Looking back and looking forward

2013 was a year that I will remember forever. It is a year when I had to put my life in parenthesises as I was faced with the biggest challenge of my life. Ranjan's cancer came as a cruel reminder of the cancer that had taken both my parents as I watched in total helplessness and hopelessness. This time I would have to come out a winner even if that meant stopping life as I knew it. That is what I did. My strictly regulated life that had run almost like a clockwork orange since 2000 was put on hold. One of the first casualty was Project Why! It would have been impossible for me to juggle pwhy and Hodgkin as the same time. Mercifully, thirteen years had been ample to train my team and I knew that pwhy was in safe hands whilst I got on learning, then taming and finally overpowering the demon that had entered our lives. I got on with the task and feel I did good, though the battle is not quite over. It will take another six months to really find our way out of the woods. I am confident that this will not be as arduous a task as it has been, as I have now evolved a comfortable pattern that seems to be working. As a new challenge crops up, I know the way to go to overcome it.

Today, on the eve of a New Year, I wonder how I was able to set aside everything that was so dear to me till that fateful July day: the cup of tea and blessings I got every morning, the good mornings of the children, the little problems that one would hash and rehash as it gave one a sense of worthiness, the bigger challenges that required skills you sometimes did not realise you possessed, the long virtual exchanges with friends, supporters and well wishers, the little achievements that turned into huge celebrations, the sense of belonging to a large family and knowing that they were always there for you. All of it had to be put on hold because the one person who held it together for me was in danger. I knew that without him, I would not be able to carry on. So there was never an iota of doubt in my mind when I took the decision to temporarily suspend my life.

Was it easy? Not at all. Did I have coping strategies? Indeed I did. Today I can reveal how I could survive these last months without losing the essence of who I was.  One of the things I found myself doing almost surreptitiously was looking at pictures of project why, pictures spanning all of 13 years. It was a comforting walk down memory lane that I took leisurely, sometimes staring at one snapshot for a long time and letting memories flow back. The picture I chose to illustrate this post must have been taken 8 years or so ago. The little chap in my lap is Popples! Each picture told a story: a story of courage, compassion, fortitude and joy. Each picture brought a flutter in my heart as I knew I was a little part of each one of them. I found myself smiling and even laughing alone. Thank heavens I rise well before dawn and these little escapades happened when everyone else slept. I also must admit a tad sheepishly though, that I often felt a sense of pride laced with humility. In fact, I was truly never away from my beloved project, I simply tuned it to my reality.

In spite of my physical absence and forced sabbatical, project why was very much part of my reality. In some ways this forced vacation compelled me to look at the future realistically. I know that we will have to make changes, so may have to be drastic because of elements beyond our control: the imminent loss of our women centre tenancy, the probable razing and relocation of the Okhla slums in keeping with the new social avatar of this once neglected area, the state of our funding and also because it is now imperative to reassess matters as more than a decade has passed since it all began.

I was telling a friend and supporter about how the social profile of the street where we began in the summer of 2000 had changed. What was once a motley amalgam of mostly single storeyed mud shacks with tin roofs and where our computer centre and maybe a handful of tenements were in brick and mortar, is now a series of multi storeyed brightly painted tenements, with dish antennas and even washing machines. On a street where you barely saw a bike let alone a car but many bicycles, you today see cars, bikes and hardly any bicycles. This is proof that a decade in the life of an urban slum brings about social mobility. However difficult it may be to accept, one has to realise that it is time to move on. I am sure this would have happened irrespective of our presence, but somehow I think that we have had a role, albeit tiny to play in the empowerment of this slum.

Another failure, if I may call it so, that we have to accept is the fact that the model we adopted has resulted in our inability to keep in touch with the majority of our students once they have graduated or left for a variety of reasons: gone back to the village, moved because of the nature of their family's occupation, moved because of the inordinate rise in rents and so on. This fills me with sadness as it shows a deficiency in our approach as we never thought of setting up an old students group or make sustained efforts to keep in touch with those who had left. I guess this also stems from our initial desire for reaching out to as many children as possible. Numbers did mean access to more funding but also made us take hurried decisions that often did not stand the test of time. We had to shut certain centres because of non availability of space to rent! And let us not forget the fact that when we began there were no NGOs. Today they have proliferated all over.

As our sustainability plan did not come to be, project why's future is again a cause of concern. Its funding is still very fragile as it depends on goodwill garnered by constant interaction with people. I would be naive and foolish to believe that I will continue to have the energy needed to keep the pace. It is time to find alternative avenues that we can nurture in the coming time so that they can replace the present funding structure. This will be a slow process but needs to be initiated at once. The face of project why has to change and those who have till now been in the wings need to come to the fore. My being AWOL has already started the process.

I am aware of the fact that those who will take over do not have the same skills as I do though they have a host of skills I never had nor will. I feel that what would work best for them is to have a well defined structure that they can take ownership of. What I mean by that is that we need to build our own centre in a location which is approved and hence that will not be razed or relocated. That will ensure that the children we reach out to will remain with us. My idea is to sell the land we have and find a smaller plot near the women centre as it is located near a rehabilitation colony. With the remaining funds we would build a small centre that can be extended in times to come. I truly feel that a building that belongs to pwhy will motivate the team to walk the extra mile needed not only to keep it going but to make it grow.

This is my line of thought as of now. I have six months to fine tune it.

So help me God!