The Yamuna Project, the al fresco dining and a little about giving

The Yamuna Project, the al fresco dining and a little about giving

The new project that was inaugurated last week has been christened! It’s Godfather is none other than our staunchest supporter and the name he chose was: The Yamuna Project. I am so glad he did as I got a bit lost and over the top with options like: ‘in the fields’ or ‘by the riverside’! Today was a special day as thanks to a wonderful soul who truly sees with his heart: the Yamuna Project children had their first lunch. This person  I must ask him whether I can use his name – has promised a hot lunch six days a week for these lovely kids. On the menu today was kidney beans curry, potato and cauliflower curry, rice and chapatis. The food was delicious as was duly reported to me by Xavier who had a bite, and he is a connoisseur of Indian food.

So this little project that landed in our arms thanks to our kind landlord is well on its way and I hope that many will support it. These children are undoubtedly from the end of spectrum. They do not even exist on paper. They world is limited to a 1 km radius.

 I can keep saying that I will not increase the size of pwhy; someone else decides its destiny. The location of this project is idyllic if you set aside the stark reality that surrounds it. You lunch under a tree, in the midst of green fields, with a breeze flowing from the river and the chirping of birds. It is the best al fresco dining experience. I hope I will be able to spend some time there.

But I had to give it a miss today as we had some visitors and potential donors coming to see Okhla. They were extremely kind and very appreciative of our work and wanted to help but there was a catch: they belonged to an organisation that has its set of rules and specific areas where they can help and sadly as always we were not a perfect match.

They very kindly offered to give a ‘scholarship’ to one child per class. This once again brought to the fore my reluctance and I must say that of my team too, to the idea of singling out one child. In my humble and responsible opinion sponsorships are not ideal for the beneficiary though rewarding to the donor. I let my team battle it out and decided to spend some time with the secondary kids. On the spur of the moment I asked them how they felt about one kid being singled out and the concerted reaction was a big NO! I told them that to me each one of them was excellent in his or her own way and thus deserved the best. If one was good in her or his studies, then the other was good in drawing, singing or sports, and what about the one who was always willing to help. It was the right time to talk about the danger of dividing, be it a class, a family or society. That was the first step to its destruction. The children agreed and many gave their opinion. It was a rewarding experience.

Donors often do not understand the finer points and even dangers of what to them is a gesture of kindness. Wanting to reward one child entails many possible scenarios. First of all in our case as pwhy is free it would be difficult to put a ‘tag’ on the cost of a child. At best a school bag, some clothes, books…a treat! But then ask yourself how the other children would feel. And ultimately the beneficiary may find herself isolated by her peer group. But that is not all. Should we accept the offer we would have a posse of angry mothers at our doorstep the next morning asking why their kid was not given the bag etc. And then in a jiffy all that ails India would spew out: caste, religion, state of origin, you name it.

Till date I have been blessed by donors who have trusted me implicitly and in some cases even convinced their Board of Directors to bend rules as they felt that the money given was always used with utmost honesty. They have never questioned my decisions but lauded them. And that is the way I want it to remain as that is the spirit of project why, one that I have kept alive with utmost love.

So instead of helping one child per class, it would be so much better and wiser to sponsor the salary of one teacher: that would mean helping 40 kids! But then in the lexicon of organised donor agencies, the word salary is anathema. Never mind if the teacher in question comes from the same social strata as the children she teaches and her salary keeps her kitchen fire going.

Giving has to be for the right reasons. There are many quotes on ‘giving’ but the one that has always touched me is Jack London’s: A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside

Normally I have no problem in writing about any and everything that comes my way. But yesterday for the very first time I was overwhelmed by a surge of emotions that I was unable to process, let alone put down in writing. It is now time to share this unique experience and I hope that my words will do justice to story I am about to tell. When faced with a succession of intense feelings, it is sometimes wiser to take a deep breath and reign in the desire to follow your heart to let reason speak. So let me narrate things as they happened. A few days ago Dharmendra told me about a man who was teaching some children in the proximity of our women centre and needed some support. This had been told to him by our landlord who owns some tracts of agricultural land on the bank of the river and the children in question were the kids of the people who tended to his land on a contractual basis. This was all double Dutch to me as till date I was not aware of the existence of the rural side of the very city I lived in. My first reaction was to say the least not very enthusiastic as keeping pwhy on course was enough of a challenge and the thought of a new item in our budget was anathema. But Dharmendra is not one to give up and if anyone sees with his heart deeper than me, it is him. In his gentle voice he persisted adding that the landlord was willing to give us space and that the cost would be minimal. He requested me to at least come and meet the kids.

I guess he knows me better than I now myself.

I agreed to do so, and as we had three volunteers who had come for Rani’s marriage, I thought it would be a great idea that they to came and ‘met the kids!’ We decided to do so yesterday morning. Before I go any further, I need to share a thought that has haunted me time and again. I have often asked myself the one ‘why’ that has been never shared with others but maybe time has come to do so. That why is simply: why me! Or in other words why was I destined to take the longer road. I know I have come up with a range of clichéd answers that range from the famous paying back a debt to answering the whys that came my way, but deep in my heart I have always felt that someone somewhere held all the strings. I was just an instrument. In recent times, when the weight of the morrows gets heavier to bear, I have also asked myself whether I had reached the end of the road. So I must confess yesterday’s visit did have a tinge of misplaced duty and a slight lack of early days brio. The one surprise that did put a smile on my face was the fact that the husband accepted Dharmendra’s invitation to be one of the party.

We drove from the women centre towards the riverbank, first on a reasonably good road and then turned onto a bumpy one that led us straight to the fields. After a short while all we saw were tracts of vegetable patches dotted by a few thatched dwellings. The buzz of the city had vanished though it was but a short distance away. We stopped near a cluster of such dwellings, and behind one of them, under a beautiful tree and next to a well sat a group of children between the ages of 4 and 14. They all had books and copy books in front of them. A middle aged gentleman nudged them to wish us and they did, albeit hesitantly. The gentleman was their teacher. For an instant time stopped and my heart missed a beat as I felt a huge sense of belonging. It felt like coming home. The teacher asked the children to introduce themselves and show us their work and we were all impressed by their well kept copy books, neat handwriting and shy pride as they showed us what they had achieved. Slowly the story unfolded, another story of India, one that could have remained untold.

These children had never been to school and the work we saw was the fruit of two years of unstinted effort by one man. This man was a government school teacher who left his job because of the uncaring attitude of his colleagues and their lack of desire to teach. He decided to do something meaningful. Belonging to the same district as the one these children belong to, he knew of their existence and the plight of the agricultural labour who had left their villages in search of a better life. They had finally settled in this area where they tended to the land of rich landlords to whom they paid a yearly sum. They grew vegetables, the very ones that reach our doorstep. The children helped in the fields and never went to school. Our caring teacher decided to change things and teach these kids. To ensure that their education was validated, he registered them in a school in a village in the adjoining state and worked out a system by which they would get their certificates. The system worked spot on. The teacher took some money from the parents and met his added needs by taking tuitions classes in the evening. In a span of two years he had ‘mainstreamed’ these kids.

I listened bewildered and humbled as he told his tale. My eyes smarted and my throat constricted but I held my tears. As I heard the man speak my father’s dying words : Don’t lose faith in India, came to my mind. The man telling his story in a soft voice spelt: HOPE. The children and their pristine copy  books filled with beautiful writing were a stark reminder of how we had failed them and how worthy they were of our care and attention.

As far as I know, these kids do not exist. Their parents have no papers, they are not registered in any school, they do not appear on any enumeration list, they are invisible. They read about the metro but have never seen one, let alone ride one though a metro station is being build a short distance away. They have read about India Gate but have never seen it. They read about wild animals but have never been to the zoo. Their world is limited to a radius of one kilometre. It ends at the shadowy figures of the tall buildings of Noida seen in the mist. Every year, when the rains come, their homes get flooded and they move to the top of the embankment waiting for the waters to recede. They spend their day playing or working in the fields where extra pairs of hands are welcome, even if they are tiny. They look at you bewildered when you ask them what they like doing. Come on! There is only one answer: studying! And when you prod a little and ask them what they like eating some may come up with the name of a sweet. So you wreck your brain and look for the question that would result in an answer that would make them seem better than you and the penny drops: what grows in your field? And pat come the answer: tomatoes, gourds, aubergines, beans…. So you tell them that you have never seen them in the field but only in shops and they laugh wholeheartedly like only children can. And for that tiny moment you forget that these are invisible children no one cares for. Then the anger, the rage, the feeling of helplessness! What can you do to change things. And your mind runs wild: a bus trip, a metro ride, a visit to the zoo! Perhaps. But what you need is to change their lives, to bring them into the light, to give them their usurped rights.

These are children of India, remember! The ones who are protected by rights, the ones for whom programmes are made ad nauseum and never truly implemented. But then how can you get rights when you do not exist. As their teacher told us with extreme wisdom, these children live the same life as children centuries ago, tilling the alluvial plain and moving to the banks when their homes are flooded to move back again and again and again. Nothing changes nor has changed.

We will do whatever we can. These are just a handful of children whose parents did agree to send them to school for two hours and even pay the small amount the teacher sought. But there are hundreds and hundreds of such children that dot the riverside. Some parents prefer spending the extra coins on hooch; others feel education is useless and a waste of valuable time.

The space we have been given is a cowshed that once housed two jersey cows owned by our landlord. They have found better pastures. The shed will now house the new project why outreach that I feel like calling ‘project why in the fields’. It will house the dreams and aspirations of these very very special children, dreams that have been entrusted to us.  We will do our best but the questions remain and the anger too. Is this the India the likes of my mama fought for? Is being in power sine-qua-non to losing your values and the ability to see with your heart? When will India be truly free!

It all started with the question why me? Because there is no option. Because it is His will! Call it serendipity but two cameos gave credence to my thoughts. The first was that my husband was not only there with me but was moved enough to spend time listening to a little girl read him a lesson in English. Ranjan is not an expressive man and in all these years he has rarely, if ever connected with children even  on the rare occasions he visited project why. But here he was gently encouraging the little girl. Needless to say, I was floored. And if that was not the wink from the Gods I sought, I got another in the garb of a wonderful soul who is willing to provide these children with a healthy lunch and also give them all the resources they need!

Need I say more?

Just a small point that needs to be made as the country debates the land acquisition bill and the farmers’ rights. The labour that till the land and have to pay a substantially large amount of money to the landlord, irrespective of what they make, irrespective of their loss due to the vagaries of weather are not the ones that receive the compensation given by the State. This goes to the one who ‘owns’ the land.

To pull another hand into the light.

To pull another hand into the light.

Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light wrote Norman Rice. Around the ides of March 2003, I did dare do so. It was not a little hand but two beautiful eyes that defied all the burns and bandages and met mine. It was love at first sight, a love that has withstood a decade and a half beating all odds.

The reason I remembered this quote today is because someone shared a story with me, one that may not have a happy ending as the odds are against it. It is the tale of two boys whose father was murdered and whose mother was found to be part of the conspiracy and jailed. Some family friend decided, for reasons better known to him, to sponsor a sound education for the boys. A gesture to be lauded if it had been taken to its logical end but for some reason the hand once held out has been withdrawn leaving the young boys in the lurch. It seems that the decision is final though I pray for a miracle.

I wonder what made that family friend commit to help the boys and ‘dare’ to reach out his hand into the darkness of the two little children? Was it the ‘right’ thing to do at that moment? Was it to get the kudos of the entourage? Was it momentary hubris that dwindled when realisation dawned? realisation that the commitment was long term and a tad expensive. Who knows. The reality is that the had that reached out that fateful day to pull these gentle souls into the light is now the hand that will push them back into darkness. It is not easy to walk the talk.

When Utpal walked into my heart, I knew it was till death do us part. At that moment it all seemed so simple. We would nurse the child back to health and ensure that his family was cared for. Another case of hubris! We humans like playing God never realising that it is He and not us who pens the script. The plan that I made went crashing in no time and I could hear the Gods laughing. They had other plans.

As time went by, the script unfolded and obstacles appeared at every corner, but then when you reach out your hand you have no option but to hold on to it and never let go. Utpal and I have weathered many storms and know that there are more to come. This middle age love is put to the test time and again in  unimaginable ways but is also incredibly rewarding.

The child is now a teenager and new challenges are in sight. We will meet them head on. At this moment the critical issue is how to style the hair so that the scars are concealed. This led us to the hair stylist yesterday and we found a solution. The lad went back to school with a smile and a bottle of hair gel that the kind school has allowed him to use. You see when the wind blows then his scars are for all to see, even the girls! I can see what awaits me.

A wedding to remember

A wedding to remember

Rani got married yesterday and before I go any further this is not a picture from her wedding! So as I was saying Rani got married yesterday and needless to say I was there. But as is the hallmark of all Indian weddings, I barely got to see her though we did manage a few stolen moments while she was made to wait in what at best would be called a store room, for her entry on stage. Indian weddings are really a play in many acts where scripts always go awry and time goes AWOL. If things had gone on schedule then I would have been part of at last some of the ceremonies though I knew I would not have lasted till the wee hours of the day. It was all meant to ‘end’ by 3 am though as I was informed this morning, it was far from over at 3am!

The venue was tastefully decorated and everything seemed on cue till the marriage party arrived and plans went out of control. When I left, Rani was in the middle of a never ending photo shoot when every one wants to be snapped with the new couple. I was not even able to spot her on the stage! But I had seen her in her bridal gear and she looked beautiful though not quite the young woman I know. I guess she will be back to normal in a few days. I look forward to that moment.

But this post is about something quite different. For me yesterday was truly a wedding to remember for a totally different reason. Under the bright lights of this unique play one could imbibe the essence of a decade and a half of Project Why in the most wondrous manner. Come to think about it, I first met Rani and seeded Project Why almost exactly 15 years ago in the summer of 2000. And yesterday I had a panoramic view of the years gone by as I sat and watched the show unfold. Wherever I looked I saw Project Why. All the children dancing to the blaring songs where born in front of me and many were project why students. Most of the staff was present and came to greet me with heartwarming smiles. They looked incredibly beautiful in their bright clothes. Some were Project Why alumni and I could not help the feeling of pride that engulfed me. They all came to greet my husband whom many did not know and I found myself telling their stories which were nothing short of remarkable. It was a unique moment as rarely does one get the occasion to be able to have everyone together in one place when one can truly realise what a journey it has been. It was a pure delight to spend some time with them and share some good moments. Of course I could not escape the many: Can I take a pic with you Ma’am! I was more than happy to oblige and amused at how everyone had a smart phone and was far more savvy than I. Were these really the same people that I had practically pulled out from oblivion?

But that was not all as the Project Why family crosses all barriers. It was such joy to see that two of our die hard and committed volunteers had flown across continents to come to the marriage. They made the event that much more special and gave substance to the spirit of Project Why. We were also privileged to have two of our very committed local expat supporters who found time in their busy schedule and shared this moment with us. I am deeply indebted to them and touched beyond words.

How does one explain the feeling of seeing someone you held in your arms as a new born stand in front of you as a feisty and spirited teenager? How do you find the words to express the emotion that fills you as you introduce one of your computer teachers who once came walking on his hands in the hope that someone would understand his fascination for computers? I could go on and on as everyone in that room has a story waiting to be told.

You just sit and look at all these lives you have changed, at all these women who would have remained housewives but are today in the business of changing lives. Has Project Why been in some way a dream weaver? Maybe we are, and maybe that is the measure of our success as was amply evident in yesterday’s marriage celebration.

It was a celebration of belief and determination; a celebration of the power of seeing with your heart, a celebration of the indubitable reality that no life is futile, that no dream is impossible and that miracles happen everyday!

I feel so blessed!

Sadie Sadie Married Lady

Sadie Sadie Married Lady

Sadie Sadie Married Lady is the song from Funny Girl that for some God forsaken reason  always comes to my mind when a girl gets wedded. The last girl I married was my first born and tomorrow someone I also consider as my child ties the proverbial knot. She is also is part and parcel of my fifteen year journey as Project Why’s Anou Ma’am! This picture was taken years ago and God we have come a long way. Rani has blossomed into an incredible woman of substance and the Ma’am has acquired many more wrinkles and grey hair. But c’est la vie as they say! As Rani gets ready for her big day, I find myself wandering down memory lane and remembering the past 15 years.

I fist met Rani on a sizzling summer afternoon way back in 2000. It must have been the Fates who guided me to the quaint street in a part of the city I never knew existed. It was an odd place where slum dwellings were strewn along the wall of a University college, a true example of the two Indias that quietly live side by side divided by invisible and impregnable walls. I was about to cross the line and change my life forever.

There was indeed a reason for my expedition though: I was to meet a healer who had been hailed as having the cure to all panaceas, mine being a depression that refused to blow away no matter what I had tried. The healer in question lived in a temple lodged in one of the slum dwellings. I was anxious and excited at the same time. I knew something incredible was in store for me.

I entered the small door and stepped into the only room that to my surprise was both a temple and a home, something baffling at first but somewhat comforting. A lady of a certain age clad in bright red sat on the floor amidst deities, incense and lamps. I looked into her face and felt good after a very long time.

The lady known as Mataji lorded on her temple ably assisted by two younger women. One was a young married woman, her daughter in law; the other was her young daughter Rani. Both seemed very much under the thumb of the tad autocratic Mataji. Over the following days I would learn that young Rani, about 16 then had dropped out of school because she had been beaten for not paying her fees on time and was now completing a nursing aid course and probably like all girls of her background waiting to be married.

Over the next few weeks or so many new ideas were born and seeded and soon project why assumed its embryonic form: spoken English classes for children and women. Needless to say Rani was one of the first to register for the later.

I spend a lot of time in Mataji’s home, as this was our first office! I got to know the little family but more than that I was made aware of an entire new world, one that I would soon embrace. Rani was my first and best guide.

We decided to start a nutrition programme for the children and pregnant and lactating moms. I was a little hesitant but young Rani came to my immediate rescue and lo and behold within a day or so I had a list of potential beneficiaries. Rani offered to take charge of the programme dismissing my inability to offer her any remuneration with a big smile. Yes Rani has a smile to die for! In hindsight I realise she was actually taking charge of things to come.

We also decided to run small first aid centre twice a day and who else but Rani to head of it. Rani had come to stay though at that time I did not know how a big a role she would play in the success of project why.

As things grew better for us and funds started trickling in, Rani became my executive assistant. Her never say die attitude ensured that within a short year we were running a crèche, a centre for special children, and even began our now famed after school support programme. Wise beyond her years she helped me select a team and get going. But more important she ensured we did not make any errors on the very unknown turf we were treading. She taught us the intricacies of the social fabric and the need to maintain a fine balance if we were to succeed.

As I watched the feisty girl, I realised that she was extremely intelligent and a born manager. What impressed me most was the fire in her belly and her desire to not only succeed but excel. Imaginative and industrious she never took no for an answer and always found alternatives. Every challenge had to be met head on.

When our coordinator left us there was no question looking elsewhere: Rani was the obvious choice. Even the fact that she was younger than many of her colleagues and that some of them had seen her grow out of her pigtails was no deterrent. I knew she was the one to run the project. That she was barely out of her teens and had not finished school was never an issue.

As the project grew so did Rani, gaining confidence with every step she took.  Her burning desire to fulfil herself was breathtaking. She intuitively knew that she had been given a unique chance: that of breaking the cycle in which she was born and she was determined to do so.

When Shamika my daughter and a special educator joined project why, Rani found a friend that would enable her to cross the line and discover another world. Theirs was a meeting of souls and the validation of a long cherished dream. I have always held that India would be transformed if we could bring about a common school where children from all sections of society could learn and grow together. Rani and Shamika are a perfect example of this reality. If Rani shed her traditional wear and donned jeans, Shamika gained confidence and discovered the true meaning of social responsibility.

Rani’s is a story of true empowerment. Over the years this school drop out managed to pass her X and XII from the open school and her graduation from the Open University. What is remarkable is that she never took a day off. I only came to know about her achievements when she walked in with a box of sweets and a beaming smile. I wonder when she found the time to study. But then that is Rani.
And slowly I became blissfully redundant. Rani was truly in charge.

Tomorrow Rani will be taking a huge step in her life and I must admit I feel a little fearful as any mother does I guess. Though she looks strong and confident, I know how fragile and sensitive she really is. I can only stand in the wings and pray that her new life will be filled with joy and happiness and that the family she is about to make heirs will have the ability to see with their heart and give her what she truly deserves.

May God always walk by her side.