lofty ideas and stark realities

I have waged a war against teaching shops and as often pleaded for well run common neighborhood schools. I have watched over the years the desperate of parents rich or poor to get their children admitted in schools and have raged against the proliferation of private schools in poor neighborhoods that maybe a tad better than government schools but are still a far cry from education should be.

However once again my lofty ideas and ideals were given a rude shock when I read an article in a daily about the imminent closure of 1000 unrecognised schools, many in the very lanes we work in that cater to what is know as EWS – economic weaker sections -. The article presents both sides of the coin. Whereas the petitioner says Cramming students into a small space in dangerous environments and offering a sub-standard education are what we are fighting against. What about child rights? an activist retorts education in a substandard classroom is better than no education at all. Inflicting regularisation will deprive students of even basic education, homes in slums are not safe, and we are not expecting them to become doctors or lawyers.

Where will students go when the schools close down?” adds another voice. “It can’t be denied that these schools fill a gap the government’s failing to meet”. The simplistic solution proffered is that the kids will be adjusted in government run schools.

Some years back, when I was still a neophyte and still starry eyed and naive,I would have whopped with joy at the news of teaching shops being closed as at that time I too felt that the conditions of some of these schools were abysmal and intolerable. In those days I had not yet discovered the reality of government run schools! But as years went by my lofty ideas were rudely shaken as the reality of such schools. became apparent: children in class IV unable to read or write, no toilets, no desks, no teachers only one constant – corporal punishment. AS we slowly began our after school support – teaching as well as confidence building – the same children considered useless began not only passing but getting better marks. How can I forget the young girl who came after failing class VII thrice and went on to secure the 11th position in Delhi in class XII!

True that some of the teaching shops that are facing closure are run in dreadful conditions, and many are undoubtedly money making operations, but they do take in children of migrant populations who do not have any official documents to prove their identity, thus giving these children a go at education.

Last week I was appalled to find out that a woman who comes to our women centre had put her 3 children in a private school at the cost of over 800 rs a month though her family is extremely poor. I came to know that he reason for doing so was that the kids born in a remote village did not have a birth certificate and thus has been refused admission in the local municipal school. She did not know that a simple affidavit would have solved the issue.

If the 10 000 schools are shut I wonder where the children will go. Municipal and government schools are already overcrowded and anyway barely function. Once again we are face with a court order population of that does not take into consideration the reality on the ground. Walls around slums do not solve the habitat problem, closure of schools does not solve the education problem. The government has to start looking at running proper schools that can cater to the growing polulation of Delhi or find ways of reversing migration by improving conditions in the place of origin of such people.

When we began pwhy, we were not aware of the conditions of schools. We had wanted to create a space for children where they could come after school and spend constructive time. Today our main task is to ensure that they pass their examinations and do not drop out. Like everything else in India it seems that the poor have been let down, forgotten, marginalised. Yet they are n intrinsic part of society and protected by the same Constitution. It is time we started bridging the gap between the two Indias.

a woman’s tale of woe

In April 2005 a young Pinky got married against her parents wishes. Like many young girls she had fallen in love and love as we all know is blind! The marriage was celebrated by her fiance’s family in a temple in the presence of some friends.

Pinky had a serious fall accidentally in September 2005 after a domestic quarrel and seriously injured her backbone. She was advised complete bed rest but did not follow medical advise and conceived a few months later and gave birth to a little boy in December 2006. Her husband continued his violent beatings Her husband had a history of violence and fits of rage, something the young girl did not know. In September 2005 after a domestic notwithstanding her medical condition, pregnancy or motherhood. Over time Pinky developed a defective spinal condition and a hunchback and is in constant pain. A corrective surgery could help her regain her health but her family is too poor for the whopping 70 K required.

Despite the protection offered by her unmarried sisters in law, the man continues to harass his wife and sisters and mentally torments them. Under the influence of alcohol he beats his wife and attacks the sisters when they try and protect her. he also threatened to kill her.

This is Pinky’s story. But is also the story of many women across India, women who suffer in silence and often die without a murmur being heard. There are laws meant to protect them but often they are unaware of these or worse the law keepers become predators and society is always ready to blame them.

We would like to help Pinky regain her health and have the operation she so badly needs to bring up her child. We have also filed a complaint with the help of our lawyer and hope we can beat the system. But this is just one case and one solution. It is time something was done to truly protect hapless and helpless women.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
These words said many years ago by Theodore Roosevelt sprung to my mind as I got the news yesterday that once again all the pwhy children had passed their examinations and been promoted to the next class.

I felt myself swell with pride. They had done it again these incredible kids that every one had given up on: their parents, their school teachers and society itself. Many had come to us as failures. In some cases we had to fight with parents wanting them to stop their studies. In other cases they has been branded as useless and gone cases. But for us every child can succeed, you only have to discover the right way.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. My kids did just that! They do not have much. In some cases their homes are dark hovels, in others noisy rooms with no place to study. Our classes or what goes by that name are anything between a hot cramped room, a reclaimed garbage dump, a inclement terrace. Yet they are all infused with a spirit no one can beat. The determination of the children, the perseverance of the teachers and the passion of pwhy make a heady cocktail that can only spell success.

But the euphoria was short lived. Pwhy is a tiny island of hope in a terrifying sea where children get the rawest of deals. Not a day goes by without some news item that proves this point. Yesterday a child gets his face scarred for eating a biscuit, a class VIII student hangs himself because his results are not up to the mark. Politicians proffer empty words while the killer of a young girl remain faceless. A child lies unconscious after being being thrashed by his school principal. And the list goes on…

Abuse against children continues in spite of the media blitz, of the empty reassurance of politicians and administrators, in spite of the endless laws aimed at protecting them. When will all this end? Have we all lost our conscience and heart? Have we as civil society abdicated our right to be?

Will someone answer.

Is it wrong to help those who are in need….


Is it wrong to help those who are in need of others assistance? was the heart wrenching question a little girl asked softly in a mail that dropped in my inbox.

Natasha and her little family had read the article about pwhy that had appeared in a Singapore paper almost two years ago. They wrote wonderful words of support and set out to collect books for us the children and sent them to us. Then, as it often happens, there was no contact.

Then came a mail from the little girl now 11. I reproduced it as it was written:

I’m Natasha, do u remember me? It’s been more than a year that I’ve not contacted you. I’m already 11 years old and my brother is 9 years old. During the past 1 year, my family has gone through a lot of difficulties. My mummy helped to take care of someone who is not related to us who is suffering from bone cancer. Because of that my daddy decided to divorce my mummy, reason is she has been too focused in volunteer work and as a result my brother and I follow her footsteps. Is it wrong to help those who are in need of others assistance?

My mummy went to Bangladesh last year to do some voluntary work, we will be going with her this June school holidays. Although the past 1 year we didn’t contact u but u and all the children are always in our heart n mind. We have collected many storybooks for your children and would like to mail over to u. Please give me your address so that my mummy can mail to u by courier service.


We have finally come out of our own gloomy days and would like to continue to contribute our assistance to u or other charity organisations. All the best to u and hope u will forgive us for not be able to offer our assistance for the past 1 year.

I read the mail many times. I felt very tiny and overwhelmed. This little child epitomized the essence of giving. Her approach was without fuss, without the jaded words that normally accompany acts of giving, sans the litanies that justify the grounds of abstaining to give. Notwithstanding the terrible ordeals she and her family went through, this little child of God never lost sight of what she instinctively felt was right.

Is it wrong to help those who are in need....remained the simple question that begged for an answer. And I, with all my years of supposed giving was left speechless. This little girl had quietly put my whole life in question, her simple interrogation was reason for deep soul searching on the very meaning of giving.

Natasha’s words are the quintessence of what giving or helping others should be. What we all do pales in front of this. It is easy to give when the time is right, when we are comfortable, when things look up. But not for this child and her little family. They simple give!

I salute the mother of this lovely child as she is the one who has instilled such generosity and love in her heart.

And to you little Natasha I want to say that it is not wrong to help those who are in need. Only very special people understand that, and you are one of them.

Life is made of little things…

“Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles, and kindnesses, and small obligations, given habitually, are what win and preserve the heart and secure comfort” Humphrey Davy

The hectic and almost manic activity that seemed to have pervaded pwhy in the past weeks, may have led some to believe that we had lost sight of who and what we really are. Our normally placid ways were hijacked, albeit for a moment, by a dream that seemed within reach. Yet life went on a pwhy as it always does and nothing had really changed. Our heart was still in the right place and our eyes wide open.

Little Pooja who at this moment is battling for life in a hospital is one of our students at Okhla. She was just one of many: a happy child that came to class with touching regularity. A few days back she fell sick. Her mother took her to the local doctor but to no avail. She went from bad to worse.

Pooja’s mom is not her real mother. She was abandoned by her birth mother who wanted to make her life with another man. Her natural father is an addict gambler and womaniser. A rag picker woman gave her shelter and ‘adopted’ her but her extreme poverty comes in the way of her heart of gold. We took Pooja to the hospital where we were told hat she needed to be transfused. Two of our teachers promptly offered to donate blood. As I write these words, Pooja is fighting to live, surrounded by new friends and well wishers.

One cannot but wonder what lies in store for littlePooja. The plight of the girl child in this land is know to all. Where they given the choice, would little girls accept to come into this world? It is bad enough to be a girl but one that is deprived of the protection of a real family and condemned to poverty the future has little to offer. Pooja may come out of this ordeal, but may others await her.

Many have been critical of the approach we have adopted at pwhy as it does defeat logic. yet if we were to start all over, I know we would do it in exactly the same way. We may not have answers to all the problems that plague our society but we are not in the business of changing the world. We simply try to the best of our ability to solve the ones that come our way.

Kiran, a ray of sunshine

As I downloaded the day’s pictures I came across this one. It is our own little Kiran having lunch at pwhy on one of her rare days off from school. Kiran is special to us as she was born just when pwhy began. She grew with us and became an integral part of our lives.

She is an exceptional child in more ways than one and has often delighted us with her own brand of logic: bet it her own type of English or her little pearls of wisdom.

Kiran spent the first years of her life either being carried around practically where ever I went, or as she grew older in the special section which she somehow preferred to the creche! Slowly but surely an incredible bond was created between this little girl and the kids in the special section notwithstanding their age. Kiran is now in school but her ties with her pals have gone stronger. She spends all her off days and holidays with them and often turns teacher for the day!

Kiran goes to an upmarket school now as her humble family feels that it will open new doors for her. She is slowly learning about the unfortunate divides that exist in our society and expresses them in her own candid ways, and deals with them with a little help from us. But Kiran has never felt the need to alienate one life for the other. She is equally at easy with the kids in her street as she is with her school pals and finds time for her buddies too. She flits comfortably from loud Hindi slang, to barely audible English to sign language when communicating with her hearing impaired friends.

The above post is my answer to a doubt recently voiced about the wisdom of a new project we have launched at the behest of a well wisher. Sadly these apprehensions stem out from the attitude of potential donors, something I had foreseen and expressed at a time when things were still being debated. Helping children break social barriers is anathema to many. What is pitiful is that no one will accept this reality. The blame will be squarely put on the tiny shoulders of the potential beneficiary with supercilious ease.

I am not endowed with the gift of divination and cannot see into the future. Yet I am reasonably certain that Kiran and any other child who is given a chance, will be an asset and not a liability to society. It is also true that all children given the same chance may not turn out to be exceptional. Unless we give a reasonable chance to this project, we will never know what truly happens.

New ideas, specially those that rock the boat never find takers. Yet they are the ones that bring about the change we all want to see and somehow once again in the life of pwhy we find ourselves faced with a new challenge we know we have to take on with courage and determination.

chilling justice

The baffling judgement pronounced by a local court yesterday reinforced once again the vulnerability of children in India. A little girl allegedly raped by her own father was sent back to live with him as the man was acquitted because the key witnesses (her mother and sister) turned hostile.

At the time of the rape she was 4, today she is 7. I cannot begin to think what goes on in her tiny mind and am at a loss to picture the consequences that this will have on her tomorrows. This tender soul has been raped not only by her father but by all those she could trust, her mother, her sister and above all the entire system ostensibly created to protect her: society with all its trimmings: police, legal system and what not.

What is galling and frightening are the words pronounced by the judge: The acquittal in this case is painful as a blossoming child is alleged to have been ravished by her own father. But unfortunately her mother and sister turned hostile. But what is disturbing apart from the acquittal is the fact that the victim may have to live under the same roof and in the same hands of the accused.

Is justice blind to this point?

Even if one was to play Devil’s Advocate there is not much one could proffer. The mother was vulnerable in a society that is ruthless to one who dares go against her husband. The sister had no option but say what she was told to. The mother alone could not have brought up the children alone. The judge had to go by the book and so on.

And in all this the little child was forgotten and had no one to stand by her and protect her. My mind goes back to one of our students who had been raped by a neighbour when she was 4. The man was caught, did a stint in jail and came out an resumed his life. The girl grew up and became a teenager but her past followed her: she was branded a bad girl and no one talked or played with her as she had once had been raped, never mind if she was barely 4 at the time.

My heart goes out to this little child whose childhood has been ravished and who stands helpless and alone.

The big picture – practice what you preach

When I was a little girl and things looked bad, my papa used to talk about the big picture. It was his way of explaining to his hurting child that what seemed dark and gloomy at that moment was actually a tiny part of a big picture full of colour and light that we could not see. It was his way of explaining the mystery of life, the presence of a higher Being and the reason of the fleeting woe.

The little girl was satisfied and ran off with a smile on her face. The teenager was more difficult to assuage and did turn rebellious but ultimately had to concede to its wisdom, the woman found the solace she often needed. The big picture became a part of my life and I found myself often referring to it to explain situations that defied logic.

Yet when I was dealt with a blow recently I was momentarily taken aback and wallowed in despair, giving undue importance to what was just one tiny splash of dark hue on the harlequin picture that I conveniently had obliterated. My thoughts ran helter-skelter trying to reverse the situation forgetting that time moves but in one direction. For that moment in time I had forgotten all about the big picture.

But mercifully better set prevailed. I must have given my frenzied mind a tiny break as I found myself hearing my papa whisper “look at the big picture“. I had forgotten all about it in the moment I needed it the most. We often are guilty of not practicing what we so readily preach. I remember some years back when I was trying to battle local slumlords and wondering why we had been hit by such a storm, a friend simply reminded me that one should not bang one’s head on a close door but simply look for an open window. Yet one often realises that in spite of the all the wisdom one pretends to have, one easily forgets past lessons.

I am at a crossroad I stood at before. Sadly so lost was I in my hubris that I forgot to make a simple journey into past days to imbibe lessons once learnt and draw strength from the fact that we moved on and prospered as somewhere the big picture stood strong.

I know that in spite of the gloom that surrounds me and threatens to devour me, it is just part of a big picture I cannot see but know exists. The storm will blow, the clouds lift and the big picture will once again manifest itself in all its glory. One just has to hold on.

a ray of hope


Little Anisha came visiting. It is always a delight to see her sunshine smile even if it sometimes it takes some time coming. My thought went to just about a year back when we feared for her life that seemed to hold on by a breath.

But children have a way of making up for loss time and little Anisha was always a fighter. Today she looked just like any other little girl all set to start her school life and that is what she had come to do: get admitted in our creche!

It is moments like this that make everything we do worthwhile and give us the courage to carry on in spite of everything.

I wonder what the future hold for this lovely child. I simply know that beautiful morrows await her.

God bless her and walk with her.

the girl child

India may have its first woman president but it is going to be a long time before the girl child in India gets the same right as her male sibling. What is tragic is that it is often the mother, a girl child herself, who treats her that way.

No mother will ever accept that but one just has to look at things to see the difference. The three kids in the picture are siblings, whereas the boy was dressed warmly as the morning was chilly, the little girls were sent to school in summer frocks.

I wonder why mothers react this way. One would have thought that having suffered similar humiliations themselves they would not perpetrate them and yet it is the mothers who are the real culprits.

This is one of the reasons why the theme selected for the first meeting of the women’s group at the Kamala centre was the girl child and we decided to show Matrubhhomi as we felt that it was one every woman should see particularly in a land where one the one hand women are worshipped but on the other they are used and abused!

Over 15 women attended the meeting and the issue of the girl child was debated with passion and verve. Every one agreed that something had to be done and that the girl child needed to be protected but they also accepted the fact that it would not be an easy task. They all promised to give the matter some thought and come back for the next meeting with ideas for an awareness campaign.

We know it is no mean task as the laws themselves are far from being respected. This came to light the very next day in a glaring manner: a pregnant lady, mother of two girls came to our centre asking us to keep her daughters till late evening as she worked. She also told us that the child she was carrying was yet another girl as had been revealed by an ultrasound she had done recently. Were not sex determination tests banned in our city?

You can share some of the moments of our first women meeting here

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