the birth of a girl

A little girl was born yesterday in a big hospital in Delhi. It should be a moment of celebration and joy but the news filled me with extreme sadness as I shuddered at what life held in store for this new child of the God of Lesser beings. Here is why.

She is the granddaughter of Ram Bacchan the security guard of our women centre. Ram Bacchan’s story is a must read. A few months ago an agitated staff member came to me imploring me to convince Ram Bacchan to call his elder daughter to Delhi as she would otherwise die in the village.

I tried to calm him down to get to the bottom of the story. It seemed Ram Bacchan had an elder daughter aged about 19 who lived in the village. She had been married at 16 and had a little girl of 2. She was now pregnant and ill and her in laws did not care about her and forced her to go into the fields and work even if she had high fever. The husband was in Mumbai and totally indifferent to the situation. Needless to say the girl and her little daughter were brought to Delhi. She was in a shocking state.

She was slowly nursed back to health. Every one pitched in to help and soon the emaciated child started looking better. The husband and in laws however were not happy with the situation. They had lost a hand in the fields and could not understand the fuss. But we put our foot down and insisted that the child be born in a hospital in Delhi. So the young mother to be and her child spent the next few months in the tiny hovel that is home to this brave family and was looked after.

The child saw the light of day yesterday. It was a little girl. You can imagine the reaction of all around. There was no celebration at all. You see the birth of a second daughter is never feted even in better homes. A girl child is always thought of as a burden. The little babe still lies in the hospital unaware of what lies in front of her. And I feel totally helpless knowing what awaits her. In six weeks, as is custom, she will be shipped back to her village, an unwanted burden who will be chided and riled at every step. Her mother will have to resume being the beast of burden for her family. Her quiet pleas to secure vaccinations and medical care for her new baby will go unheard. The child will have to survive on the milk the poorly fed mother will produce and will grow into a weak and undernourished child like millions of her sisters across the land. There will be no school for and she will learn to play along with her sister till the sister is considered old enough to partake in household or field chores, then she will play alone or turn surrogate mother to the next child born.

The mother will have to bear the snide remarks of her in laws as is the case of any woman giving birth to girls. I often wonder why family planning programmes worldwide do not insist on the fact that the gender of the child is solely determined by the father. If that were the case many women would not suffer the humiliation they have to when giving birth to little girls. No one will counsel her on family planning and she will give birth to more girls till a boy does come by or she is to used and worn out to give more births. And the girls will follow the pattern of the mother and be married at a young age and become mothers before they become adults thus perpetrating a vicious circle there is no escape from. Such is the plight of millions of women across our land.

I do not know whether the God of Lesser Beings has charted out a different story for her. I find it difficult to believe as in this case even we do not have a larger role to play. Had the family been living in Delhi maybe we could have intervened. But as I said earlier I am helpless and that is why I am filled with extreme sadness.

The birth of a child should be a moment to rejoice and yet I am feeling despondent and dispirited. There is so much I would want to do but my hands are tied by social mores, illogical traditions and societal conventions and above all lack of resources. If I had my way I would gather the little girl in my arms and give her all she truly deserves. At present I can only pray to the God of Lesser Beings asking him to conjure one of his miracles. But then why is it that I feel that this time I will not be heard.

happy R day

It is Republic day and all across the country there are celebrations. The project why children celebrated R Day yesterday at Okhla and the women centre. At both places I had the privilege of being the one to hoist the flag. When I accepted I did not know how emotionally intense the moment would be.

It all began at 10 am at Okhla. I reached in time and found a rickety pole with a folded flag waiting to be hoisted and a motley band of children standing at attention waiting for the ceremony to begin. Some children where bare feet, some had sandals, some shoes. Some were in their Sunday best and others in everyday wear. Some clutched a withering rose which I discovered later was meant for me. The sight of these children of India, children of all shades and hues, of different faiths and origins standing in the cold morning waiting solemnly for the flag to be hoisted was moving and disturbing. They stood in a partially reclaimed garbage dump, their heads held high, their faces serious, their port dignified, waiting to sing the National Anthem and celebrate our Constitution in the bests way possible. I must confess I began to feel very small.

The flag was hoisted and the Anthem sung. Then the saluting party joined their friends in the classroom and the celebrations began. There were patriotic songs and dances, a wonderful play in English that warmed the cockles of my heart and then a tiny little boy came forward and declared that he would recite a poem in English. I was expecting him to render some silly english rhymes and almost fell off my chair when the tiny lad began reciting Tagore’s famous poem: Where the mind is without fear. I sat spell bound ecah word resonating in my mind and making me feel proud and ashamed at the same time.

Were the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

The rendering was perfect. Every word clear and well enunciated and as every word was voiced my heart swelled with pride. What a long journey it had been. Seven years of patient endurance, of battles with local mafias, of not giving up and today this little school in a garbage dump had come of age. But as each word echoed in my mind I also felt how we had let down these very children and how far we were from Tagore’s dream. Knowledge was not free, truth hijacked, and perfection a distant dream. Even the tenets of our Constitution were not respected so what were we celebrating. here were a bunch of kids who had been let down in every which way, all their rights usurped. Where was the justice, equality, liberty promised to them on this very day 61 years ago. Where had we gone wrong and why. My head hung in shame. The sight of these children innocent and trusting children was a gentle reminder that all was far from well. So much needed to be done.

The women centre children displayed the same faith and trust as they hoisted their flag, performed in English and sand their patriotic songs with fervour. True there was a sense of pride in seeing what we had achieved, but at the same time came the realisation that so much more needed to be done and above all the land needed to be awoken from the deep and senseless slumber it allowed itself to sink in.

So let me country finally awake is the message I would like to send today.

happy R Day to all!

mom’s box

Popples is back home for his winter break. Home now is Maam’ji house as per the order of the officious looking children’s court. His mom has disappeared without leaving an address.

Yesterday Popples insisted he wanted to go to the women centre that had been another home to him for a long time as he wanted to collect some of his old toys. On reaching the centre he headed straight to what use to be his room and ferreted around in search of his old cars and other toys. We retrieved some. Then he wanted us to open the small cupboard that use to have his clothes and long before his mom’s things. He ferreted some more and then looked up with a question in his eyes. Where is the spiderman pencil box, the one Mom used to keep her change? I want Mom’s box. We were all stunned. We realised that the child was simply looking for something that belonged to his mom, something he could keep with him as a memento. The box has been taken by the mom when she left the centre.

I keep sitting in silence. The moment was pregnant with emotions too complex to define: a child’s intense love for his mom, his hurt and disappointment, his zillions of unsaid questions that no one had answers for and above all our inadequacy to make it all alright. We told him gently that the box has been taken by his mom as she had kept her money in it. The child simply answered: but it had my two rupees in it!

I cracked up and had to leave the room as tears filled my eyes and threatened to flow. No matter how much you try, you can never fill the space left empty by a mom. We did try to make things work and help the mother but failed. But the little boy never forgot and never stopped loving her. His search for the forgotten box proved that beyond doubt.

The moment passed and Popples was his ebullient self again, but I was now aware of the hint of sadness that lay hidden in his beautiful eyes and threatened to spill out at any moment. I was also conscious of how much more we needed to do to try and make things better for him.

Children get hurt by us adults. Often they are unable to deal with the situation and resort to what we easily call bad behaviour and that we are quick to reprimand. That is our mistake. Actually it is simply their way of telling is that all is not well. We have to be able to understand them and make things right. We will do it for Popples, come what may!

Looking back at 2010

2010 is coming to a close. It is time to cast a last glance at the year gone by, to assess its highs and lows, to reflect upon achievements and failures and ponder about resolutions that need to be made.

When I look back at 2010 the one feeling that comes to mind is one of quiet achievements. The year went by with no fuss or flurry. All centres ran like clockwork. All challenges were met with poise, all problems solved calmly. It seemed we had come of age! And it almost seemed to good to be true.

We had to close two primary centres: Sanjay Colony and Govindpuri. The former because of a sudden proliferation of new NGOs that made us almost redundant and the later because of non availability of space. In their place we opened a new primary centre across our main centre in a rented space. The new centre is now running to full capacity.

2010 also saw the coming of age of our Okhla centre. From a ramshackle space with a handful of kids, it is now a thriving semi permanent structure that has 200 children and secondary as well as computer classes. It is a matter of pride for us to see children who had joined project why in early primary classes graduate to secondary school and do us proud. And to think that many of these kids could have gone astray gives me goose bumps.

Our senior secondary kids are slowly getting used to the new examination and test pattern under the guidance of their ace teacher. And our babies are happy learning new things each day. So as they aptly sing every morning: All is well…. at pwhy!

In April 2010, three little children packed up their bags and joined our gang of five at the boarding school. So now eight pwhy kids are busy changing their morrows and believe you me they are all top of their respective classes. Way to go!

At the women centre all is well too! The centre runs to perfection; the proof: I have heard no complaints! What more should one ask! Over 300 children and 60 women execute a well orchestrated ballet and partake in their set activities in spite of the shortage of space. Kudos to the team!

Our Focus on Quality programme took off with a bang in April 2010 in two centre: Okhla and the women centre. Daily spoken English classes and awareness programmes. The result is for all to see: the children now s-p-e-a-k English even if it is halting and we even performed on stage in English! Plastic bags have almost disappeared. Both centres even have small patches of greenery and the women centre a small kitchen garden. At the women centre composting is on in a big way and all water is recycled and Saturday is hand washing day!

An eventful year isn’t it? But there is more. Ruby a young girl who had joined pwhy in class IV is now a secondary teacher at our Okhla centre and a small survey of the whereabouts of our alumni revealed that many of them were now gainfully employed in good jobs and earning handsome salaries. Many had thus broken the cycle of poverty in which they were born. Were we justified in giving ourselves a pat on our backs. Maybe not as there was so much more to do.

In 2010 we got 100 children admitted to mainstream school in consonance with our initial mission: arrest drop out rates! This is always something that fills us with great joy and pride. So all in all on the academic front we did not fare too badly.

The special kids were also spot on! As always they filled the space with their laughter and abundant energy reminding us that life is worth living no matter what the challenge be. Manu, Champa and Anjali were impeccable roomies who are slowly mastering the art of living together and complementing each other and this winter they were joined by Radha whose brittle bones could not have withstood the cold and dampness of a slum tenement. This brought to light once again the need of seeding planet why that would give such children a safe and enabling home.

Yes Planet Why is still the big dream we seek, the one that will ensure that pwhy survives the test of time. 2010 was a year where plans were refined, costings reworked, feasibility studies undertaken and new proposals drafted. We are now ready to launch our donation drive and have set 2011 to do just that. We hope that the God of Lesser beings will be on our side.

Yes, we have come of age. Now it is imperative to think of the future and consolidate what we have achieved. That is the challenge that awaits us in 2011!

of cakes, ladoos, sewaiyan and Godji

India First is the campaign launched by a leading TV channel in the wake of the judgement being pronounced later today on what is known as the oldest property dispute in Independent India. Political parries are urging all to remain calm and young India is exhorting us to look forward and at the real problems that plague our land. I guess all this because the memories of December 1992 are still fresh in many minds. No one is willing to take any chances: schools have been shut incertain states, demonstrations banned, leave of police personnel cancelled and the country is on tenterhooks.

So what is all this about.

There are many ways of looking at the Ram Janam Bhoomi/Babri Masjid issue. I will take the most candid one and borrow the title of an earlier blog I wrote: it is all about ladoos, cake and sewaiyans! In December 2009, when a volunteer decided to celebrate Xmas in our newly opened women centre where the children were predominantly Muslims and Hindus, I had to explain what Xmas was, I did so by telling them that it was a festival where you ate cake and not ladoos or sewaiyans and somehow the children understood. I could have also sung them the Usha Uthup song where she talks of all festivals as being days when you wear new clothes, visit friends and relatives and eat nice food be it Xmas, Eid or Diwali. That is how simple it actually is. You can either see temple or mosques, or if you do with your heart see a house of God.

But sadly religion has been used by power hungry people to justify the worst aberrations possible like the one that happened in December 1992 when a house of one God was brought down in the name of another. On that December day I was ashamed of my religion as I am each time an aberration is committed in the name of religion. I wrote an earlier blog on this and am reproducing some of it below.

I am a Hindu by birth and by choice. I was born to profoundly Hindu parents but grew up in lands of diverse faiths. My parents never imposed their views or beliefs. At home Hindu festivals were celebrated with fervour and some ritualism and the many questions I asked at different moments of my life were answered candidly and without fuss. It is much later in life that I discovered that my mother was not really bent on ritualism but it was her way of introducing me to my faith. I grew up with my set of questions and doubts and each one got cleared with simple honesty.

When I asked one day whether I could go to church and partake of communion as all my school friends did ( I was in a convent school) my parents simply answered that I could if no one had any objection. I guess I had expected a vehement refusal and was a little perplexed by their reaction. I did go to church often and even found a humane priest who allowed me to taste the holy wafer. Some years later while in an Islamic country I wanted to fast in the holy month of Ramadan and once again I got the warm approval of my parents. I celebrated the Sabbath with my Jewish pals too and with every such occurrence my belief got strengthened as I was proud of belonging to a religion that did not close any door in my face but on the other hand allowed me to embrace all faiths. I was proud to be a Hindu. The tales my parents told me only went to reinforce my faith. I was delighted by the pranks of Lord Krishna and by the touching tales of Ram when he ate the fruits proffered by Sabri or rode in Kevat’s boat. I never felt the need to question the sagacity and humanness of the religion I was born in. Till the fateful day in 2002.

Today as India’s stands waiting for a court decision that will decide which faith a particular piece of land belongs to and hoping against hope that no violence will ensue, my thoughts go back to that fateful day when my headache vanished thanks to the prayer of a little boy to a faceless and nameless God who listens to those who pray with their heart. He is the one I now pray to and hope that once again he will hear.

Life in the times of the Games…

Brace your self.. it will be a rough ride. Life in Delhi till the ides of October will not quite be the same and we need to prepare for it. An article in today’s paper entitled Life will not be the same from Oct 3 spells out some of the trials and tribulations we the common citizens will face: if you plan to enter the city from one of the neighbouring states then be prepared to wait at the entry points and then if by any chance you need to travel on the hallowed routes where CWG guests will tread then be prepared for huge traffic snarls. You see you are only allowed to ply on half the road. In many cases there are only 2 lanes so you see what I mean. And should you dare venture on the reserved lane be prepared to pay a 2 K Rs fine! If you ride a bus then beware there will be 5000 less available to the likes of us. You can imagine what that means. The 3rd and 14th will be public holidays: they are the opening and closing day of the Games but don’t think you can spend them shopping: most shops will be closed. Schools and colleges will be closed so better think of ways to entertain your kids at home. Vegetable vendors, hawkers, tea stalls, cobblers, press wallahs et al will not be allowed to trade: do remember this!

This is what the article says but now let us elaborate a little. A friend dropped by this morning. She told me that a few of days back the couple who worked for her asked her for 400 rs. This was the money needed to get a Commonwealth permit, whatever that means, that would allow them to stay on during the Games. Two days later their basti – cluster of shanks- was raised to the ground and they were asked to return to their village. The 400 s bribe was of course lost. They had no option as they had nowhere to stay. My friend of course is busy washing clothes and dishes, and mopping her home notwithstanding her arthritic knees! Anyway I guess this plight will befall on many!

But that is not where it ends. I had decided long back that we would remain open during the Games! I did not see why our kids should be deprived of their time at the centre. Anyway with schools closed they would be running on the streets. Moreover we were not, or so I thought, on any of the hallowed roads. But to my horror I realised that one of the main roads we use to fetch the kids was a hallowed one. It was the road on which the Lohar camp was located and was the access to the shooting range. Anyway we were prepared for the worst and were working out alternatives. A few days back some parents from the women centre came to us and told us that they were moving back to the village for a month as with all the new stipulations they would not get any work and hence would not be able to earn and so would not be able to pay their rents. They did not even know if they would come back! I was speechless. That meant that some of our children would be denied education just because of the Games! This was worse than I had thought. But what could we do. Most of our parents are daily wage workers, or have tea stalls, vegetable carts etc. With no money how would they survive? The best option was to give up their rented homes and move back to the village. And if they did come back, there was no guarantee they would find a room to rent in the same location. That would mean that their kids would not come back to pwhy!

There was more. I just learnt that the vegetable wholesale market located close to us would be closed for the 15 days of the Games. This is where we buy our vegetables for home and for our foster care and different centres. Now that meant we would have to stock up and though it is tiresome, it is still possible. But this is only a tiny side of the problem. Read on. The wholesale market or subzi mandi as it is called, is where all the local vegetable vendors go every morning to buy what they then sell either on a cart or on the smaller markets.The closing of the mandi simply means that they will be unable to do so. This translates into the simple fact that there will be no vegetables available to those who cannot afford to hoard. This also means that the small vendors will be unable to earn anything. Moreover the mandi gives work to hordes of daily wagers who will go hungry or have to leave town. What a clever way to ensure that the poor leave the city, remember they are those who spoil the image!

Many of the poor, or those I call small entrepreneurs, be they the vegetable vendors, the tea stall owners, the corner samosa man etc will not be able to trade as either they would have been forcibly moved or they would not be able to access their raw material. I wonder what they will do. I guess go back to their villages or simply tighten their belt till it hurts and wait patiently and with the resilience only the poor have.

Many of the rich are also leaving the city for greener pastures. Others like us will simply try and survive till the ides of October. So help us God!

The things you never want to lose

Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose wrote Kevin Arnold. I was reminded of these words yesterday when I finally mustered the courage to go and see what was left of the homes of my dear Lohar friends. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw: a desolate stretch of road strewed with the last vestiges of what once was a vibrant and happy place.

I walked along the remnants of over three decades of life of more than thirty families I had learnt to know, love and respect, careful not to tread on anything. You see I was privy to what the scattered plastic bags, the lone table and bed left in a hurry, the bits of cardboard that littered the ground, the broken pot, the bricks actually were. They were what remained of the trials and tribulations of a proud people who had valiantly refused to let go of their heritage. I could not hold the tears that poured unabashedly from my tired eyes. All that lay helter skelter on the ground was also past of 10 years of my own life.

There were things in this almost hallowed ground that I never wanted to lose. I sat on the lone discarded charpoy – rope strung bed – and let memories flood my mind. I remembered the day when I first visited the Lohar camp. I had come to meet the head of the clan in the hope that he would agree to our opening a small class for the children. I did not know what to expect. I was made to sit on a charpoy – was it the one I was sitting on today? – and a few minutes later a diminutive man came and sat next to me and asked me what I wanted. I looked into his eyes and was immediately touched by the gentleness and serenity that emanated from him. He was the tallest small man I had ever met! The rest is history: we began our classes the very next day. There was no real reason for my coming to the camp again but that was not to be. For the next months, years and more I found myself coming back with almost obsessive regularity.

Whenever I had a problem that plagued me or felt under the weather and in need of a shot of optimism, I found myself walking to the Lohar camp and spending time with Tau and his people. Very soon they knew I did not drink fizzy drinks but had my tea black, and before I could even catch my breath a warm syrupy glass of black tea was in my hand. We talked of everything and nothing and got to know and respect each other in no time. I always found answers to my concerns and they shared their angst. And that is how I came to know about their plight and how they had been let down by the authorities. Soon we were ready to file our PIL in Court. I remember the day when the matter came up for admission. I had been too chicken to go to Court and had decided to wait for the outcome at the Camp with Tau. As I paced up and down, Tau came up to me and told me to stop worrying. Had they not waited for 400 years, they would for a few more if need be. I was stunned. How could anyone have such resilience in the wake of so much abuse. I must admit I felt very small.

I remember the day when I had taken Tau to the Habitat Centre for a conference on nomadic tribes. As we walked towards the hall, there was another meet going on. Tau asked me what it was and I told him it was a talk on the existence of God. He looked at me with a bemused smile and said agar hum hain to woh hai, agar hum nahin to woh kahan – if we exist then so does He, and we do not then how can He -. I was speechless. What a beautiful and logical way of resolving the age old debate of God’s existence! Wished Tau could have been a speaker at the very upmarket talk. I could go on about the moments spent with Tau, he puffing on his hookah a benign smile on his wizened face, his eyes filled with tender concern, and me rattling on about my problems which in hindsight seem so inconsequential. He would sometimes say something but most of the times just being able to pour out all my angst was enough to make me come alive.

So many memories crowd my hurting mind as I walk this desolate road. And no just of Tau but of so many others. How can I forget little Ritu, a bonny three year old with a mop of curly hair, a burnt copper complexion and two huge eyes that twinkled all the time. She was our little guide when anyone came visiting. All I had to tell her was to show her house and she would take the person’s hand in her little chubby one and march off in the direction of her home which was the last tent on the far side of the camp. When she reached her tent she would enter it with aplomb and then with an almost regal gesture proclaim yeh hai – this is it – as if she was showing a palace. She would then ask you to sit on the bed and march off looking for her mom. Soon the tent would be full of neighbours and the inevitable bottle of coke would appear from nowhere. Such was the generosity of this proud people.

Then there was Geeta and Sarika our two creche teachers. They were so beautiful that it took your breath away and made you remember all the tales about the beauty of Gypsy women. What never ceased to amaze me was the fact that they and all the other young girls of the camp were always impeccably turned out, their hands and toe nails painted bright and never chipped. Now imagine achieving this when you live on the street with no running water and in the midst of coal dust and car fumes. Quite a feat! But that was not all, each of these waif like women were able to beat iron wielding a hammer so heavy that you would barely be able to lift it off the ground. They did that with such grace that it almost looked like the steps of an intricate ballet. I often looked at my shabby self and wished I too was born with such grace.

As I stepped across a broken chullah – earth stove – I could almost smell the aroma of the hand slapped rotis – bread – that I had so often shared with the ladies. I must admit I was so fond of them that I timed my visits accordingly. But it was not just the rotis that enticed me, but the women themselves as they were true free spirits and it was always a delight to spend time with them. We laughed and giggled as old friends would and I realised that we were so alike. I could go on about my Lohar friends but it hurts too much. Soon the last remains of their lives will be blown by the wind or simply swept away to make the stretch of road worthy of the passing glance of the Commonwealth Games participants’ cavalcade. I wonder how anyone would have been disturbed by the sight of women beating iron or selling their ware, children playing around or wizend men quitely smoking their hookas in the shade. But the powers that are, know better I guess. To me though the Lohars are a tiny bit of India we can truly be proud of and not desperate to hide away.

I miss my friends.

Question time

Aren’t you too old to take up a new challenge like Planet Why? What difference does your work really make in a country with 1.3 billion? Why should the world care, everyone has got a lot of problems of his own? Do you think you will change the world? These are some of the questions I have been asked to answer for forthcoming interview. As I sat pondering over how I would answer these, I found myself taking stock of what I could best sum up as my life!

If I were to answers these questions with one liners they would go like this: I am old but I do not think I am too old; have you heard of the ripple effect; because we have been given the gift to care; not the world but maybe one life. Anyway I will find the right answers when needed but for the moment I need as I said to review the decade gone by.

Rewind to 2000 and the scorching day in May when I first lay eyes on Manu. Something happened on that day. It was as if I had been shaken out of a long slumber and made to come alive. At that instant it was not the about 1.3 billion people but just one lost soul whose dignity had been usurped and needed to be restored. And hence began the journey many of you know as pwhy! Why should I have cared. I do not know, I only knew that I had no choice. And funnily all my own problems paled and almost vanished. It was not a matter of changing the world but of changing one life, that of Manu. The ball was rolling..

And over the years it has been a saga of trying to make a difference, caring and changing lives and above all knowing that there was no other option. Manu’s morrows needed to be secured and to do that pwhy saw the light of day. From a small spoken English class of 40 to a family of over 700 it was all a matter of making a difference and changing lives.

Fast forward to 2010. Let me tell you what we look like today. Manu now lives in his own home, sleeps in a bed and not on the street, shares his meals around a dining table with his two roomies, and though is health is not as good as we would want it to be, he is happy and safe. His classmates too are a happy lot and spend the day in our day care centre where they are respected and loved. After countless moves often prompted by factors beyond our control we have settled in a tiny lane in Govindpuri. There about 80 pre-schoolers, most from extremely deprived homes attend our early education programme. 50 primary children get after school support and even computer classes. Thrice a week a bunch of hearing impaired children come in for extra tuition and on the remaining days of the week women from the vicinity come for sewing classes.

A few kilometers away tucked in the middle of a reclaimed garbage dump in the middle of an industrial area is our Okhla centre. I cannot forget the day when it was set up by two incredible women fighting all odds walls broken in the name of love or battling the local goons. But nothing deterred us and we soldiered on. Today the Okhla centre has over 200 children from class I to IX, yes we now have a secondary section there and that is not all, the centre boasts of a tiny computer centre too! And there is more: from January this year the children have spoken English classes as part of our what I would call ‘brave’ Focus on Quality Programme. I must admit all this makes me incredibly proud!

Across the railway line, just a short kilometer away, is our women centre. There over 300 children from class I to X come and learn. They too have a spoken English teacher and a computer centre and a library! But there is more: over 60 women attend the sewing and beauty classes held each day and a new adult education class for illiterate women was inaugurated last month. It is heartwarming to know that many of the women who have obtained their certificates are now gainfully employed. Way to go, is’nt it?

But that is not all. I forgot to tell you about our main computer centre that is open to the community and that has helped many get better jobs and our senior secondary section that has never known failure as every student has passed his or her school leaving examinations. And how can one overlook the pictures of the 16 children whose open heart surgeries we sponsored that adorn the wall of our tiny office.

Pwhy also has its library a real dream come true, and even a cine club! Wow is all I can say. Funny that it is only when I decide to write about pwhy that I am able to fathom its reach and needless to say I am filled with a sense of pride and deep gratitude.

But the feel good factor lasts but a moment as I realise the fragility of pwhy. I become painfully aware of my age and of the fact that time is running out. But the sense of helplessness is soon replaced by the determination to ensure that pwhy becomes sustainable and is able to fly on its own wings. In other words this means the setting up of planet why. As many of you know we have the land and now even have a feasibility study done by professionals that concludes that the project is viable and sound.

The sum we seek is astronomical to say the least though many feel it is no big deal. My mission now is to raise it come what may. Ten years of passion cannot go to waste. So help me God!

Steve Bhaiya

Volunteers are an intrinsic part of pwhy. They come from all corners of the world, from the most unexpected places: Senegal, Azerbaijan, Turkey, UK, USA, France, Spain, Singapore, Canada, Sweden. They have one common denominator: their love for project why and their conviction about our work. They spend a few days, a few weeks or even a few months and when they go, they leave a little of themselves in each one of us. They are undoubtedly a very important part of our success.

For the past four years now we have had volunteers from Cambridge University and this year it was Steve, better known as Steve Bhaiya!

I remember the day he landed in our world. It was incredibly hot and his flight was meant to land at 11 am so we expected him around 1pm. The plan was to have him wash up, have a cool drink and then send him to the women centre where we had planned to have him volunteer for the next two months. Steve arrived at my door at around 2pm. He had been stuck in traffic jams and was looking miserably hot. I was immediately charmed by his gentle and warm voice and his heartwarming smile. I asked him whether he wanted to rest or would be agreeable to go straight to work! He agreed to the later and hence began Steve’s tryst with our women centre.

Let us fast forward to two months later. Departure time has come. For the past week Steve has been trying to tell his students that he had to go back to his country and to say the least the news was far from welcome. The no, please dont’ go, stay here, when are you coming back abounded all expressed in the English Steve had painstakingly taught our primary students during two whole months. And every one’s feelings were summed up in Kajal’s words when she said: were are so grateful because that you all the way over from England just to help us. She somehow echoed what I would like to say to him.

You may ask what Steve did during these months. His meticulous blog gives an account of his weeks with us and I must confess I enjoyed reading it as it gave me a insight into our work seen through someone else’s eyes. I of course had only second hand knowledge of his work. As luck would have it, Steve came at a time when our spoken English teacher had taken long leave of absence and we were in a quandary about how we would manage. The pupils in question were those of classes II to V and a lively lot at that. But Steve was not one to be deterred and took the task head on. 128 primary kids divided in 4 groups was quite a handful for anyone but Steve did a super job. Everyone was impressed. I use to get bribes of the going ons either by our coordinator or by Steve himself. I was told about the small pranks, the occasional mischief and antics but also about the incredible progress the children made under Steve’s guidance. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that even the parents felt that their children were learning English. This was a huge moment for me as how could I forget the very first words uttered to me well before it all began: teach our children English. It had taken a young college rugby player and stellar student to do that. Hats off to him.

But there was another side of Steve, one I have the privilege to be privy to quite inadvertently. It was a Saturday morning and Steve’s day off. We on the other hand were all set to take little Manisha to boarding school. We had all gathered in the kitchen of my home and were waiting for the car when Steve came down for a late breakfast. On hearing that we were off to the boarding school he decided to come along, breakfast forgotten. It was a memorable day in more ways than one. Steve truly liked the school and was even treated to a spot of colonial spin off as he was feted by the house master who fell backwards to please him. We all had a merry laugh though in hindsight Steve felt a little sheepish. That day I saw another side of Steve one that I can only sum up with a reference to my favourite book the Little Prince: Steve knew the fox’s secret and saw with his heart. In the weeks to come Steve was to visit the boarding school twice: once on PTM day, and on Independence Day where he was even seated on the VVIP sofa! Each time was special for him and us.

During his two months with us, I have had the occasion to share my thoughts, dreams, fears, angst and more with Steve. He always listened and strangely made me feel better as he managed to chase my blues and fill me with quiet optimism. I deeply value the moments we spent together.

Soon Steve will leave India leaving fond memories in our hearts. The children will stay in touch thanks to the web camera he gave them as a parting gift. I, on the other hand will find myself browsing photographs and remembering this very special volunteer.

Enemy no 1

A young man came by recently. His dream: to make a difference. His vision: to help eradicate hunger by feeding the poor. His reason: hunger hampers every aspect of growth and development. One could only but agree. In the recent report on the Commonwealth Games, published by Habitat International Coalition and aptly entitled whose wealth- whose commons, we find some startling data: 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. So hunger is a huge issue and needs to be addressed.

And yet when the passionate young man came to me, I found myself trying to almost dissuade him from his mission, or at least temper it. When we began, a decade ago, we too had a nutrition component in our programme. I remember the bananas and porridge we doled out every day. But after a some time we found that these were often being thrown away by the children who maybe got bored of these items. And how can I forget the irate mother who came screaming that the banana given to her child was rotten! Anyway, we soon stopped the programme seeing that it was getting nowhere.

In spite of the stark reality and need of addressing the hunger issue, feeding the poor is no easy task. We simply zeroed in on education knowing somehow intuitively that this was the way to go.

I have often written about the wastage of food I have seen in the slums of Delhi. It is almost as if throwing food was a way to prove that you had arrived! And yet as I said earlier hunger is a sad reality and needs to be addressed. No child should be allowed to die of hunger in any self respecting society. 5000 do. Yet, if all was well, this should not be happening. In 1975, India launched the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). It was heralded as India’s response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality on the other and was to reach all the children in India. Huge funds were disbursed and had the programme worked no child should have been hungry. But that was not to be. As all else in India, the funds were hijacked along the way with impunity to line pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Come to think of it India is replete with fabulous social schemes that could make all the difference but never do as they simply become ways of enriching wily individuals. I have always held that even if these schemes had been half successful, India would be a different land.

Even today a shocking story was aired on national television. Food meant for children is being eaten by dogs! The reason: lack of storage facility. 50 million people in the state need the food, but bad planning has meant that dogs will eat it! I wonder why sufficient silos and storage facilities cannot be built, it would be better use of public money than beautifying cities for games extravaganzas! But then existent silos are used for stocking, hold your breath, booze!

One can open soup kitchens galore but they will never bring about the change we seek. Change will only come when we break free of the vicious cycle of corruption in which we are all held. Media helps, activism helps but these are simply band-aid remedies. We need to stem the rot and that can only happen when the poor are give a voice. And education is the only answer. Today the beneficiaries of social programmes are unaware of their existence or see them not as a right but as an act of largesse handed out by a local politico. You see we are still a feudal society where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the devious politician and the scheming official.

Change will only come when every beneficiary will be empowered enough to ask for his due and seek accountability, and the key is education. But that is the one thing the powers that be do not want. No, don’t be surprised and read on.

Public education is in shambles and the princely pass percentage of 33%, prescribed by the State makes sure that no one from the lower end of the scale gets any proper education. Let me share an incident that occurred a few years back. At that time we use to teach in a reclaimed pig park under a huge tent.One fine morning a posse of officials came and told us to vacate the park. We soon found out that the authorities had decided to build a toilet block in what was once a children’s park. We decided to protest and went to see the local Municipal Councilor. He is semi literate. He brandished a paper shouting that it was not a toilet block that was coming up there but a community centre. Raju, one of our class XI students looked at the paper and pointed out that it said public conveniences and that this meant toilets. You see Raju could reach English and the Councilor could not. From that day on I was branded enemy no 1 (apt title for a Bollywood blockbuster). The reason: I was committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor and giving them a voice. In today’s India you did not do that. The poor had to remain where they were.

But only if we do empower the poor can we bring about the change we seek. That was the message I was trying to give my young friend!