about repercussions. They have no one to answer to and no one to go back to. It’s an inflammable lot.”

So will the kids in this picture grow up to be good citizens or will they run with the wolves. Only time will tell.

Chapeau Bas

There are many side effects to my husband’s cancer and chemotherapy. I am not talking of the medical ones listed on every site possible. I am talking about the good side effects, those that are unique to each case of Mr Hodgkin and his ilk. These are the unexpected side effects, the ones that are serendipitous and happen without warning and warm the cockles of one’s heart.

For the past as many years as project why has been in existence, I have never failed to go each day and spend time at the different sites. I do admit that the time spent became shorter as the project became bigger and the team stronger, but still being the control freak I am, I could not resist going or if I did, resist I mean, then I would call I do not know how many times and then grill the girls when they came home. Even when I left the city for a few days, and it must not be more than 10 spread over 10 years, I never missed calling. In hindsight I must admire my team for their patience and forbearance. They must love me immensely! And though I did trust my team implicitly. It just that me control freak who could not give up ‘my control trip and limit myself to my duties: raising funds and writing! I guess there was a bit of an ego trip too as project why was/is what I have done best in my life, or so I would like to believe.

But a man who died almost 200 years ago changed everything when he decided to come visiting! I mean Mt Hodgkin of course! His arrival meant a change of priorities, at least till things got better and he was booted up. But he is a tough customer and here to stay for some time at least. Unlike others of his kind, who get pacified with a few pills or pokes, this guy is erratic and unpredictable and demands all your attention. So its is one control freak pitted against the other. But I am digressing, this post is not about the flights of fancy of Mr H, but about the good side effects of his unsolicited presence.

The past two months have seen me withdraw and ultimately take leave of absence from project why. A case of force majeure! My time table is so hectic and erratic that there is no may I can plan fixed time for project why. Not even the phone calls! Yet project why had been running perfectly thanks to three incredible persons who not only carry on the day-to-day activities, but handle all challenges and problems with flair and aplomb. Rani who was just a kid when she first came to us, has bloomed into a manager even the Gods would recruit. From a shy and slightly withdrawn teenager, she has grown into a mature and poised woman who handles a large part of project why and ensures that all runs well. You could not fine a better option. Shamika, who also happens to be my daughter, seconds Rani in the daily running of the project and looks after our most cherished class: the special one! Mr H has made me see my own child in a new light: as a mature and capable young woman. If Rani is the perfect administrator,  Shamika is her mother’s daughter as she sees with her heart. The two of them make a better me!

The girls run Govindputi, Giri Nagar and Okhla. But a few kilometers away is our women centre with over 300 children and women. One may think it is headed by a woman. Not at all. This centre is run by Dharmendra, an incredibly humane person and a social activist at heart. I am amazed at how much we have in common as his views are completely in sync with mine. So over and above our basic mission, he finds time to deal with social and environmental issues that are close to my heart. A true gem!

These three musketeers have taken over the running of Project Why and I must confess they do a better job than I ever could. They are supported by an exceptional team. So a huge and wonderful side effect of Mr H has been the  realisation that project why is in the best hands I could have wished for and I can rest in peace and carry one my one point mission of kicking out Mr H as soon as possible.

Today as we celebrate teacher’s day, I salute these three gems humbly. They are the ones who gave wings to my impossible dreams. It is time I let them fly free.

Chapeau Bas guys!

I chose not to place ‘dis’ in my ability

Who said they could not do it. I am talking about my very special kids and their exceptional teachers. This is how the story goes: Shamika the leader of the crew came to me one morning asking for 2000 rupees to paint her class. Need to be noted that her class is a three room flat! I told her I would tell our administrator to get the painting done as soon as we had some extra funds. She can be very stubborn and more so because I am not just Ma’am but also Mom. She told me she and her kids were capable of painting the class and anyway they also wanted to decorate it so no painter would do. I know my Shamika, when she gets in this kind of mode, then even God would not be able to change her mind. I meekly gave her the money.

Now her crew is three teachers and a bunch of differently abled children and when I imagined them trying to get to the top of the wall or the roof, my heart stopped. Would they use ladders? And what if they fall? Did it really need painting? But I dared not ask as Shamika would never accept any advice or suggestion that could in anyway show her kids in a bad light. But the thought of Umesh on a table with a paint brush or a roller made my blood run cold. Umesh has cerebral palsy. Anyway I prayed to all the Gods for their safety. The following days I asked if all was well and was told that everything was fine. Then one day, Shamika sent me some pictures and asked me to print them as they wanted to draw them on the walls. I did as I was told.

Yesterday I was shown some pictures and I could not believe my eyes. What a wonderful and perfect job these kids and their caretakers had done. But then have not always believed in the ability of those people call ‘disabled’. What an ugly word. These children have taught me so much and have always been my feelgood shot! I really miss them and must make time in my new life for them.

I leave you to decide the worth of their work. And btw they did it all in 2000 Rs! It would have cost us 10 times more had we got painters in.

Who needs work clothes when towels can do just as well
Scrubbing and cleaning

They chose the quotes themselves
You do not need to stand to paint 

You understand why I was frightened
Munna master of  the roller
Flowers that never bend in the rainfall
 Munna and Umesh the fantastic two

Raja found his vocation
And even Rituji tried her best
Coming soon: the finished classrooms!