The children of the special section never cease to amaze me. Each time you step into their class you feel lifted and all your worries and woes vanish – albeit temporarily! You have barely entered that a shrill voice greets you with a loud Namaste Maa’m. It is little Sohil. And then almost in unison you hear a loud greeting from all the others in the class. The greeting is touching as even those who cannot speak or hear join in their own inimitable way. They then resume whatever task at hand, be it the vigorous morning exercise session, the tedious math problem or the complex puzzle. You have many options: you can sit and watch them or join them in their activities: you are always welcome.
The wonderful thing about these children is that they never judge you, they just open their hearts for you to walk in. It is we, the so called normal people, who spend our time surmising, criticising, judging. If we see a person that does not look, act or think like us we are quick in labelling him or her as disabled or incapacitated. We deem them as inferior and want to teach him our ways and if that is not feasible we are quick to find a way to somehow shut them way. Special kids do not expect you or anyone else to be like them.
In our special class no two children are alike. Some have fractured bodies and others broken minds, some have both. Yet they all accept each other and reach out to each other in very touching ways. We may think they have limited understanding but that is not the case. The best example is the way they treat little Radha and her brittle bones. No one ever had to explain anything to them. They understand with their heart and even the rowdiest ones like Umesh or Munna never do anything that may hurt their little pal. Radha participates in all activities be it dance or musical chairs. Instinctively everyone makes room for her and ensures that she too has her share of fun. Sohil and Himanshu, the babies of the class, are cared for by their elder friends and a perfect synergy reigns in the classroom.
They have many lessons to teach of us if only we bothered to learn. They more than anyone else have understood the true meaning of compassion, tolerance, camaraderie and team spirit. They are not wasting time in proving points or oneupmanship. If only we had the ability to emulate them, the world would be a better place.
The mail simply said: iCONGO Team Congratulates you on your selection for the Karmaveer Puraskaar. I was stunned. A few months back a dear friend and supporter had written to me saying she was nominating me for this award. I was touched by her gesture and though I was quite certain I would not make it, I duly and diligently filled the form as required and sent it in. I thought that was the last I would hear about it and went on with my life. That was about two months ago. I must admit though that I did browse the net to find out a little more about this award, I guess it was but human that I do so. This what i found: Karamveer Puruskar: National Awards for Social Justice & Citizen Action are being commissioned to recognise individuals who have been pivotal for leading change beyond their business as usual by being committed on individual levels to work on social issues. The awards shall be given to individual for their contribution to promote social justice and action. As I read the words and perused the list of past recipients I smiled to myself: this was way out of my league. What was my friend thinking of.
Imagine my surprise when the mail informing me of my selection landed in my inbox. I fell of my chair. Why me? What I had done to deserve tis recognition? I had simply done and was doing what I truly feel everyone of us should do: give back a little of what life has generously bestowed upon you.
I would not have written this post were it not for another mail that stated: In your individual interest, you may go ahead and have your office issue a press release and announce your award in the media and on your blogs, websites, facebook, twitter and other networks. I have no office that can issue statements and pres releases, I can only blog about it myself and hope that my readers will forgive this unusual personal digression.
My selection for this award is humbling and overwhelming. It is an honour and makes one even more aware of how much more remains to be done and how little one has really achieved. It makes you realise that the journey is no way near over. The onus of proving that you are worthy still lies on you.
It has been an incredible journey. One that was started with the simple unsaid words: If I can change one life, it will have been worth it. I can say that in the past 10 years many lives have changed and that in itself is a huge reward. Getting this recognition leaves me speechless. All I know is that it could not have been possible without the help and support of so many, and it is their award more than mine.
I cannot believe it. This is my 1000th blog! It took me four years and six months to get here. I took a trip down memory line and read some of my earlier posts. Their candour and naiveness brought a smile to my face. I must admit that taking the plunge was not easy and writing that first blog was a herculean task. I stopped at one of my earliest blog to take stock of the time gone by. The little boy who was then fighting for his life is today a little young man who lives in a boarding school and tops his class. He has indeed lived through many trials and tribulations and yet proved beyond doubt that life is worth living and fighting for.
During the past four and a half years I have written about the joys and the achievements, the failures and the defeats. I have blogged about issues that disturbed me and those that elated me. I have shared tiny moments of happiness and larger moments of frustration. I have poured my heart out time and again and been touched by the support and encouragements I have received. I have wept tears of joy as well as tears of exasperation. I have shared times when my heart filled with pride and also with despair. I have talked of my dreams, the fulfilled as well as the broken ones. I have pontificated and preached and sometimes surrendered.
For the past four and a half years this blog has been my true companion, the one that has made the journey possible and fulfilling. The canvas has of course been project why but I have allowed myself the liberty for small forays into my own life be it share a wedding or a new arrival.
The past four and a half years have truly been exhilarating! And these 100o blogs bear testimony to an incredible journey that I am privileged to be part of.
There is a new reality show in town. I read about it quite by accident in a leading news paper.The show website defines the show in the following way: Prepare yourself to witness a life-changing experience, as 10 seriously rich spoilt youngsters are plucked from their lavish lifestyles and dropped into the claustrophobic confines of a Mumbai slum… with cameras focused on their every move 24 hours a day! The rich contestants are paired with a slum buddy who guides them through the pitfalls and opportunities within the slum. Each week the contestants have to complete a task – the teams that perform the worst face the possibility of elimination from the show. Up for grabs is the big prize – the chance for the rich contestant to help fulfill their slum buddy’s dream.
The whole idea is perplexing. It sort of falls short of something and leaves me uncomfortable. The tasks that the contestant are expected to perform are push a cart across the street, sell trinkets, polish shoes, pick rags, wash clothes etc. While the show is being canned it is being visited by a string of celebs, all adding their glam quotient. The rick kids are expected to live in a slum for 14 days and the one who stays on the longest and manages all tasks earn a whopping amount to fulfill the dream of the slum buddy her or she is paired with.
On the surface the show seems to be worthy and even honourable. The contestant earn nothing, the celebs are coming for free and the winner is a slum kid who sees his or her dream fulfilled. But the more I look at the site and articles the more uncomfortable I feel.
For the slum kids it is a string of dreams come true: being on a TV show, meeting Bollywood celebrities, and perhaps getting a lot of money to fulfill some unfulfilled desire. Their excitement is almost palpable as they embark on a journey that can be life changing. Their thrill is touching as each plans a new morrow.
It is the coming together of the two Indias and I for one should be thrilled. Is it not what I have always wanted. Am I not the one who carps about the fact that we see too few volunteers from the rich end our own city at project why. And yet all this done been done in the public glare makes me thoroughly uneasy. An article states that the inspiration of the show is Slumdog Millionaire. I have shared my views on the film more than once. I have felt riled at the way the SM children were used by all and sundry. I would have preferred to see them safely locked in a good boarding school so that they could one day transform their lives. This show somehow seems to rob slum lives of their reality and turn them into some sort of joke. The kids are meant to live in a created slum and not truly share the lives of their buddies. Would have like to see that happen! A set a la Big Boss has been created with mosquitoes et al. The tasks seem more like fun challenges rather than real survival situations. A person who sells ware at a red light does it to survive. If he does not make it there may be no food at night. Pushing a cart is harrowing and back breaking and not fun. The same goes for polishing shoes or washing clothes.
As I said I would have liked the show to have each contestant live for 14 days in the home of his or her buddy and experience the life of many millions. This pasty slum experience is all wrong. Life in a slum is filled with dignity and courage, values that are strangely absent in this show. Choices are few and needs many. Try coming to work every day in spotless clothes when you live on the roadside like the Lohars do. I see it everyday. Try surviving with brittle bone disease in a hole and never loose your smile even if you loose your flimsy shelter and land on the street. Slumming it out in a created set is an insult to all those who dwell in slums.
Of the 10 slum kids, one will have his or her dream come true and the others will go back to their lives with a starry story to tell. Where are we going….
They are our special girls! Champa, Anjali, Preeti, Ritika and Neha. When together they can bring the roof down! They love dancing, singing and giggling like any teenager, and like any teenager they sometimes sulk and fight.
Champa and Anjali live in our residential programme. Anjali is an orphan and Champa’s mom is too old to look after this very special child. Preeti who is as bright as any of us was struck by polio at a young age and walks on her hand. Her muscles are so atrophied and would not be able to hold calipers. If inclusive education existed in India, Preeti would have been in school like other girls her age and led as normal a life as possible. Instead she is shunned by her own family who find her an impediment. During the recent festivals she was left all alone at home while her family went out to temples and fairs. Anjali walks with a limp and is a little slow, but she too could and should have been in a normal school, but that was not to be. She lost her mother a few months back and was left all alone in an unsafe environment with predators lurking. Champa is perhaps the most disabled of all. Though she can belt one Bollywood hit after the other she is unable to even dress herself. She is so childlike that anyone could lure her with a simple toffee.
What is the future of such girls. Bleak is anything. And yet when you seem them together you get touched by their zest for life and their joie de vivre. It is for these very special girls and others like them that we felt the need to go beyond our initial mission – education of children – and think of a viable alternative: a place where such young ladies could live their entire lives in a safe and enabling environment. That is how planet why first came to be conceived. A simple residential option was not sufficient. We wanted to give our girls a reason to live, a place where they would feel useful and wanted. Hence planet why the guest house!
I can imagine my girls thriving on planet why. Young Preeti has all it takes to become the manager of the guest house and Anjali could become a great housekeeper. And in spite of her shortcomings and limited skills Champa would also find her place in the show. The journey that has barely begun, promises to be exciting and we hope to be able to reach our destination in a not so distant future. So help us God!