My magnum opus and my swan song

My magnum opus and my swan song

I have always called Project Why, my magnum opus and my swan song, and often at the close of each year I found myself wondering whether these two images do really hold true. With age catching up and time flying at an unstoppable speed, pwhy is definitely my swan song. The question is whether  the final curtain call will be a success or not.

When I look back at the wonderful journey that began 15 years ago, I have no doubt in saying that in spite of some choppy seas, and even some terrible storms, our ship sailed on course and we were able to fulfil what is known in NGO parlance as ones ‘mission’. I do not know how many mission statements I have had to write, and perhaps as we are an organic organisation, there would have been some variants but the real mission, the one that stemmed from the depth of my soul and my heart and was probably never stated, has been the one that has propelled my sails. Project Why was meant to be my way of paying back a debt I have always felt I owed. Privileges that came my way because one day a man sailed on a slave ship and set roots in another land enabled me to be to the manor born; the privileges that came my way because a woman decided not to marry so as to not give birth to a child in an enslaved country and because two wonderful souls that took almost four decades to meet, decided that their child who was born and who grew up in foreign lands would be as passionate about India as they were; and above all because what I saw when I returned to a land I had only seen through the eyes of my parents was not the one I had dreamt of. Something was terribly wrong. But even to get to the moment I could open the eyes of my heart took many years of being so wrapped up in career and family.

The demise of those who had taught me everything and years of locking myself in my grief made  my world darker and darker to the point when I saw and felt nothing at all. It would take a broken beggar and his heart wrenching cries to jolt me out of my inertia and open the eyes of my heart. But more than that to steer me on the way of paying back that debt!

Fifteen years later I do not know where I have reached in this long journey. I guess that I can never pay back the entire debt in the short time I have at my disposal. But a tiny part of it has been paid in the small achievements we have realised: be it the fact that the beggar lived and died loved and cared for, that a little scalded little boy every one had given up on is now a young teenager; that so many children who would have dropped out from school are now doing incredibly well; that a young boy born on the roadside is now an international ramp model. But most of all that a bunch of special children, the kind many shun, have a place where they can spend a few hours surrounded by love and laughter.

So does this allow me to call pwhy my magnum opus. I would like to believe so. More so because it has brought into my once lonely life a bouquet of wonderful souls from all over the world who have given me so much love and trust. I now have a family, my family, the project why family and its DNA is that every member sees with his or her heart.

But the journey has not ended. For pwhy to be my  magnum opus and swan song, I need to ensure that the future of this family is secured even after I take my last bow.

As 2014 ends…

As 2014 ends…

It is that time of the year when one writes a year end message, so here is my take!

2014 can best be described as a sabbatical year, when one took ‘leave’ from one’s customary work to review achievements and failures and take remedial measures where needed. It was also a year when we took stock of our strengths, identified our weaknesses. A true SWOT Analysis moment.

 2013 had been a year when my husband’s cancer compelled me to take a back seat and leave the project in the hands of my terrific staff. In hindsight this forced leave of mine was God sent as it impelled my staff to act as independently as possible as they did not want to ‘disturb’ me in any manner. So when earlier they would call at the drop of a hat if faced with a problem, they now looked for solutions independently and more often than not found one that bettered mine! Come to think of it, I did feel a little forgotten. All for a good cause though! This gave them increased confidence and validated yet again, my decision to employ people from within the community.

It was soon evident that the only lacuna was fund raising, a task I had appropriated for far too long and that had over the years taken on a distinct Anou imprint! The skills I used were unfortunately skills that one could not pass on to another. One could I teach my gift for the gab or my obsession with words! Fund raising was undoubtedly our biggest weakness and threatened our very existence and thus needed to be addressed urgently. The urgency was further heightened when we lost a large chunk of the monthly donation of one of our important donors. The reason for this reduction was the drop in tourism following the rape of a foreign national from the country of origin of our donor. This brought to the fore the fragility of our funding model and required some serious thinking.

It is true that most of our donations come from outside India as we have not been able to muster a donor base within India. This was not for want of trying as when Project Why was set up I had wanted to launch what I called a one-rupee-a-day campaign which enabled each and every one to be a donor. It was very naive of me, more so in a city like Delhi which seems to have lost the ability to see with its heart and who also found the one rupee idea infradig! The campaign was resuscitated a couple of times in years to come but always met with the same fate.

Many organisations get substantial funds from Corporates and Big Businesses, but this needs you to be Page 3 worthy, and a recluse like me was not up to the mark. Perhaps I should have polished my dancing shoes and got the war paint out! But that was not to be, so we had to walk another path and we did.

The husband’s cancer also made me realise the true meaning of the saying: Man proposes, God disposes. No one is eternal and the wise need to accept this indubitable fact and take the right decisions. It was time that fund raising was revisited in the light of the skills of those who would be carrying the torch forward.

Rani and Dharmendra attended a week long fund raising workshop and though they learnt many finer points, they were a little weary of some of the suggestions that either required substantial investment or sounded too impersonal and thus went against what Project Why stood for. They both agreed that getting a call centre to spout a sales pitch from a written text, without ever having see pwhy, was not what we stood for. It was back to the drawing board and the need to evolve an in house model that would sensitise people around us.

There is a God, one I have oft called God of Lesser Beings but now plan to rechristen God of Project Why, who watches from the wings and appears out of the blue to help us. The visit of a long time supporter and dear friend brought into our lives the till now elusive Corporates, but these were special: they saw with their heart. And that was not all. My one in many moons appearance at a diner saw me seated next to a young man who is also a honcho but again one who sees with his heart, and he too has promised to help. So we did find a backdoor entry into the hallowed corporate portals and I did not need my war paint and high heels. I hope and pray that this will be the miracle we longed for.

I cannot end this message without sharing the update on Planet Why! Many of you know of this sustainability dream of mine where we had hoped to build a green guesthouse the proceeds of which would have run Project Why. Many of you also know that though we were able to raise the money for the land, I was not able to secure the funds to build. Some time back we had begun thinking of selling the land that had appreciated substantially and purchase a smaller plot in the vicinity of our women centre as we are on the verge of losing our tenancy. Yet for the past year we have not been able to sell our land as the property rates have fallen. I wonder whether there is another reason for the obstacles that are coming our way in this matter. We will continue our efforts and wait for the opportune moment.

I just realised that this long message has not touched upon the day-to-day activities of the project. This is because every thing has been running like a clockwork orange and without a murmur. All examinations have been passed, all Boards cleared, outings organised, workshops conducted, visitors received, volunteers welcomed! Project Why runs almost on auto pilot. All I can say is Chapeau Bas to the children and the team!

We await 2015 with bated breath. May it bring new avenues, new hope and above all the answers we seek.

December 2014

The God to whom I Pray

The God to whom I Pray

I am a Hindu. I am Hindu not simply because my parents were Hindus, but because I chose to be one. I was privileged to grow up in various countries and thus various religions. Since my early childhood I had friends who were Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist but above all were my friends. To me as a child their religion only manifested itself during festivals that each had lots of goodies to eat. Mama use to celebrate all Hindu festivals at home – I came to know later in life that she herself was not into ‘rituals’ but did it all for her me – and I too had my goodies to share with my friends. Actually it was fun to have friends with diverse faiths. If I had questions, she would answer them. She simply set the stage for the questions to emerge.

Rebellious as I was, I was soon to challenge my religion in my own puerile way. It all began with me wanting to go to church with my friends, or to fast with my Muslim friends. Each time I asked mama, she would smile and tell me to go right ahead but not to do anything that would hurt the other person. So I went to church, and whenI wanted to taste the holy Host, I even found a Priest who agreed that I do so after I ‘confessed’. I also fasted during the Ramadan and broke fast with my friends and I cannot remember how many Sabbath meals I shared with my Jewish friends. So I grew up believing that Hinduism was a wow religion as it allowed you to believe in all faiths. And was this not also a religion that gave you so many Gods to chose from! There was no doubt in my mind: I would be a Hindu.

To be being a Hindu, or of any other faith, is a personal matter that is between me and my God, and remains in the confines of my home. So I spent a large part of my life comfortable in the faith I had made mine, interpreting it my way. The first blow I received was when the Babri masjid was destroyed. It did not make sense at all as I had gown up respecting all places of worship, and destroying a House of God was anathema. But I did not feel the need of rejecting my faith.

Religion is a personal matter and should remain so. But as Marx rightly said religion is the opium of the masses and is used by rulers of all hues to make people feel better about the distress they experience. Today it is a political tool that has gone out of hand.

In the name of religion innocent are murdered. In the name of religion political agendas are set. In the name of religion gullible people are duped by so called god men. Come to think of it you can do almost any and everything in the name of religion and get away with it.

The recent conversion issue is again a gimmick that does not make much sense to me.

First of all the word ‘Hindu’ is according to me a misnomer. Our religion should be known as Vedism as it emanates from the Vedas. I guess one can safely say that once upon a time all humans followed either Vedism or Judaism and all other religions stemmed from these two. Most of the new religions were some from of reaction to the two mother religions.

The recent conversion drama talks of ‘home coming’. If this were to be applied to the T,  then everyone should revert to the two mother religions!

What is frightening is that this new avatar of Hinduism is breeding hate, mistrust and suspicion. Let us not forget that most of what we call ‘new’ religions happened when an existing religion did not meet the aspirations of people. Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism were off shoots of Vedism and Protestantism occurred when Catholicism became too lofty, and what about the Anglican Church that saw the light of day because a King fell in love!

But let us come back to today and all this talk of conversion and home coming and similar nonsense. If ones religion seems unfair as has been the case with Hinduism when it closes its doors to certain class of people, it is quite understandable that you embrace a religion that treats you better. Many conversions in India happened because of this. Then there are those seek to convert you by wooing you. I know of a mother who converted to Christianity because she was promised help for the treatment of her child. She did so after knocking at many doors that refused to open. I remember having been asked to convert to Catholicism way back in the sixties when I attended a convent school. What was offered in exchange was that I would be allowed to jump a class. Being who I am, I was indignant and of course refused vehemently. A year later, when I changed school because of my father’s new posting I jumped a class on merit!

Religion is a wonderful tool to manipulate people. Whereas it should be used in the right way, it is far too often used to fulfil personal agendas be they political or self gratifying. This is evident in the on-going inane debate on conversion as well as the plethora of self styled God men that are proliferating everywhere. I wish they would use their power to do good to society.

My father always said that there is no difference between a good Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew or even an atheist. I wish we preached this indubitable reality. Any religious interpretation that preaches hate cannot be true.

Sadly, the hold religion has on people, particularly simple and illiterate people is monumental and thus it is easy to manipulate them to do anything. The most horrific and recent example of this is the slaying of innocent school children last week in Pakistan. It was done in the name of a God. Many monstrous acts are done in the name of religion.

Maybe it is time that those who proclaim themselves to be guardians of different faiths should introspect and see where it all went astray and take remedial measures. To my mind it is totally absurd to pour milk over images of God in a land where 5000 children die every day of malnutrition. I am sure the same God would feel far better served if the same milk was fed to a hungry child rather than thrown in a drain. There are many such examples but I think I have made my point.

For those of us who have a modicum of intelligence and common sense, it is time to look at our faith and raise a dissenting voice if we feel the need.

As for me, I found my God in the eyes of all the children I have been blessed with. I do not need to seek Him or Her in stone images and places of worship. The God to whom I pray is the one who reaches out to me each and every time I seek help to continue the task given to me as a blessing by this very God.

I remain a Hindu. Does not my faith allow me to give God the image I want, and what better image than the trusting eyes of a little child. She is the God to whom I pray.

They are your family

They are your family

When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they are your family wrote Jim Butcher. These words take a poignant meaning when applied to my darling Popples. There are few in this world whose like goes to hell from the word go. Born in a dysfunctional family where violence was the rule and not the exception, he fell into a booing wok and had a close brush with death. I guess God had a change of mind and that is why he brought onto his life an eclectic bunch of people whose mission was to heal his wounds with love and tenderness. He toddled through his first years with love in the day and violence at night, the kind of violence that comes with the bottle, not the one babies drink, but the one adults fall prey to. There were nights without food, nights where the tiny child got beaten, nights where you were dragged to the cop station and only God knows what you witnessed. At the age of three, he knew that he had to hide the empty bottles when I came visiting and would run ahead of me on his chubby legs to hide them as best he could.

We watched all this in mute silence till it became so deafening that one had to act. In a single day he lost what had been his home and family. He was just four. A few months later he was admitted to a boarding school and was safe. But then came the holidays and the violence again as he became the soft target that could be used to extract pennies for a few more bottles. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how many rehabs we sent his mom too, the bottle always prevailed. Once again the silence was deafening and we had to take out the big guns. He became my legal ward. He was eight. His mother simply vanished.

A few months later he became difficult and aggressive and we were at a loss. The unvoiced and thus unanswered questions in his little head took their toll, and were not equipped to get him to voice them  and thus answer them. He went into counselling.

In his holidays he came to home to me, and though my love was unequivocal. there were others at home that had to be won over. Slowly and patiently the little chap worked his magic. It is true that for some it took longer than for others.

But that was not all. At school he had to deal with bullying because of his scars. When it became unbearable and the school remained insensitive, came another deafening cry. Mercifully the ruler he chose to auto mutilate was blunt.

We changed his school and he seemed happier, but the questions were still there; still unvoiced. He was assigned a mentor and last month he finally broke his silence when he asked about his family. He had opened the channel of communication and it was time he was told his story. And who better than his Maam’ji to do that.

I must admit I was nervous and scared. I knew that I held the key to his morrows. Mercifully I had a peg to start the talk: a family tree as part of his homework.

We sat at our work table and I asked him if he had any questions about his family. He hung his head down and was on the verge of withdrawing, a coping strategy he often resorts too when he is uncomfortable. If I diddled too long, I would lose the moment so I began telling him his story from the first day I met him, a few days prior to his accident. I spoke softly choosing the right words and making sure that he spoke only the absolute truth. After a few moments he looked at me and said: this is a film story. Yes little fellow it is. But we carried on till the moment when I had no option but to talk about his mother and her disappearing. I told him I did not know where she was but also added that she knew he was safe and loved. After some time he looked at me and said: I know where she is! My heart missed a beat and I waited with bated breath for his answer. She is in front of the biscuit shop he quipped with a smile.

Tears welled in my eyes. I stopped them just in time. I did not want him to see me cry. The last home he shared with his mother was indeed located next to a biscuit shop but that was not all. He associates his mother with biscuits as she always bought him some. I knew how much biscuits and mom are synonymous in his life but I was still taken aback when this morning he asked for biscuits and tea for his breakfast. Needless to say that is what he got.

It was now time to make his family tree and as advised by the counsellor, I waited for him to take the lead. He did and soon emerged the most beautiful tree you could ever imagine as it defied every single canon that defines a family. If I am Maam’ji and Nani (maternal grandmother), then my husband is Dadu (paternal grandfather). My son-in-law is Bapu (the name my grandson call him by and a decision taken by the three of them) but my two daughters are Didis or big sisters., and my grandson is his little brother. Then there are all those who love and care for him: Deepak (big brother), Radhey simply Radhey, Dharmendra (paternal uncle) and mamaji (maternal uncle). That is his Indian family but there is also Xavier who is his French God father and Clarissse his French God mother. That is where it stopped at least for now. It is now left to me to put that in a family tree! What we knows deep in his heart is that we are all there for him and will never walk away.

He is safe and loved. We are his family!

You become responsible forever for what you have tamed

You become responsible forever for what you have tamed

Today I face the most momentous challenge of my existence. And as always in times of trials and tribulations my thoughts steered me to the magical book that has stood me fast in all such moments. You guessed right: The Little Prince. Today, I must muster and conjure the wisdom of the Fox who gave the Little Price. In this wonderful fable the Fox not only teaches the Little Prince the meaning of friendship but is also willing to sacrifice this friendship to the alter of responsibility, the responsibility he has towards his rose waiting for him on his planet. You become responsible forever for what you have tamed. Never have these words seemed as poignant as today.

I have been worried about my ‘rose’ a.k.a. Popples for quite some time. He has been moody, mildly aggressive and binging on food. After having rule out all physical probabilities it all seems to stem from deep seated emotional issues that he is unable to voice. His counsellor feels that it is time to tell him his story.

Call it serendipity at work but one of the home tasks he has to do for his holiday homework is to make a family tree in French! This may tune out to be the ideal situation to address all the issues that seem to be tormenting him and forcing him to resort to damaging coping strategies.

So in a few hours I will sit with him and we will work on his very special family tree. I think I will adopt Socrates’s Maieutic method. I will try and have him come up with questions and answer them truthfully.

The challenge is to keep a balance between what he has lost and what he has gained, hoping that the scales will tilt in favour of the gains.

He needs tone told that he is safe, and loved and will always be so.

We will make a family tree that will be very special as most of the relationships will be based on choices and labelled by him. We will break many social norms, but who cares. What matters is that the tree will have strong roots and that every branch and leaf that stem out of it will be steeped in love.