Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A letter to Mom

Mama and I Algeria 1966

Tonight of all nights the heady smell of the jasmine papa planted for you is redolent of memories of you, and it should be so as tomorrow is your birthday. You would have been 97, but you left 24 years ago, at the age of 72, barely 10 years older than I am today. We were only blessed with 38 years of togetherness, but how magical and fulfilling they were, only you and I know. I cannot begin to fathom who was the  winner in this incredible relationship: you who had accepted the life of an old maid rather than give birth to a slave child or I who was given the gift of a freedom you fought for in a silent but poignant way. All I can say is that my life is replete with memories of you, each laced with your special brand of love.

As every year I ferreted through boxes of pictures to find the 'right' picture and this year I chose one of the two of us in Algeria when I must have been 14 or so. The reason is that today I heard that a young girl who celebrates her birthday tomorrow and is very dear to my heart was slapped by her mother for a trivial reason, a typical example of mothers who take out their frustrations on their children. Sadly it happens far too often in slums in India where women are given a raw deal even after seven decades of freedom. This young girl celebrates her 14th birthday tomorrow. I held her in my arms when she was 2 days old.

I remember you telling me about the beatings you got from your young mother whose brand of parenthood was  to beat the eldest child, you, and you would then take care of your siblings. I am not one to judge my Nani as I know how much you loved her and how you never seemed to hold any grudge against her. The only thing that you told me was that you had sworn never to raise your hand against your child and you never did. I do not even remember you scolding me, that was left to Papa! My earliest memory of you is that of a friend I could share any and everything with, and we did, didn't we. You set the bar of motherhood incredibly high. I was never able to meet it, however hard I tried. 

In all my years with you, I always felt that you placed my on a pedestal just like in the picture. For you motherhood was to place your child on your shoulders so that she could see further than you and aim at the stars. If you could, you would have plucked the moon and laid it on my lap.

But that is not all. Mama, you wove a fascinating web of lessons each wise and humane that I am still unravelling today. Your legacy is daunting and even though I try hard, I do not feel I have been able to come up to your expectations. I hope that you will guide me and steer me in the right direction so that I can fulfil your dreams.

I miss you Mama


Saturday, October 11, 2014

A victory for children

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yusufzai have won the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is a victory for all the children who are denied their very basic rights, children who have no voice, children who are used and abused, children whose rights are hijacked with impunity. It is truly celebration time for all those, who like us at Project Why believe that every child has the right to a childhood, a right to go to school, to play and laugh and a right to dream. We have strived for the past 3 decades to ensure that the children who walk into the doors of Project Why dare to dream.

The two laureates are crusaders who are fighting to end child labour and trafficking in any form and ensure that every girl goes to school. The reason we need to celebrate is that with the Nobel Prize, these issues have come out of the closet and are now centre stage. We cannot shy away from them even if we want to and that is cause to celebrate. The office of Bachpan Bachao Andolan is close to ours and I have been an admirer of what they stand for. Kailash Satyarthi is someone I hold in high esteem, and yes I am one of the few of have followed his crusade! I guess most of us Indians must have wondered who this Nobel Laureate was and Auntie Google must have been very busy indeed. It is a matter of shame that we Indians are not aware of those who fight for children and even our State who revels in handing out civilian honours to movie and sports stars, rarely does it for the quiet and committed workers who shun publicity. And tough Malala is known to one and all courtesy the media, Kailash Satyarthi remained unknown till the Nobel prize lights were directed to him.

We are nothing in comparison to BBA whose work is stellar, but we too work with children who may have been forced into child labour were we not there. Many of you know how tough it is for us at project why to keep our head above water, come to think of it seven as I write these words, I am facing the daunting challenge of having to make up for the loss in funding we are facing since last month: 100 000 whopping rupees. In times like these, I feel let down by my own people who have never felt the need of reaching out to us and helping our lovely kids. This is when Satyarthi's words "If not now, then when? If not you, then who?" come to mind and one feels the need to scream them out loud and clear.

I have always held that children cannot wait for the right time, the right place, the right decision and its implementation, the right law and its promulgation and so on. By the time the rights whatever happens, millions of kids would have missed the boat. We need to help them NOW and if it is not we who do it, then WHO? I hope you get what I am trying to convey.

But then this elusive US has never really learnt to look with its heart, more so at children who remain invisible. Come on! How many times have you felt the urge to help a beggar child or at least asked yourself why this child is begging? How many times have you chided your friend, acquaintance, neighbour who employs a child as a house servant? How many times have you asked yourself why as child is working when he or she should be in school? I leave you to answer. Did you know that three quarters of domestic workers in India are believed to be between the ages of 12 and 16 and 90% of them are girls. The Indian government’s 2001 census says 12.6 million minors between the age of 5 and 14 are in the workforce.

Time and again a horror story about someone ill-treating a maid comes out and we make the appropriate noises but then we forget the whole matter, just as the press does. Do we need the press to  realise that all is not well with the children of India.

We need to do some serious soul searching. I do hope the Nobel glare shakes our collective conscience from its inertia.

"If not now, then when? If not you, then who?" Kailash Satyarthi Nobel Peace Prize 2004

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Swach Bharat

The photo ops were many as India launched its Swach Bharat or Clean India mission. Everyone who was anyone wielded a broom on October 2nd 2014. Millions even took a pledge. The mission comes at a whopping price: lacs of crores rupees. Our tech savvy PW even initiated a challenge that roped in celebrities of all shades and hues: each one was to get 9 more people and so on. From sanitation for all to clean drinking water; from littering to garbage disposal the task is daunting. That it is needed is unquestionable. But many questions do come to mind.

First and foremost why did it take us as a nation almost 7 decades to realise we needed a clean India. And why have all the previous efforts failed. Unless we answer these questions, we will not be able to ensure its success. What first comes to mind is why we as individuals have failed to keep our surroundings clean. We do pride ourselves as a civilisation that promotes cleanliness above all else, but having baths everyday does not ensure a clean land.

To my mind, the main problem is our social structure that assigns the task of 'cleaning' and particularly toilets to one group of persons who it is believed are 'born' to do so. I get enraged when I see people unwilling to pick up a piece of garbage themselves. They would rather wait in the dirt for the right person to appear than clean the mess themselves. As long as this remains our attitude, things cannot change. After the launch of the said mission at India Gate, one would have hoped that those present - be it school children or VIPs - would not leave litter behind. But that was not the case, they place was left littered with water bottles and discarded copies of the pledge and as is always the case in India, the cleaners came by afterwards and did the job.

These people sadly do not always work in ideal conditions. The picture above shows how a clogged drain is unclogged in India. Maybe the need of the hour would be to provide protective gear to ALL those who have to handle garbage or dirt of any kind. My heart goes out to the rag pickers, often children whose hands and feet get cut because we have placed broken glass or open blades in our daily garbage. I wonder how many of the photo op subject would have agreed to plunge their bare body in the drain in the picture. I guess were that to be necessary than as was done in Slumdog Millionaire, the pit would have been filled with chocolate or peanut butter and the said VIP would have then agreed to descend in the 'dirt' and have his picture taken.

As long as casteism is the order of the day, things cannot change. We will always look over our shoulder for the right person to come and clean our mess. But things are not sacrosanct. I remember my mother meeting a cleaner of Indian Origin and of a higher caste in a Heathrow bathroom. She was quick to admit sheepishly that she would NEVER tell her family back home about the nature of our work. That is who and what we are and unless we change this attitude, we will never have a clean India.

In free India, everyone should have equal opportunities and no one need be branded by birth. Those who belong to what we call the lower' castes want out of this stranglehold and have aspirations and dreams for their children, and they should as they too are protected by our Constitution. Laws and punishment will not bring the change we seek. It is mindset that have to be changed. We have to change our habits and ways: spitting pan, throwing wrappers, chucking plates and cups anywhere and so on. But we also need to change our attitude and accept to clean anything, even a toilet.

I have had several occasions where I have been compelled to lead a toilet cleaning campaign often in conference centres and other institutions. Now my team comprised of well educated youngsters of hallowed caste and class. I could see resentment on their faces when they realised I was about to embark on a loo sprucing mission. That is not what they had signed for. But I must admit that each and every time it took only a few moments before everyone hitched their saris or rolled their sleeves and took to the task. All I needed to do was start scrubbing the filthiest loo. Even today I have no qualms undertaking any cleanliness campaign as I will not sit in a filthy place. At project why every staff cleans the classroom and toilet they work in.

Traditions and mores have to change with time and though we need to keep the good ones, we also need to have the courage to cast away those that have gone obsolete or are impediments to our development.

I will urge all to give some thought to what I have said and to lend your voice to the people who still clean our filth in inhuman conditions.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Don't think twice, it is NOT all right!

The last few days have been rather euphoric with all the hype given to the Prime Minister's visit to the USA and his pitch for INDIA. I guess we all got a bit taken in and felt that things would change on the round in no time. It was indeed heartwarming to hear the PM talking of sanitation, poverty removal and imparting of skills to the young. The elation was short lived though as a snippet of information given to me by one of my staff made for a rude awakening. The children of our Govindpuri centre simply shared a piece of information of their daily school life probably unaware of the effect it would have on me. Hold your breath! In this new India that is being feted with super zeal, class VIII children of a Government school located in upmarket South Delhi are being taught four subjects by guess who: their physical education teacher better known as the PT Master.

This may sound like a light hearted piece of information but to me it is nothing short of scary. If good education can change a life for the better, we all know what no or poor education can do. I will not dwell on that. The fact is that in overcrowded classes, where a period is 35 minutes and with a Gym Instructor teaching all true subjects, your chances of breaking barriers and ceilings is minute. Thus the prospect of a child studying in such circumstances being able to get a school leaving certificate with sufficient marks and thus aspire to the skills mentioned by our PM is close to nil. Unless something is done for such children NOW, they are certain to miss the boat altogether and condemned to the same plight as their parents. What is sad is, that it is not the fault of the parents who took the decision to come to the city for their children's future, but of the powers that be who have allowed state run schools to come to this. What is baffling is that there is no dearth of potential teachers in our country so why does a gym teacher have to teach the 3Rs is beyond comprehension, unless of course it is part of some wily agenda we are not privy to.

When I heard our brand new PM talk sanitation and other such matters,one felt a ray of hope, but though one does not want to join the rank of naysayers who find fault in everything, it is a sad reality that many change will come too late for many children of India, as children cannot wait for change to happen.

Hearing the PM and his plans for India, one may have thought that NGOs like ours would soon be redundant and would have to either close their doors or reinvent themselves, but that is not so. As long as classes are overcrowded and teachers few; as long as state run schools do not become centres of excellence, we are needed to provide the bridge they need to cross to better morrows.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Proud to be Indian

In life, I believe that what makes you a better person is to be honest enough to alter your opinion when needed and have the courage to share your changed views with others. It does not demean you in anyway; on the contrary it makes you a better person. A few years ago, I would have bet my bottom dollar that I would never see the day where I voted for the one who is our Prime Minister, and yet I did. At that time it may have been thought that, for anyone whose heart beat for India and who carried  a legacy in the shape of her father's last words: Do not loose faith in India, could not have voted for the party she had always supported. So the vote could have been a TINA (There Is No Alternative) one! Maybe it was, but the disenchantment with the Party I had supported for so long, had let India down in too many ways. The India my mother fought for was not safe in their hands.

Perhaps, had I not decided to walk the road less travelled in the summer of 1998 and remained shut within the four walls of my home as I had for six long years, I would remained 'faithful' to the Party that bore the name of the one that had brought us freedom. But that was not to be. With every minute I spent in the dusty lanes of Delhi's slums, I realised how the people of India had been let down. And one did not have to be a rocket scientist to realise who had let them down. Be it water, sanitation, electricity, schools, hospitals, roads, you name it, nothing had percolated to the millions who remained faceless and voiceless. What was visible was the exponential increase in the amounts diverted in scam a after scam. What was unbearable was that  things seem to be worse for the poor. The figure that made my blood run cold was the one of the children dying from malnutrition: 5000. Any self respecting State would have done something but everyone seemed jaded. I could not extend my support to  such people anymore.

Recent scams, rapes of women and children, lawlessness and the abysmal condition of the poor made you want to hang your head in shame. The fact that sixty years were not enough to provide drinking water, three meals a day and a roof on every ones head was a cause of immense pain. And the question that haunted me mercilessly was how had we come to that.

The past decade was probably the darkest. India needed to regain its pride and place in the world. Somehow our new PM seemed to be the right person and any respecting Indian had to give him a chance. I did as many others.

I am not a cynic and understand that no one can conjure miracles. His detractors can split hair and find fault in any and every thing. Those with a modicum of wisdom know that he needs time. But one began hearing the right things: sanitation, housing, jobs. I guess this sounds strange for a country who has been independent for many decades, but is the reality, a reality we need to address and not shy away from. It was music to my ears to hear our PM talk about these issues at the UNGA and also when he addressed young people at central park.

But the biggest gift Prime Minister Modi has given to the voiceless children of India, is to dare to dream, and deem big. Till now everyone believed that the hallowed portals of high positions were only for those who spoke the coloniser language to perfection and had studies in ivy or similar institutions. Mr Modi has changed all that. Today any child can aspire to become PM.

For me his speech at central park, delivered in good but accented English, freed millions of Indian kids from the stranglehold of the Queens language and opened new avenues for them. What a gift. I hope it will motivate our project why children to aspire to greater heights.

Our new PM had rekindled a sense of nationalism in each one of us as was amply proved by the ovation and chants he received in New York.

If he delivers his promise of sanitation, drinking water, housing and I hope education to every one in the country he would have done more than all his lofty predecessors.

Once again, I am proud to be Indian.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The hunger games .. version n

Every time I read,  hear or see any article, talk or visual about hunger I blood runs cold. I feel the burning need to pick up my virtual pen and bang out a few words in the hope - mistaken perhaps - that someone somewhere will read them and decide to do something. This little film says it all. It shows us the despair of hunger that makes you look in bins and pick up discarded food and shows you at the same time how easily the like us of throw perfectly edible food.

Charity begins at home and thus a first step we need to take is to take an honest look at ourselves and see  how guilty we are. The message in the film goes to kids from privileged homes urging them to give rather than throw the home made food they are given. They are welcome to their fast meal, but should make sure that the home made one goes to someone who is hungry.

There are so many instances when we waste food. Look at the amount of good food thrown away during what I call religious feeding frenzies or bhandaras as they are called in India. And it is open season as we ready ourselves to greet the Goddess.

For the coming eight or none days, people will organise feeding extravaganzas at every street corner. Tables will be laid and food distributed to one and all. All you need to does look at the floor around these venues and you will see how much food is wasted. Why don't people respect food, particularly the one offered as in the name of Gods. I gall every time I see this. Not to mention the plastic tumblers and plates that go with it.

Milk is poured to cool Lord Shiva. That milk finds its way into drains. Would Lord Shiva not be more pleased if the milk was given to a child as ins't every child an image of God. I wonder why the innumerable so called god men that one sees on TV and elsewhere, and who have huge followings do not preach what they should: that food should not be wasted!

And why is it that we only remember to feed the poor at specific times. Is it just a way to ease ones conscience and wash away ones sins. Why not run a soup kitchen all the year round?

And wedding season is around the corner with more instances of food wastage. I have stopped going to weddings as I cannot bear to see the waste. What is sad is that young educated people are the ones who wish for such extravagance. If they simply agreed to commit a small percentage of the wedding bill to make a difference many lives could be changed.

I cannot bring myself to obliterate the one statistic that disturbs me most: 5000 children between the age of 0 to 5 die EVERY DAY of malnutrition related causes. This is no hidden fact. And yet we do not bat an eye lid when we throw good food.

It is time things changed. It is time we changed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Bittersweet musings

For the past few days my daughter has been badgering me to look at her post on her FB page. Normally I am quick to do but this time, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it took me a long time to do so. Perhaps someone somewhere knew what awaited me and wanted to soften the blow. There was no escape as yesterday I finally did view the film above. The very first images filled me with an onslaught of emotions that I cannot begin to describe: disbelief tinged with sadness as well as sense of vindication; some anger at myself as well as at the Fates; a strange sense of feeling robbed of what was most precious. All these crowded my mind and entailed a slew of physical and emotional reactions. I could at best recount the experience as bittersweet.

As I sat quietly absorbing what I was seeing, a though occurred to me: was this the final sign that Planet Why was never to be as it had taken a life of its own and flown the coop and was settling to roost in some other place. You see what was unfurling in front of my eyes was Planet Why. I felt like the who mother having lost her child finds it years later thriving and happy and as any mother worthy of her name, I knew that I had lost my rights to the child I had once conceived. And as any mother worthy of her name I knew I had to let the child go forever. It was not meant to be mine. What was even more difficult to accept was that the very people to whom it belonged could have been those who would have held our hand had Planet Why been a reality. The green guest-house that was to be run by special people to sustain project why will never see the light of day. The idea that had germinated in my mind way back in 2006 when I had thought of such a place had been appropriated by another as I had been incapable to give it form.

Someone recently told me that one has to surrender to God's plan has ours can never be better than His. I guess I will have to hold on to this thought to overcome my pain. I am no Saint and cannot help  wondering where I went wrong. All that stood between a doable idea and reality was 5 cr! I mean 5 crores or 50 million rupees the sum needed to build Planet Why. I was never able to raise it. I guess I am a bad saleswoman or worse than that, a bad mother to my children. Not a happy thought.

I guess I can give myself a tiny pat on the back for having come up with a sound business idea and derive a sense of vindication in the face of all those who did not believe in me. I am also happy to see that special souls are been given their rightful place in the sun. I wish them success and hope to see more such enterprises.

This is what Planet Why would have looked like. Today the land on which it was to be lies barren, just like my heart.