It was almost 10 days or more ago that Radhey my auto rickshaw driver informed me in a matter fact way that a barrage had breached in Nepal and that floods in his village were imminent. It was just a matter of days. I could not at that time fathom the magnitude of the disaster in waiting. Every morning in a matter of fact way I would enquire about the flood and he would answer that the waters were coming. I must admit I did not see the urgency. How could I. Even the press did not report much. By the time India woke up it was very late: over 3 million people had been rendered homeless, a major river had changes its course, villages had been swept away, lovingly built homes obliterated from the face of the earth.
In a popular TV debate aired a few days back the anchor asked the disturbing and startling question: Does India care about Bihar? And the uncomfortable answer that made us squirm in our chairs was: No! Bihar simply seems to have fallen off the map. We just want to wish it away. The news from the ground gets grimmer by the day and no respite is in the offing. The figures are alarming millions of people have lost their homes and livelihood.
Almost every year Bihar suffers the fury of floods. Some years are worse than the other and lead to large scale migration. It was in 1985 that Radhey fled his village and came to Delhi to build a new life. Like many others he sent money regularly to his village to repair the house, build a new one, buy the much needed farm implement. Today everything is gone. The members of his family have fled the raging waters and taken shelter with relatives. Some have even come all the way to Delhi and will swell the ranks of the staggering migratory population of this choking city. Many pwhy children’s families have similar stories. What is saddening and infuriating is the calm with which they share their plight, as if they too have given up.
It took a long while for India to waken up, or has it really as in spite of the magnitude of the calamity there is no palpable urgency: no dramatic headlines, no continuous coverage… It is as if floods in Bihar are regular occurrences. Bihar once a vibrant state of India, the seat of the Maghadh Empire, of Licchavi the first known republic, of Buddhism the religion of tolerance is today neglected and derided. It is today equated to corruption, hooliganism, gang and caste wars and considered an aberration. Yet it is home to millions of people who bravely fight all odds.
The picture you see dropped in my inbox with an appeal for help.It took me some time to figure out that what looked like a mosaic pattern where actually people left stranded on a washed away road. Imagine the number of children who today instead of setting out for school are living in the open, hungry and wondering where all their dreams have fled. Imagine the number of people deprived of all the facilities we take for granted: water, food. medicine, shelter. Imagine the pain of seeing your life come to naught. Where does one pluck the courage to begin all over again.
Have we given up on Bihar. I do not know. All I know is the contempt with which the word Bihari is used. All I know is the baffled look on people’s faces when I tell them I too am a Bihari. All I know is that today I feel the need to reach out to those in need, casting aside the cliches and commonplace utterances one will be subjected to. Yes we know of the corruption that is rampant during all relief operations but does that absolve us of the duty to do something. Certainly not. As with the tsunami we will wait a little and when the initial wave of help dies down we will try and see how we can help some children reclaim their lost dreams.
It is fifteen years since the golden summer of 1991 when we lost our innocence wrote Gurcharan Das in a recent article. He was of course referring to our new affair with the the free economy and our expansion as a growing economy. I am no economist and do not understand market forces and the likes of it. I simply see what is around me and draw comparisons with was was an what is.
Last week we celebrated or let us say commemorated 61 years of Independence. All leading magazines had special issues and one must admit no one had anything glorious to share. Even Vinod Mehta who always proffers some light relief on his last page candidly states: I’m looking to offer you some humour. Alas, there’s none to offer. A quick read of the Independence day issue of this or any other magazine does not make happy reading. A leit motiv seems to appear almost with obsessive regularity is the fact that our brave walk on the free economy path has further alienated the poor of the rich. The rich have their schools, their hospitals, their habitat, their markets, their just about everything whereas the infrastructure of the poor is growing from bad to worse.
One of the articles that caught my attention was the one on gated Communities aptly titled Free from India.
The proliferation of gated communities is undoubtedly a world wide phenomena and its Indian avatar larger than life. An article in the New York Times reflects the sad reality of gated communities in our capital region. If one India lives a life of luxury inside the walls, the other survives at its very gates. The raison d’etre of these communities is best defined by a resident himself who states: Everyone understands that there are things outside that you don’t want to expose your children to. The idea is to have the area sealed and sanitised. The apartment costs are huge, but it’s worth it to protect yourself from the violence and crime outside… When I leave these gates I am bang slap in modern India. I can’t say that I don’t like India; it’s my country. But if I can avoid exposing myself to it, why not?‘
The above statement is to say the least perplexing and saddening. Are we simply giving up on India? is creating comfortable and yet visible cocoons the real way out. Did we really lose our innocence when we decided to walk the free trade path and open India’s doors? I cannot say. But if an Indian says that he or she does not want to expose his or her child to things outside, outside being the real India then something is terribly wrong. As citizens of India are we not responsible for that very outside.
It was exactly one year ago almost to the day that a mail dropped into my inbox. My name is Willy and I am very interested in becoming involved in Project Why. I run a small NGO in America called the Omprakash Foundation. Those words were the beginning of a beautiful journey of mutual discovery, a journey were the key words were love, compassion, respect and trust.
Yesterday another mail dropped in my inbox. It simply said: check out”featured partner” on the omprakash homepage.…. A click on the page and there we were: Project Why as this Season’s featured partner with a special page on us that described our activities and our needs in beautiful and simple words. It was indeed some journey from email to webpage!
Over the past almost ten years I have come across wonderful people who have reached out to help us and each one of them have made pwhy possible. When Willy and his friends landed in Delhi a few months back it was truly a special moment as such kids are one of a kind. They brought with them all that makes today’s world still bearable.
But let us go back a little. Before we met Willy and I use to exchange long emails and I found myself sharing my deepest thoughts with him quite unabashedly. It never came to my mind that more than 4 decades of life on this planet separated on us. He simply became the friend I needed in moments of doubts, pain and joy. He always had the right words and often gave my sagging moral the fillip it needed. Somewhere along the way he shared his dream of bringing books to the lives of children all over India and though it was in no way up our sleeve, there was not an iota in doubt in my mind when I decided to jump on the wagon and make it a success. Today over 200 000 books have found their way into the remotest part of our land and are brightening up the lives of many children. Project Why children too are busy discovering the magic of the written word. And what better proof of success of this venture than the fact that some books did surreptitiously find their way into children’s homes!
As the omprakash story enfolded it was as if a remote dream of mine was coming to life albeit in a land thousands of miles from mine. I have always prayed to see the day when young Indians would be touched by compassion and would reach out to less fortunate people and share some of what they have:time, resources, love… as this is what omprakash is all about. A bunch of kids backpack through India and other lands. On the way they stop by to volunteer in a few organisations and somewhere along the way they decided to do something. And the something is for all to see!
What makes Willy, Gordon, Ashely, Lilly, Steve, Nick, Elliot tick? I do not know. Or to use a Hindi expressions: of what mater are they made. I guess the very same one we are made of. But the difference lies in their ability to see with their heart. And what does it take to make young successful people see with their heart is for me a zillion dollar question? I must confess that when I started project why one of the head fake or indirect learning (to use Randy Pausch’s expression) objective was to try and sensitize young Indians and show them how to see with their hearts. Sadly it was not to be.
The journey from email to webpage has been a exhilarating and rewarding one. To the uninitiated it can be quantified by the generous resources we have received and that we are truly grateful for. But for this old lady it has been much more: a renewal of faith and trust, a validation of ideals that many found preposterous and absurd, a ray of sunshine in a sometimes grey world and much more that remains tacit.
I truly hope and pray that all the omprakash foundation reaches unknown heights and realises all the hopes and aspirations of the wonderful hearts that steer it. And I know that this will happen as more than anyone else a wonderful old man, who touched the lives of these kids many summers ago and whose name is the one they chose for their organisation, blesses them as he simply litstens to his radio in a remore part of India’s capital city.
As I was leaving the women centre yesterday I was as usual greeted by loud good morning maam’s (notwithstanding the time of day) from the gang of kids that live in thee vicinity and often play in front of the centre. I stopped as I normally do. Amongst them was a new face. Huge melting eyes in the middle of a tiny badly scalded face. A closer look reveals burn scars on the body, arms and a badly maimed hand. I stop in my tracks, my heart pounding and am suddenly taken back to the fateful day in March 2003 when I first laid eyes on the little scalded Utpal.
The little girl standing in front of me is about 2. Her scars look almost as old. I look around for answers to my silent questions. After a few long seconds an older girl offers some insight: the little girl was burnt when she was just a baby. She was sleeping in a mosquito net, the kind you find in all markets and that look like a huge bell. There was an oil lamp burning in the vicinity and the net made of cheap nylon caught fire. The baby too!
She survived. But unlike Utpal whose face had got spared, hers got badly scalded. Two huge almost identical scars mar her little cheeks. But somehow her impish smile and lovely eyes are endearing and make you forget the ugliness of her scars. To me she was just a child, with the same dreams, aspirations and hopes in spite of her scars and maimed hand. My mind is choking with questions and emotions. What will the future hold for her? What can we do? How can we ease her morrows? How do her peers treat her? Why is God sometimes so unkind?
Just like Utpal’s, her family too shifted only recently to a house almost adjacent to our women centre. Is there some hidden Jungian synchronicity? Some hidden message? Is it once again the God of Lesser Beings at his best?
I do not what the future holds. As I write these words I dot even know her name let alone anything about her. All I know is that I cannot and will not be a silent spectator. A maimed girl has no morrow in a land like ours where the future of any girl child lies in her ability to find a good match. Her family is poor and will not be able to make up for the scars and the maimed hand by providing her a handsome dowry. I do not know whether medical wizardry can be of help and even it it is at what cost it will come. I know that a good education and sound income generating skills are the only hope she has.
I will go back to the centre today and set the ball rolling by seeing that she is enrolled in our creche. I will call up all the men in white I know, browse the net and connect with anyone one i think can be of help. I will do everything I can to ensure that the huge eyes in the scarred face remain filled with trust and hope and never have to suffer the indignity and stigma that is often the fate of those like her.
I was invited by a dear friend to write the 1000th post of his blog. It was an honour and it took me a long time to decide what to write. You can read the post entitled childhood dreams here.