Homeless in Delhi’s Winter #GivingTuesday #India

In the biting cold of the city is is funeral pyres that have come to the rescue of the homeless in the city. A heart wrenching news item aired today showed how many homeless persons huddled around the funeral pyres burning at different cremation sites. I wonder at the level of desperation that makes you seek warmth in the realm of the dead.

In another corner of the same city others are busy piling on layer after layer and complaining about the weather while sipping hot coffee or downing a shot of spirit. It should be said here that the hot tea and wood once given by the State Government to night shelters has been stopped. Perplexing as is it not the same Government who had promised to provide shelter to all homeless persons when it first came into power? Barely two years ago they had come up almost overnight with makeshift shelters across the city and had even talked of converting buses into night shelters. I had been quick to express my support urging one and all to do so. I was naive. I had forgotten that power corrupts in more ways than one. It demands you to give up the ability to see with your heart.

It took exactly two years to forget all promises. Even the cup of tea was taken away.

Some statistics now. In the 69th year of our Independence 8 people die of cold every day in the capital city. 164 have died this winter and with the cold wave raging there will be many more. The city has only 180 shelters some tents or portacabins. All together they can at best accommodate 10000 persons. There are at least 300 000 homeless in Delhi. You do the maths.

Many have to face the ‘sleep mafia‘ that controls where and for how long you sleep,  at a hefty cost of course. In a land where the State has abdicated its duty to provide the basic survival amenities to its poor, mafias walk in to fill the gap where needed and sleep is one such area. So quilts and space are up for takes to the best bidder. And as this new business grows, the state seems to withdraw further and further. Is poverty becoming the latest entrant in the business world. Who knows.

I wonder whether anyone of us has tried to imagine what life for a homeless looks like. We look forward to returning home and almost take it for granted. Home means a warm meal, a warm bed, warm water at the flick of a switch, smiles and stories shared around a hot cuppa. The homeless, after toiling the whole day, has to figure out where he will sleep. He may need to count his money and decide between a hot meal and a warm quilt. It is easier when he is alone, but what about families who are homeless, small babies, aged parents. I cannot begin to imagine what they go through night after night.

Seems like we have lost our ability to feel the pain of the other as these people are not invisible. Peer out of your car window when you drive back from your next party, you will see them on the road, near over bridges or at construction sites.

That the homeless should be compelled to warm themselves at funeral pyres is a shocking but real reflection of who we have become as a society. Need I say more.

Learning to ….. #GivingTuesday#India#Education

The new education policy(NEP) is on the anvil.  A fancy website invites citizens to participate in its formulation. Consultations and meetings are being held from village to State level. Every one and anyone is invited to the show i.e the drafting of the education policy that will steer the lives of our children for the years to come. Wonder why I feel a tad discomfited. This is the future of our children and hence of our country we are talking about.

Last week a prominent TV channel aired a kind of curtain raiser to the draft that is one is told to be unveiled soon. The Drafting Committee is headed by a retired and respected bureaucrat. He candidly shared some of the salient features of the NEP. I must say there was nothing earth shattering. Actually much of it felt sated an jaded. As a man becoming his age the Chairman of the Drafting Committee talked with a certain nostalgia of values and stories heard at Grandma’s knee but even Super Granny is no match to You Tube and its pals. We all agree we need to reinstate values and teach ethics and so on but all this has to be version Century 21! And therein lies the trick.

What truly saddened and shocked me was the suggestion that Public (private + rich) Schools should take on the task of ‘helping’ Government (poor) schools. To me this sole statement was enough to realise that once again we had headed the wrong way.

Seems like we as a nation and a society thrive on division. Division creates barriers. Barriers are never good. More so in education as to my mind education is the sole path to transformation. Education has to offer a level playing field. The moment you advocate one kind of  school helping another the battle is lost. We have enough division lines be they religion, caste, social background and so on. School could and should be the space where all these are obliterated. Looks like this education policy has not had the courage to do so. Our children have lost the battle. They will have again have to wait long years. I wait for the day when India will have a common neighbourhood school for everyone to walk to. Am I waiting for Godot?

During the show what transpired was a sense of confusion mostly due in my opinion to the overload of suggestions and submissions that the Committee had received and that they probably felt needed to be looked at. Now you will agree that there are many stakeholders in Education and each will view the problem from their perspective. To give you a small example we at pwhy have to battle with parents who ask us to ‘beat’ their children if they do not do what is asked of them. It is an extreme example but I guess you get the point.

For the policy makers it looks good to have mass participation and probably is also a sound election ploy. Everyone from village to state is involved. The question that needs to be asked is whether each of them have the interests of children at heart and the ability to view the problem in its entirety. I would tend to say no.

The question is not as overwhelming as it seems. Sometimes one simply needs to look at already existing policies and tweak them according to the needs to the day.

I have always been terribly impressed by the FOUR PILLARS OF LEARNING enunciated in 1996 by Jacques Delors namely : Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to Live Together, and Learning to Be. A sound education policy would be one that adapts these Pillars to the reality of the day and gives them equal space at all levels of education from pre school to higher education. This comprehensive education does not stop at imparting knowledge and skills but goes a step further to integrating them within the society in which the child has to live and not forgetting to development of the child itself.

Education today cannot be viewed in isolation. More so when families are losing the role they once played. Today school plays an important role in forming the child as a person and a citizen. Moreover education today has to keep up with the other sources wherein the child accesses knowledge – the Internet for example – and be in a position to steer the child in the right direction. Today it is no more EITHER OR but how to combine the two in the best manner possible. It is a huge challenge but one we must take had on for the sake of our children.

I agree that values learnt and Nana’s knee were invaluable but today these are passé. Simply reintroducing moral studies with the stories we learnt from would be laughable. What is needed is a huge makeover and coming up with stories that would talk to today’s children. 

When I look at the books the children study from, and believe you me I have done so umpteen times when I wear the Maam’ji cap and help with Popples’s homework, I wonder how they can hold the interest of the net savvy kids of today. Books need to be rewritten but by people who understand children and accept who they have become. Someone needs have the courage of spring cleaning all lessons. Do our kids really need to learn tables till 20 now that we have the decimal system? A good way would be to assess what we actually remember and use and what we have forgotten. In some countries calculators are now accepted in examinations, maybe we should do that. An error in calculation is no reflection of a child’s intelligence.

When I sat for my IAS examination,  I had a job and was a young mom. I was willing to study subjects and comprehend them but was aghast to know that I was expected to learn a plethora of statistics for the viva voce. These were annual production stats that lost their relevance when they year ended. There was no way I would do this. Needless to say many told me that I would never make it. The day dawned and after a few niceties the Chairman of the Interview Board, without looking up asked me what the steel production of India was and I simply answered that I did not know. He asked a few more questions and got the same answer. He finally looked up and asked in an irritated tone what did I know. I looked straight into his eyes and answered him that I knew the names of all the yearly publications that carried this information and would as a responsible officer ensure that these were available in my office. A huge laughter across the room told me that I had succeeded.

Education is meant to build confidence in every child. That confidence is what will make her walk the right path even if she has to walk it alone. 

Light up a Child’s Smile

Light up a Child’s Smile is a new campaign launched by the Mamagoto restaurants across India. This wonderful venture is the result of  serendipitous synchronicity. Yesterday when I received the long anticipated call tell me that WE WERE LIVE, my thoughts travelled back to where it all began almost a year and a half ago.

A dear friend and mentor told me recently that the universe always conspires to fulfil your dreams even if we mere mortals give up on them too easily. What you ask with your heart is always granted, even if you may have forgotten your prayer.

From the very outset my dream was to create a large and varied donor base who would give tiny amounts to make our work possible be it the one-rupee-a-day campaign that we launched long ago or  the various attempts at getting restaurants owners to add a tiny rupee to their bill. In the later case I remember being gobsmacked when the owner of a chain of restaurants asked me in all seriousness what he would do if five years down the line someone objected to the rupee parted with and pressed charges. Needless to say I was speechless. Come one ONE RUPEE or 0.015 cents. There are better ways to refuse Dear Sir! I can look at it with humour today but it was not the case on that fateful day. Were you to take out a rupee from a beggar’s bowl it would not make a difference. But my marketing skills were poor I guess.

In the same line we decided to hold a raffle where the prizes were: a meeting with a top star, a colour TV and so on and I managed to get an entry to my Alma Mater’s fair hoping to sell tickets by the dozen. We did not even sell one dozen. We were no match to the Tarot card reader at the next table.

We did have our share of silver linings; they came from over the seas!

We managed to secure some regular donors and even sunk into a comfort zone till we were rudely jolted out of it and run helter skelter.

The Universe on the other hand does not move post haste and also does not forget the messages it receives. It also operates in its inimitable manner we humble humans call synchronicity. A little before we received the news of a large regular donor backing out, the Heavens had begun setting the stage. Mid last year I came to know about the raw food diet and wanted to learn more. An email, a phone call and a meeting was all it took to establish a bond with a wonderful human being who felt like a soul sister. A few months later she even managed to get the recluse into a party outfit and come to dinner. Serendipity found me seated next to a young man who I learnt owned chain of restaurants. I almost fell of my chair when he told me that a good fund raising way was to add a fixed amount to bills! And his idea was TEN not ONE Rupee! Time stood still for a instant. I was hearing myself in an earlier avatar.

I had forgotten about this option but the Universe had not!

It took a few months to set it all up. But we are in business now.

A new world has opened up to Project Why.

For me meeting this wonderful young man who has a heart as big as the Universe is precious. It validates my belief in human kind. Everyone has a good heart; they have simply forgotten how to use it. It is time we helped them do so.

Hunt for empathy

I recently read the review of a children’s book titled The Avrah Stories by Abu Abraham. What caught my eye and I guess my heart was the closing line of the review: and he teaches his little readers a lesson that you are never too young to learn: the importance of empathy. I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of the book but with no success till now. What truly grabbled me was the word ’empathy’ one that is sadly missing from the lexicon of too many of us, young and not so young.

Of all the definitions of the word EMPATHY the one I like best is this one: to ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions, not to be confused  with pity or kindness. Empathy has to be nurtured throughout life, more so when we find ourselves in the face of adversity. But the seeds have to be sown in tender minds something that sadly does not happen anymore.

When I look back at my own life I am surprised at the fact that I cannot remember my first lesson in empathy though I remember feeling empathy when I was tiny, maybe 3 or so. Even today I feel tugs at my heart when I remember hazily the man and his dancing bear that my nana had called to entertain me. It was not the bear and his antics that I saw, but the thin man in a threadbare shirt in the freezing cold. I had surreptitiously walked into his shoes. The show ended when my tears compelled my grandparents to find the man and give him an coat. I on the other hand carried that ‘ability’ and fine tuned it over the years.

So where do these lessons come from and why have we lost them?

It has now been scientifically proved that we are not only homo sapiens but also homo empaticus who have the ability for cooperation and mutual aid. Roman Krznaric feels that empathy can be cultivated throughout our lives and use it to transform society, something I totally agree with. Highly empathetic  people have habits that they cultivate like: curiosity about strangers, challenging prejudices and discovering commonalities, trying on someone else’s life, listening hard and opening up, developing imagination and inspiring social change. I am humbled to see that these are pretty much habits I follow.

But to get to this point in life I have to thank many masters: my parents who led by example, the stories I heard at their knees, the innumerable amount of books I read and still read, the true life inspiring accounts I was told, the movies that made me cry, the undying belief that one could learn till one’s last breath and from any one no matter how humble, the gentle and correct admonishing by elders and teachers and so much more. From the look of it these are simple pursuits and occurrences and should be part of any child’s life.

Sadly that is not the case. Today children have parents who do not have time to tell stories, the box does that! Books mean school books and thus boring and a chore. Adults do not seem to care. Movies are violent and devoid of meaning, songs have no poetry, moral studies is passé and off the school curriculum and so on. There is no one to hold your hand when you stumble, no words to assuage your hurt, no one to set you back on course. You are at the mercy of a world where screens tell stories and search engines are your mentors. And this comes at a huge price one being  abdicating your right to imagine and hence your curiosity.

The palette on offer is limited, the people that can help non existent, lessons to be learnt AWOL, how can empathy be fuelled. At best is lies dormant waiting for the miracle that could rekindle it.  In the meantime the world has turned into a terrifying place where aberrations are no more exceptions but the rule.

As I write these words what stares at me is the frightening reality that we have no resources to carry on for long. Shut the door would be what most would suggest, and they do I tell you, some adding in good measure you have done enough! How do I tell them that it is in these times of strife that all the little and bigger faces of my project why family come to the fore and urge me to carry on. I can feel the hopes and see the dreams they dared to hold on to because we were there.

The problem is that most of those I approach I have shut their empathy and lost the key. True it appears at times propelled by a horrifying incident but soon slinks back into some tiny recess of the mind.

I have often asked myself what would get people to get out of their comfort zone and scream. It does not seem the be the rape of baby, the brutalising of a woman, the burning of a human being because you do not like what you think he ate, the killing of another because he read something you did not approve and so on. Each should rekindle our empathy but it does not. That is what we have become. I guess we are not even home sapiens: wise person. No wise person would allow any such aberrations in the society he called his own. And yet we live in one quite comfortably.

I am on a hunt, a hunt for EMPATHY.

The extraordinary will take care of itself

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears.

Show them how to cry when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

 William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents