Friday, November 21, 2014

Happy birthday to us

What do you normally do for your birthday? Have a party, treat yourself to a day at the spa or to a dinner in a costly restaurant. And if it is a special birthday like you 50th or 60th then you mate go overboard, particularly in India. But when you are a person who see with his or her heart then you do something quite different. This morning when I opened my mailbox a very special mail awaited me. It simply said:  Andy and I are on the brink of our 60th birthdays, Andy next week and me the week after. We thought about what would make us happy on these BIG birthdays, and the nicest thing we could think of was contributing to the smiles at Project Why, so via Jenny you'll be receiving an extra 120 GBP, a pound for each year of our lovely, happy lives.

You may wonder who Andy and Irene are? Two lovely beings who came to project why on the first day of 2008 and spent the day rebuilding the Okhla Centre floor with the help of the children and the staff. Though we met ever so briefly, I think we walked into each others heart as Irene and Andy have been a huge support particularly when things were hard and I needed a pat on my back. Irene never misses a blog and often leaves a note that warms my heart.

For the past years they have been staunch supporter of project why.They have run marathons and organised garage sales and never forgotten to share what they have with the children of project why.

Andy and Irene are the kind of souls that make the world a better place and help us carry on our work with a smile. God bless them!

Happy birthday!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Loos loos everywhere but not one that I can use

This is the state of one of the numerous toilet block built over the years in our capital city. I have very graphic pictures that I chose not to use as they are revolting to say the least. The reason I write this blog is subsequent to yet another speech of our Prime Minister where he urged NRIs ( non resident Indians) to build loos in their place of origin. He has also exhorted big business to make loos their CSR mantra. Whereas I am all for loos, I cannot but shudder at the thought of what they may all become if the programme does not have an in built sustainability component, in other words adequate funds to pay staff, buy cleaning material, maintain the building on a regular basis and that ad infinitum. Hence the loos should be able to 'raise' funds in some way of the other.

A few months back an NRI had shown interest in building toilets and asked my humble opinion. That is when my staff and I went on a loo visit in the slums were we work and this had been an eye opener. I had shared my views about the matter in this blog. What we found out was that most of the toilet blocks we visited were in a sorry state not because of the fault in design or even quality but because no one had given adequate thought to how they would be maintained. The poop story needs to be heard.

It is no wonder that the maintenance is so poor. We met the man in 'charge'. A tired looking thin man who seemed to carry the burden of the world on his frail shoulders. In seems that the blocks are built on a supposedly and ludicrous sustainable model as the in charge only gets to keep the money collected from usage 1 to 2 rupees. In that he has not only to feed hid family but keep the loos clean. He is given nothing: no broom, no pail, no disinfectant, no floor cleaner, no soap- nothing! Normally it is a jet of water, if water there is, that is meant to do the job. No only that, not all people pay. Some get so violent that the poor man has been beaten more than once. A woman goon even slaps him every night as he refused to pay her a 20 rs a day commission. On a good day he makes 150 rupees. Such a model is doomed to fail.

My fear is having loos doting the country that will find the same outcome. I do hope that someone will think about this before it is too late a nd millions and millions of rupees have gone to waste.

What we need is not only to build loos but raise awareness about the dangers of open defecation and above all have communities take ownership of the toilets that are built. Unless we do that, the loo sag may well become a tragedy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Where Angels do not fear to tread

Angels exist. Believe me! In times of despair, they have descended upon us without fail. They are not the winged creatures that fairy tales are made of. They look just like you or me. We had one descend on us yesterday to save the dreams and morrows of our little ones and ensure that they remain safe. Every morning, 35 children from the most deprived homes wait for our three wheeler to arrive and ferry them to project why. They remain there till 4 pm when they are ferried back to their homes. For a few hours they regain their right to be children. They laugh, sing, learn, play. They do what children are meant to do. Sometimes they even to to a park or for an outing as they did some time back when another Angel dropped by and took the out for a treat.

In the time they spend with us in our creche, sometimes 2 to 3 years, they prepare for school and learn their alphabet, their numbers, their rhymes and songs. They learn to hold a pencil, to sit a a desk and to share with others. It is always a delight to stop by and spend some time with them. It lifts you out of the darkest mood without fail.

A few months back we are informed that a large chunk of our monthly donation would be cut, force majeure of course, and we were at our wits end to figure out how we would carry on. As always, it is the weakest who faces the axe, and it was decided that, if the need arose, then we would have to close the creche. Post that decision, I found myself avoiding the creche as I could not face the little eyes that always look at me with the deepest trust.

So I did what I do best and what has always worked. I took to my pen (or rather my keyboard) and poured my heart out. I also turned to the God of Lesser beings, begging for a miracle. The days passed. Then one fine day Angel no 1 appeared and told me that things would work out. She set to task and ferreted Angel no 2 who came with his invisible magic wand and showered invisible dust. My babies were safe.

I think I need to tell you what the plight of children like these is. They come from extremely poor families, often of migrant labour where the father earns a daily wage and the mother struggles to survive. Sometimes she would turn to brewing hooch to bring a little relief tot her loved ones. The father is often a drunk and thus the situation is precarious not to mention the violence that accompanies the bottle. The house, if one can call it that, is actually a damp hole often surrounded by factories that spew smoke and vile discharges that flow in the drain next to the house. The home is so small that children are pushed out and condemned to play in the filthy and insalubrious surroundings, or the busy road where car and track  fumes abound. Far too often the drains are blocked and what goes for a playground is covered in drain water. Yet children play there all the time. Is this what India's capital city has on offer for its tiniest inhabitants?

I sometimes or rather too often wish that I had sufficient resources to reach out to every child in need, but alas even protecting my 35 is sometimes a challenge.

Today is children's day. Maybe we should remember the children who have been let down by all of us.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Super Girls

Once again my super girls have done me proud. I just got a call informing me that Babli, Meher and Manisha, the three project why girls who study in boarding school had got prizes for their academic performance. They were felicitated at their Annual day which is still underway and where all three are performing. My thoughts go back to the day when I decided to send them to boarding school in spite of all the criticism, mostly from the rich and privileged who could not accept the fact that children from the most deprived homes should be given such an opportunity. But I stood my ground and sent them anyway. Some of you may know their stories but for those who do not I think they should be revealed again.

Babli came to us way many years ago. The child could barely breathe as she had a hole in her hearts and her family was too poor to come up with the money needed for her surgery. In spite of her poor medical condition, Babli was a spirited child with big dreams: she wanted to be a policewoman. We raised the money for her surgery and she was back on her feet. She came back to project why for some time and then stopped coming. To our horror we discovered that she was managing her father's cart while he played cards. It was time to take out the big guns and we did. When the opportunity arose and with the help of some kind hearted supporters we were able to send her to boarding school. She has never looked back and is now in class VII. I know her future is bright and she will fulfil her dreams.

When we first saw Meher, she was rummaging for food in a garbage dump. She had been severely burnt she she was a few months old and was  badly scarred. But more than that her fingers had fused and she had lost the use of her hands. Thanks to the determination of a volunteer who moved heaven and earth, funds were raised for a series of reconstructive surgery that gave her back the use of her hands and took care of the worst scars. But what she needed to break the cycle of poverty in which she was born was an education and she was admitted to the same boarding school. A true imp, she excels in all activities and is set to conquer many heights.

Manisha comes from an extremely poor family. Her mother is a rag picker and her father barely works. A bright child she was doomed to a life of poverty and would have most probably been condemned to child labour. Today she is studying hard to be able to change her destiny.

To all my detractors I would like to say that every child deserves a bright future and the fact that they are denied this, is because we have forsaken them.

I have never regretted sending these girls to the best school and they never stop doing me proud.

Well done little ones. I love you.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Clean India

I rarely visit swanky buildings that house corporate offices but yesterday I needed to meet someone whose office is located in one such building. The building bears the lofty name of International Trade Tower and is located near my home. I had gone with Rani and as we alighted from the scooter, our eyes fell on a pile of rubbish. Now rubbish, dirt, filth and all the synonyms possible are the flavour of the day post our new PM's Clean India Mission. We at project why have been thinking about how to approach the issue and many debates have ensued. My take is that what is important is not to rush with a broom and 'sweep' the surroundings but look at the problem differently. It is quite useless to clean areas if one does not go to the root cause: where does the filth originate from. I have asked my staff to take this up with the students beginning with a simple exercise. Each child should be asked to make a list of the rubbish he/she sees on the way home and identify its origin. It is obvious that 99% of the garbage comes from us in the form of wrappers of all kinds and things that we simply throw without a thought. To Clean India one has to find ways of education and sensitising people into not throwing, spitting etc. How does one do that is a million dollar question. I think, like was suggested by a participant in a recent debate that one should get schools involved and work ones way up.

But let us come back to the building. After our meeting Rani and I decided to walk down the six flight of stairs as I do not like elevators and as we walked down we find these two cups of unfinished tea on two steps with of course no one in sight. Proves my point does it not? We have got used to chucking our garbage just anywhere. No one is in the habit of looking for dustbins or garbage cans.

Where does it all stem from? It is anyone guess. Is it because of the ingrained division of labour that  makes us believe that someone else will come and clean after us and makes cleaning below ones station in life unless you are born in the cleaning clan? Is it because many of us, particularly boys that have grown into men have never done an iota of house work always having mom or sis to clean up after them? Funnily the person who litters with alacrity and impunity in India will never do so in another country. Is it because laws are stringent in those lands. Maybe we should have a law like in Singapore where you are fined 1000$ the first time, 5000 the next and the third time have to wear a lovely sign, which states, “I am a litter lout”. Will the name and shame work in India? I do not know but I know that laws do not work. We have had a law banning plastic bags for years now with no avail. Seems like laws are on paper or better than that: you can always pay your way out. Even laws for your own safety like wearing a helmet are violated. Maybe we just do not like laws.

I could not end this post without talking of yesterday's gem. As Clean India is the flavour of the day everyone is cleaning but some do it with for photo ops and tone politically correct. A bunch of politicians decided to pick the broom and clean a road. However the road in question was perhaps one of the cleanest in Delhi and thus dirt had to be bought and dumped on the clean road for our well dressed politicians to pick a broom and sweep. I have nothing else to say!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Incredible Nirvi - the new kid on the block -

Meet Nirvi. She is all of eight months old and is the new admission to our creche. Everyone, her mom and gran most of all, thought she would cry and make a fuss but our little Nirvi took her new class better than a fish takes to water. Far from crying the little imp had an array of tricks up her sleeve to charm one and all. Like a true pro she handed back the toy given to her by one of her classmates to show that she knew all about the game of give and take. She played with all the toys given to her by the over solicitous teacher who like all else believed that this eight month old would need special handling. In no time Miss Nirvi had established that she new the rules of the creche and needed no special care.

But that is not all. Our little fiend to took the show one step further. She decided to 'charm' the volunteers and particularly one young man out of his wits. She fluttered her eye lashes and doled out sweet smiles and in no time had walked into the unsuspecting man's heart. Wonder who will shed tears when parting times come.

The one thing she does not do is cry. Crying is for babies. It is certainly not fore eight months old like our Nirvi. She spends the whole morning in the class playing with her mates and entertaining the likes of me. Two days back after a long I spent some time at the creche with, your guessed right, Nirvi! We played a host of games and laughed a lot but more than anything, the moments spent with her showed me how important our creche was in the lives of little souls, more so those who are deprived of everything a child needs and should get.

Thank you Nirvi. I needed this lesson.

Friday, October 31, 2014

I will watch from the wings

Many have been wondering why I do am not writing as regularly as I did before and I think that I owe all an answer. First and foremost let me let the proverbial cat out of the bag. For the past months I have been writing my next book which is the project why story and gave decided of late to hurry it up a little and hence have been neglecting the blog. Mea Culpa. In my defence I can only say that though the heart is still young the body has aged and thugs cannot perform as efficiently as earlier. I really think that the project why story is one that needs to be told as it is in many ways the story of India viewed through a unique prism and seen with ones heart. Much of the story lies in the recesses of my memory and need to be ferreted out before synapses snap.

But that is  not the sole reason for my silence. As it is revealing time, I guess I need to share a rather covert tactic I have devised to ensure that my incredible team and support team take on the reporting role I have held till date. This tactic is borrowed from Randy Pausch head fake tactic, which is a way of getting people to move in another direction surreptitiously. I would urge you to read Pausch's Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon, delivered shortly before he passed away. It is most touching and ends with these words: So today’s talk was about my childhood dreams, enabling the dreams of others, and some lessonslearned. But did you figure out the head fake?It’s not about how to achieve yourdreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take careof itself. The dreams will come to you.Have you figured out the second head fake? The talk’s not for you, it’s for my kids. So maybe my silence is the head fake that will bring my team to begin writing about project why. I can feel that we are at take off point and wait with bated breath for the first salvo.

Even though I have been absent from project why and that too for a well thought of reason where my gamble has paid handsomely, I share each and every heart beat of the project and am privy to all its trials and tribulations. You see seeing with your heart is nothing short of magical.

I miss early days when I spent time at the project but I know that every parent has to accept that the child will fly the coop and cop me on which teenager likes to be watched by his/her parents and project why is 14! I will simply watch from the wings to make sure that I am there when needed.