A few months back one of our regular and committed donors came to visit. We of course discussed future funding and in the course of conversation he quite candidly admitted that it was easier for him to market individual stories. Finding funds for larger projects like primary classes was more difficult. He wanted me to ‘find’ more possible candidates for boarding school as he felt that was something donors ‘liked’. I must admit I was a little vexed but did not let my feelings show as beggars cannot be choosers! And though I told him that it was not easy to find parents who would hand over their kids and even if they did then it would open flood gates we would be unable to handle, I also promised to look into the matter and find him a suitable candidate.
The one child that came to mind was little Mehajabi. Would it not be wonderful to give this little girl a good education. It would transform her life. So sure were we of this possibility that we wrote to our funder friend and he was all set to send Mehajabi to boarding school. But that was not to be. Her mother who at first accepted came back a few days later telling us that she would not send her child away. And when mothers decree one cannot but follow. We did try to gently tell her that this was a one in a lifetime chance for the little girl but the battle was uneven: the mother won. Nothing we would say could change her decision. We had to let it go.
I must admit we all felt sad and even a little unnerved. More so because we knew that mommy’s was jeopardizing the little girl’s morrows. But we did not have the arguments to bat for her. The mother’s logic was simple: she stated that after the heart surgery she could not bear to be parted from her child. Never mind if food was scant, if the roof leaked, if there was no money to pay the few rupees needed to send her to school. She was adamant and we were helpless. No logic could counter the almost irrational love of this mother. We knew what awaited Mehajabi: a few years in a third rate school and then perhaps she would join her mom in cleaning other people’s home just like her young aunt did, till a suitable match was found. Then her life would simply mirror the one her mother was living. On the other hand Babli who also had an open heart surgery was busy making up for lost time and excelling in school. Her mom’s love had not stood in her way.
We wrote to our funder and told him that in spite of our best efforts we were unable to convince the family and thus Mehajabi would not be joining the other pwhy kids at boarding school. He wrote back telling us to find someone else as he really wanted to. We promised him we would do so. A few days later, Vinita our early education coordinator suggested Manisha’s name.
Manisha is a quaint child. She is spirited, vivacious and her little puckered face and uneven teeth makes her look like a little endearing ET. Her teachers fondly call her ‘alien’. But this child’s story is heart wrenching and her future as it stands today very bleak. Manisha comes from an extremely poor family of migrants from Bihar. She has 2 brothers. Her father is a drunk. He is abusive and violent and does not give a single penny towards the running of the household. All they get is blows. Her mom has learnt to survive. She is a rag picker. Every morning she sets out with a big bag and ferrets through garbage heaps trying to salvage anything that can be sold. What she earns from her effort determines what the family will eat.They live in a sunken, dark, dingy hole with a tin roof which is their home.
Manisha six though she looks four. She has been in our creche for 2 years but soon it will be time for her togo to school. Given her circumstances we know that she will never make it to school as school though free requires some resources. Today it is because we go and fetch her that she comes to pwhy. If that did not happen she would turn into mother’s little helper be it with home chores or rag picking. No one invests time let alone money in a girl child. Her life will simply clone her mother’s. Yet Manisha is bright and intelligent and had a hunger for learning, a hunger we see in many children like her.
We have asked her mom whether she would be willing to send Manisha to boarding school. Unlike Mehjabi’s mom, Manisha’s mom was quick to see that this was a one in a life time chance for her daughter, one that would free her from the invisble bonds she was fettered in and maybe give her better morrows. We hope that this will happen though we know that we will need to be with her each step of the way.
It is absolutely inane that as a society we have reached the sad day when we need to debate the issue of whether, what I can only call a cool blooded murder, can be viewed as socially acceptable and be called honour killing. I have listened with horror to the recent debates where those in favour – and yes believe it or not there are such monsters around – try to justify taking young lives to protect some misplaced value system.
There has been a spate of such murders in our city in the past few days and those who committed and/or favoured these barbaric acts justified themselves by saying they had no choice or it was inevitable! The story goes like this: if a young girl dares fall in love with someone of another caste or from the same clan then it is taboo and needs to be dealt with and deal they do: they simply kill the child. And to crown it all instead of downright and vehement condemnation by all we hear muted voices that say things like: we do not condone murder but… The but is too loud and unacceptable. The but reeks of vote bank politics, of misplaced and medieval and feudal ways, of weak minds and of rigid ones that refuse to bend. No one is willing to address the situation head on be it within the family, the society or the vote seekers.
Winds of change are blowing and will keep doing so. There is nothing you can do about it. And each such murder is simply paving the way for the next one as politician and law makers remain silent or split hair in ways best mastered by them. So instead of addressing the core of the problem they simply hover around the periphery in the hope of protecting their vote banks. The perpetrators get bolder and bolder and all hell breaks loose. Murder gains acceptability and is even glorified once you call it honour killing!
Since time immemorial parents have opposed their children’s choices but it is almost inconceivable to think that a parent would kill or order the killing of its child. Even in the recent cases the dastardly acts have been committed by brothers helped by their friends and the reason given is to salvage misplaced honour. I have seen this at work.
The incident happened when we first began our work at pwhy. In those times I had no real knowledge of social norms and aberrations. There was a birthday party in the street where we worked and we had been invited. As is often the cases part of street had been covered with a tent and there was a music system in attendance. As is also the often the cases though the birthday party was that of a one year old child, the guests were mostly adults: the entire neighbourhood and a plethora of relatives and friends. And again as is always the case there was a lot of booze though it remained invisible. The party was in full swing and spirits were a tad to high. Bollywood dance numbers screeched through the bad quality speakers and people danced. A young girl, she must have been seventeen then and was one of our staff, started dancing too with her friends. She is a mean dancer and she twirled with abandon. One must understand that young girls rarely have the chance to dance, and parties and weddings are the places where they can show their talent. Her parents where there too seated on the chairs that are part of the decor. Every one was having fun. Suddenly her two brothers appeared and dragged her away hurling abuses. She was dragged to their house where the two lads started beating her. I followed and screamed at them but to no avail. All I could here was the word izzat – honour – shouted repeatedly, as well as – jaan se mardege – we will kill you. Soon the parents came and the beating stopped. The poor girl was in tears and deeply humiliated.
What must have happened is that some drunk guy must have passed a leering comment and the brothers instead of defending the girl who was doing no wrong, decided to salvage the honour by punishing her. It was the same kind of reaction as the one we witnessed in last weeks incident where the murderer brother stated in an interview that he was facing regular humiliation because his sister had married outside her caste and was constantly taunted by his friends. So male ego is hurt and the only thing to do is to eliminate the cause once for all. Never mind if the cause is your sister, the one you played with, laughed with or shared moments. In a split instant all that is forgotten and all the remains is misplaced honour that has to be restored ,so off with her head!
As an eminent lady journalist said recently: that in such cases the daughter’s body has become the vessel holding the family’s honour. She is not considered an individual with her own dreams an aspirations and her own rights. And this cannot be particularly when girls even from extremely traditional families have now stepped out of their homes to taste the world outside.
It is now a matter of choice. Many girls may still accept old ways and this has to be their choice. But if one of them does decide to do otherwise those who love and care for her must understand her choice and accept it. The young girl who danced many moons ago is today an empowered young woman who has been able to get her family to accept her choices. She is aware of the so called honour of her family and I know she will respect it but in her own way and manner and her family has accepted it, in their own way. The battle between generations will go on as it always does and solutions will be found. Murder is not one of them.
When I decided to start project why many years ago a host of supposed well wishers came out of the wood work to dissuade me to do so. There were the hard core cynics, the gentle detractors and the over anxious friends and relatives. I guess they were all stunned by my decision to sink a large chunk of my newly acquired legacy to as they said: help the poor!
The arguments used to discourage me were varied: what difference can you make in a country as big as India; you know nothing about running an NGO; you will waste you resources and be disappointed; you must be mad; what would your parents say if they were here; you are hijacking your children’s future; you cannot change things, it is a big bad world and you will not survive and so on.
At that time I must admit I had no defense to proffer. All I had was a deep intuitive feeling that what I was setting out to do was right and a stubborn nature that would ensure that I do it ans succeed. It was imperative that I do so and prove my detractors wrong. I set out on my journey with just one thought in mind: if I could change one life it would be worth it.
In the past ten years we have changed many lives and I will not subject you to a string of examples or try to blow the pwhy bugle. But I can say without hesitation that I have been vindicated on all counts. But what really struck me today as I looked at the two little sisters in the picture above was that when you change a life you set in motion what can best be called a ripple effect. Let me explain what I mean. Kiran and Komal are the nieces of Rani, a young woman who today practically runs our field operations in Govindpuri. She first joined pwhy as a unpaid volunteer way back in 2000 but soon graduated to the princely honorarium of 500 rs a month. A school drop out – not for academic reasons far from that but because she was beaten for not paying her fees and her mom decided that enough was enough – she joined us as part time volunteer but slowly she just became indispensable! Today she practically runs project why. Along the way the managed to pass her class X, XII and is now doing her BA second year. Along the way she also became computer savvy and even crossed the seven seas to go and root for pwhy! You must admit her life did change. But that is not all. Along the way two beautiful little girls were born in her family and that is when the ripple effect set in motion.
Today K and K are both in an upmarket school, the kind you and I would send our kids too. Tre admissions are not easy when you have a slum address but Rani never gave up. She wanted to give her little nieces everything she never had. The very best. But it was not easy. However all hurdles were overcome and the two little girls are now in school and doing exceedingly well. What is amusing is that we are all a part of this exciting journey helping with home work when needed or with the inane holiday projects children are subjected to. I must admit that when I watch them laughing and giggling I feel terribly proud and wonder what would have happened had I meekly listened to my detractors of yore years.
So today let me be a little cheeky and address all the barbs thrown at me a decade ago: you can make a huge difference even in a country like India; even if you know; nothing about running what is called an NGO, you can do so if you do not lose heart, your resources are never wasted if they can bring a smile on the face of a child; I guess one had to be a little mad to walk the road less travelled; my parents are surely proud and have walked with me every inch of the way; my children’s future was never hijacked but got better; things changed as the ripple effect set in and the world is not so bad when you learn to look with your heart. I have not only survived but thrived!
Bhopal is in the news.. again! This time it is not just the terrible tragedy that changed the lives of over half a million people in its aftermath but the other side as well: the cover up, the sell out, the dark games and more shocking revelations. What is disturbing is the disconnect between the real human tragedy and the flimsy excuses made for all the blunders: be it the failure to clean up the site or the escape of the main accused.
One thought one had become inured to almost everything as one does live in a land called India! But I could not believe my eyes, years, mind when I saw/heard our Environment Minister quipping: I have held that waste in my hand, I am still alive and not coughing. This after he visited Bhopal last year and was asked about the delay in cleaning up. And wait there is more. He also observed that the greenery around the abandoned premises was better than most other places. He asked if it would have been (so green)… “with all the toxicity around”. But that is not all: he announced that the centre would help in creating a memorial to the tragedy, one that would cost 116 crore, more than the amount needed to supply clean drinking water to the area. “It will be a national monument built in the memory of those who lost their lives in the tragedy,” he said, “and a reminder of the mistakes that were made so that they are not repeated.” I found this in an incisive article entitled Those who still go unpunished!
The article ends by stating that perhaps the envisaged memorial should have statues of all the politicians responsible for the aberrations of the last 26 years.
Bhopal is in the news again. And out comes the can of worms. When the terrible tragedy occurred 26 years ago there were no 24/7 news channels, no investigative journalism and all we got were the headlines in papers and the well filtered bulletins on the sole national TV channel. Then over the years small new items, rarely front page ones, informing all of the progress of the judicial process and maybe the protest of the almost voiceless victims. It is only last week that it all came tumbling out making us aghast and angry. We are suddenly privy to the political games, the judicial ones, the corporate ones and the diplomatic games and sadly once again what is enfolding in front of our bewildered eyes is a new cover up game. So committees will be formed and will give their reports and then what…. A few coins will be again handed out with the hope of shutting disturbing and annoying voices and the dark games will carry on.
The games that have been played for the last 26 years are beyond any sane imagination. A very comprehensive article appeared this week in a leading investigative magazine. Read it. It shows how for a few pieces of silver, every thing that is remotely good, fair, human, humane was sacrificed with impunity. How justice was subverted and how even today nothing has changed. The betrayal of hundreds of thousands of voiceless and hopeless victims is so huge that in the words of a leading activist all you can do is laugh helplessly. This activist was a young university student who had gone to Bhopal in 1984 as a relief worker. He never came back and became the voice the desperate victims so needed. I salute Satinath Sarangi. If there were more such children of India, things would be different. But a lone voice, however strong, however brave and however committed does get lost and silenced in the cacophony that has played louder and louder in the last 26 years. What is needed even today to redress the torts, to bring some solace to those who have suffered for so long is many such voices so that all dissonant voices can be silenced once for all. Otherwise all appeals for justice will turn into helpless laughter.
The victims have another reaction while some crushed and defeated wish they too had perished on that fateful night, others ask whether it would have been better if they had picked up a gun! Is this the last resort our democracy offers its people? When all fails – administration, justice, politics – is death the only option?
The writing is again on the wall but are we man enough to stop and read. I know this innocuous blog is not going to make a difference, but I have to write it because I am angry, because I too feel let down, because I want answers and because I have stopped and heard. And also because I have seen first hand how time and again the poor and voiceless get used and abused.
As I write these words, a bunch of politicians are sitting in a huddle trying to set matters right. I wonder what new clean up game is being invented. Somehow I find it hard to believe that justice will finally be delivered and the real culprits made accountable.
When I suggested that we begin environment awareness classes with the tiny tots of pwhy, many were sceptical but when Ma’am decrees what can you say! So the classes begun. Every day for about a quarter of an hour the creche kids were told about why water should not be wasted, why plastic was bad for our planet, why trees were needed and so on. Slowly the initially reluctant teachers got motivated and the children were told what to do in case they saw something that was not right. For instance, they if they saw a tap leaking, the teacher suggested they tell an adult and ensure that the tap was closed properly.
The children listened as they always do, with great concentration. Yet one wondered how much they really imbibed. I was confident that their little brains did process things and that time would tell whether I had been right or not.
Imagine my joy when our creche in charge told me that little Raj, all of 3 years had become a little water warrior. She recounted how a few days back he had gone to the bathroom and come back all agitated mumbling ‘water leak’ ‘water leak’ and tugging at the teacher’s kurta. At first she did not understand what it was all about and even chided him. But Raj did not let go and pulled her pointing towards the bathroom. The teacher followed him and found him showing her the tap that was dribbling a little. She closed it tightly and Raj all smiles clapped in delight. Since that day Raj never fails to point out a leaking tap if he sees one. I wonder whether he does the same at home.
Children are very receptive to such matters. At the women centre we now have quite a few water warriors who have evolved their own ways to save water. Some days back there was just half a can of drinking water left in the centre. Actually our coordinator had hidden the rest as he was irked at the children who threw as much as they drank as they fooled around or spent large amounts of clean drinking water washing the glass after each use. So that day there was no water to drink. When the children asked for water to drink, they were simply told there was none left because it has been wasted unnecessarily. The day was very hot and the children thirsty. The children went back to their class. When it was time to go home, they did not leave but spent time discussing the water issue. Some time later they came to the coordinator and told him they had found a solution. They asked the coordinator to stop allowing children to come and drink at any time but to begin water breaks when all those who needed a drink would go to where the drinking water cans were kept and have a drink.
The new ‘rule’ was adopted and from the next day the centre had drinking breaks. The children would come down and one of them would stand and supervise matters. Children had to drink without placing their lips on the glass so that one did not need to wash it each time, and the supervisor of the day was the one who filled each glass carefully, without any spill and ensured that everyone finished their glass. The system is now in place and works to perfection.
I have always held that change of any kind can only come if we include the smallest, the poorest and the less privileged as an equal partner. Once again I was proved right, or so I would like to believe.