One child every 10 seconds

Forgive the rather disgusting picture that illustrates this mail but there is a method to my madness. This picture was taken close to the Chhattrapur Temple located not far from Utpal’s school. He wanted   to buy some sweets and this was the closest market. We have just experienced another nine days of the bi-annual feeding frenzy that happens in North India during what is known as the Navratas, or nine nights dedicated to the Goddess.What has become tradition, or a way to please God and Godesses is the feeding of people. Tents are erected at every street corner, food is cooked sur place, and then doled out in non degradable plates to one and all. I guess it is a feel good factor for the ones who organise such communal feeding. I am sure God(dess) will be happier if one fed one person log haul. What horrifies me is the amount of food wasted and thrown away. You would not believe how much goo food there was in this pile! It could have fed so many hungry children. I see red when people waste food, more so when it is done by supposedly educated ones. And I cannot help myself each time I am faced with a similar situation, of thinking of the part in Ash in the Belly that describes the way mothers ferret rat holes in search of a few grains for their hungry babies: On days where there is no food in the house the whole family sets out to find food. They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy… they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents…after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain  spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable… they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain. (Ash in the Belly page 6). Can you please thick about this the next time you are on the verge of throwing food.
Malnutrition kills one child every 10 seconds. 3.1 million children die every year. These are the latest statistics. In India, one child dies every 4 minutes because of malnutrition. 2.1 million every year. They die of totally preventable diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, measles mostly because their immune system is impaired. They die because of lack of clean water, lack of sanitation and lack of nourishment. They die because no one cares. They die because grains rot with impunity. They die because programmes made for them never reach them but get hijacked by wily predators. And as these programmes fail, more are made and more pockets fattened. 
Amidst all the talk of making India a super power, comes an article from the State our Prime Minister hails from, a state that is often pitched as an example to emulate. The article citing Government sources states that over 6.5 lakh malnourished children in Gujarat. A knee jerk reply promises remedial action: providing take-home rations, giving fruits, milk as well as breakfast to anganwadi children, besides giving supplementary food to malnourished children. We have heard this ad- nauseum and know that not much will change on the ground. These measures were first enunciated way back in 1975 when the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) was launched. Had it worked there would not have been over 25 million malnourished children in India today. The scheme has failed miserably. All you need to do is visit one of the anganwadis (creche) and you will know the reality.

One child dying from preventable reasons is one child too many. One child every 4 minutes which is what happens in India should make us hang our heads in shame. One child dying every 4 minutes in a land where food grain rots, where food is wasted with impunity in weddings or in the name of religion be it the plates of food thrown during feeding frenzies on the road side, or the still heaped plates found under tables at wedding feasts, or the gallons of milk poured over stone statues is unacceptable. I do not know of any God, if he or she exists, who would not rather have that food find its way in the stomach of a hungry child.

Five thousands deaths a day of children between 0 and 5 is a tragedy. But it does not stop there, even those who make will never be able to develop fully. Malnutrition in early years damage the child for life: their growth is stunted, their immunity low and their brain is affected resulting in lower IQs. Before anything else, it is imperative to tackle malnutrition on a war footing particularly as we pride ourselves in having the youngest population in the world.

I have written about this so many tines, and elicited few reactions. Maybe I belong to another planet but to me the statistic of a child dying of hunger in a land readying itself for a Mars Landing is deeply disturbing. 

Till death do us part

Utpal on his 13th birthday
March 12 2015

This picture was taken last week on Utpal’s birthday which we celebrated in his school with cake and samosas. He is 13! A teenager! How time flies. He was the perfect host and made sure all his friends got enough to eat and drink. He also made sure that his teachers got a piece of cake and did not forget the guard on duty. I was proud but not surprised. Utpal has always been the perfect host. Even when he was three year old, he was just that: a perfect host! At that tender age he even knew the importance of returning hospitality. We have come a long way Utpal and I. And every step we have taken together has been a blessed one, even in times of strife. He made my world a better place from the instant he walked into my heart. That was 10 years ago. You must be wondering why I seem to be being around the bush and yes I am. That is because what I need to share today is not easy and actually even frightening. The scariest deafening why lurks around the corner and I am petrified. The answer to this one keeps eluding me. I can only pray that I have one in time.

This is what Popples looked like when he came into my life. Scalded, hurt and almost moribund. For months we fought to ensure  that he would heal and keep all his milestones. I remember how I would make fresh chicken soup for him every day and how he had learnt to recognise the flask and give his most endearing smile when he spotted it. Ok here I am meandering again. Time to get to the point and the why! Soon Utpal will be 18. As per the juvenile justice act, my guardianship will end and as again as per the totally absurd and poorly conceived law, he will be an adult and in charge of his life. Yes in India, even children who are in institutions are let out in the big bad world overnight. How they are supposed to manage is anyone’s guess. I know of organisations that employ them to that they can remain in safe. Law or no law, guardianship or no guardianship, Utpal will always have a home that crosses seas and mountains. He is ours forever! However there will be a day when he will ask about  his mom and about what we did for her and should that be not up to the mark then he will ask the dreaded why: Why did you not take care of her. I can never forget the touching quote that says: God to whom little boys say their prayers has a face very like their mother’s. I need to be ready with the right and honest answer.

To a boy, no mom is flawed; but to the world this mom has had a rough deal. Being an alkie and bipolar is a rough deal for any woman but a nightmare for one born on the word side of the fence. We did every thing we could to help her: several rehabs, stays in homes etc but the bottle won and we failed. She disappeared for 4 long years causing havoc in her son’s life that we had to piece again with love and patience. Then she came back, married a man with three kids, left him, lived with another abusive one, was rejected by the only family she has (one sister-in-law and 2 nephews) who refused to take her in. Years of abuse have left her incapacitated. Sh cannot work as she does not have the strength and her manic depression has taken its toll on her mind and turned her into a child. She needs a place where she can be safe and cared for medically. That is according to the best solution. This is also the answer I can be comfortable with when asked the dreaded question.

We are in the midst of searching for such a place but it is no mean task. I hope and pray we can find one that she is happy in and where her son can meet her the day he so decides.

When you take someone’s hand in yours, it is for better or worse till death do us part.

My grandfather’s hut

Ram Persad Singh Goburdhun 1880 1949

Upon his return from yet another trip, this time to Mauritius, my husband handed me a book. It was surprising,  as though I did not expect the customary bottle of perfume – the ubiquitous gift you expect from a man – as Mauritius is a land that holds some of my roots and family, a book was the last thing on my mind. A glance at the title and I realised that the sepia coloured book was the story of the Transport Company crated lovingly and painstakingly by my elder uncle, a man with a vision way beyond his times. The book is replete with family photographs that made me all fuzzy as long forgotten memories came alive. I sat down to read it as it began with the family history that till date I had pieced through the occasional chats with my father. I was hoping to fill in the gaping holes. Little did I realise that the book was serendipitous as it concealed a small anecdote, tucked away at the bottom of page, 11 that would complete my life circle and perhaps explain why I am where I am today.

The book is called La Grande Histoire du Bus Mauricien, and is beautifully written by Tristan Bréville. It was published to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Company. (I was unable to find a link in English. The one given above is of an article in a French newspaper). The anecdote I am referring to is about my grandfather, Ram Pershad Singh Goburdhun, the son of a indentured labourer bearing no 354495, who landed in Mauritius in 1871. The son born 9 years later was my grandfather. Of the sparse bits of my ancestors’ history imbibed with yearning at my father’s knee, I was to learn that my grandfather was a school teacher. The story of how the son if an indentured labourer would become a teacher remained shrouded in mystery. All I knew of my grandpa was that he was a teacher and that he was a very strict man.

Tristan Bréville
La Grande Histoire du Bus Mauricien page 11
The tiny but life altering anecdote that I referred to, tucked away on page 11 of this book, reveals that my grandpa was not just ‘any’ school teacher. It says that he was one of the youngest school teacher ever as he was just 21 when he started teaching. But that is not all. He also created his own school, and when the owners of the sugar mill ‘acquired’ the little piece of land where his school stood in 1918, he converted a little straw thatched hut on his own sugar field into a school. The primary school  at Belle-Vue Maurel in Mauritius still bears his name as you can see by scrolling down the list on this page
Every life has a story to tell and those of our ancestors often foretell the ones of those yet to be born. It is when you and you alone read it, that you find the part that relates to you. And as I read of the school under the thatched roof, I knew this part was mine to hold on to. Nothing in my early life or career would have ever suggested that I would in my twilight years turn to educating children, and that too deprived children. True I taught in an University but that was not my true calling and was a short and not so sweet stint. Even when I started project why, education was not the first thing that one had in mind. But then a series of unexpected events, an encounter with a beggar whom I know now was a man with a mission, and a string of deafening whys led me to what was to be my calling: creating a space to educate children from slums, children of the kind that would have found their way to my grandfather’s hut. I can feel the undoubtable and powerful link that binds that little hut created almost a century ago to the first project why classroom that was a mud hut with a tin roof. 
I have often wondered why I set up project why! I always felt  the presence of an invisible force that blew beneath my wings and steered  me on an unknown journey. Unable to identify it, I thought it was the one I called the God of Lesser Beings. Today I know who he is. The man who would not give up when his school was taken away and built one on his own land. The man who knew that education was the greatest gift of all. The man  never met. The man who was my grandfather.
Life has come full circle and I feel blessed.

For the rich, by the rich and of the rich

Whenever I hear even the faintest murmur about primary education being reviewed, my heart beats faster but my blood also runs cold. The question is: what now! We have so many aberrations in our education system. The fear is that one more may be added. A recent article entitled: Failure Not an Option for Students Till Class 8. But That Could Change has again given me food for thought. I shudder to think about who will be the persons deciding on the future of all the children of India. Sadly there are many decision makers whose interests lie elsewhere. Just to cite one: if schools ran spot on then who would teachers make money on tuition, something you see across the board in India! Remember children are not vote banks!

Before I give my take on the no fail till class VIII policy, I would like to share a few other aberrations and I use the word with full responsibility as I have now been an enraged and somewhat helpless witness of what we are doing to extremely bright and not so bright children in the name of education and I should know as I have seen and helped thousands of them in the last 15 years.

I have often written about education on this blog. Unfortunately my blog do not reach concerned authorities but are read by like minded people and project why aficionados. The first number that shocked me beyond words was the (un)holy 33! Thirty three per cent is what you need to pass any examination in India. Actually who needs a no fail policy when the pass percentage is so abysmally low. That was an aside. Let us get to facts. If you peruse any advertisement for a job and this includes Government jobs like peons, the pass percentage required is 50%. Now to my simple mind the two should match: either you make the school pass percentage 50 or lower the job application one to 33. The cynics would say that anyway a child that is bright enough would cross the hurdle and schools would ensure a modicum of quality but that is not the case in state run schools. I will give you an example from my own experience. A  few years back, a bunch f class X students came to me a month of so before their Boards and told me that they had not even finished half their curriculum. Those were days when I was still naive and so I marched to the school and into the Principal’s office and asked him the reason. Pat came the reply laced with a smirk: You need 33% to pass so we only cover 40%. (What was left unsaid was that the remaining 60% was ‘taught’ by the same teachers privately. The fact that schools run in 2 shifts is a perfect fit for this!). I was speechless. This meant that an intelligent child who was poor and could not afford private tuition would never be able to reach the required marks to access higher education.

The 33% pass percentage is an aberration that needs to be removed if reforms have the children’s interest at heart.

The other disturbing figure is the 14. That is the age when according to the RTE Act, free education comes to a abrupt stop. I say abrupt as at that age you are in class 8. So imagine the equation: no fail policy till class VII and no free education post class VIII = no education at all! Let us be real. Sadly the reality today is that you have children in class 4 or 5 or even 7 who can barely read or write courtesy the no fail policy. The tragedy with a big T, is that most of these kids are bright. What they are not is rich. We have had such students and with a little help, they have caught on and gone and topped they class. I hope you agree that all is not well in the kingdom of education.

The no fail policy to ensure that the self-esteem of children was not bruised. There is wisdom in this but with many caveats. School has to be an enabling environment and the child’s progress had to be monitored. This does happen in what is known as Public Schools in India, but in a Government school where there are 100+ students in a class even the most experienced teacher cannot impart knowledge in the 35 to 40 minutes allotted per subject. The self esteem of the child is nowhere in sight.

The jury is out but whether the right people are sitting on it is another question. It is difficult the find the motley crew that would be able to keep the interest of children on either side of the fence at heart. When the no fail policy was instituted it came with a series of teaching options ranging from projects to open book exams. The up market schools were thrilled and would perform as required but in Government schools this is pure chimera and when you live in a cramped hovel with barely enough to survive, you will never get the money for all the material required for the model asked for, and if you do manage than you run the risk of having your younger sibling or drunk father destroy it before it reaches your school.

My fear is that whatever new policy is conjured, it will not keep the interest of poor children in mind.

But if reform is on the anvil, I so wish the concerned people would have the guts to take the bull by its horn and turn education on its head if needed keeping today’s reality in mind. Education is what helps you accede to a better future, what helps you break the cycle of poverty you were born in, what helps you discover your talent and ability, what helps you make choices.

First and foremost any education system which has a scoring system that can reach 100% and even more should you have a good handwriting is not right. The difference between 33 and 100 is gaping and cannot succeed. When I was a student 60% was to be celebrated. I passed my Baccalaureate with distinction. 60% got you that distinction. Many years later when my daughter passed her Baccalaureate with distinction it was a nightmare to get her admission in Delhi University as the reign of cut off marks had arrived and the numbers were in the nineties. Now you can never get 90% in the French Baccalaureate. It had to move heaven and earth to explain this to the authorities. Today affordable universities i.e. Delhi University etc have mind boggling cut offs and the children from poorer homes can never aspire to get there as they run the race with a handicap. Their parents cannot afford the plethora of private universities that have mushroomed nor send their children abroad. So these kids, who are as bright and even brighter than others can only seek correspondence courses, open universities or evening courses. Another door has been shut at their face. Looks like education is for the rich, by the rich and of the rich!

There are two categories of children: those who are academically inclined and those who are not. The former must get the best possible and the later should be gently pushed into vocational skills in sync with the market needs. This needs to be done midway, in class VII or so. These can range from spoken English or Chinese if need be, to computers, sewing, carpentry and so on.

Vocational education has to be introduced intelligently as is well discussed in this article.

You have to move with the times. Maybe not as fast as Finland, where children will not learn writing but typing, but maybe it is time to sift out all the unnecessary information that one has to learn in school as in the times of the Internet, what needs to be taught is how to access information. Maybe learning to use a calculator is more useful than learning tables till 20, even when India has adopted the decimal system and abandoned the anna or 1/16 of a rupee. Even then tables 17 to 20 were useless.

Education by rote should be thrown out of the window. What a child has to learn is to think independently and intelligently. I was privileged to have schooled in the French system. I would like to share an anecdote of my life. When I passed my Bac in the sixties, History was a subject that was tested orally. The curriculum was from world war II to present times. You had to pick out a question from a proverbial hat and got 20 minutes to prepare it. Then you had to defend your answer in front of a jury. The question I got was : If WW II had been lost by the allies what in your opinion would have been the present economic situation in the world? No rote learning would help you with that one. There was no right or wrong answer. What was needed is for you to defend what you put forth.

They deserve what you deserve if not more

one of the last pictures with Manu

I was extremely saddened but hardly surprised when I saw the news coverage of the way differently abled athletes were treated in the recently so-called National Paralympic. Yet no matter how jaded I have become over the years, my blood could not help from boiling when I heard the insensitive explanations given by thick-skinned officials. Abled or not, the people in question are citizens of India and worthy citizens who represent their country in International meets where when they win our Flag is hosted and our Anthem played. But above all they are human beings just like you and me. They had come to Matiala village in Ghaziabad (a few kilometres from the capital city) to compete for the honour of representing their country. The vent was organised by Paralympic Association. One would have expected them to be well treated, fed and looked after. What happened was that they had to crawl, defecate in the open as the toilets were filthy, sleep on tables as there were no beds and eat the same poorly cooked at every meal. The lame excuse given brazenly on National TV was that they had expected a certain number and more came. This in my humble opinion does not explain the unfinished building, the lack of beds, ramps, water and the poor quality of food and the filth! The only explanation that hold is that no one cared as they were JUST differently abled athletes. Try to do that to your cricket team and see what happens! Let us not even go there.

I have been blessed to have know and love many differently abled souls. I call them special children. I must admit that it took me almost half a century to meet the first one. He was no athlete and did not hail from a privileged home. He was what is called a ‘beggar’! His name was Manu. He was and still is my guardian Angel.

The picture above was taken a few months before he left us but it is the same trusting eyes filled with immense love that met mine on a scorching summer in 2000. The only difference was that at that time he barely looked human, with his long dishevelled and matted hair, his half clad body and the years of dirt and filth that caked is rarely washed limbs. It would take us month of tender scrubbing to get rid of the dirt and maggots. He had waited patiently for I guess a quarter century treading  the same stretch of road waiting for us to meet and walk into my heart. He had a mission to fulfil and he did. There would have been no project why, if not for Manu.

I remember the first meal we ‘shared’. At that time we had no resources to give a home to this saintly soul so we use to be a hot meal and he would eat it sitting on a blur chair with a red stool that held his plate. He use to pick his plate up with his unsteady hands and ask me to sit on the stool and then break a piece of roti and dip in in the dal and hand it over to me. Believe me that was manna from the Gods and a very special and blessed moment for me. I did give Manu a home, albeit a temporary one as he left before I could build Planet Why for him. I guess he knew that he had accomplished his mission and that I would carry it on.

Even today, in my moments of doubt and insecurity, when things look dark, I can feel his gentle hand on my shoulder and the warmth of his smile in my heart. I never feel alone. But this post is not to retell once again Manu’s story. This post is about the way we treat differently abled people in a land that heralds its traditions and values but has lost its heart. To me the officials of the Paralympic association are no different from Manu’s wily and crafty sister-in-law who use to send him to beg and promptly take the few coins that had been thrown at him to treat herself leaving him to rummage the garbage bins for food.

Special children are God’s own children. It is for us to reach out to them and embrace them. They give you much more than you can ever give them as they give you their unadulterated love and trust. When my spirits are low and I need a feel good shot, all I have to do is spend some time with the wonderful children of our special section. You are welcome to come and meet them anytime.

Out of the closet

We were recently asked to put up a proposal for funding. The proposal had to be for something different and relevant to our times. After some pondering and brainstorming we decided to once again walk the extra mile and requested funding for a series of workshops on sex education and gender equality. The proposal was well received and we were asked asked to provide details about how we would approach the problem. Easier said than done as how do you talk about sex education in a patriarchal society where sex is so taboo that if we do not run our workshops carefully, we incur the risk of having parents remove their children from project why. Yet it is imperative that children lean about these issues at the earliest.

If there is one thing that needs to come out of the closet it is sex education!

The number of rape and abuse of children in homes and even schools, both considered ‘safe’ places, is mind boggling and as long as the code of silence which is de rigeur in patriarchal societies is not busted, children will continue suffering in deafening silence in the name of honour or any such inanity.

Sex education in India is banned. And even if it is imparted it is done so with reluctance. Parents leave it to schools; schools outsource it; in some cases teachers skip the chapter asking the child to read it at home! An excellent video gives you a taste of what sex education looks like in India. Do view it if you can.

In privileged homes maybe things are a little better, but in slums and poor homes where parents are illiterate, the silence that surrounds sex can be dangerous. They live in cramped homes where they ‘see’ and ‘hear’ sex and abuse. They grow up thinking that sex and even abuse is a duty for girls and a right for boys.

Conversation on sexuality, if there is conversation, focuses on abuse never on the positive aspects of sex and sexuality. Sex education is an absolute must and politicians have to step out of their comfort zones and skewed political agendas and act. Age appropriate sex education should be an integral part of school curricula if we want to aspire to a healthy society. Band aid and knee jerk solutions are not the answer.

Now the problem that arises is how does one address the situation and come up with the right way to impart sex education in the given scenario.

What we intend doing is having a series of workshops for both students and teachers. Th subjects we inter covering would range from ‘good touch bad touch’ to the importance of ‘consent’. One needs to start telling children at a very early age that it is important to ask a play mate before touching them; teach children empathy and the importance of not hurting another; teach them to help someone who is in trouble. It is also very important that a child be taught to say NO and STOP and to honour the same when they are told these words. If your NO is not heard than we must teach the child to think whether she or he is feeling safe and good. It is also important for children to learn about their bodies and use correct words and not words that carry negative images as is often the case.

Older children need to be taught about body changes and that these changes are natural. Their self esteem has to be built and the importance of consent. It is also important to talk about hormones and how the may affect our thinking. It is also important to encourage them to ask the questions that bother them and answer them honestly. As most if not all these children cannot discuss these matters with their parents, our teachers have to be trained to be mentors. It is an uphill task wrought with dangers but that needs to be tacked head on. I guess we will have to craft the ‘syllabus’ as we go on.

The other burning issue is undoubtedly gender equality. I personally believe that there are two main issues that seem to have not been addressed as they probably do not mesh with  existing societal realities. The first one is to address the X Y chromosome theory that would, if understood, liberate women from the erroneous perception of being the ones who determine the sex of the child and thus are ‘responsible’ if the child they bear and give birth do is a girl and not a boy. I wonder why this has never been a loud and blaring campaign. It is time men and their mothers realised that the wife/daughter-in-law is not at fault and thus does need to be blamed. And talking of mothers-in-law, we must accept that gender inequality is first and perhaps foremost perpetuated by women: mothers and grand mothers and other women in the family who treat their sons/grandsons differently than their daughters. This is highly visible in a daily pattern that may vary but that is nevertheless present. The boy child is treated like a prince where the girl is more Cinderella’s sister. It is there that it all begins and thus there that it needs to be stemmed.

The same discourse is present in our school books and often perpetuated by teachers: Sunil is confident and will make a good leader; Asha is caring and she will make a good mother. These stereotypes may look innocent but can be damaging. And look at fairy tales where the Prince saves the Princess. It is important to remember that sex is a biological fact and gender is a social construct. Boys and girls do not have any natural psychological or social differences, but it is society that makes them learn gender roles. It is for teachers and educators to balance the equation and have gender neutral teaching material.

When I was in class 6, I attended a lycée in Rabat. It is was a mixed lycée but what was interesting is that both boys and girls attended housekeeping and sewing classes as well as carpentry and electrical repairs one and no one felt that it was wrong. That was way back in 1962! Maybe that is a first step one could take in project why too.

The other discourse that could be followed is to be gender neutral when talking of professional options. The best chefs, hairdressers, couturiers and make up artist are often men, and women excel in many of the professions considered male prerogatives.

In an interesting article, Aparna Rayaprol states that: Institutionalisation of patriarchy in the various agencies of socialisation such as family, school, media, religious, legal, and political institutions allow individuals to become transmitters of gender biases. The school is one place where such institutionalisation takes place in a very subtle way. Only teachers can confront patriarchy by consciously helping children to become good citizens of the world. The first step is to make an equal world in the classroom. It is time project why became an equal world.

Gender sensitisation is not about pitting women against men. Gender sensitive education benefits both sexes. To get long lasting effects, I believe that the first step is to train teachers who then can create the ideal environment for students. Training teachers who come from patriarchal homes is no mean task. The first step would be to build a conducive and unthreatening environment for candid and spontaneous participation where stereotypes and biases can be clarified. This entails understanding the difference between gender and sex and sharing real experiences. The next step would be to analyse how stereotypes are perpetuated by the teachers and work out doable alternatives. A variety of interactive tools would need to be evolved along the way.

It is time to come out of closet!

No country for….

or a woman!

On March 6th a girl was brutally raped in Ahmadabad.  The brutality of the incident was a stark reminder of the Delhi rape of December 16, 2012. The only difference was that this girl was six year old. The only difference was that no one took to the streets, held candle light vigils or expressed any anger. You see she was poor. Had she been your or my child the heavens would have fallen. And yet she should not have been raped as she did not violate any of the so called canons that are always regurgitated to justify rape. She did not wear revealing clothes. She was not out with her boyfriend at an ungodly hour. She did not board a bus. She was just playing with her siblings outside the shack that was her home. Today she fight for her life or perhaps she is no more. She barely made the headlines of our news hungry press.

Her torturer left no stone unturned. With third degree perennial tear, serious rectum and vaginal injuries, the damage to internal organs is beyond shocking. Her haemoglobin level has dropped to 3 due to acute blood loss. When asked why he did it, his chilling answer was: I just felt like doing it! The mother just wants her child to be whole again. That will never happen not only because of the gravity of her wounds but because such scars never heal.

Yesterday a baby died because his father could not produce the 800 rupees the hospital demanded. The baby was delivered on the street. The child died minutes after his birth. The police called it an accidental death. Just like the little girl who fights for her life, this baby too was ‘poor’.

When I hear about such tragedies, I feel so totally helpless and abjectly saddened.

Then as you turn on your TV, you are greeted but yet another uproar. You tune in and realise with utter shock that the subject is once again about women. This time it is a so called ‘respected’ member of the upper house of Parliament that has found it politically correct to talk about women during a debate on foreign direct investment. It takes a rather skewed mind to talk of women’s bodies, of the colour of their skin and other such aberrations to state his party’s stand on the bill discussed. Racism. misogyny, sexism and patriarchy: you have it all. And if you expected the chair or any other member of parliament to object, you have it all wrong. What you heard while he babbles on his laughter, sneers and tacit approval. Come on boys will be boys, even when they are meant to be legislating and crafting our future. The MP in question remains unapologetic; he actually feels he has done no wrong. I guess he just felt like saying these things just like the man who felt like hurting the six year old.

How can women ever be safe as long as  people with such views sit in Parliament. For them women are objects and nothing else. They will continue to be raped every twenty minutes and perpetrators will be protected by a boys will be boys attitude. This is also the same man who was willing to die rather than pass the women reservation bill as he feared that the Parliament will be overrun by short haired women. These are the kind of men who blame women for being molested or raped based on what they wear, or where they go.

They will never feel outraged at any aberration, and remain unperturbed at the news of a child violated by a man. Boys will be boys is the litany we hear over and over again.

And we, the dented and painted ladies who defend our own, will not find the heart to take to the streets for a six year old who was brutally violated or a little baby who died because the hospital wanted 800 rupees. You see these two come with the tag ‘poor’ attached to to their toe and that makes them inconsequential. And what about the 72 year old nun who was brutally gang-raped by eight men. I guess there is some tag that makes her rape material. It cannot be her dress, her age, her life style! She was not out at night but was asleep in the safety of God’s house. Even that was violated.

We can be as outraged as we want. We can have as many laws as we want. But as long as the present mindset exists, and exists its does as it is even aired with alacrity and impunity in the hallowed halls of our Parliament, we are fighting a lost battle.

And if you needed proof, rather than an apology this is what the parliamentarian said today when faced with the ire of women parliamentarians: “The bodies of women from the south are as good as they are beautiful.”

I am aghast.

This is indeed no country for women be she 6 or 72!

Being mom!

 Trying to define who we are and what we do in a blurb has always been a challenge I have not been able to overcome. If I try and limit myself to a few words they always fall short of what we really are. I am compelled to go into a lengthy spiel with a lot of ‘buts’ each almost rebutting the previous statement: we are an education oriented organisation but…! The best I came up with was : we are just an answer to prayers but it does sound cliche does it not. This morning we had to redo the exercise of defining ourselves as we may need to come up with a good pitch in the near future, but mercifully this time we had a dear friend and super supporter at hand. We needed the right peg that would make us stand out.

So we began to try and once again define all we do in the light of what was shared by our friend: the fact that many think that we are a ‘school’ or a ‘tuition’ centre and though I may still accept the former I totally reject the later. The difference this time was that we sort of knew who we were targeting: young and not so young professionals. So we did the rounds, each one trying to come up with an idea, but each idea again falling short. As we enumerated all we did, and boy even I had not realised the extent of our outreach, we had our eureka moment: we gave underprivileged children, what you (the educated privileged) gave our child. Now it was just a matter of finding the right phraseology. I guess we will have some smart copy writer do just that.

However I found mine: being mom! That is what we, and certainly I, have been since day one. You could find numerous ways of stating this: providing an enabling environment to slum kids or nurturing underprivileged children but I like my being mom!

It encompassed everything we do be it providing the education needed for children not only to remain in school but excel; giving extra food when needed; taking the child to the doctor or the psychologist when needed; rushing out to buy warm clothes for a child who was landed in class on a chilly winter morning without a sweater as the only one she had was still damp; providing special classes to the a child who wants to dance, paint or sing; taking kids to parks, museums, movies and even a fast food joint once in a while; being mentor or friend as the need arises; being the pal you share your first love story with; counselling the child and bringing her back to the fold; moving heaven and earth in times of crisis as when a child needs an open heart surgery. In other words just being mom!

Because I wear jeans

I guess I too am on the rape probables because I wear jeans, because I sometimes dare step out of my home with a man who is not my father, uncle, grandfather brother after 7 pm, because I am a flower that needs to be protected by some male relative, lest I be thrown in the gutter and eaten by a dog. Should I be raped then I am to blame, or so say most of the men in the country I call mine. There are many catches though. I am sixty + but how does it matter in a land where a one year or a 80 year old are both rape-able commodity. Now as for the father, grandfather part, at my age they are all dead and gone. As a flower I am faded and even I guess putrefied, but I also guess there are hyenas that would still find me palatable. Dogs and hyenas are a plenty in this land.

I apologise for these rather unpalatable words but I am so angry and disturbed that I am unable to keep hold on my thoughts and fingers.

I have been told by the powers that be – powers I too voted for in spite of some reservations, as I was seduced by their promise of better days for all, and my personal opinion was of no importance if the millions waiting for better days could accede to them, be it those who go hungry every night or those who have been waiting patiently for the rights promised to them  since the day they were free, be it a roof on their heads, clean water to drink, a quality education or just basic dignity – that they had banned a film that told the story of a brave young woman to protect her honour or rather the honour of my country.

I am one of those who saw the film before it was blacked out and I can only say that the banning of the film had nothing to do with protecting her or any woman’s honour, but rather protecting the so called honour of those who think women should be kept in cages visible or invisible, with the key in the hands of some male or the other, depending on her stage in life: father, brother, husband, son and so on. They are the ones who will decide what she eats, wears, sees, thinks; where she goes and with whom.

What was terrifying in the film was not what the criminal said, but what the men in their black coats said, men who are supposed to be guardians of the law of the land. If you step out of line you will be doused with fuel and set to fire. These words, or variation on the same theme, are what had to be banned for no one to hear, words that resonate in many minds. Nobody wants to have a mirror held to their faces. So break the mirror.

I am tired of all the talk about the girl child; I am fed up with all the programmes that aim at bettering the plight of the female sex. They all sound false and empty as was so well said by the mother of Jyoti – and let us call her by her name as that is also the wish of her parents -: if there are no girls left then who will we educate; if girls are raped in schools ad school vans then whose morrow will we better. Before she even has a chance to live she may be killed in the womb, raped or as was so explicitly said by the lawyer in the film: taken to a farmhouse – don’t miss the farmhouse – and doused with petrol and burnt in front of her whole family.

Maybe dear Sirs, if you truly want to better the plight of our girls, it is not the girls you should ply with inane schemes, but rather run schemes for the boys who become the men we see in the film, and I am not talking of the rapist but of the esteemed lawyers; who become politicians, policemen, even Godmen and go on to blame girls for every aberrations perpetrated by men. Men rape because of what we wear, eat, drink and so on. Giving lofty speeches or launching schemes will not stop rape, domestic violence, acid attacks, molestation and abuse of all kind. As long as those in power continue to says: boys will be boys or why was she out at night, nothing will change.

It is time blinkers came off. It is time men looked at themselves in the mirror with honesty and learnt to hate what they saw. Sweeping the reality under the carpet or resorting to knee jerk reactions like banning this that and the other is nothing sort of cowardice.

It is time to celebrate parents like Jyoti’s who did everything to fullfil their daughter’s dreams, even if it meant selling their land and tightening their belt till it hurt; who trusted their child to step out of the house after seven because they respected her right to be free. It is time to transfer the onus of maintaining the honour of the family from the girl to the boy. Do that and mabe things will change.

There is another solution. Instead of killing girls one by one, why not kill them all, at one go, whatever their age and become the most honourable land in the universe, a land without women, a land you will not have to protect by banning films.

She should just be silent

One of the perpetrators of the terrible Delhi gang rape of December 2013 has given a brazen and shocking interview. This blog is not about the merit or demerits of interviewing such sick people by giving them unnecessary publicity, though that could be a point to debate. This has actually been the subject of much heated and even frenzied debate for the past day or so. And though I understand that many feel that this interview by a unrelenting perp is galling to say the least, what worries me is the absolute refusal to go beyond the interview which is apparently a part of a documentary on rape made by a rape survivor. Her attempt to try and put her point across has been thwarted by the myopic view of giving a criminal a platform and sullying the character and memory of the victim. Even the entreaties of the film maker to hold on to judgement till her film was seen has fallen on deaf years. I for one, would like to reserve my opinion till I see the film, but that may not happen as the film is on the way of being banned, if it not already is. One thing that needs to be said is that we as a nation have become intolerant and that is nothing short of terrifying. We refuse to see what disturbs us and deal with it by obliterating the truth, or taking an ostrich like view. Films like Matrubhoomi run to empty houses and that too for a short week.

This blog is simply my reaction to the content of this interview. The comments of the perpetrator may seem shocking and monstrous to many, but sadly they reflect a very real mindset that exists in men in India. If one were to sum in a phrase the essence of the interview it would be: she was to blame! She was to blame because she was out at night; she was to blame because she was with a man; she was to blame because she dared raise her voice; she was to blame because she fought back. All these emanate from the existing gender equation where women are at best second class citizens.

What the rapist and murderer said is what has been echoed time and again, overtly or covertly, in different situations by men of all kind: politicians, policemen, neighbours and even family members. This is what is meant in the ‘but’ that often qualifies reactions to come against women. You are right, but; this is terrible but; it should not have happened but! How many times have we not heard reasons meant to mitigate the horror of the crime and that often pertain to what the victim was wearing, drinking, smoking and so on. No matter how many laws you make or how stringent you make them, things will not change on the ground until we address the situation head on.

The rapist states in his interview that: When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. He goes on to say: A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. And what was even more shocking was the comments made by the lawyers defending the perps as they also reiterated what was said by the murderer.

I wonder why we are so shocked. Have you forgotten the (in)famous boys will be boys and they will make mistakes, that was uttered a senior politician; and what about the sickening comments made by law enforcers who blame western culture for rapes, and the officials who call rape routine and unavoidable. And the deafening question begging to be asked but never formulated: have the rapes stopped? And the answer is a loud NO! They go on with impunity. And its is not just women, but children and even babies. And what about honour killings and this misplaced belief that family honour lies with the girl and should she dare step out of line, she must be done away with.

Is it not time that we faced the reality with honest courage?

To any sane person or sane society such behaviour is nothing short of repugnant, nauseating, loathsome and whatever adjective you can come up with. And you would be right. And yet what the murderer said is what many say or believe, so the logical conclusion is that we are not a sane society, at least when it comes to gender equations.

It is time we accepted this fact and rather than fly off the handle and come up with yet another futile knee jerk reaction, let us take a deep breath and calm down and look at reality as it exists. We have to stop being in denial. If you simply Google for rape statistics in India, this is what hits you: 92 women are raped in India every day, 4 in Delhi. As you read on you are told that in 94% of the cases, the rapist is know to the victim. These offenders included parents in 539 cases, neighbours in 10,782 cases, relatives in 2,315 cases and other known persons in 18,171 such cases reported over the year. I shudder to think about how many are unreported! And these are rape cases, one cannot begin to imagine how many sexual abuse cases one needs to add to these terrifying statistics. The problem is real and far beyond one or two aberrations. The kind of reaction we have seen yesterday and today are not what is needed to address this horrific reality. There is another statistic that one should look at, that of conviction of rapists and this one is no less shocking: While rape cases have risen from 16,075 in 2001 to 24,923 in 2012, the rates of conviction have dipped from 40.8% to 24.2% in the corresponding period. And every parent of every raped girl wants justice. Let us not forget that!

I listened to some of the debates in Parliament. Sadly the few voices of reason who compelled us to take the debate beyond the documentary and the issue of the rapist being interviewed, and look at the reality that stated us in he face, were drowned by those who just wanted the film banned and someone taken to task. I guess the someone will be some petty official who ‘dared’ give the permission for the said interview. Of course we were treated to the usual foreign agenda to sully the image of India, as if in this day and age of social media anything can be brushed under the carpet. One lady parliamentarian even stated that the airing of the film would affect tourism. My answer is simple: any rape affects tourism and I know what I am saying; we lost a large chunk of support after the rape of a foreign tourist a year ago. Every rape, Madam, tarnishes our image, it is time we stopped all rapes and that can only be done if we have the courage to change mindsets and look at ourselves in the mirror. Another MP stated that any time there is a rape, blame is put on the woman that she was indecently dressed, she provoked the men etc. Yes Ma’am you are so right. One of our students was raped when she was 4 year old. Th perp went to jail and came out. That young girl was ostracised by her peers and neighbours and ultimately had to leave the city. And it is not just rape, I also know of a 12 year old who was molested by an older family member. When she dared speak up, it was not the perp’s character that was maligned, but hers! So let us call a spade a spade!

Will not airing the documentary stop rapes. No! Will hanging the perps stop rape. No! Though it will give some sense of closure or justice, if closure and justice there can be for a grieving family. All this talk about tarnishing the memory of the brave heart falls flat in my opinion. Her memory is tarnished every 20 minutes when one more woman is raped in India; it is tarnished every time a child is raped; every time an honour killing occurs; every time a woman is molested or abused.

That beautiful and courageous  woman was taller than anyone and she had the courage to fight her rapists to the very end. We as a a society can only honour her memory if we stand as tall as her and accept that mindsets exist, that we are somewhere guilty of perpetrating them, that we need to address them each time they occur and not turn away, that we need to pledge to do everything we can to change the way women are treated in our country. Nothing short of that can honour the memory of a young girl who died fighting and refusing to be silent.