unless the whole man accompanies it.

I hate the giving of the hand unless the whole man accompanies it said Ralph Waldo Emerson

Continuing the saga of the art or chore of giving let us talk today about one more avatar of the giving tale: feeding the poor on birthdays, death anniversaries etc. This is extremely prevalent in India and we have had our share of this over the last almost 10 years.

When still greenhorns we readily accepted any such offers and I guess that is how we learn many a lesson. I still remember the day when a lady called wanting to feed children. She gave us a time and over 100 children waited patiently for the food to come. It was meant to be lunch and the agreed time was 1pm. By 3pm there was still no sight of the lady and her food. We tried to keep the kids still by playing games and singing songs but even that had a limit. Finally the lady and her retinue arrived with oily puris and over spiced curries. Needless to say the whole thing was a messy fiasco. After that day we insisted that anyone wanting to feed children had to bring things on time and that we preferred fruit, biscuits and juice packs.

But how can I forget the day when a lady came with biscuits and juice and distributed them to the children. She had a few packs left over as some of the kids were absent that day, so rather than leave the packets behind or give them to the handful of teachers she simply took them back!

Yesterday another mother celebrated her daughter’s birthday by giving a food packet to children and a small gift. She came at the prescribed time and made all the right moves, but somehow the heart was absent.

But there is one young girl named Yashu. her parents decided to celebrate her birthday in a very different manner. She spends her birthday taking the entire special section of pwhy for a day out at Dilli Hath bringing the two Indias together in a wonderful celebration. They play, sing dance together. The pwhy children make gifts for their special friend and there is always a birthday cake and return gifts! Yashu has never forgotten her special date with her very special pals. A befitting tribute to Emerson’s words.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s birthday party


The fragrance alway stays

The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose. ” wrote the 17 century British poet Hada Bejar
I do not know whether I am livid, desolate or have just become inured to whatever comes my way. I do not think so as each time I come across an incident like the one that happened yesterday my blood boils and then curdles. Over the past years I have often vented my anger when faced with situations that demean the very act of giving.

Let me end the suspense. Here is what happened: last week I got a phone call from a well to do up market lady who lives in one of the poshest colony of our city. She asked me to send someone as she had things to donate for the children. In spite of having been bitten many times, specially when the so called donor is from a particular strata of society, we promptly sent one of our three wheelers to the lady’s home. He came back some time later with over a dozen plastic bags of all sizes stuffed with things. The bags were deposited on our terrace waiting to be emptied.

Jenine and Nina two volunteers from Canada and the US and some of our staff were given the task of sorting things so that they could be handed over. It did not take long to realise that what had been sent to us as donation was a heap of rubbish: dirty and torn clothes, broken toys – half a Barbie doll, half a chess board etc – dusty and stained lampshades, broken shoes and even stained and tattered undergarments. It was a nightmare to sort things out. At the end of it all there was not one article that could be put to use. Even the kabariwalla (recycle man) called later refused to pick anything up!

Needless to say that the volunteers were shocked beyond words and our staff members angry and even humiliated. The question on every one’s lips was: How dare she….

Charity as one sees it today is often nothing short of galling. I often wonder what the real motivation is: a topic to discuss at the next kitty party in the hope of getting a pat in the back, a desire to be written about on page 3, a way to ease ones’ conscience, or simply a way of getting rid of the rubbish no one else wants. I wonder how the lady in question set about collecting the items she sent us. Did she just ask all in her family to set aside what they wanted to get rid off, or simply did a long overdue spring cleaning. I do not know, but what really riles me is that she could for even a second think that what she was sending could be used by anyone!

I guess I will never learn. A few years back a bunch of ladies belonging to a respectable and even elite international club decided to donate us toys. These came beautifully wrapped and were handed over with great drama. After the ladies left we opened the packets and were shocked to see that all the toys and games were not only used but broken and incomplete. When I brought this to the notice of the convener she simply said: what difference does it make, it is only for a poor child! Needles to say that I returned all of them.

Are there any lessons to be learnt? I do not know. What I do know is that not a single of the slum people I work with would have the audacity to give any broken or dirty article to another human being. So what makes this and other ladies do such a thing. And there we once again reach the realm of the two Indias. Is it that they truly believe that the so called poor will accept anything with gratitude, that they have no right to feel humiliated or angered. Have values like compassion and generosity completely disappeared from the lives of the rich and affluent. Do they not realise that in acting in such away it is they that look poor and pitiable as in Bejar’s words the fragrance stays in the hand that gives.

stumbling upon India

I really wanted to let you know that Project Why is still very much in our thoughts. Now that a few weeks have passed since our return from India I can honestly say that what had the biggest impact on us was our time at the Project. Yes, the Taj Mahal was stunning and spotting a tiger was exciting but these memories quickly become more what I would call ‘photograph memories’. Our time at the Project on the other hand seems to move more to the forefront of our memories and it is certainly what we talk about to our friends.

These words dropped in mail mailbox this morning. They ere from a very special person who came with her husband and daughter to spend a few days volunteering with us before setting out to discover incredible India.

Incredible India indeed that lies waiting to be stumbled upon in the most unlikely places: in this case in the tiny lanes of slum India. People often ask why I accept volunteers who come for a short time and whether it is serves any purpose at all. You have your answer in Jennie’s words.

A day spent with the most unlikely ambassadors of a country, a dance where your partners are bright eyed 4 years old, moments spent with one that cannot hear or another that can just smile become a different kind of photographic memories: the ones that get chiseled in your heart and stay there forever.

A country is far more than its monuments and places of touristic interest. Its soul and spirit is embed in its real people. Sadly it is often the India that remains hidden and misunderstood. I cannot begin to recount how many puzzled drivers or guides that have frowned on all of us when visitors have come our way. It is almost infra dig to bring a visitor to a slum. And yet anyone who has come by has left with a song in his heart.

The soul of India does lie is its faceless and nameless mass. It is there that you still find the legendary generosity and hospitality that we are supposedly known for. It is often a place where pretense is absent as there is nothing to conceal.

Yet another tale of two Indias where one remains hidden, waiting for you to stumble upon it!

the roads are houseful

Today, I was treated to one of my best moments at pwhy. The day began normally and nothing would have prepared me for what was to come. As I was about to leave the office I asked my colleagues what was their plan for the day and they answered that they were going to the senior secondary section as the students were having an English Debate competition. I must confess I was a tad vexed at not having been invited but I said nothing and went my way.

As luck would have it an appointment got canceled and I found myself with time on my hands and decided to make my way to the senior secondary and be part of the debate. I do not know whether my move was apreciated but everyone played by the book and I was greeted with warmth by all. A dozen boys were in the class room and just one girl. The students were mostly from class XII, XI, X and IX. Some time later three girls joined the group. Though initially a debate had been planned, Gunjan the English teacher sprung a surprise on his nervous wards. Everyone was to chose a topic and speak for at least a minute. The new dictate was met with bewildered looks, nervous glances and uncomfortable stances but the teacher was relentless. After brief introductions it was time for the first speaker to address the audience.

The next hour was an absolute delight in more ways than one. The topic selected by the students were varied and showed a great deal of maturity and wisdom. Child marriage, dowry menace, terrorism, education, environment, importance of doctors were some of the chosen topics. Some spoke with confidence, some with some hesitation but each one stood proudly in front of an audience where some were outsiders and shared their dreams, hopes, fears and aspirations in a language they were learning to master. I must confess that for once the boys outdid the girls.

Young Ravi who bagged the coveted first price took my breath away. He chose an unexpected and somewhat trite topic – traffic – and in 1.50 seconds painted a socio-economic canvas of today’s India. Ravi’s English would be considered by many as wanting, his construction faulty and his grammar poor but he managed to convey everything he set out to, vindicating my firm belief that language is a communication tool and should be viewed as such.

Ravi’s speech was a delight. He used stunning metaphors and images to convey what he wanted. The one that bowled me over was: the roads are houseful – to convey the state of traffic on Delhi roads. In his nascent English, Ravi talked about the misplaced egos of Indians where families had not one, not two but four cars! He talked of the car companies always coming up with bigger and newer models to tempt consumers. He mentioned increased pollution and subsequent health hazards. He even touched upon the apocalyptic scenario that waits us with the arrival the low cost Nano that would make roads even more houseful! He even highlighted the fact that in other countries people were content with two cars per family. He ended by saying that he walked the talk as he had neither car nor bike. What a stunning little speech it was, delivered with passion and aplomb.

Everyone shared their views with sensitivity. It was a moving moment as I sat and listened to the hopes and fears, the likes and dislikes of these wonderful and yet forsaken children of India. Here they were rearing to go but we had assured that they would run the race of life with tied hands. The education doled out to them was nothing short of mediocre, one that even with the best effort would never enable them to win the race.

And yet as I watched them, all I saw was winners who had beaten all odds and were determined to break glass and lead ceilings and it accrued to us at pwhy to help them do so. It was also a proud moment as many of those who stood in front for me were toppers in their schools thanks to the efforts of our precious teacher Naresh. While introducing themselves they had also shared what they wanted to be: math teachers, chartered accountants, computer engineers, pilots, were some of their aspirations.

I left the room with a silent prayer to the God of Lesser Beings, entrusting these precious dreams to his care.

just the price of flowers

India is undoubtedly shining or should I say sparkling, albeit for a handful. A news item aired yesterday confirmed just that. A leading florist chain has tied up with an international floral couturier (did not know that they existed) and will bring to the ever richer and never sated Indian customer a new extravaganza: flowers decors designed by the master himself at a whopping 2 to 4 crores!

I must confess it took me some time to digest this. I must admit that I am one of those who find even the present weddings too ostentatious and even immoderate. I have for quite some time now stopped attending them as I find them disturbing and wasteful and devoid of any sanctity. For my own child’s wedding I decided to walk the talk though I must confess it did not go down well in a city where big is beautiful.

2 to 4 crores or 20 to 40 million rupees spent on floral decor is something I cannot begin to understand. The next day the flowers are wilted and simply swept away. Bye bye crores and the millions. Is it a way of showing who you are or simply a game of who spends more or comes up wilder ways of spending money? I do not know. Does it reflect a sense of insecurity that can never be revealed? I again do not know. And where it will end? It is any one’s guess.

Till a few months a core was way out of my league. I was imply battling trying to garber the few laks (1/10 of a million) needed to run pwhy. I only became aware of the value of a crore when we set up on the planet why journey. And even more recently the word crore has cropped up often as we debate the costs of construction of planet why. Yes planet why which will have: a guest house with 10 rooms, space for over 50 deprived children, special children and women to live with dignity, space for hundred to come and learn and pwhy to survive and will also be a zero carbon building does not come up to the price of one such wedding. It simply needs 1.8 crores.

Yet for us this figure is so daunting and immoderate that we wonder where it will come from. Just the price of a designer wedding, actually not even that as the 2 to 4 crores are only the cost of the decor!

I must again confess I am still trying to come to terms with this.

PS: the picture of this priceless flower was taken by our hotshot lensman Utpal!

teach India

There is a new buzz in town: teach India, the latest campaign by a leading newspaper group. Larger than life posters, glitzy TV ads, Bollywood brand ambassadors, a dynamic website, heart rendering memories: the stage is set to make India literate, or so the well designed and implemented campaign would want us to believe. As an NGO who has been in the teaching business for almost a decade we qualified as partners and I received the concept note of the campaign.

Amongst other things the teach India wants to : Inspire, motivate and mobilize people to volunteer for education and be more socially active citizens and build a more cohesive and inclusive society based on trust and reciprocity through bridging people from different backgrounds in order to fight discrimination and marginalization. Is this not what many of us have been wanting and trying to achieve for a long long time.

The campaign like every other media campaign is short: 3 months, at the end of which a monitoring process will begin to check the impact of the classes and the efficacy of the program. Wow, wish things would be that easy.

My mind went back a few years to the time when we too at pwhy had tried to inspire, motivate, mobilize people to be more socially active. I remembered the day when after having been in the glare another media campaign, replete with glitzy ads, Bollywood stars et al, I had sought help for our just one rupee campaign, where we did not ask for two hours of any one’s time, but just a simple rupee a day to teach India! The fact, as I realised just a few minutes ago, that I have even removed the campaign form our website, speaks for itself. The idea failed, no one was mobilised, inspired or motivated. A handful did come forward but the impact of such an option could only be felt if it withstood the test of time and became part of one’s life, almost like an old and bad habit!

For months I tried to flog the dead horse but soon realised it was mission impossible. I did many a post mortem but must admit could not find one valid reason that perhaps could have been addressed. There were many: people got bored and tired of one cause and wanted new ones; people preferred spending their money to help dramatic and heart rendering causes: a heart surgery, a tsunami…or simply coming with packets of food and feeding poor kids! Things had to be visible and the only visibility one could proffer were pictures of kids learning, exams results or some passionate blogs. Not enough to keep them interested and have them make the effort to remember the next month’s or year’s cheque. I had failed to motivated, inspire, mobilise people to give a simple coin, one that would not even been missed.

Soon the just one rupee a day dream was set to rest without much ado. But the teach India campaign bought it all to the fore and for more reasons than one. If India is to change for the better we all have to accept and assume our part of responsibility and cannot simply hope that government policies and a handful of committed NGOs will do the magic. And though the teach India campaign has all the right ingredients for success why is it that I feel that it will just wane away after the blitz is over. Am I simply getting jaded and tired.

It would be terribly unfair to a bunch of people from different walks of life if I ended my post here leaving all and sundry to believe that no one can get mobilised, motivated, inspired. We have been in the teach India business for almost ten long and exciting years and can boast of great track record (no failures in school, good results in Boards, kids gainfully and well employed) and this is because we managed to find, mobilise, inspire, motivate a great bunch of human beings that form what we proudly call the project why team! We did not have media campaigns, Bollywood stars or any such drama, we simply spoke to their hearts. Our teachers do not have swanky degrees or MNC jobs. They are simple Indians with a few years of schooling and loads of common sense. They belong to the strata we normally fail to acknowledge and often pass by. They are rich in commitment and goodwill and give themselves wholeheartedly to the work entrusted to them. And boy they do it well. To them all I can say is chapeau bas!

Over the past years they have been helped by another bunch of rare beings that go by the name of volunteers. They come form faraway lands: Singapore, France, the US an UK, Italy, Germany, Holland and other lands. They come from famed Universities and Business Schools. They are your would be honchos. They brave the heat, the stench, the mosquitoes and the spicy food and spend what is often their holidays teaching India. They do not need media campaigns to motivate, inspire or mobilise them: they simply follow their heart. To them again chapeau bas!

Teach India is undoubtedly a brave campaign which we would want to believe has been launched for all the right reasons. Its success depends on each one of us and our ability to carry on after the limelight has faded away.

You can see how we at pwhy teach India by flicking through these pictures.


worrying demographics

The rise in the crime graph of our city is cause of concern. Delhi today is a megalopolis. With 13 million inhabitants in 2001, we must now be hovering around 18 million, thus being the most populous city. 700 new migrants arrive each day and 600 babies are born every day. By 2015, Delhi is expected to be the second largest agglomeration in the world after Tokyo.

In 2005, (according to the wikipedia)Delhi accounted for the highest percentage (16.2%) of the crimes reported in the 35 cities in India with populations of one million or more. The city also has the highest rate of crime against women (27.6 compared to national average rate of 14.1 per 100,000) and against children (6.5 compared to national average of 1.4 per 100,000) in the country.

Not pretty statistics! And the list goes on: over 8% of Delhi’s population lives below the poverty line and many more barely survive. The galloping inflation rate is just making it worse. The city is bursting at its seams but no one seems to be aware. Quite the contrary. What is visible is a frenzied growth that defeats all logic: new malls, roads, buildings, housing colonies. each requiring its pound of flesh (read electricity, water, hospitals et al).

Whereas for some life is shining (to use a now well known and sated expression) for others it is getting worse by the day and in the wake of this crime is on a spiraling rise. And why not, as hopes and dreams larger than life grow illogically fueled by images and campaigns. The past days has seen the birth of bikers gang and they are on a rampage. The mood is one where everyone wants his place in the sun now and at whatever cost.

The police and authorities are and will remain helpless as they can only intervene after the act. What is needed is to try and comprehend why this is happening. I was recently introduced to the Capability Approach mooted by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum that aims at evaluating social states in terms of well being (welfare) rather than resources (income, assets). Though I am still in the process of understanding this approach, what strikes me is the fact that we often tend to equate poverty simply to absence of money and everyone particularly the deprived is convinced that access to money will resolve all issues.

In the line of such thought the recent access to credit that the poor now have courtesy multinational banks and their financial franchisees, is just adding to the mess. In their frenzied attempt to rope in more and more consumers, such institutions bypass rules for a pocketful of coins. A happy individual gets his loan without understanding the real implications and the seeds of disaster have been sown. Bikes and cars now abound in the narrow lanes of Delhi’s slums. TVs blare in each and every home peddling dreams and false hope. Everything seems possible in this new India which seems to shine for all. What one tends to forget is that for some the sparkle is illusory.

In this almost hubristic environment where even Gods need to be defied, crime proliferates. Reason has been sacrificed at the alter of desires and wants. The shining India beckons all. Education that could have applied a moderating influence has also been hijacked along the way. At one end it reiterates the message of plenty whereas at the other it reinforces the reality of its absence. Moderation, temperance, patience are virtues of another era.

Times are ripe for all kind of short cuts, crime being one of them. Our society is truly sick and it is time we addressed the situation and found the elusive remedy.

Two worlds just across the street

When I read your blogs most often the word that used to strike me was “angry”; how angry you were about the system, situation and people. for the first time i think i experienced that were the words that dropped into my inbox yesterday. It was from M, a dear friend and supporter who lives thousands of miles away and who has become a confident and close ally. Perhaps it is because we share the same dreams, however impossible they may seem, notwithstanding our age difference or the fact that we live in two different worlds. Perhaps again it is because we both at some times of our lives learnt the fox’s precious lessons and look with our hearts!

She often reads my blogs and gives her views, or we exchange emails on issues that disturb us and often realise that our views or similar. However this is the first time she reacted vehemently and shared what many feel is my anger. M was referring to an article that appeared in the New York Times and depicted life in one of the upcoming and fashionable suburbs of our metropolis. It portrayed in graphic details the life of the two Indias hat live side by side but not in symbiosis. Swanky flats adjacent to crowded slums were residents of both interacted for some hours of the day as one bought comfort and ease to the other. What had riled M was the apparently innocuous and yet portent remark of one of the residents, a Doctor by training, who confesses having thought about opening a clinic in the nearby slums but feels that there is little she or anyone else could do.

M cannot not understand how one could simply waste an education, or put in other words how people lose their conscience somewhere along the way. Or to put it yet again in other words: how one could remain insensitive to the reality that was so obviously there to see.

There are no easy answers. A comment on a recent blog I wrote sent a chill down my spine. To my now almost legendary ranting and ravings about a disquieting issue, the commentator proffered the following: Yes times are changing…… its the beginning of the end.
I hope you don’t harbour any misconception that this civilisation can be changed for the better. We are too conditioned for that. Civilisation began in places like India and here will (or already) it die first. This is not a judgement but an observation. The evolution is merciless and creates the new on the death of the old. Pray for strength to see through the tough and tougher times to come. There is no point in reacting. Lets learn to mute witness to the process of life.

My answer is simple: sorry I do harbour hope that things can change for the better. No bigger example than a warm day in march 2003 as held a death sentence in my hand and yet also saw life. Today Utpal lives for all to see! I am not conditioned and cannot be a mute witness. It would be an insult to my very existence.

Yet one wonders if this is easy way out one could adopt to whitewash every and anything that seems to be out of sync. Like the proverbial karma that is thrown at you each time you try and solve an issue, suggest an alternative or simply do some good an thus threaten to rock the boat.

Too many today hide behimnd the cloak of fatalism and yet each time I am comfronted with a situation like this one, my determination to carry on no matter what takes a quantum leap. It seems that we have walked the passive acceptance route for so long that we have along the way lost our conscience, our sensitivity and our ability to look with our hearts hence defeating the very essence of the karmic view of life. It is easy to wave another person’s karma for all to see, but what about our own. Is it not time to turn the mirror towards ourselves?

Sinking into comfort zones or burying our heads in the sand is not a solution we can be proud of. Change or the much heralded transformation of society can only come when we assume responsibility of what surrounds us and take a step, no matter how tiny towards setting things right.

We cannot wait for Godot. He is there in each one of us, it is for us to find him.

I will end this post with M’s words as they reflect the deep seated anguish of a young Indian: how do we as a society inspire such people to stop squandering their education? i understand that everyone has the right to whatever education they want and to respect their choice on what they do with that education. but are we really a billion people with no concept of “pay back” to our society? what sort of upbringing are we giving our children when we aspire them to complete school, get degrees when we can’t teach them the value of a shared community that benefits from everyone helping out? 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.

It is time to act!

Invisible India…

The last few days have been terribly hot. The mercury has touched 43 degrees Celsius and is still rising.

Most of us have retreated into the comfort of our homes or working places cooled with ACs and desert coolers and barely venture out. TV programmes urge us to take adequate measures to beat dehydration: electrolytes, cool drinks and watch for warning signs and call the doctor if need be.

If we feel bored we drive in an air conditioned car to an air conditioned mall or movie hall or even take time off to head to the hills or cooler climes in faraway lands though the terrible heat is still a good cocktail party conversation piece.

Yet here is an India just at our doorstep that has no option but to carry on irrespective of the sweltering heat. We do see them as we zip pass in our air conditioned cars and yet never look at them as one of us. Next time you take a trip in your car do take time to look through your window. You will see people who are out in the heat no mater what as if they were to stay home their families would go hungry: the construction workers, the ice cream vendor, the balloon vendor and his shrill whistle, the corner cobbler, the vegetable vendor pushing his cart on hot tared roads his feet protected by flimsy sandals and whose parched throat can barely call out, the water vendor who quenches other people’s thirst; the countless person who are daily wagers and cannot afford a single day off. The very ones that disturb us and that we want to wish away and hide behind walls.

And if you think that they do not concern you, think again many of them make our own lives more comfortable: the delivery boy who cycles in the heat to get you what you need at that very instant, the electrician or repair man who has to come by when your cooler stops working and s so many others who form part of that invisible India we chose to ignore and want to wish away.

a frightening common denominator

The furore created of US President Bush’s recent tirade on the growing appetite of middle class India as the cause of the global food crisis is understandable as it is a blow well below the belt. And many will take up the gauntlet and give befitting answers. This post is not meant to do that.

The battle royale that is now splashed all over the media set me thinking in an entirely different direction. Pwhy has made me aware of many things that earlier did not hold my attention. One of them is the amount of food wasted be it in rich, middle class or poor India. Sadly it seems to be one of the few common denominators that bind all sections of urban India.

Peep into the garbage discarded after any wedding and you will find enough food to feed many hungry souls. Walk into any wedding, party or religious festival and you will find many half finished plates pushed under the tables or dropped into the big plastic containers kept for dirty plates. Look at any one serving him or herself at the buffet table and you will be astonished by the quantity of food piled up on their plate. We are a nation that almost prides ourselves at throwing food.

Every day as I walk the tiny lane of our centre there is food thrown on the street and in every garbage pile no matter how small. This how our very own Manu fed himself for many years: rummaging garbage piles.

In a land where food is equated to God and disrespect to it is considered a sin, this new found frenzy of throwing food is uncanny. Is it a way of asserting that one has finally arrived, reached, bettered one’s self? I wonder. As a child I was taught very early to respect food and not throw it away. My mother after numerous pleas and entreaties put a stop to my habit of leaving food in my plate in a rather harsh but effective manner: the leftover plate was put into a fridge and put in front of me at every subsequent meal. The battle of wits between a 6 year old and her mother lasted two and half days. The hunger oangs made me eat that congealed food as if it was manna from the Gods. Needless to say that since I have not thrown any food away.

Last week there was a party in the lane behind our house. The next morning we found vast quantities of food thrown in the lane. It could have fed over 100 kids. That was rich India. he same week I scolded one of the foster care kids for not finishing his plate. Pat came the answer: my mod allows me to throw what I do not finish. That is poor India.

And yet we all complain about the spiraling rise of food prices.

Food for thought….