“People have forgotten this truth," the fox said. "But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose
” wrote St Exupery in the Little Prince
, a book that I have always found solace in. To some it may just be a children's story but to me every word has a deep meaning and hidden but only if you read the book with your heart. This quote is not about a fox and a rose but about going all the way when you extend a hand to someone in need. If you do so there is no going back; there is no half measure and above all there is no certitude to how the future will enfold. You can make all the plans you want but you must be prepared for them to go awry and for you to have to conjure all the solutions needed. It is a one way road and you have to walk it till the end.
Two Angels landed in my life without any warning and changed my life forever. The first was Manu
. Manu was the kind of being you pass on the street and never look at. To many he would be just a beggar who seemed deranged and bedraggled. He roamed a street I passed regularly. I often wondered what could have got him there, but it was a fleeting thought that disappeared in a trice. But one fateful day a heart rendering cry he let out as he was being riled by someone pierced my heart and soul in a way that I cannot describe in words. It was like a deafening cry for help targeted at me and demanding to be heard. I did hear it. The rest is history, something I have written about time and again. Manu was a mirror to my soul
, the reason that really made me take the less travelled road. His mission as I see it was to show me the way at a time when I was somewhat confused and did not know which way to go. All I knew at that instant was that I had to help him. How to help a beggar who roams the streets is not written in any book, you just have to find your way. And in finding my way, a larger plan enfolded called Project Why! I made myself a promise that no one knew till maybe much later. Manu would one day have a warm bed, a set of friends; would share a meal around a table, and would watch TV to his heart's content. To many it would have sounded ludicrous but to me it became a life and death decision. At that moment the 'how' and 'when' were of no consequence. As time passed we moved a step at a time towards a dream that I rested in the recesses of my mind.
Project Why grew by leaps and bounds. Every day was better than the previous specially for Manu. He was bathed, fed and had his own bed in the veranda of what was our office. And when we launched our class for special kids, he was Roll no !1 So to some perhaps it could seem that the game was over, never mind the dining table or the TV. Not not for me. The small challenges and big ones we managed to overcome gave me the audacity to start dreaming big, too big. Was it hubris? I do not know. Maybe.
The idea emerged in my mind when we began thinking about long term sustainability. While on the ground the ideas were mundane - chocolates, earthen lamps, candles, paper bags and even pongamia oil soaps - my mind was busy conjuring what came to be know as Planet Why! In its first iteration that was in my head it was to be a place where Manu and his mates could grow old and die with dignity. I imagined a green building, with terracotta bricks and old style floors, with arches and little windows that would let the breeze in. It would be Manu's home, and workplace as he was able enough to learn gardening. And the strange things is that many believed in this dream. We bought the land, drew the architectural plans and set out looking for funds. But then on a cold January Day in 2011, my dreams did not fit with those of the Gods of Lesser beings. They decided Manu had completed his mission and he breathed his last leaving me lost and rudderless. There would be no Planet Why for Manu. The best I could do was to craft a small residential unit where Manu and a bunch of special and regular kids lived together. Yes there was a dining table
, there was a TV, there was a refrigerator and cold water and special treats. Often it was Manu who decided the menu and of course we never ran out of biscuits, Manu's all time favourite. Manu died quietly
after having had his tea and biscuits. The Angel who sustained and protected me for more than a decade flew away leaving me with one unanswered question: did I fulfil the silent promise I had made to myself. When I feel a little lost , all I have to do is look at his smiling face that sits on my wall frozen in time and remember that the only way to honour his memory is to continue my journey.
The second Angel that landed on my planet was a broken one! True I had tapped his little head many a times as he lived in a tiny room adjacent to my office. He was barely one and his mother use to bathe him outside just around the time I walked into my office. He was a bonny boy with incredibly beautiful eyes. I often asked his mother when she would send him to the creche and she use to reply soon! One day in March 2002 I saw a lock on the door of their house. I was told the little fellow had fallen in to a boiling wok and was dead! I felt terrible but thought that with third degree burns maybe death was a better option than a maimed life. Imagine my surprise when I week later I was told that the baby was back! He had been sent home to die was what I was told! I walked into their tiny home and saw him swathed in bandages and as I looked into his eyes something happened and I simply said: he will live. The first few months were spent fighting for his life and every day we were treated to miracles. Soon his wounds were healed and he met all his milestones on time.
I had discovered by then that his mom was an alkie. And there I was, making plans again! We would find them a nicer home, I would give the mom a job and when he was older he would go to a good school and .. the list was endless. But the bottle was too big an adversary and even after many rehabs mom was back drinking and the child living in pure hell. When he was just 4, I sent him to boarding school. And when he was 6 his mom vanished. By then I had got his partial guardianship from the authorities. I have often written about Utpal's story on this blog and shared the lovely and touching moments we have lived together. He has also taught me many things about life and about myself. I also made my dream of being published true as it is for him and about him that I wrote Dear Popples
Today he is a lovely boy in class VI, a master on skates, and a regular kid who can be trying at times like any regular 11 year old! But he is a bundle of joy and a child that can amaze you many a times in the most touching manner. It has been a slow and difficult road to make him believe that he is cared for and find answers for questions that none. The most poignant one being: where is my mother
? You do not lie to a child and the only honest answer you can come up with is: I do not know
? And for a kid that is not enough. Utpal had to go into therapy to deal with difficult questions in school be it what do you parents do, or sneer at his scars. Children can be very cruel. That is only one aspect of the tale. Coming back to the rose, and the fox and the responsibility, as that is where we began, reaching out to another is never as simple as one would like to think. You find a scalded kid, you nurse him back to health because you have the wherewithal, you peep into his life and find out the issues that need to be sorted out, you again think you can do it, you make plans way into the future because you think you can foresee it, and sit back and wait to watch the script you have written play itself out. But then everything goes awry and you find yourself having to rewrite it word after word as events beyond your control engulf you and you need to find your breath to carry on. So the fairy tale that began as once upon a time there was a child you got burnt and saved, his mother found a good job, the child went to school and university and found a good job and they lived happily ever after, turns into a survival story with rude awakenings at every turn.
Today Utpal's future has to be rewritten without drama, one day at a time. You have to be prepared to do so: deal with the tantrums, the homework - my bete noire - with the tears and the questions. But you are rewarded with the smiles, the hugs, the unexpected occurrences like finding him ready at 6 am to accompany me to the temple when normally you have to battle to wake him up. You have to make him accept that he has a home and security and make others understand that he has no other place to go.
And last but not the least you have to think of the after Maam'ji days and craft a support mechanism wich can deal with the emotional as well as the financial side. Someone to mentor him, to guide him through his life and be with him at every step, and also ensure that he is never a financial liability to anyone. So it is time to create a Trust Fund for him now. I have been mulling over it and procrastinating for far too long.
It this story I do not know know who tamed who, but I know I am the one responsible for the little Angel who dropped into my life and changed it forever.