The spirit behind Project WHY #GivingTuesday#India

ram

Ramchundur Goburdhun 15 August 1911- 29 November 1992

Most know us as Project WHY only. A few know that our legal identity is the Sri Ram Goburdhun Charitable Trust. And not many know who Ram was and yet if not for he, there might not have been Project WHY.

Ram or Ramchundur Goburdhun is my father.

He wore many caps through his life each with great aplomb and in his own inimitable way. As a student in his native island where the portly man I know was the mile champion of his island and admired by many young ladies! As a law student in London where passionate speeches at Hyde Park Corner would bring the needed coins to end the month. As a lawyer and then Magistrate back home where the trodden path may have led to a political career. As a perfect gentleman who courted his wife to be at times when courting was not quite known in a just freed India. As a career diplomat where his honesty, integrity, savoir faire and endearing personality were huge assets. But it is none of these that were the seeds of Project WHY. It is Ram the father who planted that seed and carefully watered it till his last breath.

If one was to look at my growing up years, they seem out of a dream: beautiful homes, governesses, criss crossing the world and the best of everything. Ram was aware of this and was careful to place the little notes needed to build a person. He always sent me to local schools where he knew I would rub shoulders with real people and learn to respect and love them. He with the help of my mama laid some unwritten rules that were needed to teach their only child true values. Toys were only bought at Xmas. The new dress was a birthday gift. Wasting food was a no no! But the one lesson that remains engrained is the Diwali blessing. After the prayers were over, Ram would tell me to go and touch the feet of everyone in the house who was older to me. That meant everyone including the staff that worked in our home. What is remarkable is that I never questioned this or resented it and that is because of the simple answer to my first why was: because they are older and will bless you.

Ram taught be compassion but he also taught me to respect every human being irrespective of their caste, creed, social background. With mama’s help he showed me how religion is one and all religions need to be respected. Again it was a well thought lesson plan based on my questions: can I fast with my Muslim friend, go to church, share a Sabbath dinner. The answer was always ‘yes’ with a small caveat: provided it does not hurt the other.

I could write volumes but that is not the point. Today I simply want to express my profound gratitude and unconditional love to the man who made me who I am.

The Sri Ram Goburdhun Charitable Trust was set up to honour his memory and to tell him that every lesson learnt at his knee had been well learnt. And most of all the last one murmured on his deathbed: have faith in India.

I miss him every minute of my life though I see him in every Project WHY child.

Let us burn schools down #GivingTuesday#India

burnschoolThe burning of schools in Kashmir vindicates the belief that education is the most powerful agent of change. Destroying a school destroys the future of children forever. Education is a powerful tool. The question lies in the way you use it.

In the early years of Project Why we were faced with a certain amount of resentment that was even aggressive at times. This bewildered us as in our book education was something everyone should encourage and cherish. But that was not the case with us.

We were ‘evicted’ from the corner of a park by local residents and politicians. It was a clever ploy. We were told that we would be ‘give’ another park and marched to one that was a pig stye, as a local resident reared his pigs in it. The once children park was a stinking rubbish dump. Our detractors must have expected outrage and protest but all they got was a warm Thank You! They had not yet tasted the spirit of Project WHY. If this is what we got, so be it! We would work our magic. A series of negotiations with the owner of the pigs who was known for his muscle flexing and the help of a few friends, not only was the park divided between the hogs and us, we transformed the park into a lovely space. It had a huge yellow tented roof and plants all around.

The truce lasted a year. The next attack was bulldozers. It transpired that the park was now needed to ‘build’ a community centre. We moved lock stock and barrel to the roadside. But classes never stopped. The game continued for a while and then petered down.

It took us a while to understand the reason for such vehement resentment and then the penny dropped. Education was acceptable if it followed the norms, these being teachers from one side of the divide and students from the other. But that was not the Project WHY model, for us teachers and kids came from the same source. That meant social transformation and that was not acceptable. We were changing minds, teaching children to think for themselves, urging them to ask questions and giving them a voice. In short we were empowering a community and that could be dangerous.

Everything in the book was thrown at us from threats to spreading false rumours but we did not budge. We simply wore them down. Education came out the winner and so it will remain

 

What this world needs is a new kind of army – the army of the kind.” #GivingTuesday#India

 

utpalcompassionLike any teenager, Utpal often calls from boarding school to ask for something or the other usually food as at his age kids seem perpetually hungry or for a book of some kind. So when he called last week we were expecting ‘chips’ or ‘cookies’ and were very surprised when the demand was ‘toys’ for a toddler. He knew there were some in the store room, relics of years gone by as the grandson and he became big boys.

The toys were meant for the son of the sister of the lady who runs the canteen, one of his favourite place! Utpal had made friends with little Deepak and in true Utpal style had adopted him. When we visited the canteen with the toys of course we were taken aback when the little fellow jumped out of his mom’s lap and straight into Utpal’s arms. This brought a huge smile on our faces and even a lump in our throats. The love between the two was palpable and quickly confirmed by the mom when she told us that if the little child cried all you had to say was that Utpal was there and the tears stopped mid cheek and little eyes darted in all direction.

Utpal has always been a kind and warm hearted child always willing to share. In spite of being a cool teenager his love for younger children is remarkable and the patience and kindness he shows are moving.

One wonders if compassion is taught or innate. This is a difficult question as in this day and age one sees too little of it around.

Perhaps a bit of both.

One wonders how some children show compassion at an early age. In our list of volunteers we have many children, some now quite grown up but still as compassionate. We have had children who have given up birthday presents and asked their friends to donate to Project Why, we have had children who have sold lemonade or baked cakes to collect money for us. Some older ones have come and taught at Project Why giving up their precious school holidays.

I remember the little girl in an orphanage our school use to take us to when we lived in Saigon who undoubtedly played an important part in making me who I am. I am still haunted by her beautiful black eyes that crinkled when she saw me and smiled. That smile is seared in my heart.

Education is not just teaching the famed 3 Rs. Children have to be taught values and this can only happen if parents and school make that effort wholeheartedly.

I was impressed by an initiative taken St Louis where my grandson lives. It is called READ – RIGHT – RUN.  The program’s goal is to develop reading-proficient, community-minded and physically fit children in grades K-5 by challenging them to READ 26 books, RIGHT the community with 26 good deeds, and RUN 26.2 miles over a six-month period. My 6 year old grandson participated and made grandma proud. How wonderful if we had a similar programme for all our children.

It is our duty as elders to teach compassion to our children.

Agastya’s first school was the Project WHY creche and his interaction with children from less privileged homes opened his heart forever.

It is important to water the seed of compassion every child carries in her/his heart and to do that it is imperative to answer disturbing questions with honest answers. Hiding reality or shielding children does more harm than good.

How compassionate a child can be best exemplified in Malte’s story:

Malte was eight when he arrived in Delhi with his parents to live here for four years. The small German boy immediately fell in love with the country. He enjoyed everything: the food, the music, Bollywood movies, the temples, mosques and bazars. Being blond he always attracted a lot of attention everywhere he went. So after a little while he could lead expert conversations on Bollywood actors or cricket with everyone and was blessed with tons of caring kindness.

The only issue that really disturbed him and made his life miserable in Delhi was to see all the poverty and suffering in the streets. Every afternoon returning from his privileged school in Chanakya Puri he passed by a busy traffic light seeing the same beggar children asking for money. It broke his heart to see and hear of their daily struggle. Why did he have such a privileged and enjoyable life while these children of the same age did not even have shoes to wear or clean water to drink. So his sister and he came up with the idea to make small packages of dry fruits to hand out to the street children. But still, that did not feel enough, they were fast finished and nothing had changed. Too much misery for these small packages of sweetness.

When his mother started to work with Project Why Malte heard a lot of slum children also having a difficult life but now thanks to Project Why with a chance to learn and alter their future. One Saturday morning he came along and saw by himself how a small group of committed people was trying to make a longer-lasting difference for a lot of kids. He was amazed to meet with the children, see their smiles on their faces and their eagerness to learn. A couple of weeks later he took his cub scout group to white-wash the newly renovated Okhla Centre. They all joined hands with the Project Why children to make the centre colourful and even more a happy place to be. And he felt a deep joy. He finally found a way and place where poverty was not accepted as a fate but as challenge to overcome! And where he – a ten year old boy – could make a difference.

So he decided with his 2 friends Stefan and Scottie to do even more. They came up with the idea of running a donation drive in their school. They designed colourful posters to show Project Why’s work, asked the special kids to colour and decorate traditional piggy banks (gulak) to collect donations. With everything prepared they got up really early for one week during the freezing month of December, built up their stand at the school entrance and asked all children, teachers and parents passing by to give a donation for Project Why. Even the school principal and the American Ambassador were impressed and eagerly squeezed their donation in one of the gulaks. And with raised funds Project Why could buy a Bamboo roof for the Okhla centre giving shelter to the students during the harsh summer and winter months.

Since then Malte feels part of the Project Why family, asking about the different children, always happy to join his mother for a visit. Again and again he gives away his pocket money to buy school supplies. And every time he is overwhelmed by the poverty in India he thinks of something new he can do for Project Why knowing that at least his friends there will enjoy a different future.

dsc_6822

So how do children like Utpal and Malte, both from opposite sides of the world learn compassion?

My guess is that they are the blessed few who see with their hearts.

The bucket baby #India

bucketbaby2

India celebrates Children’s Day today. There will be celebrations across the land. But for some, like the little fellow in the picture we now fondly call the ‘bucket baby’ it will be a day like any other.

This little fellow was born around the time Project WHY launched its pilot project for the Kalka Temple beggars’ kids. It was and is our strongest belief that education and EDUCATION only can help these kids break the shackles they are born with. The reason we began this project was because some parents had already realised the power of education and were sending their kids to school. We knew that the school alone would not make any difference. What was needed was a sprinkle of the Project WHY magic.

Today around 30 children come to the women’s night shelter in the afternoon where we run a class.

Sharing space with a handful of beggar women, often women abandoned by their families, is a rewarding experience that has not only shattered many misconceptions but compelled us to look at a world we once shunned with new eyes and newfound respect.

Today being children’s day, we share a little story  that we hope will bring a smile to your face.

The women’ shelter is a large high roofed room where a handful of women live. It is often the space pregnant women come to to deliver their babies. We have seen four deliveries in the last 3 months. The shelter has rules like no beds or furniture etc and though there is water and even a clean bathroom, there is no way to heat water as no cooking is allowed hence no stove!

Beggar mommies are proud mommies who just like all mommies want the best for their babies and want to keep baby clean. So baths are a must. So they have found a solution. Water is poured into a bucket and then the bucket is kept in the sun, if sun there is. When mummy feels that the water is warm enough then baby is dunked in and washed with soap then quickly taken out and wrapped in a towel and hugged tight. What you see in the picture is baby’s bath time!

Happy children’s day!

 

The PT exam question #GivingTuesday#India

project why
project why

PT as we all know or at least presume stands Physical Training and is a high school ‘subject’ in India. It would be reasonable to again presume that it means playing games, training for individual and team sports etc. Not quite so in the Chacha Nehru Hindi High School, Bhiwandi. There you also have written exams! In the annual exam for class IX this year, the students were gobsmacked when the came across one the questions: Who is Virat Kohli’s girlfriend? For the uninitiated he is India’s Cricket team Captain. This was a multiple choice question and three known actresses were the  choices given.

Does one laugh or cry?

This was  a question out the prescribed syllabus. If one peruses the NCERT syllabus for the said subject, one learns that its aim is to :  provide the required theoretical and practical inputs in order to provide an integrated
and holistic understanding and developing positive attitudes, values, skills and behaviour related to health and physical education at the primary, secondary and senior secondary levels.

A somewhat obscure definition but still one wonders how the knowledge of who is the current love interest of a cricket star does not meet the guidelines in any which way.

So one wonders why the question was included by the teacher who set the paper. Was is just for fun and popularity to be the ‘cool’ teacher? But what about those who have no interest in cricket and even less in the love life of the players. The question are endless but none seems to be satisfactory and acceptable. Parents are worried that their kids may have not known the answer as it was ‘out of syllabus’?

It is true that cricket is a passion and that many young people are totally aware of facts and trivia but not everyone. In a country were education is primarily by rote, even the brightest student may not have known the answer.

But it does not end there. Many deeper questions come to mind. The first one is about the seriousness and competence of the teacher. If one were to play the Devil’s Advocate one could say that the teacher was trying to test the student’s interest in other matters: did s/he read the newspaper, watch the news etc. But this does no stand ground as everyone knows that in the present system even half a point can make the difference between college or no college and hence you do not play around with the syllabus in an exam question paper.

This is indeed a very small matter but it does once again shed light on the critical importance of the need of an complete overhaul of our education and marking system, so that children can be freed from the stranglehold of impossible marks.

Project Why is very conscious of this anomaly and strives to take education outside books and walls.