Leave of absence

Keeping up two blogs and being a cancer buddy is taking up more waking hours than I have, and if I were to give up any more sleep I would collapse! Not to forget remote controlling project why and brain wrecking about its future. More than enough for even superwoman and I am far from that. The unexpected news about Ranjan’s cancer has also made me realise that we are not masters of our time. That is a secret only God is privy to. In trying to juggle all the roles I have had to suspend writing my second book after 100 odd pages. However this has to be done too, as is recounts the Project Why story and that is only in my head. So I beg your indulgence in case you do not see as many posts as usual as i plan, like any self respecting writer, to write for at least 3 hours a day. Hope you will understand!

My tailor is rich

Election time is looming large over us with almost daily rallies, shrill speeches that not say much more than one leader attacking the other in a perpetual cat and mouse game that turns annoying. Every party is blowing its bugle and enumerating its achievements and seeking our seal of approval that should translate in our vote on the right symbol. Some statements are so ludicrous that one does not know of one needs to laugh or cry. In a recent speech a young aspirant to the highest office stated: that when he had first come to the region, he had suffered mosquito bites and when he had consumed water in a village, it had got his stomach upset. “But I was happy. Politicians should know the hardships faced by people“. I heard the speech and it made me jump. To many questions begged to be answered: why after 60 years of Independence when the said politician’s party has been in the seat of power for decades does one not have clean drinking water for every citizen; did he know that it is this very water that gave him a stomach upset quickly cured by the best doctors, that kills 5000 children a day! And will having faced this hardship for one day make him do something to make things better. What he suffered for one day, millions have to bear everyday. Do our politicians realise how many of their voters spend their lives in survival mode in silence and dignity, pursuing small goals that they strive to realise? Not many, if any!

A well known magazine celebrates its 18th anniversary and in its special issue includes and article entitled: Eighteen yellow roses in a bouquet. They are the thoughts from 18-year-olds who have much to prove, to themselves and to the generations before them. They are stories of gentle and simple hope and I urge you to read them. I will profile the two that touched me the most.

Shamsher ( I chose to place his photo as his face touched me deeply), is a lad who had to drop out of school because of illness and poverty. He wants all Indians to be happy. His goal is to be a tailor and his idol the tailor master who is teaching him stitching.

Sunita was born in a Naxalite infested Gadchiroli and at 12 had to chose between marriage or forced employment with the Naxals. She chose neither and ran away and joined a boarding school. Her dream to be a police officer and her fantasy: to fly in the sky!

They are young Indians with simple dreams, dreams that could be fulfilled if anyone cared. Shamsher and Sunita are the true faces of India, the ones that have been let down but have not given up hope. The ones that build a life in spite of all odds. The ones we should all care for. But do we?

Long Live the King

An article entitled Hands off do gooders caught my attention this week. It begins with the words: come April, big corporations in India will be mandated to spend 2 per cent of their profits on being responsible citizens. Even a person like me who has no head or concept of figures can work out that this is a hefty amount. This caught my eye as I have been deeply disturbed by the future of project why, more so in the wake of the present situation at home that has made death to real to me. As you know we were not able to raise funds to build our guest house cum children centre we had fondly called planet why! Then it may have seemed to many as complete silence. Yes silence it was, but not in my head where new options churned madly amidst a feeling of failure at not having been able to raise the funds we needed. Quite frankly it was a paltry sum for many, yet one that was as inaccessible as the moon for us.

The fault was mine as I should have put on my designer (sic) clothes and fluttered my eyelashes at page 3 does and maybe would have got a percentile of the big profits of corporate houses. This may have been possible in the era before project why, but when the need arose I had already mutated into a recluse. The big planet why dream had to be quietly entombed. Since project why has been running on auto pilot (not a bad thing). Every end of month the heart flutters a little when salaries and rents have to be paid and one heaves a sigh of relief when all monthly payments are made. Yet this cannot go on. We have to become sustainable and also have our own building as being at the mercy of landlords is not a solution.

What you see in the picture is a plot of land close to our women centre and to the Madanpur Khader rehabilitation colony. This means the it is legal and the people who all belong to underprivileged sections of society will not be moved (or so one hopes). Actually most of them were relocated from the Nehru Place slum and other South Delhi slums. This is not the case with Okhla where slums clusters can be razed any time and all our kids moved.

The plan that is churning in my mind is to sell our plot in Najafgarh as it has appreciated substantially and purchase a smaller plot. The remaining money would be used to build a centre tailored to the amount in hand. I believe it will be easier to raise funds for one additional room at a time according to the needs. At present we would like the centre to accommodate roughly what we run at the women centre in addition to a day care for special needs children and a creche. And in keeping with the sustainability need, have space allocated to activities that can be offered at reasonable prices. Though one has to yet defined those as this would be done after a survey of the area and the needs of the target audience, one is thinking on the lines of TV and AC repair, spoken English etc. These classes could also be held after working hours and on Sundays.

So to those who may feel that I am AWOL, believe me Project Why is on my mind day and night. I watch it running perfectly with a sense of pride and humility. What an incredible team we have! I must make sure to leave them a solid legacy, particularly to those who have stood by me through trials and tribulations over the past years. Something they can build on as no matter how hubristic one may be the saying: The King is dead Long Live the King is so true!

Ballon rouge

This picture may look a bit incongruous to illustrate any post. It was taken at Utpal’s sports day when the children released balloons in the air and one was a little late in clicking the camera. But the balloons triggered my involuntary memory and to took me back to my childhood and to a lovely movie that I saw many times: Le Ballon Rouge or the Red Balloon. It is a must watch film even after half a century! It i a movie that makes you laugh and cry at the same time.As a little girl the the red balloon had magic properties and the ability to follow and lead his friend the little boy. It had a mind of its own and yet got destroyed by an gang of bullies. But then when all hope is lost, balloons appear from nowhere and take the little boy on a balloon ride over the city. When I first saw the film I remember now how the smile came on a face where tears had not yet dried!

When the balloons flew over the hazy Delhi sky, I felt transposed to the moment when I first saw the film and all the balloons that came to wipe the little boy’s tears. I knew I had to take a picture of the moment, even if it was not a great one.

Project Why is my Ballon Rouge. It came one day into my life one day when I was lost and when all my feelings had frozen and led me for the past 13 years on a magical expedition that made me discover things are never knew existed but more than that on a journey within myself where I discovered strengths that I never knew I had. Today I fear for my Ballon Rouge. A simple prick could kill it. The balloons in the sky were a reminder of the fact that I need to anchor Project Why as soon as I can.

If you have 34 minutes, do see the film and try to imagine what your Ballon Rouge is!

Over the moon part 2

Over the moon part 1 was on my other blog! It was about one man in my life. This one is about the other : Popples. Today was his sports day and PTM in his new school. The programme was from 9 am to 3 pm. I must admit I was a little apprehensive as the old biddy gets tired and the prospect of watching races was not very appealing as the day promised to be hot and Popples was not participating as he has been in school for less than a week. We reached around 10.30 am and tried to find our way to the grounds. We thought we would sneak into the back row as I do not like being late and Mamaji as usual had arrived late! Imagine my surprise bordering on shock when I saw the Principal’s Secretary heading our way. God I was embarrassed. She led us to the podium and Shaku Maa’m the Principal got up to greet us and sat us next to her in the VIP podium. I was giving dirty looks to Mamaji for having not got us there on time. Mayla, a young volunteer from Germany was with us. We watched the races and clapped with enthusiasm. I spotted Utpal distributing bananas at the other side of the ground where the children were seated. But that was not all, the three of us were even requested to hand out medals and cups. It was a great moment.

After the programme we were escorted to the Principal’s house where a table for 12 was laid and we ate a wonderful meal, the same one that was served to the children and the other parents.  On the way we briefly saw Utpal who looked a little perplexed. I wondered why. After lunch it was PTM time but I spent a moment with Popples and he was all excited about the school. My worries were allayed. The Principal had told me that I could take him home for the night and he could come back on the school bus that comes near our house, but he decided not to. You see there was chicken on the menu tonight. He also told us that he would spend Diwali with his friends. He introduced us to some of them. I was over the moon. But there was more.

When we finally got to his teacher and I tried to be a little diffident in talking about his academic performance, his lovely class teacher told me was good in maths, very creative, excellent in art and a very obedient and helpful child. I could not stop my eyes from welling up. Was this the same child about whom I had been told just a few weeks ago that he was a liar!

The Colonel Satsangi’s Kiran Memorial school is a school with a heart. You see it was set up in the memory of a loved one and taken over by a daughter to honour her wonderful parents. To me it has the same spirit as Project Why.

I know Utpal will bloom in this school and find the right direction to fulfil his destiny.

It has been a blessed day.

On the podium next to the Principal!

Poll musings

I normally never get over excited during election. Often I only realise it is election time when posters and banners (thankfully not many now) are erected or when politicians gather in car convoys while one is going to work or when noisy cavalcades headed by drum beaters and preceded by party workers handing flower garlands to bystanders urging them to loop them around the already garland laden neck of the candidate who normally walks in a trance hands folded and a beatific smile on his lips. The whole thing looks farcical and makes me wonder how such a parade helps voters in deciding who to vote for. Today’s voters, even the illiterate ones are quite savvy though a bottle of hooch and a roasted chicken led could make them vote for you!

This time, I was reminded of forthcoming elections well in advance when two uniformed  cops landed home with a letter asking that I deposit my gun (before I go further I must state that I inherited a small pistol that pa gave mama way back in 1950; I do not think it has ever been fired. For me it is simply a memento of my parents and I have no ammunition. It have not got rid of it because I do not want it to in the wrong hands.) at the police station till the end of elections. This has never happened earlier and I wonder how it will help in containing violence when there are so many illegal arms around. Anyway this is just to tell you how I became aware of the Delhi elections well before the posters and cavalcades.

I have normally voted each time I have been in town and on the list, as being on the list has varied from election to election and all my efforts have not got us a voter’s card yet! Anyway let us see what happens this time. What I know is that I am no more the candid and naive person who voted with stars in her eyes. I did come from a nationalist freedom fighter family and Congress was the house mantra. My husband use to make fun of us by saying that in our home even the ants were Congress followers. My childhood had been replete with freedom stories that were more than real as the protagonists were my own blood and flesh. Congress was a hallowed word. When still a little girl I came to know that Pandit Nehru was the one to have coaxed my father to leave his judicial career in Mauritius and join the Indian Foreign Service. I still remember the breakfast we had at Teen Murti House where I was witness to Nehru’s proverbial temper as the omelette he was served was overdone. When I came to voting age there was no question of my not voting Congress.

The next chapter of my ‘political’ life was when I was called upon to be Mrs Indira Gandhi’s interpreter and was interviewed by her. When she came to know I was Kamala’s daughter she laughed and said had she known that she would not have bothered to call me. Being her interpreter revealed a very humane side of this iron lady. I remember her being the only dignitary I interpreted for who made sure that I was fed, even if that meant a few minutes delay in the programme. I must admit I mastered the art of eating faster than I do and that is saying a lot. When I accompanied her to Srinagar in May 1974, I was clueless about the weather in Kashmir and no one had told me it would be cold. I just went with Delhi summer clothes. When we got off the plane she saw me turning blue and asked me if I had any warm clothes. I told her I did not but would get something. When I reached my hotel room I found a shawl and one of her legendary capes on my bed! There are many more instances. Maybe I will write about them some day as I had the occasion of working closely with her in many international summits and conferences. Needless to say I still voted Congress.

Having launched myself as a Conference Organiser, I was asked to organise a Youth Congress North South Dialogue which was as sort of coming of age for Rajiv Gandhi. The bond we established over an argument about the placing of India delegates to ensure that Iraq and Iran would not sit together, an argument where he took my side would last till the day he was assassinated. I would work for the Asian Games (these too merit a book) and then spearheaded an evaluation of the 20 point programme across India and finally was his letter writer after he lost elections till he died. Those years showed me the innards of politics and it was nothing short of ugly. My heart was still Congress but somehow I did not vote for a few elections.

I could not have voted BJP. Any party that can whip up enough hate to break a house of God could and can never get my support. Any one who breeds hate is not for me. The options were few. In one election I even exercised my right not to vote but that seemed futile. Even the NOTA button heralded as a big thing does not make any difference unless there is some action if and when NOTA votes are above a certain percentage.

By now I was no more the starry eyed. I had not only seen the inside of a political party but also the reality on the ground, the false promises, the hijacked social programmes, the state of the schools run by the Government, the total lack of health facility for the poor, the inhuman conditions in which families live in the haphazard slums that erected any and everywhere, even next to factories that spew chemical laden water and smoke. I have seen how the children of this country have been let down, I have seen the political dramas enacted time and again and played for the media gallery. I have seen that nothing changes. So how does one bring about change?

In the forthcoming elections there is a new party the AAP that is fighting its election honestly, I hope, with candidates and issues we relate to. But how will they perform once in power. Power corrupts. That is a sad but true statement. However this time people are fed up and I a surprised to see how many of them want to give the neophytes a chance. From the humblest to erstwhile staunch supporters of political parties, all have decided to support the broom! The logic is to give a visibly honest and sincere party a chance.

I would like to exercise my vote if the powers that be ensure that I am on the hallowed list but I still do not know which way to go. I would like to give my vote to someone who sees children begging or working and remembers that too have all the rights enshrined in our Constitution including the Right to Education. I would like to vote for someone who realises that there is too much wrong around us and it is time to address situations head on, someone who works not for the interest of one class, one religion, one segment of society but for the poorest of the poor, someone who hangs his head in shame when faced with the fact that even today 5000 children under five die every day because we cannot give them proper nutrition, clean drinking water and basic health care.

Maybe I ask for too much.

Growing up is hard, child. Otherwise everyone would do it

Growing up is hard, child. Otherwise everyone would do it! This was his size when he first went to boarding school. He was 4 years and 5 months. Thursday last he set off for his new school with a smile and a spring in his gait. I did not even get my goodbye hug. He was very excited. The admission took a long time and we never knew he had to sit for a test. He did not like that part at all and apparently did not give it his best. But that was a formality. After all formalities and shopping for new uniforms, books and bedding, he was taken away by his hostel warden. What happened next is a mystery that will be revealed when we see him. That won’t be long as his Founder’s Day is on the 23rd.

This child of God has taken a new step in his life journey. When I look back at his tiny life that extends to just over a decade I am mystified by the number of changes this tiny chap has been made to endure. In the first year of his life I only know that he had to change many homes as no one wanted his dysfunctional parents as tenants. When he moved next to our office just before his accident it would take a few more shifts before I put my foot down and decided to get the family a fixed home. I still remember the day in March 2004 when we found them a home near our office and I was hastily summoned as the women of the family began abusing his mom and saying they did not want their neighbourhood sullied by a woman who drank. I stood by her with the two year old in my arms till an alternative was found. From an array of rather sordid homes Utpal landed in my house as his mom was sent to rehab. Two months later he went to Boarding school. Holidays were again spent in various surroundings: a midway home that accepted kids, our women centre when his mom was there, our women centre with staff, with a sprinkling of short stays in again sordid homes and finally at home with me. It took him time but finally he has accepted this as his home.

Shifting his school was necessary as for reasons beyond our control the old school had stopped being the enabling environment he needed. To fulfil his destiny Utpal needed to broaden his horizons. He needed to learn to communicate in English, widen his social circle and above all find a place where he would understood and nurtured. I hope with all my heart that tis school will be all this and more.

I will be seeing him on the 23rd when his new school celebrates its Annual Day. He will be a little lost I guess but part of the show nevertheless. I will be the proud parent watching with my heart.

Growing up is hard. But Utpal is a survivor and a blessed soul. He will fulfil his destiny.

May God always walk with him.

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

As I write these words Utpal is on his way to join his new school. I kept the promise I made him when he was crying his heart out. When he was with us for one night, I showed him the beautiful message someone he has never met sent him. It said: Do you know how amazing you are? You are a very strong lad. Good luck in your new school. It sounds like a lovely place where you’ll find many good friends and caring teachers. I’m so happy for you. I took the liberty to add a quote to this photo of yours: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” You are truly a brave and  wise soul. I want you to know that you inspire me. Every time I look at this giggly pic of yours (after all that you’ve been through, still you continue to smile brightly) it lights up my day and gives me courage to move forward in life. I want to ‘THANK YOU’ for that! Better things are coming your way little one. My love and prayers are always with you. God bless!
I second every word!

I was  wondering what could be going on in his little head when my thoughts travelled back in time to the days when I was his age and even younger. It is funny that I never remembered till now how I too had to deal with change umpteen times and how traumatic it was. If he has his scars, I had the wrong colour of skin and a funny sounding name! In my school life I went to many schools in many cities: Paris, New Delhi, Rabat, Saigon, Algiers and Geneva. not counting nursery school in Beijing when I was a toddler. I realise today how traumatic these changes were and how difficult it was for me to be accepted and make friends and each time I felt settled Papa would come home and tell us we were posted to another country. To me it meant having to start all the saga of being accepted all over again. It also meant learning a new culture and sometimes a new language as I was sent to local schools. At that time I guess it was survival mode and I needed just like Utpal to build walls around me to bear the kind of bullying I was subjected to. India was not a known country and people had strange ideas about it. My classmates use to ask me questions like: do you live in trees in India? or do you all move around on elephants? It use to make me angry and as communication was non existent I use to ask my grandfather to send me pictures of our house and of his car.

As I went to the local schools, I felt different as we always had a chauffeured car and a big one at that. I remember asking the driver to drop me well before school so I could reach school on foot as many of my friends did. I hated being an Ambassador’s daughter! I would have settled being the butcher’s one. I guess things became more difficult as one grew up. When I was 15, my papa sent me to boarding school in Geneva for my final school year. The reason being that there was no proper French school in Ankara where we were posted. It was a school run by nuns and the students of my class (Baccalaureate) were daughters of the uber rich who had failed many times. Some of them had cars and they all wore branded clothes. The school was swanky and we all had single rooms. I was barely 15 whereas my classmates were much older, some being 20! They were not good at their studies and resented me as I was a good student. In the dining hall we had tables of 6 and no one sat at my table. They did not want to sit with the black one! Our names were written on our doors and in the evening they would stand by my door and read my name aloud and laugh. I use to lie in foetal position on my bed and cover my ears with my hands. When I shared this with my teachers they just laughed. One even said you are lucky you can eat all the butter on the table. I did not want butter I wanted friends, I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to be one of them.

I had forgotten about this but Utpal’s shifting schools brought all this back and the images were as vivid as if they had happened yesterday and the wounds as raw and the pain as searing. Even after half a century!  I know how difficult it is to get accepted and how terribly hurtful it is when you are not. I just hope and pray that all goes well with little Utpal.

The last I heard from him was that the admission procedures were still not over as they had to buy all that he needed. I cannot begin to imagine how this lad will feel once those who mamaji and dharmu bhaiyya leave and he moves into unknown territory with his brand new trunk and his brand new clothes! I also wonder how quickly he will fall asleep in a strange place where everything is new. Today I send a special prayer to the God of little boys to descend from the Heavens and hold his hand through the night. I am sure he will. Maybe in the form of another little boy who sleeps in the bed next to his.

I for one know sleep will not come easy!

Yes little one: It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. I have walked that path.

That shepherd I do also call

As promised, I brought Popples home yesterday. Today he will go to his new school. What a big step for a this tiny lad. We packed his bag, bough a few things that were needed and then it was time to enjoy being home. It all began with a carom game that was great fun, then his favourite dinner : chicken and chapatis. I left him with the girls and went to bed. Sleep did not come easy as my mind was full of thoughts and questions. Will he settle down fast? Will he make friends? Will he be happy? And then I started wondering what was going on in his mind. I know he is apprehensive about how other children will react to his scars, to his poor English, to the questions he has no answers for : what do your parents do, what is your father, your mother’s name. I know he will find  answers let us not forget he is a survivor and does walk into people’s heart. I pray to the God of small beings to sprinkle enough magic dust to enable him to conjure all the miracles needed to be accepted in his new school and do it proud. I finally fell asleep on this thought.

While I was ruminating dark thoughts, the magic had already begun. Imagine my utter delight when I switched on my computer and logged into my Facebook page and was greeted by this wonderful picture. After Ranjan and I retreated to our room, the girls and Utpal had plans I did not know off. They all went to the Ice Cream Parlour and got themselves a treat. For Utpal it was a chocolate chip cone! I now wonder what else happened before he finally went to sleep. He is still asleep as I write these words. I will wake him up in a while and then I hope he will smiles all the way to school. It has taken a long time for Utpal to consider my house as home. I will end this post by a quote from the Atharva Veda: Him that has control of departure, that has control of coming home, return, and turning in, that shepherd do I also call.

Bring him home today

This picture always breaks my heart. It was taken a few years ago when Utpal when I had to leave him someplace he did not want to be in but we had no choice and the little chap could only express his feelings with tears: tears of hurt, tears of anger, tears of frustration, tears that just meant: you did not hear me. The fact is that we did but had no alternative at that given moment. I know that the resilient and brave kid must have stopped crying and moved to survival mode, but the unshed tears I shed stayed with me: tears of helplessness and of guilt. Even when I see the picture today, I feel as bad as I did now. Many a times I thought of deleting this picture but did not as it was part of the journey Popples and I began way back in 2003. This must have been taken in 2007. He was just five and already in boarding school.

Since that day we have had occasional tears but not many. Even when he was upset in school he kept quiet and what was missing was his smile. His cries for help matured with age: bad marks in school, confidential chats with his counsellor or at best a quickly muttered: I do not like the school, within my earshot. He was again on survival mode. Slowly we adults head his silent entreaties and took the step I guess we has hoping for: a new school where he would be heard!

On Monday he visited his new school and fell in love with it at first sight. I think what he saw was people willing to listen to him, people who wanted to acknowledge his plus points and highlight them. He put his best foot forward and behaved like a Prince. He even struggled to find English words to answer his new Principal. She saw his effort and gently switched to Hindi. When I presented his last report card that was not good, she simply closed the it and said: marks did not matter! On the other hand she urged us to send him as soon as possible so that he could participate in the skating zonal competition scheduled for the end of the month. Utpal was over the moon.

Yesterday Utpal had to go back to his old school. When the car came to fetch him, he came to say goodbye, but then burst into tears exactly the same way he had in the picture. He pleaded and wept his heart out. I told him that I did not want him to leave his old school like a coward and wanted him to leave his head held high. I promised him that we would get him home today and in his new school tomorrow. He finally settled down in my arms and picked up his bag and left. His last glance was one of total trust that said: please don’t let me down.

Utpal’s tears yesterday revealed how much he suffered in silence in the last year where he was bullied and even humiliated time and again, the worst being when his class teacher chose to state in a loud and shrilly voice that he was a liar! For me that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew his time in that school was up.

We will bring him home today!