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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Teacher's day

The controversy or should I say controversies over Teacher's Day 2014 has filled me with sadness and even a sense of hopelessness and that for more reasons than one. September 5th is Dr Radhakrishnan's birth anniversary and he is the one who wanted it celebrated as Teacher's Day. He himself was a teacher in the true sense of the word. I had the honour and privilege of having been blessed by him at my birth. Dr Radhakrishnan was on an official visit to Prague in April 1952 and he heard of the birth of an Indian child he insisted he had to meet mer even if it threw the protocol haywire. He even named me Anuradha. I think my mother had other names like Mandakini in mind but both my parents accepted his suggestion with joy. I met him subsequently a few times and he never failed to impress me by his gentle and erudite ways. Today, I am sure he must be feeling some hurt at all this drama around a day that should be celebrated with dignity and decorum.

But though September 5th still has to dawn, the controversies are in full swing: be it the renaming or attempt to as Guru Utsav or the row about whether the Prime Minister's address to the children is compulsory or voluntary. And in the case of the later, would the 'voluntary' entail any detrimental action. The problem is that the timing of said speech does not coincide with regular school timings, something that has far more consequences than what one can imagine. And then of course will the market meet the demand on said day: I mean TV sets, set top boxes, etc. And what about the funds required: who will foot the bill. It is really sad that a day made to remember a great and humane personality and celebrate teachers has come to this. Whether you call it Teacher or Guru, Day or Utsav, what difference  does it make. What is important is to express gratitude to those who have taught you.

In India today, a country whose constitution has adopted a Right to Education for every child born within its boundaries, I feel that Teacher's Day has to also 'remember' all the children who do not have teachers, not because of any personal choice, but because we as a society, a State, a Government have not been able to ensure sufficient schools for each and every child and not been able to contain aberrations such as child labour, begging etc. I believe this day to be the one where we commit ourselves to ensuring that these lacunas and make it possible for every child to be visible and have the right to have a teacher.

However let us get back to the famous speech. As a child I would be very excited to have the Prime Minister address me! Wow! In times where children have no role models, no people to emulate, no hero barring Bollywood ones, a connect between the head of the Government and a school kid is far more important that one can imagine and again I would like to reiterate how sad I feel about the controversies and the attempt by politicians to hijack a sacrosanct day. How I wish it could have been better organised.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why I am a Hindu

I was born a Hindu by virtue I guess of both my parents being Hindus. But I chose to be a Hindu through a personal journey orchestrated by my mother with inputs from my father too. I was unwavering in my faith for a long time, but the emergence of a new form of 'hinduism' in the past years has sometimes made me question my own religion and has needed me to dig deep in my past to renew my faith.

Being Hindu is again in the news with sparring going on on the use of Hindi and Hindu.' leaving me a tad flummoxed. First of all I think someone should come forward, by someone I mean an eminent religious or spiritual personality and put an end to this Hindu business. Hindus are those who love in Hindustan, a name that find its roots in the river Indus. The religion we follow when we call ourselves 'hindus' should be, in my humble opinion, called Vedism from the Vedas the precepts of which are the tenets of our religion. Maybe that would solve issues. The question is whether anyone really wants it solved as it is good fodder for wily politicians who need to keep issues alive.

Today I simply want to share why I embraced Hinduism with pride. I grew up in different parts of the planet and always in countries with a different faith: Muslim, Christian, Buddhist but never Hindu. Hence all my friends belonged to diverse religions. On the other hand, my mother who was not into ritualism, mutated into this uber ritual persona and celebrated every festival following all the rites to the T. Come Diwali, Holi, Janmashtami, Shivratri and all else our home was transformed and I was guided through every step of the ritual of the day. Yummy sweets and food was cooked and in her inimitable style which would have made Socrates proud, Mama never said anything but waited for the questions to come from me and answered them to the best of her ability, keeping in mind the age I was and always adding some stories and tales. The one thing I remember of all these celebrations was that everyone in the home participated, irrespective of their creed. At the end of each puja I was asked to touch the feet of everyone elder to me and seek blessings. That included the staff! So festivals were a happy time and the stories of each fascinating to a little girl.

But that is not what endeared me to my religion. What really made me want to be Hindu was how I perceived its relation to other faiths and for that I have to thank my wonderful parents. Whenever I asked them if I could: go to church with my Christian friends; fast on the first day of the Ramadan with my Muslim friends or partake of a sabbath meal with my Jewish friends, go to the Pagoda with my Buddhist friends the answer was always the same: yes as long as my presence was accepted by my friends and their families. Needless to say it was always a yes. Those were days before extremism had raised its ugly head. Hence to me, a religion that accepted all other religions and houses of God was the best I could get.

And that was not all, you could chose a God to pray to and you had so many to chose from. As a child I 'chose' Ganesh! And if I needed more proof, I remember how upset I was when my father cut my holiday in Mauritius because his spiritual leader who was in London wanted to give me a mantra. As a rebellious teenager I entered the sancto sanctorum of the Ramakrishna Mission in London with a frown on my face. Swami Gananandha sat me down and told me he knew that I did not want to be there and that I had come against my will. I looked sheepish but nodded my head, I guess I knew you did not lie in the house of God. But being who I am I told him that I would not chant the mantra. he smiled and told me that it was OK, I could forget about it, but he would still give it to me in case I ever needed it. I did forget about it for a long time, but at a time of extreme need it flashed through my mind and brought me the solace I needed. I chant it every day.

We have a small prayer corner in the house. There always has been a prayer corner in any house I have lived in, even if it was just a shelf in the cupboard. Anyone and everyone is welcome to pray there. The little alter has many idols but if you look carefully it also has a cross, a Virgin Mary and the name of Allah, all gifted to me by dear souls. Every Diwali we are joined by the pwhy volunteers that happen to be here and they too pray with us. In the picture you can see Alan, our beloved magician, who is from the UK and lives in New Zealand. I do not know who will be with us this year but the more the merrier!

That is what Hinduism is to me. A religion that encompasses all others and accepts them with love. And that is the faith I will always follow.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The ice bucket challenge

You would have to be a total hermit to not have heard about the ice bucket challenge, an initiative of of the ALS, an organisation promoting awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The challenge is to pour a bucket of ice over yourself or pay 100$ and then go on to nominate 5 people to do the same. The challenge went viral and the association has raised millions of dollars. Good for them. I wish I could come up with a challenge that would raise the money I need to secure project why's morrows. Am still waiting for that epiphany.

The reason for this blog is not to criticise; neither it is a case of 'grapes are sour'. It is just a gentle reminder, particularly to those of us who live in country's like India, of the value or water and thus the famed ice bucket that is water in another from. Water is a precious resource that we take for granted until its scarcity hits us. Remember how irate you feel when the tap runs dry as someone forgot to switch on the pump or because of an electricity outage. At most, when there is a water crisis, we have the means to 'buy' water from a tanker and use it with alacrity and impunity till the need of another tanker. But that is just one tiny side of the story.

The picture you see is a picture taken by one of our Okhla kids. It is a picture taken in his 'home'. This is all the water a family of 5 has for a day and that too if someone got up in time, at some unearthly hour, to go to the municipal tap/tanker, fight her/his way and fill as much as possible. This will be used to bathe, clean, cook and drink! And this is the daily routine of most families living in slums. You can see in the picture that one cannot vouch for the quality of the water.

Women have to walk miles and miles in certain states to get access to water and that too is limited to the amount they can carry. Imagine how much energy is spent each and every day. Our project why girls start getting fidgety around 3.45 pm as water comes at 4pm and they have to fill it before the tap runs dry and hour later. Sometimes the queue is too long and they are unable to get their water, that means a sure trashing when they get home.

We have got so used to opening a tap and getting water that we cannot imagine life without it and often do not think at it as the most valuable resource in the world and our critical lifeline. Just imagine if water was taken away from your life for a day, week, month? And yet we waste it every moment of the day. Do you realise that to live you need water first and foremost and then food, the two things we waste with abandon. You would agree that marbled homes, and costly jewellery and outrageously priced cars cannot replace the simple H2O.

But that is not all. Not having access to clean drinking water is the cause of the death of 5000 children a day. It is also the cause of malnourished children, malnourished adults who then tend to catch infections as their immunity is extremely low. Most diseases are water borne, and some can even be fatal.

Lack of water has under consequences. Most of the community toilets and toilets in schools have to be locked up because of lack of water to keep them operational and clean. With no toilet facility in schools, girls often drop out, more so after reaching puberty. Adults have no option than defecate in the open and the risk of illnesses grows by quantum leaps as human faeces carries many diseases. Adequate toilets with proper disposal could end this aberration. And yet in a city like ours we still waste water every second of every hour.

So a challenge like the ice bucket challenge seems absurd in a country where there are still millions who do not have access to clean drinking water. The fact that many of our country mates joined the challenge compelled me to write this blog in order to highlight a reality we all seem to have forgotten: that water is more precious than anything else in the world and it is time we stopped wasting it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Frozen in time

This picture must have been taken sometime in the summer of 1999. The location: the Bhatti Kurd village located near the Bhatti Mines. I had forgotten its existence and was reminded of it last week when reading an article on the very same village. The article begins with the chilling words: most girls in Bhatti Village have never been to school. My memory got a huge jolt as I time travelled 14 years back and recalled our tryst with this very village. This was way before project why as you all know it existed; not even in an embryonic state. At that time, pwhy was still searching its identity and had a multitude of activities mostly related to nutrition. As I have said time and again, the sight of a child begging had and remains unbearable and makes me feel angry, sad and helpless at the same time. That is why one of the very first avatars of project why was a programme aimed at urging the people of Delhi to stop giving money to beggar children and give nutritional cookies instead. The idea was to give every car owner a smart box that would contain 50 cookies and have a tie up with petrol pumps where people could 'refill' their boxes. The cost 100 rupees for 50 cookies! The idea was to stop mafias from using children as children would not get money.  For me it was a win win situation. I was really naive.

Then came the version 2 whereby we found children in organisations and distributed them these nutritive biscuits which had been specially designed and contained the required daily vitamin and mineral needs. An organisation ran a programme for the Bhatti Mine children and we began distributing them cookies and also a frothy chilled drink called Ice Cream Wash. This was obtained from ice cream factories and was a kind of milk shake that was the result of washing a machine with high pressure potable water before changing flavours. We collected the same in large igloos and every kid bought a glass from home and got its share. Needless to say the kids loved it and so did we as the distribution was accompanied by games and dancing!

It was heartbreaking to read the article as it took me back 15 years in a time warp. It was as if I was reading an piece written in 1999. After 15 years the only thing that seems to have changed is the age of the children. The village still has no amenities: roads, schools, dispensaries, a waste disposal system and even sufficient drinking water.

I sat for a long time lost in my thoughts and in some heavy soul searching. Had I made the right choices? Should I have soldiered on working with the nutrition programme and the very deprived children in villages? Should I have marketed my 'don't give them a coin; give them nutrition!' mantra with more conviction? Could I have, with all my shortcomings been able to make a difference in their lives, keeping my abysmal track record of battling wily politicians and greedy bureaucrats? And most what would have happened to Manu, my alter ego and conscience keeper and above all the indomitable spirit I still draw strength from.

As I always say, I simply do what the (wo)man upstairs wills me to. I cannot afford to look back with regrets or remorse. But I can surely shed a quiet tear for my Bhatti Mine children.