It tolls for thee.

A few days back we got the visit of the representative of a very up market page 3 organisation. This organisation funds various NGOs by organising high profile fund raising events. As we sat chatting in our new foster care building, the lady told me about a new venture of theirs whereby they are sponsoring school fees in up market schools for a handful of very underprivileged children. Actually what she was trying to convey indirectly was her disapproval of the amounts we were spending on the foster care residential programme.

While we were chatting, our children sat quietly finishing their lunch.

I tried to the best of my ability and with as much fervour and passion I could muster to explain to her that a child from a deprived or dysfunctional poor background would never be able to fit and be accepted in an up market English medium school. He or she would feel lost and would not be able to keep up what is required of him or her. Moreover 'home' or what goes by the name would not be able to provide him or her the support needed.

My mind went back to a blog where I had shared my feelings about the reactions of people to our foster care programme when it was being launched. Today it is in its third month and though there have been many teething problems, we have never felt that our decision was wrong.

I would not have written this post were it not for a totally unrelated incident. Utpal is in Mumbai spending a few days with Abhigyan and his family. The first few emails were positive ones and then came one where I could feel that Popples was being difficult: tantrums and demands bordering bad behaviour. I must confess that at first I was upset and went into denial and then apologetic mode as any doting parent would. Much later when the heat and embarrassment of the moment has passed, I realised that it had been naive on my part to expect that Utpal would behave like a perfect child in an environment totally new to him. That he accepted to stay in an unknown home without batting an eyelid and with comfort and ease, is in itself huge. He is only 6 and he has had a lot to deal with in the 2000 odd days of his life.

But that does not condone bad behaviour one would we tempted to say, or does it... The urge to balance out his misfortune is not easy to put it in Abhigyan's words. I cannot but agree. But let us take our thoughts a step further. Till date Utpal was never seen, let alone spent time in what you and I call a family: a papa, a mummy, siblings, maybe grandparents. He has never known a structured home. The only structure he has experienced is that of a boarding school. He has no role models, no examples to emulate, no mentor to walk him through such moments. He survives by instinct and the closest he has been to a home is probably mine, where he knows he gets what he wants courtesy his ever indulging Maam'ji!

We, and here I talk about all those who think they are a cut above the rest being engaged in doing some form of social work or the other and who would like to believe that lives can be transformed by doling out the needed amount of money to pay fees, books and more of the same, have to take a moment to pause and think. If that were so, how easy it would be alter destinies. But the reality is quite different. Education is not just imparted in schools however good they are. Nurturing and building lives start in homes and with parents or guardians. It takes time, patience and above all the will to truly want to do so.

When the idea of what is today our foster care programme was first mooted by a potential donor as part of what we call planet why, these are the words he chose to use: A residential foster care programme for a maximum of 20 bright children where children from deprived backgrounds will be given an enabling and nurturing environment to be able to excel in education and access to employment possibilities. The children ( a maximum of 20) will be kept at planet why for an incubating period of 4 to 5 years and then be sent to boarding school. Emphasis will be on creating an environment close to those found in educated homes, with stress on English and building self-confidence. At that point of time I must admit I was not in a great bargaining position but the immediate reaction that many of us had was that this was far too ambitious if not impossible and that the way it was spelt out reeked of social engineering.

However the die had been cast and even though the initiator of the idea backtracked at a later stage we were left holding the proverbial baby and there was no retracting. The only battle I had won was to begin with a trial with a maximum of 4 to 6 kids. The task was daunting albeit exciting and just the possibility of being able to perhaps change a handful of lives could not be set aside. However one must stress that right from the word go, we knew intuitively and logically that if this was to succeed, we had to keep the kids in residential care at least for part of the week.

Education as I have said time and again is not just imparting the 3 Rs; it goes much further and has to cover life skills. Something that tends to be forgotten. I recall with a smile one of the brainstorming sessions we had early this year about where the foster kids would spend their summer holidays. Our erstwhile donor had suggested that they be sent to homes like yours and mine and wondered if there would people who would accept them. A no comments on this one barring from saying that this person lives outside India and is not aware of the reality that surrounds us.

We will find a solution for Popples, and our fostercare kids are learning to unlearn before they begin learning again.

Life goes on as always.

To quote john Donne: "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”