The curious case of the meat cleaver

The curious case of the meat cleaver

One of the first ‘demands’ of parents of the slum where we began our work way back in 2000 was to teach their children English! Somehow these illiterate parents knew intuitively that knowing English would give their children a better start in life. We heeded to their request and as you well know by now the first ‘centre’ that we opened was a spoken English class that catered to about 40 students of all ages. I must say with some amount of pride that a large chunk of our first band speak good English and are gainfully employed. In those days classes were taken by a group of volunteers from the other side of the fence and thus their English was to say the least spot on!

Over the years Project Why mutated into a after school support operation and a well thought model was evolved that was based on employing local talent, thus people from the other side of the fence. Our mission was to ensure good results in school and contain drop outs. The space for English was thus restricted. International volunteers were assigned that task it was quasi impossible to find people who spoke good English willing to work at salaries we offered and in the conditions we worked in. In spite of this, our children are quite proficient in the language.

That English gives you a better start in life is a reality we are all aware of. However today’s blog is about how little knowledge of the language can land you in big trouble. There was a news item is yesterday’s paper that illustrates perfectly what I am trying to say. Here is an abridged version of the tale. Two young girls were carrying raw meat in their bag, probably their dinner. They were stopped by the officer in charge of the scanner. A journo decided to intervene and ask why meat that was neatly packed could not be carried in the metro. The man said it was a banned item and showed him a list of banned items pointing at the item: meat cleaver. The journo tried to explain that meat and meat cleaver were two different things but the man would not hear anything. The matter was taken to a superior and the girls were allowed in. However the man was still insisting he was right and the matter got out of hand with the poor journo being roughed up!

My first reaction was how come a meat cleaver appeared on the list of banned items. I guess it must be a lost borrowed from another country. And I agree that meat cleavers should not be allowed. But what this incident shows is that little knowledge is dangerous. The person manning the scanner did know the word ‘meat’ but had no idea of what a cleaver was. I do agree that ‘cleaver’ is not a word that appears in school books frequently but then I think the staff has to be trained and shown what the banned items are, or maybe one should add a picture of the items to overcome language inadequacies.

I felt sorry for the poor journo who was being gallant and a good Samaritan, but the incident brought a smile on my face and the inevitable reaction on the stupidity of the administration.

Rani – a lesson in compassion

Rani – a lesson in compassion

The very first day I started visiting the Kalka temple every morning at 7am, my attention was drawn to a woman many would called a beggar as that is how she supports herself. But I was drawn to her as to me she seemed regal and beautiful in a haunting way. On days when I did not see her,I would look for her and if I did not find her, I would leave a tad disappointed. Each time I saw her, sitting and sipping tea, talking to someone or just standing I would wish her with a loud: Jai Mai Ki! I was sort of mesmerised by her. She was always impeccably dressed in the brightest of colours, squeaky clean – not and easy task in this environment – and smiling. Sometimes I would slip her a few rupees which she accepted with extreme dignity, making me feel grateful. As days went by we used to exchange a few pleasantries. I must confess I looked forward to these small trysts. I was dying to hear her story but never asked anything for fear of offending her.

A few days back she stopped me. She wanted to ‘introduce’ me to her niece. She told me the little girl was orphaned and was being badly treated by the relatives she was living with. Bhavna is nine and a lovely child. She asked me if I could give the child some clothes as she only had the one she was wearing. She also told me that the child would be leaving soon. The nest day I gave her some money to buy the girl some clothes. I also asked her what her name was and how come she had landed in the temple. She did not tell me much but told me her name: Rani. Rani means queen in hindi, what else could she have been named.

Two days ago she told me she had decided not send Bhavna back but to keep her with her as she wanted her to get an educations. She asked me to help her do so. While we were talking a few of the regular beggars gathered around supporting her decision to ‘adopt’ Bhavna and offering to help in every way they could.

I could barely hold my tears. Of course we would help this child. But what moved me was how the very people we reject and sneer at, the ones that live on her so called ‘charity’  had a heart far larger than those who live behind gates or in impregnable mansions.

It was the biggest lesson in compassion I have received. Bless Rani to have allowed me to tiptoe into their world. I am humbled.

PS: this is not the best picture of my friend Rani. Will get a better one some day!

One proud maam’ji

One proud maam’ji

Utpal won two medals in a skating event held by a  local skating club. It was a national (!) event as there were participants from other states. Utpal life on skates is a long saga. In the summer of 2011, when he was very disturbed and almost unmanageable, Radhey his all time pal and my auto rickshaw driver suggested he take skating lessons that were held every evening at a nearby park. After much cajoling and coaxing he agreed. The rest is history. he took to skates like a fish to water and graduated to professional skates in no time. Somehow he felt empowered while skating. At that time his school had skating as an extra curricular activity and Utpal spent all the time he could on his skates. Sadly, for reasons I am unaware of, skating stopped in his school. It was heartbreaking when he brought his precious skates back on a short break. I then decided to make sure he continues skating when home on long breaks.

This summer, it was his pal Radhey who discovered a skating club in the area and Utpal joined it and began skating again. He was soon into figure skating and complex manoeuvres and one fine morning I was told about the competition and the need for dishing out 200 rs to register. I did.  A few days before the event, Utpal got the jitters and started making excuses for not wanting to participate. He did not want not to win! It was time to talk about winning and losing and the importance of participating regardless. It worked and Utpal participated in the event and won two medals. We were all thrilled and so was he as he proudly strutted around the house showing his medals to every one!

It has been a difficult year for me on the home front and moments of joy have been far and few. The two medals were much needed balm to a hurting soul. But more than that, they were the gentle reminders I needed to find the strength and the courage to carry on as I must admit there have been times during the last 12 months when I have been on the brink of looking at winding up pwhy, as I have been unable to give it the time it deserves. My team has been ace and has kept the project alive and kicking but the Damocles sword of funds still hangs and the sustainability plan is still just that a plan!

Sometimes one wonders how things should end. (apologies but thoughts of the Dark Angel have been up most on my mind). Life is replete with endings and new beginnings. The wise know that. Many early civilisations and even our own gave the choice of deciding when to proceed to the forests or the mountains. I have always wished for an exit with dignity for those I love. I realise that I want the same for project why. But the two little medals were a gentle reminder that there was still more to be done before the last hurrah

We have come a long way Popples and I. When I first saw him, I could have never imagines that the little bonny chap being bathed every morning in front of what used to be my office would one day become an integral part of my life. He had to suffer excruciating physical pain and tormenting mental hurt before he did become part of us but the way is still long and before my last hurrah, his life has to be secured. If I am to be worthy of being Maam’ji, then there is a long way to go. But what is important is to start planning for all eventualities now. Yes I am a proud Maam’ji with all it entails.

Buy me a ride

Buy me a ride

As always Nani was on ride duty yesterday evening! Rides at the Kalka Temple which are my grandson’s preferred ones. And the all time is the ‘jump jump’ which is a big inflatable copy of a  Disney character. It is also Utpal’s all time comfort    place as it has been a constant in his tumultuous life since he was a baby. So it is a place I cannot escape as both my boys love it. The strange thing is that it grows on you once you get past the initial shock as it is a place that aggresses all your senses    with a indescribable violence, leaving you gasping for breath. If you are brave enough survive the initial shock and set your apprehensions aside, you are in for an unforgettable experience. The place is magic and grows on you as the squalor you first see surreptitiously gets replaced by the intensity and fervour of the faith of everyone around.

A visit to the Temple can be a family outing. Women dressed in glittering attire, bedecked with jewels, children in their Sunday clothes coming to pay hommage to the Goddess who is not easy to access. Sometimes the wait in the queue can be for hours at end, but no one minds. Strewn along the way are shops selling ritual offerings, but also drink and food and of course toys! After paying obeisance to the Goddess it is time to relax and enjoy: a stop at one of the many eateries offering a varied fare, shopping for religious ware of all kind, from idols to incense; succumbing to the constant tug at your clothes and whining demand and purchasing a toy or stopping at the rides, the options are varied and numerous. Certain days are busier than others.

Amidst all, the visitors are the ‘residents’ of the Temple. I do not mean the priests but those that have made the temple their home. The ones that society has marginalised and forgotten. There are the very old and  the disabled but also younger men and women as well as children. The temple premisses gives them not only shelter but allows them to live with the dignity they lots for no fault of theirs. They live their life on terms they may not have chosen but have adapted with grace. In the early mornings when I go to the temple to complete my chalisa (40 days), I have never been asked for money but for a cup of tea, a fruit, a meal, clothes..!

Yesterday, when I was ‘on duty’ at the rides two little girls approached me. They must have been 9 or 10. It is always difficult to guess the right age of One was wearing a worn out municipal school dress. I do not know if she does go to any school. I do not think so. The other girl was wearing a washed out dress of indeterminable colour. Both were bare feet and seemed to belong to the ‘resident’ community and must have left their posts and gone for a stroll. They stood besides me for a long time. Then one of them mustered up the courage to ask the question they had been dying to: buy us a ride! Those three little words brought to fore in an instant the terrible reality we are all guilty of: letting down the children of India born on the wrong side of the invisible fence, in spite of all the highfalutin  schemes and laws that are so eagerly shoved down our throats by wily politicians. We pay the cesses and levies that are dumped on us in the name of education, health, and what not, never wondering why any child should be begging on the streets, or working in a home or in a tea shop!

All children are children and have the same desires and dreams. Be they rich or poor. Buy us a ride is a poignant proof of this sad reality.

I did buy them a ride, or rather many rides! I hope that for those few moments they forgot all their woes and laughed their hearts out the way only children can!

Everybody Loves a Good….

Everybody Loves a Good….

Everybody Loves a Good Drought is a disturbing and thought provoking book written way back in 1996 by P. Sainath. One could substitute drought with flood or any other cataclysmic event. Just like the telling book about hunger, Ash in the Belly, that makes you ashamed of your very existence, Everybody Loves a Drought throws light on the idiocy of what has been termed as development. In a review of the book a reviewer writes Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause. Things have not changed

17 years later the floods that have devastated Uttarkhand must be ‘welcomed’ by many as they will once again be able to feed on disaster like vultures. It is noteworthy that the CEO of the State rushed to the capital to secure as much funds as possible. One would have thought that he would have remained on his turf overseeing rescue operations. The tragedy was waiting to strike. For years the fragile eco system of the region has been violated in as many ways as possible. The efforts of environmentalist to get the zone declared has eco fragile was shot down by politicians. Not heeding warnings and driven by greed, the policy makers and their acolytes went on a development frenzy that blocked the natural flow of the rivers. This is something that seems to be the rule rather than the exception as we have seen in Delhi where the flood plain is brimming with construction. Another view is that the cloudburst was a natural calamity. The author writes : Humans haven’t yet perfected the art of bringing rain, forget about a cloudburst! What he suggests are concrete measures that would ensure proper emergency measures should and when a natural disaster happens. Natural disasters will happen no matter what.

Believe it or not we have a  national disaster management agency headed by our PM and replete with ‘specialists’, experts and bureaucrats and a swanky website! A interesting and revealing post on FB gives a bird’s eye view (pun intended) of the true functioning of the NDMA with a rather grand office in SDA providing sinecures to retired generals, bureaucrats and politicians. One has not heard from them at least not as one should have! However as it is pointed out in the post the members have been on junkets across the globe to ‘study’ disaster management! Yet when ‘they’ are needed one does not hear a squeak from them. As always it the Armed Forces that come to the rescue. The local administration simply crumbles.

Everyone loves a good flood and the writing is on the wall, some of it quite shameful and which shows how defunct we as a nation are of values such as compassion, empathy, kindness, humanity and all the synonyms one can think of. I was horrified and ashamed to hear of the looting pilgrims had to suffer. How can anyone take advantage of suffering and loot unabashedly and with impunity! Women have even been molested and dead bodies looted. But that is the beginning of the loot game. Like in all disasters funds will be diverted and misused as it was after the 2004 tsunami!

And that is not all. As we are in pre elections time, everyone is rearing to get as much political mileage as possible. One senior politician decided to rescue people of his state only! Absolutely unacceptable. Others are seeking as many brownie points as they can accrue. The floods did come at the right time.

Money will pour in. I hope it is not squandered or diverted as some of it is more precious than anything you can imagine like the 20 000 Rs donated by the rag pickers of four states!

Some compassion still exists, albeit in the heart of the poorest. Maybe it is time we learnt from them.