a hundred years from now….

Yesterday I was interviewed by the Sari Kids. It was for the film they are making on pwhy and that they plan to show to their friends and peers in business school when they got back. The film is replete with images and cameos of their month long stay with us and they of course, wanted me to give a brief account of what one could call the project why story: its inception and genesis, its achievements and failures and above all its dreams for the future.

I must admit I am always uncomfortable in front of cameras as most of the times one is unclear about the real motivation behind the shoot. But this one was different as we sat comfortably talking about pwhy. The camera just sat unobtrusively on a table and was soon forgotten. And what was intended to be a twenty minutes interview turned out to be an hour long chat with friends, notwithstanding the age difference!

It was easy to share the pwhy journey with these wonderful kids and I found myself talking of the very personal journey that was at the origin of pwhy, not needing to circumvent or colour any event for fear of having them misinterpreted or used without he proper context. The story was much the same as the one too oft recounted, but somehow this time it seemed much truer and heartfelt as they words flew uninterrupted. There was no pressure, no time schedule, no pointed questions, no drama. Facts followed each other, interspersed with personal comments and pointers. And for the first time I saw how almost picture perfect the pwhy story was. We had actually and with a reasonable amount of success met every challenge thrown our way and were in more ways than one ready to face the ultimate one: that of making pwhy sustainable.

The lights went out, the camera was switched off and yet for a long time I sat lost in my thoughts trying to make sense of all that had been said. The disturbing question left unformulated still in my mind: had the journey been worthwhile?

The words of Forest Witcraft came to my mind: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

They can brighten up this world

When i first thought of planet why as a sustainability option for project why I had never heard of social enterprise and social business. It was simply a gut feeling that propelled me in this direction and with every step I walked, it just felt right.

From day one, it has been I must admit, an arduous journey. And yet I knew it was one that had to be made as the destination held its own pot of gold.

Two unrelated occurrences came my way a few days back : one was the gift of a book and the other a simple line in an email. The book was by Creating a World without Poverty by Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus, and the line in the email came from a young professional riled over the injustice she saw around her. It simply said: the other way to look at this is to assume that economic prosperity once established in a quorum population will ignite a string of social entrepreneurship. but that’s a wait and watch game. Strange synchronicity.

Mohammed Yunus’s views echoes what i have always felt and could not express. The world of philantrophy in which I have been always seemed to fall short of something. It was obvious to me that it could not survive the test of time. Business had always been an alien land where I never felt comfortable. The when you get your maximum, everybody will get their maximum often thrown at you by those holding capitalism at hart, was nothing short of galling. There had to be a via media.

The via media solutions that one saw around us also fell short: state run programmes, NGOs depending on donors to survive let alone grow, CSR initiatives that seemed out of place. The common denominator for all of these was that they espoused a state whereby one group remained a donor and the other a recipient. They all celebrated an unequal world.

Mohammed Yunus’s view tilts the balance in order to establish an equal world by redefining capitalism or let us say by adding a new dimension to the words capitalism. Businesses run with the same efficiency not to line deeper and deeper pockets but to change things and make the world a more even playing field.

The idea of Planet Why stemmed form a real need, that of ensuring pwhy lives on. As it slowly took shape it started looking like what is called a social business. A sound investment option in more ways than one. And though the road is still long and the journey far form over somehow I see light at the end of the tunnel.

So I will end by quoting Mohammed Yunus: Lets get serious about social business entrepreneurs. They can brighten up this gloomy world.

He who was a why to live…

I have often wondered why pwhy came to be. A rather pointless question many may say as we are now in the 10th year of existence! And yet it is one that comes to my mind many times, always begging for an answer and never quite finding one.

The most obvious answer would of course be to reiterate our mission – arresting drop outs and keeping children in school – an on that account we have done pretty well. But there are innumerable organisations doing just that, and maybe better than of us. And does this explain the very organic manner of our growth, where we seem to take on new responsibilities at the drop of a hat, some a far cry from our stated mission!

Little Prakash once again makes me ask that question. A few months back we were content to see him play and laugh and thought that the story ended there. He was attending our creche and seemed happy. But then a few weeks back we realised that he was losing weight and suddenly he started looking more and more like his sibling. We took him to our doctor and were startled to find out that he be having hydrocephalus. A condition for which there is no cure and where the treatment is complex, expensive and delicate. It requires placing a shunt that needs life long monitoring. Something that a family like Prakash’s can ill afford. And yet untreated it can cause severe retardation and be life threatening.

The past few weeks has been a heady mix of events some thrilling, some just satisfying and some worrisome. The Board results came and went and the 100% result was accepted with a sense of deja vu, our eyes searching for toppers and we were rewarded as it is pwhy kids who topped their respective schools in both classes X and XII. Our land was paid for and though we still have loans to pay back and a whopping amount of money to raise for building planer why, we did feel a step closer to the day when we would be self sustainable. Those were the macro issues, the ones that seem in sync with all our mission statements and vision paper.

However the last few weeks were also replete with micro issues, those that concern individuals of no consequence, souls that no one would ever know exist: a 24 year old widowed mom who is attacked by a vicious disease; a 11 year old post heart surgery girl with a rare ailment, a father in need of help. And yet these almost invisible people did drop our way, almost as if guided by an unseen hand.

It is true that along the way, while we diligently applied ourselves to meeting our goals, mission and objectives, we were faced with many disturbing issues that needed to be addressed. Somehow it seemed impossible to brush them aside with a simple: we are an education based organisation. We simply accepted them and found the best solution we could, hence losing our carefully elaborated mission statements, vision papers and more of the same. To the outside eye we started looking more and more like a haphazard entity that never quite finds the words to describe itself.

We were never disturbed by this. On the contrary we found it to be the natural and obvious way to go happily adding on more whys to the already existing ones! Anything else would have been
unacceptable. And slowly we became who we are bringing to mind Frederic Nietzsche’s words: he who as a why to live can bear almost any how.

So to the question why did pwhy copme to be, the answer is simple: to bear the hows that came its way!

the trick is to finish with flourish

“A person taking stock in middle age is like an artist or composer looking at an unfinished work; but whereas the composer and the painter can erase some of their past efforts, we cannot. We are stuck with what we have lived through. The trick is to finish it with a sense of design and a flourish rather than to patch up the holes or merely to add new patches to it” wrote Harry S. Broudy. These words came to mind as I sat this morning browsing the pwhy pictures taken last week.

Had someone suggested a few months back that one would soon be seeing Manu around a table sharing a meal with his pals in a proper home, I would have smiled and told the person to stop dreaming, reminding him or her gently that dreams took time to become reality. It would have been akin to fast forwarding a film to reach the end without living through the story. And yet the picture you see is no trick photography, it is reality, one anyone can share each and every day. The foster care was not even an idea in our minds, at best it was a distant and impossible dream.

For the last week or even more I have been avoiding the much needed task of setting out to seek help for pwhy. Strange as I thought I had overcome my almost innate reluctance to ask for money and should and could have picked my virtual begging bowl without fuss, any time needed. But I guess inborn feelings stay longer than one thinks.

But what needs to be done, has to be done. I knew time was of the essence and the task I had to be undertaken. And in order to do so, it was time to take stock of the past. In Broudy’s words I knew that nothing could be erased or painted over and that the work had to be finished with flourish and honesty.

So here I am again seeking support to see pwhy through. Have we reached the middle of the road? I think we have. Much of we set out to do when we began had been achieved in ample measure. The class X results declared yesterday reinforce the point. All the children passed and in in both class X and XII it is a pwhy student that topped his school. Many had made the journey from street to home and many other achievements big and small dot our firmament. We have met every challenge that came our way and have done our best in finding the right solutions. The sustainability issue that had for long been our Achilles heel, has now been addressed as we have bought the land needed for planet why. There is no looking back!

However as I write these words we are in a tricky situation: that of having to raise funds both for the building and the day-to-day running of the project. And our needs have grown as many new whys dropped our way and could not be cast aside as that would have been defeating the very spirit of project why.

We do manage to raise a substantial part of our needs but still fall short. Perhaps the reason for this stems from what I will call the soul of project why. For almost a decade pwhy has been able to survive and thrive because it is infused with goodwill, one that has come from the innumerable kind souls who have answered each and every call for help. Were it to be fuelled by impersonal sources – no matter how regular and steadfast – alone, it would cease to be.

To many this may sound preposterous and even old-fashioned in a world where success is measured by the weight of bank accounts and the size of buildings. But for me that is not so. The mere fact that we have been able to grow and thrive is the direct result the immense love that we have received from people the world over, many of whom we have never seen. Our success is the outcome of the trust and belief that had come with each coin dropped in my begging bowl. We have reached where we are because pwhy has never afforded itself the luxury of sinking into comfort zones that would rob us of our very individuality and make us pallid clones of others. It is but natural and essential that we fall short, as this is what will enable us to always remain who we are. Ours is a work where patches and holes are banished, and each corner of the painting or note of the symphony is part of the whole.

On a personal level it is also essential that I retain the ability to beg humbly and shed any misplaced arrogance no matter how innate it be. Only then will the intangible and indescribable riches that are vital to the very existence of pwhy continue coming our way

It is now time to finish the story with flourish, one that cannot end without the presence of each one of you.

what is the solution

Haves versus Have Nots – what is the solution? Do we have the courage to look the problem in the eye and commit time, money and energy to really think about it and solve it one step at a time? Or will be just safely jump to either extreme of ignorance/arrogance on one hand or deep, unrealistic sympathy on the other????

This was the comment posted by a friend in response to my post out in the open. This after some interesting comments we exchanged. Some of the comments were harsh I must confess, particularly when I read them the first time. But I have since long curbed my instinctive urge to react immediately and take time to read things over and over again. And then one sees things in another light altogether and this helps makes to one again make one of the now innumerable course corrections needed.

Two comments struck particularly hard.

If I was to extend your sympathy equally to all mankind a lot of human crime could be justified... I sat a long time wondering whether this could be true. Right from the outset of pwhy our effort has been towards attempting to empower people to stand on their own feet and take charge of their lives. That is why we chose to give jobs to local people, mostly unqualified, tried to hone the skills they had and show them that they could rise above their present station in life. Today over 40 people have been able to do so and not only that have been able to perform exceedingly well. My class IX drop outs are today primary teachers who ensure that all children under their care pass their examinations year after year! And our dream is to try and instill in our students the desire to go back to their place of origin with new skills and expertise and share it with others. My harangue against the wall was in no way a justification of people illegally occupying land, but against those who have allowed it to go on for decades to garner ever increasing vote banks; against those who have looked away for a the few pennies dropped in their bottomless pockets!

As far as extending sympathy equally to all mankind, that is an impossibility for any human and I am not supernal. I fully agree with that people are not born equal as my friend puts it, but at the same time all Indians are protected by a single Constitution that does give them some fundamental rights!

The other comment that struck me was: There is no doubt that India cannot be a decent, forget great country, if its children and its impoverished are not given help to rise above their limitations and earn a dignified living but allowing them to illegally occupy public property is NOT a solution…it is the kind of wishful thinking we need to avoid so we come up with more realistic, sustainable, solid answers…

This is exactly what I have been harping about for 9 years. And sadly those who are meant up to find the realistic, sustainable, solid answers have failed totally. It seems that no one has the courage to look the problem in the eye and commit time, money and energy to really think about it and solve it one step at a time?

This is evident in string of supposed solutions proffered with obsessive regularity by the law makers: a wall to solve a habitat problem, the have a girl leave her to us to solve female infanticide, designer uniforms to solve the abysmal state of government education ans so on. It is time that we as civil society reacted and made our voices heard. Just being armchair philosophers and not even moving out of it to exercise our franchise will perpetrate the state of votes for a pouch of hooch and governments that will continue their hidden and wily agendas.

India’s problems cannot be solved by a flick of a magic wand. It also needs all approaches and between extreme arrogance and unrealistic sympathy lies a middle path that tries to extend positive help and also attempts at trying to shake people out of the state of inertia they have allowed themselves to sink in.

In a land when Bhakti and Karma are both ways to reach the sublime, I guess our approach is also valid.

next in line

Among the very serious questions fielded at me yesterday was the oft stated one about who would take over pwhy. Till date the question was asked by all and sundry buy yesterday it was raised by someone I hold in high esteem ans hence required an honest and well thought answer.

For a long time I have know that this is one issue that had to be addressed and resolved. The question of sustainability has kept me awake many a night and has troubled be many a times. It is very early that we realised that the crux of the matter lay in our ability to become sustainable and free of constantly having to sing for our supper each and every day. True that for project why to live on beyond my days on this planet two essential things were required: a committed team who would see with their heart to do the work on the field and an entity to provide the elusive supper!

The former was easily done. The later was easier said than done. The fund sustainability issue went through many trials and failures till slowly a nebulous idea emerged that of planet why and unlike others each time one thought of it the image became clearer and clearer. Today planet why is but a few hurdles away and it will come to be for all the right reasons.

So when once again the question about who would take over pwhy came my way again, I realised that it would simply be planet why. Strange? But do bear with me for a while. Unlike pwhy that needs to be fed every day, planet why has within it the ability to make its own supper and also provide many suppers to other pwhy activities thus becoming the lifeline of pwhy a task till now done by one single individual and thus making pwhy look extremely fragile and vulnerable.

But that is not all. Unlike other possible sustainability options, planet why is imbued with the spirit of pwhy. It is just not a commercial activity, but one that offers a haven to many lost souls, one that provides training and work possibilities to pwhy alumni, one that enables us to expand our activities and reach out to new children and empower new communities. But above all it is one that has immense potential of growth and thus becomes a constant challenge to those who will steer it and who will then hold their destiny in their won hands.

What better inheritor could I have found?

new musings

Yesterday a ex-volunteer dropped by. He had spent a month a year back doing his internship with us. Since he has obtained his degree from a foreign university and secured a prized job in a high profile NGO. He is part of the fund raising team of that organisation.

The NGO is question is steered by a celebrity and hence has a fair amount of celebrities associated to it. It somehow seems politically correct in today’s day and age to be associated to a charity. Charities now are businesses or a bizMess, something I discovered many moons ago. It is not a matter of doing something for someone, but to be seen doing something for someone.

My one rupee a day programme failed because of a lack of understanding or was it simply because I did not find a celebrity to champion it? Anyway it was just a battle lost, the war is still on.

Coming back to the different funding options shared by our friend, I must confess that each one seemed inadequate and totally out of sync with the spirit of pwhy that I value and defend. Some were too onerous, others unprincipled. I was loathe to spend donor’s money on PR blitz or similar issues. And did they really ensure long term sustainability or were just once again short term options needing to be reinvented each year at abysmal cost.

That was not the pwhy way. We would continue our virtual and new tech begging till we found the right option: one that would dovetail into our work and enable it to grow and prosper. One that would include all those who are the heart and soul of pwhy.

I am now convinced more than ever that planet why has to happen. It is the only way to ensure that it is the pwhy team and beneficiaries themselves who steer their fund raising once the planet why is a reality. It thus becomes their fight their responsibility and their challenge and their achievement.

So help me God!

Looking ahead

It is time to look ahead … easier said than done particularly at a time when our vision has been clouded by recent events, and our dreams obscured by the weight of unforeseen worries. I am reminded of the words of Florence Scovel Shinn: Every great work, every big accomplishment, has been brought into manifestation through holding to the vision, and often just before the big achievement, comes apparent failure and discouragement.

It is imperative and essential that we at project why hold on to our vision even if at this particular moment in time things, to say the least, look bleak. It would be easy to throw up our hands and be satisfied to muddle on as best we can. I presume this would be an acceptable option if all we were thinking of was just our limited selves. But that is not the case. Any failing on our part will jeopardize too many dreams.

It is time to look ahead.

We are faced with the daunting task of ensuring that our day-to-day work goes on unhindered and at the same time garner resources for our new dream. In other words we need to raise a substantial or rather astronomical amount of funds and our track record is to say the least rather pitiful. True we are a good hand-to-mouth organisation and have always met our needs thanks to great friends and well wishers. However this will not do to meet what lies ahead.

The past few days have been spent brainstorming. The challenge: find new ways of fund raising, ways that would go beyond crisis management and would not depend on one individual. Ideas are being debated passionately and we await the results with bated breath.

I decided to take a trip down memory lane and review our past efforts, as to many, we may look like an organisation that never pondered on the issue of long time funding. I had almost forgotten our cloth bags, our chocolates, our soap, our jewels and all else, all sacrificed to a variety of alters. I had even forgotten the passion with which I had tried, sadly in vain, to push my one rupee-a-day-dream, one that sat on our site for along time but found few takers. I remember how elated I felt when after receiving an award, I had hoped that this may perhaps bring the dream closer, but soon realised that people had moved on to greener pastures. And yet how could one give up. New ways had to be found, new battles won. We had to become sustainable. And slowly planet why was conceived as perhaps the way to solve an issue that had been disturbing us for a long time….

The trip down memory lane was an eye opener. We are still faced with the challenge of ensuring that project why lives on. That is it is freed from the shackles of being dependent on one or a set of individuals. The one rupee option is one side of the coin, planet why the other.

I was recently given John Wood’s book that outlines the long term vision of Room to Read. I pondered over it a long tome after turning the last page. Would it be possible for us to come up with a similar funding pattern. Sadly no! Unlike RtR we do not have tangible options that can be replicated by quantum leaps. Buildings that can bear names. And though we are in a land that boasts of perhaps one of the largest number of rich people, we are still in our infancy when it comes to parting with a few pennies for a less fortunate soul. My mind goes back to the day or rather night when we needed money for one of our broken hearts. I was at a party hosted by a ‘friend’ and where most of the guests were ‘rich’. Still naive and unworldly, I interrupted the revelry and asked all present to part with whatever they had in their wallets to save this child. Needless to say no one came forward.

Yes we have been blessed by the number of kind hearted people the world over who have always come forward when we have sought their help and they are the ones who have made pwhy the vibrant and beautiful reality it is. But we also know that this funding model is fragile and would not withstand the test of time.

Looking ahead, what still stands in my mind as a possible way out is our planet why vision, no matter how battered it may look at this moment. It is one that can take care of our tiny yet critical responsibilities while allowing us to continue our work. It is one that can allow Manu and Champa to grow old with dignity and surrounded by love, one that can shelter any child or women in need. Our work in many ways remains intangible. No extra buildings to bear testimony of the coin received and yet for us it is invaluable.

I would be thrilled if someone could show me a way to the yet elusive but needed option to secure our morrows. I am still looking

But just enough….

Little Pooja’s demise has stirred up a host of questions, all seeking answers and most sadly finding none. Once again what perturbed me the most was the total absence of dignity in dealing with the mortal remains of a child particularly in a land where rituals seem to rule life’s every moment. Yet when it comes to a child, they become disturbingly absent.

Everyone has a right to live and die with dignity and yet dignity is something we are so reluctant to give to another as if the very act of giving required its share of arrogance.

Somerset Maugham said: It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. Pooja’s death was a poignant reminder of the catch word we all seem to forget: dignity. I too find myself in the wrong. Was it not the total lack of dignity in Manu’s life that moved me enough to set up pwhy? And is it not dignity that is the real albeit intuitive motivation for planet why? When and why did dignity get sacrificed at the alter of sustainability and other supposedly more commercially viable notions? Another why that needs to be answered.

Little Pooja’s death brought back to life with deafening silence the real reason of planet why: a place where anyone can preserve his or her dignity be it a Manu or a Pooja.

Anything that does not grow dies..

Anything that does not grow dies where the words almost whispered by S, as I sat helpless hearing the ominous words that were slowly but surely obliterating my carefully constructed dream of many moons. A dream that perhaps seeded when the little face on this picture had lost his smile or maybe the day I first heard Manu’s heart wrenching cries.

The dream at first was barely coherent but it lived for a long time in my heart, a disquieting reminder that something was missing in the work I was engaged in. An intangible prompting urging me to conjure the absent link that would complete the picture.With each passing day and ensuing task the dream was spurred on and started assuming substance and form and above all a name. I simply called it planet why and to me it was just a logical extension of project why. And though by force majeure it could not be located in close proximity to pwhy, it shared the same spirit and was fired with the same passion and motivation. If project why was a place where dreams were crafted , planet why was where they remained safe.

As I sat defenseless watching my dream dissolve, my mind set on a frantic flight seeking desperate answers: where had I gone wrong; what had I missed; why was this happening. A new why that had to be answered as in it lay the safety of all the answers we had sought till now. It had all seemed flawless, cogent… The assault of words carried on mercilessly barely giving me time to keep up. The place was too far, the staff was not willing, the idea had not been shared, people had not been heard… I listened in silence, holding on the tears that were threatening to fall as words the heart could not express.

It was then time for alternatives, suggestions, other possibilities..

I sat and heard them all, processing them to the best of my ability and attempting to see if they could replace the dream. Anything that does not grow dies and yet each option proffered excluded growth and though attractive in the present moment was doomed to die. Something needed to be done, the dream had to be saved, too much depended on it.

A day has gone by. I have tried to process all I heard. I must admit that much of what was said made sense when considered within the realm of today: the today that hues the reality we see: the choice of place does seem incongruous for a guest house we hope to fill to capacity. The distance seems alarming to anyone who simply walks to work. The list goes on: it is true that I bear the guilt of pushing my ideas and not giving time for people to react. It is also true that I often do not word things appropriately. Whatever the reasons and the past errors it is not time for recriminations but time to come together in solidarity as no matter how perfect a dream it cannot become reality without the conviction of all concerned.

However as one held guilty I think I do have the right to pen a defense. Planet Why came to be because one took a quantum leap into the future in more ways than one. I understand that there is a sense of comfort and reassurance in the present day scenario. Pwhy looks manageable and viable. Planet why was conceived for the day when the need may be felt for a larger place that one owns and where one can grow; the day when all are tired of seeking rented space or angry at seeing our special kids now adults not being welcome. Come that day land would be a chimera. Our rock pile was certainly what not I would have wanted had I got all the cards in my hand but was the only one that fitted our tight pockets and one that is poised for a sparkling make over. One can never chose the ideal situation and perhaps the end of a dream came because we do not have the ability to look at the future.

I also fully comprehend that no one would like to invest in a dream that looks very fragile and shaky at present and deprived of its sustainability element planet why loses its raison d’etre and looks like yet another liability. I more than anyone am loath to take on any more than we have. The task of meeting the present requirement is already weighing on my tiring shoulders so I should be the one to refuse any added burden. Then why am I finding it almost impossible to let the dream go? Why is it that just like on many occasions in the past when my team seemed reluctant to take on an new task, I feel compelled to soldier on. There is no urgency, no child hurting, no cause to defend and yet the drive is much the same.

I know no one wants to see pwhy die for want of combattants to use the famous quote from Corneille (Le Cid Act IV, Scene I) and yet unless we think of a doable alternative this may just happen. In my 9 years of begging I have seen that if there is nothing new on offer, sources dry out. One has to reinvent oneself all the time even if it means taking on a new responsibilities. Once again we are faced with the sustainability issue. And one again I am at a loss. And yet anything that does not grow dies

Some ideas were mooted but quite frankly each seemed daunting. One of them was that of ISR (Individual Social responsibility). I have been saddened by the total lack of heart I see and the total lack of compassion. I had placed great hopes in my one rupee a day dream hoping it would change attitudes. I was shocked at myself when as I sat redoing my website I wondered whether it still had a place in it. The ISR idea was welcome but then why did it seem jaded.

As I write these words I am at a loss to find answers and yet they need to be found as this is surely the most important why in our journey.