What did you do during your holidays

What did you do during your holidays

What did you do during your holidays is a question that many will ask their buddies when school reopens nest week. The answers one can safely conjure could be: when to the movies, to the mall, to Mac D’s, to visit friends, family and so on. Well two young souls will have quite a different story to tell. Utpal and Kiran spent their holidays teaching project why children. True that these two have practically grown in the project but they also are regular kids who like their outings, their treats and everything children their age revel in, but they also have a huge heart and oodles of compassion.

Utpal turned 10 last week. When back from school he lives at home as decreed by the court. So he comes to the project every day and spends time teaching the little creche children. He invents games for them, helps them colour, teaches them their alphabet and numbers. And he does all this with a smile and for the whole day. It is only in the evenings and on Sundays that he does boy things like riding his cycle, playing with his toys or going to the park. What an incredible bloke!

Kiran his childhood pal is all grown up and a very serious 11 year old. She spends her holidays with her very special pals in the very special section. Actually even when she was a tiny tot she preferred being in this class rather than the creche. These holidays she took became the computer teacher of her special pals. By the way they range in age from 6 to 46! She takes each child and makes them discover the intricacies of the virtual world. No easy task as some cannot hear or speak, others can barely hold the mouse and yet others can barely comprehend things. But Kiran is an exceptional young lady and she takes on every challenge with patience and compassion.

School opens in two days and we will miss our little teachers. And when there friends asked that what they did in the holidays they can proudly saw: we made a difference!

You are simply the best

You are simply the best

“You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”
David Harkins

My best friend died yesterday. I guess I still cannot fathom the magnitude of my loss. I spent a sleepless night foraging the deepest recesses of my mind for memories long forgotten. Life had dealt us a rude blow when a few years back she took ill and withdrew from normal activities and I plunged relentlessly into my new found obsession. We drifted apart. We did meet on a few occasions, promising to see more of each other, to catch up, to reconnect. Alas that did not happen. I guess we thought there was enough time. How wrong we were. Today I cannot even tell her how much I wanted to spend time with her and put forward my terribly paltry excuses knowing she, if no one else, would understand. But that was not to be.
My mind has been on overdrive, recalling all the precious moments we shared and I am amazed at the sheer immensity of what we lived together. We could have met as little girls as our fathers were colleagues. I guess we did meet once of twice when still in our pigtails, but those brief encounters held no meaning. It was much later when I started teaching at the University that life brought made our paths cross and run along side. Believe it or not she was my student and an exasperating one at that, coming to class late a mug of coffee in hand. It was much later that I discovered that she had a young child and was a master at multitasking! Yes my friend was a free spirit in every way imaginable. Some would call her marginal, others avant garde. She wore green nail paint at a time no one did, and parrot shaped earrings that I got her from Mauritius that no one I know would have dared adorn. But she did with poise and elegance. She was unique. 
The student teacher relationship soon turned into a one of a kind friendship. I do not know how we became soul mates but we did, though everything screamed to the contrary. We were as different as chalk and cheese but put us together and we became one. The next years were a roller coaster ride. I left teaching and embarked on a new career. When I decided to set up my own conference services she was right there with me providing the sane counterpoint to my impulsive ways. I could have never succeeded had she not been around to slow me down. How can I forget the nights and days and nights spent in Conference venues drinking bad coffee and getting documents ready in time; the cold and foul chicken pakoras that made me sick each time I ate them ( I was to discover much later that I was actually pregnant); the long waits in the dark of night,in true Sherlock Holmes style, to trap the person who would clear much delayed payments. How can I forget these wonderful moments shared with her. Each one a perfect cameo worthy to be enacted. Those were the Conference years never to be forgotten.
In the midst of these mad years, our families too connected, our children became best friends. She somehow managed to juggle all responsibilities far better than I ever could. It was thanks to her that my kids visited museums, went to festivals and fairs. I never seemed to have or I guess find the time. When my younger daughter went through trying times at school and the tutor I found her was too harsh on her, my friend stepped taking on the persona of Madame Medusa and making learning fun for my troubled child. When I needed a shoulder to cry on she was there whatever the time of day or night. No day was complete without at least 2 or 3 phone calls and thanks heaven in those days of fixed phones local calls were priced @ 30 paise no matter how long you talked. I cannot even begin to remember what was shared in those interminable hours. I only know it felt good.
She was an exceptional soul and the kindest human being that walked this earth. I must admit that I quickly learnt to check myself before expressing a desire as I had found out that she was a true Fairy and fulfilled every wish, no matter how inane. I remember a day when I was opening birthday presents and bickering about the useless gifts I had received. I said, en passant I guess, that I wished people gave you useful things like a month’s groceries! The words were said and forgotten but not by my special fay as lo and behold the next year she descended on my birthday party with carton boxes filled with groceries sufficient for a whole month. She had not even forgotten the matches! That was my friend an angel walking on earth to make it a better place.
But there is more to this incredible woman. She was super talented. A super mom who was always there for her kids and who even baked their birthdays cakes in every shape imaginable whilst I sheepishly ordered mine, she took her kids for music classes, martial art classes, dance classes. I never did. She was a super wife who stood by her man through thick and thin, she was a super friend who in many ways made me who I am.
I had always had a cherished dream: that of writing. At one point of time we were given a carte blanche to produce a magazine and it was a ah ha moment for both of us as she was a prolific writer. I took on the mantle of publisher whatever that meant. We did produce two issues of the magazine that we proudly called Aviva before discovering that the person who had pushed us to do so was actually a fraud and just wanted to avoid taxation. But though the magazine died a silent death we were extremely proud of what we or rather she had produced single handedly. I remember her telling me that to be a successful writer one should write as one spoke. A lesson I never forgot. I did write a book and I wrote it as I would have spoken it. Dear Popples could not have happened if she had no come in my life.
When I set up Project Why she was the first person I turned to but the Fates had other plans. She fell terribly ill and slowly withered away till the fateful day when she left us for a better world. We were not worthy of such a beautiful soul or the Gods had got jealous.
I will always live with the terrible guilt of not having spent more time with her in her last days. Seeing her unwell caused me unendurable pain as I could only remember the vibrant, feisty, spirited and adorable person she was. She will live in my heart till the day we meet again.

All of ten

All of ten

He is all of 10! Has it really been 9 years since this little bundle of joy entered my life. Time has really flown past. Utpal celebrated his 10th birthday in school last week. We will do so on Friday when many of his old pals will be there. By old pals I mean those who have stood by him in all his trials and tribulations and boy he has had more than his share.

It was on Holi 9 years ago that he fell in a boiling pot and his life was transformed forever. Had he not had this ‘baptism by fire’ his life would have been very different. I often find myself wondering what his life would have been had he not fallen in that bubbling cauldron. At best he would have been going to a government school and coming to project why in the mornings. At worst, knowing what his parents were like, he may have been working in a tea shop or simply roaming the streets. But the God of Lesser Beings had other plans.

Utpal’s life changed the day he came back from hospital swathed in bandages practically moribund. It took one look and not only the little one year old’s life changed the fifty year old biddy’s too! The following years could be qualified as ‘combat’ years.  First it was the fight to get the burnt boy back on his feet, the daily agonising dressing of his wound to the sound of Mozart that seemed to soothe the little one, the quotidian chicken broth lovingly prepared at home that he gulped hungrily; the innumerable toys bought to cheer him up as he lay in a cot in my office. This was a fight we won hands down as he gained strength by the minute. Soon the bandages came off leaving ugly scars. But we knew they would heal. And then he starated walking and was soon a student of our creche. I cannot tell you how eager I was to get to work every morning and see his darling face. He had as you may have guessed, walked into my heart.

As Utpal’s life unfolded new battles began. The first one was the offensive against the bottle. His parents were both die hard alkies and though I did not much care about the surrogate father, I wanted to give back to Utpal a recovered mom. The first step was to give her a job and we did but the adversary was too strong. I remember the days she came drunk and we had to send her back; the days when I decided to pay the family a home visit and saw little Utpal running on his pudgy legs to hide the remains of the night’s revelry. I remember the days when the little fellow told me with a serious face that his mom had been ‘naughty’ again, his word for drinking. I remember the day when he told me that his new motorcycle, a gift for hsi 4th birthday had gone. It had been sold for a few bottles of hooch. And I can never forget the day I was told that men had come to their home and while one stayed back with the mom, the other took Utpal out for a ‘walk’. That day I knew that we had to change battle plans. I spent the night browsing the net for a rehab centre and also for a boarding school for the tiny brave heart. This battle was also won as I found both. The mom was checked into rehab and Utpal would go to school the coming July. I felt on cloud nine and started conjuring grandiose dreams: the mom would be in recovery and we we would give her a home and a job at our newly opened women centre – guess one of the reasons for the centre was Utpal’s mom – Utpal would spend his holidays with his mom and life would follow on an even keel. How naive I was was soon to be revealed.

Whilst Utpal, in spite of his young age, took to his new life like a fish to water, the mom was another story. To sum it up swiftly let me just say that we went through three rehabs, a stay at the psychiatric hospital as she was discovered to be bipolar, harrowing times when all hell broke loose. The end came when she decided to revert to her old life and rejoin her drinking partner. The following months were nothing short of a nightmare: when Utpal came from school his parents would turn predators using the child to extort money for their beloved bottle. Utpal was in pain and I a mess. We both prayed for his return to school and for sanity. The battle was slipping out of our hands.

This is when we decided to seek the help of the law and to my delight the experience I had dreaded was rather easy and comforting. It did require a few visits to the children’s court that were not pleasant particularly for Utpal who had to make the tough decision to choose between his mom and us. He did. He chose us. The paper work was completed and I was declared ‘person deemed fit’ to care for him. It was a battle won but only time would tell the price at which the victory came.

We again believed that all was in the bag and we could resume our lives but that was not to be. Utpal’s mom who realised that she had no more to gain simply vanished leaving a little boy bewildered, hurt and confused.  Unable to express his feelings he regressed and withdrew. His grades fell and his behaviour became impossible. He turned aggressive, non compliant, demanding. It was pure hell. He refused to engage in any conversation or share his feelings. It was time to act. We first sought the help of a psychologist but the initial sessions were nothing short of a nightmare. We had to move a step further and seek the help of a child psychiatrist. We did. It was a miracle. He was put on mild medication and more sessions with the psychologist. Slowly things fell in place and once again the little boy I had fallen in love with re-emerged from the dark clouds he had hidden behind. Today Utpal is once again whole. Some questions still need to be addressed but I know the answers will be found.

Utpal’s first ten years on this planet have been tumultuous and traumatic. I truly admire him for having withstood them with courage and fortitude. He now enters the second decade of his life as I enter my seventh. At the end of this decade he will be a man. I wonder whether I will be around to see him become one. I would so like to but that is not in my hands. Today as he sleeps in my home I can only pray to the Gods of all Pantheons to walk with him and guide him. He is a blessed child: the child of none and all. 

Bring nani here.. the magic of the internet

Bring nani here.. the magic of the internet

My grandson has moved thousands of miles away but he is with me in my bedroom twice a day: early morning and again in the evening. Who cares if everything is a little topsy turvy as it is morning here and evening there and we get mixed up on the good mornings and good evenings so sticks to Namaste or Manaste using Agastya’s language! Sitting on my bed I can see him getting ready, eating breakfast or dinner, prancing about his home. Last week he was on his potty and on hearing my voice shouted: bring Nani here! His mom obliged and took the laptop to the loo. Come to think about it barring the fact that I cannot hug and cuddle him, I have my darling boy with me. This is the magic of the wireless Internet.

Rewind to time when we were in Prague and the children were 10 and 4. My parents lived in the very house where I carry my daily virtual love affair with Agastya but things were different. In those days the only way grandparents connected with grandchildren were letters and the special day phone call which were more of a screaming session where nothing much was said. On festivals, birthdays and anniversaries after carefully calculating time differences one ‘booked’ a call. Then one could do nothing but wait and it could take any amount of time. When the phone rang the operator went through the motions of stating your number, asking if you had booked a call and then eventually connecting you. By the time every one had said their hellos, and it could take some time, the conversation would be interrupted by the operator with an annoying: 3 minutes over, do you want to extend.  Needless to say you promptly said yes, but somehow the flow was broken and one ended up having a dissatisfying conversation that often ended with a: I will write to you. In between phone days your time was spent writing letters and waiting for the postman.

Rewind to times when I was a child and lived with my parents away from India. Then the connection with grandparents was letters brought by the diplomatic pouch once a week. Letters my mother read to me. The only think I remember vividly was that my Nani wrote in red ink. When I was big enough to write, I too wrote my weekly letter to my Nani under my mother’s supervision. My Nani passed away when I was six years old. My memories of her are from the one visit to her home when I was 4. Earlier than that I was too young to have any memories. But somehow in those short two months she smothered me with enough love to last a lifetime.

Many may have issues with the net, but for this Nani it is God sent!

Industries in which very heavy types of raw material are used are known as heavy industry

Industries in which very heavy types of raw material are used are known as heavy industry

Industries in which very heavy types of raw material are used are known as heavy industry. This is not a joke! This is the definition of heavy industry as it appears in the class VIII book of the Punjab School Education Board. God help the children of India as this is not the only aberration one finds in text books across the land. A recent article in a weekly tells how schools are becoming laboratories of disaster in which children are being fed not just inaccurate information but also politically coloured rendition of reality.

The examples given in the said article are numerous, each more preposterous than the other: from to historical bloopers, grammatical slip ups and glaring omissions making a history professor call the text books disabling ones and state that they (the students) would be better off not reading such books. These text books are published by state education boards and used by the poorest students.

In the same magazine is another article by an eminent educationist entitled: the primary crime. It is not, as one may construe from the title, a write up on murder or theft. The article recounts the sorry state of primary teachers in our country. The author states quite justifiably that primary teaching is the last resort in the quest for employment. And all primary teachers have only one objective in mind: to move up. A nation’s economic and social well being depends on the quality of its pre-primary and primary education. Alas that is not the case in India. Primary teachers are often the least paid and the least respected. In certain states primary classes were taught by para teachers with fancy names – shiksha mitra, guruji, vidya volunteers – who were often paid a fraction of what the regular salary. This drama has been going on for a decade resulting in a whole generation of children with poor literacy and numeric skills.  And now to meet the new student teacher  ratio of 1.30 that is supposedly to be implemented by 2013 states have resorted to distance mode teaching. One can only imagine the results of such an enterprise. It is time we restored the dignity of the primary school teacher.

I wonder how each one of us who belong to a ‘certain’ strata of society would react if our daughter decided to marry a primary school teacher! We all know the answer. On the other hand we have had over the last decade volunteers from many parts of the planet studying in top institutions who want to be primary school teachers. One such volunteer is a Rhodes Scholar! But I cannot in my wildest dream conjure any of the young off springs of family and ‘friends’ deciding to become primary school teachers! It is sad as good primary teachers are the need of the hour. Imagine the difference it would make to the life of a slum child if her teacher was one of us. Dream on Anou!

The Right to Education took an incredibly long time to legislate. But how can the children of India aspire to quality education if there are no quality teachers. If nothing is done to set up enabling infrastructure, correct and accurate text books and train caring and motivated teachers willing to take on the challenge of educating the poorest of the poor, then the Right to Education will simply be another meaningless peace of legislation.

Note: the articles referred to in this blog appeared in India Today (March 19th). I was unable to find them on the Internet.