Yesterday we spent some time with the kids at the boarding school. Two of the wonderful persons who have made this incredible adventure possible for were in town and wanted to meet the children. Calls were made and permissions obtained and we reached the school a few minutes after 12pm. It was refreshment time and the kids had gone to get their morning snack. We soon found them and settled under a tree for a little chat.
The kids were happy to see us and were all smiles. They answered all questions and shared a little bit of their world. We were told about Nikhil’s missing shoes laces that seemed to have been stolen by other kids just like his biscuits. Nikhil is your simple benign kid and the ideal target for practical jokes. We quickly understood that this was not in place to feel outraged, come on, things like this happen in all boarding schools! Babli told us about her dance performance during Independence Day celebrations and showed off the pictures of the event. A kid came rushing asking Utpal about the whereabouts of the class duster which seemed to have been in Utpal’s custody and was needed pronto. Utpal darted across the grounds then changed his mind as he decided there was no hurry: the teacher had not yet come back to class.
Though the children displayed impeccable manners we soon felt like intruders. Parents are only meant to come to school on PTM days and not drop by when they wish. We were undoubtedly de trop and we felt that the children were rearing to get back to their routine you see 7th period was games and 8th Art & Craft. But there was one last matter to be settled and Utpal finally asked the question all wanted to hear: what goodies had we brought. On hearing that there were sweets and chocolates, the kids instructed us to hand it over to the housemother as she would then give it to them. They bis us farewell and dashed back to their classroom.
We spent a little time with the Principal and the staff. It was wonderful to hear that all the children were doing well and were extremely well mannered. We were happy and very proud of our little motley crew that had the ability to walk in people’s heart and stay there. What an incredible journey it has been for them and though there was still along way to go, we jnew they were safe and would reach their destination.
I am really livid! i was hoping that my mellowed mood of the day before would have lasted me this festive season and gently pushed me into the next year but that was not to be.
This morning a worried Prabin, the house master of our foster care programme walked into my office and informed me about a late night knock that came to disturb the peace of our little haven: a posse of uniformed men who romped in noisily as apparently they had been told that we were running a lucrative guest house!
A very lucrative guest house indeed where the permanent residents are 7 lost souls, given up by all and who pays us in smiles, stars on their copy books or a pile of neatly folded clothes. A very lucrative guest house indeed where the most unlikely roomies learn not only to live together but to respect and care for each other; where a half orphaned boy climbs on a chair to help his disabled roomie comb his hair! A very lucrative guest house indeed where simple meals of rice and dal are shared amidst laughter and chiding, where the TV runs for only an hour and all huddle in one room at night to keep electricity bills lows. I think it is time to redefine the word lucrative!
What makes me livid is the fact that someone found it necessary to go an complain to the authorities. What makes me livid is that everyone on the street knows what we do and yet the cops reached our door. What makes me livid is that over and over again we are bothered by uncaring and heartless authorities, even ten long years d won the line.
What makes me sad is that even ten years down the line, in a country where every one knows what the other is doing, one cannot carry the simple work one is doing in peace. If you want to repair the roof of your crumbling building, before you have even knocked off the first brick, a swarm of uniforms descend upon you with their hands lasciviously held out. If someone kind souls form faraway lands make the effort to a simple gift to the children a cryptic sign language greets you as you again wonder where you went wrong.
I wonder when the prowling predators will knock. I wonder if they were able to see the reality as they pussyfooted across our little home or were they too blinded by their greed. I do not know why I feel desecrated. The peaceful life we had crafted with so much effort and love in spite of the innumerable problems we had faced stands violated. The dream to give Manu a warm bed, or to secure Champa’s morrows or to give four desperate children hope now lies exposed.
And as is always the case in such moments, we find ourselves compelled to wonder where we went wrong.
I am incensed and terribly sad.
As I was browsing the innumerable pictures that sit on my computer, I came across this one, taken a few weeks ago by a friend who had dropped by. I guess she must have snapped the shot as she was leaving and the children and staff waved her farewell from the rooftop. I do not how, but I had missed this one till today.
I looked at the picture for a long time and somehow it set the mood for some muted musings, something that had not happened for a long time as one seemed always hijacked by some crises or the other. The silhouettes of the kids etched across an almost pristine blue sky seem to echo to the T the mood I find myself in as the year draws to a end.
It has been an eventful year to say the least. From our terrible struggle to salvage our land, to the continuous one to keep project why and its new avatars alive one had been on one’s toes, not having even a moment to take a back seat and simply enjoy the incredible happenings that have dotted the year.
I do not know how and when the women centre grew from a tiny handful of 5o kids to almost 300. I did not have time to pour over the regular reports the foster care kids brought home and count the stars they proudly displayed. I barely had time to dance with the special kids or play with the tiny ones. Like the proverbial character in the song of sixpence, I just seemed to have spent the year in my counting house simply trying to ensure that each day flowed in to the other. Days flew by, each with its tiny miracle that went unnoticed, at least by me. Children quietly moved from one class to the next, two batches of women got their tailoring certificates, our hearing impaired girls got their hearing aids and heard their first sound, Manu took his first bath without help, and 7 super kids learnt the art of inclusive living. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to list all the marvels that dotted the year gone by, I would need to write a book.
I had not realised it till this very moment but the year gone by was one that saw the realisation of long cherished dreams: the one that was conjured silently almost a decade back when I first lay eyes on Manu and dreamt of a soft bed for him, or the one barely evoked by a teenage girl. And it was not just the fulfillment of personal dreams but also of those barely mouthed by desperate souls, be it the sightless woman whose husband’s life was at stake, or the little boy whose mother was in danger.
It has been an incredible and blessed year. And I am glad the picture that had passed me by came to the fore today as it allowed me to remember all I had to be grateful for. Sure the sun will rise again, and the muted silhouettes will become sharp and distinct reminding me of the struggle that lies ahead, but today I just want to revel in my muted musings.
Yesterday our four little foster care kids celebrated their first annual day in their little prep school. While the three older ones were dancing, little Aditya was an elephant in a Panchatantra tale. Babli, Nikhil, Vicky and Aditya are incredible kids. For the past 8 months they have been living with their very special pals Manu, Champa and Anjali. And they all are truly a terrific seven!
A year back they lived dreary lives and barely knew each other. In a few months they will take their first step in brand new world when they join little Utpal in his boarding school where a a whole new world await them.
These four kids have done us proud. They have secured excellent marks in their terminal examinations and have truly walked the talk! Yesterday, as I watched them get ready for their big show my heart filled with pride. How little it took to change the world of a child. Their willingness to accept new ways and excel in them is truly touching. They seem to know intuitively that what is happening to them is special.
My thoughts go back to the days when the whole programme had been put in question as support we thought we had secured was withdrawn without an explanation. I remember the sleepless nights I spent wondering how to salvage the programme at least for these four kids. I recall the reactions I got from those I approached for help. To many, giving quality education to slum children was anathema. And yet I could not send back these kids to their homes; I could not take back dreams that their parents had conjured.
Thank God, there were friends who felt the way I did and soon a wonderful network was created to try and help these children. Asha Seattle and Asha Canada have adopted this project and others have promised to help.
One must remember that this is a long haul. The children have to be able to complete their education that they are just beginning. It is also a long term commitment and one does not know what awaits us. It is not simply a matter of funds, for the next decade or so these children will depend on us at every step. One will have to be there at each PTM, smooth bruised egos , laud every achievement, chide when needed and heal every hurt. We too embark on a new journey, one we know will be filled with wonderful moments but also challenging ones.
My mind again travels back to the time where I first laid eyes on each of them. The day Babli told me herself that she needed an operation but that the family did not have the money. And then long after the operation the terrible day when I found out that Babli had stopped going to school. My mind also goes back to the very first time little Aditya walked into our lives a lost child with his huge eyes filled with questions. or the day we first moment I saw Vicky in the arms of his mother as we visited his family? Children whose dreams had been put on hold by seemingly insurmountable circumstance. And yet the god of lesser beings had his own plan. One that took many twists and turns but ultimately brought these children together under one roof and salvaged all dreams just as he had done for little Utpal.
In a few months these children will fly to another coop. We will miss them but for them it is the only way to go.
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.
I wonder what it takes to be to the manner born. I have often been stunned by the unexpected gestures of pwhy kids that make me wonder about who is truly to the manner or manor born.
I look forward to the weekly report I get from Prabin, the housemaster of our foster care programme as each week a special treat is in store for me. This weeks report was short and crisp but had not one but two surprises for me.
Manu it seemed now wished everyone good night before he went to sleep. Nothing to write home about would be the normal reaction, but how can one forget where Manu comes from and what a miracle these two simple words were.
But there was more.
Last Friday the foster care children went for a visit to Lotus temple. At the gate of the temple a Canadian volunteer was greeting every visitor with a Namaste and handing out information flyers to all. No one answered her greeting or murmured a thank you to her. Our children answered her Namaste and thanked her for the flyer without be prompted to do so. The lady was impressed and took time to interact with them. Some people stopped and asked Prabin which school the children studied in.
Now remember these kids – Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Aditya – come from the most deprived homes possible. When they came to us they were aggressive, used language and were a real handful. Today they make us proud.
I wonder what it takes to be to the manner or manor born!
Sunday was the first PTM of the foster care. We were a little apprehensive about whether all the parents would turn up. The room was set up, every child’ school copy was laid out and we waited expectantly.
It was truly heartwarming to see that all parents were on time, some even turned up a hour early.This was perhaps the very first time they were attending a PTM. When everyone was settled, Prabin our stellar house master began the meeting by giving a brief outline of the daily routine and activities. He also showed the proud parents the children’s school books and copies. Then it was time for the parents to share their concerns.
As each parent began to speak, our hearts filled with pride. Nikhil, his father said, was a different boy. When home for the week ends he urged his siblings to complete their homework and chided them for wasting food. Babli’s mom was eager to tell us that Babli now spoke in English with her elder brother and loved sharing stories about her life at the foster care. Vicky’s mom, a normally shy lady, told everyone how happy she was at the change in the behaviour of her son. She had once found him so difficult to manage; now when he was home he not only helped her but scolded his siblings when they were rude to her. Aditya’s mom was delighted at the progress her son was making!
It was indeed a special moment. These parents who had never praised their children were for the very first time lauding them with immense pride and joy. I remembered the day when I had first suggested to these very parents that they send their children to us and there had been a little hesitation and reticence. But all that was gone now.
My mind traveled back to the days when many had expressed their reservations to our foster care programme. One of the concerns many had was that the children would reject their families and become misfits. I never believed that and always held that they would finally turn out to be agents of change. Our little bacchas have proved me right. In the span of a few months they have already starting carrying back messages and making a difference in the lives of their very own. I was overwhelmed.
But the day was not over and more surprises were in store for us. Champa’s mom came late and though she barely speaks Hindi she managed to convey to us that Champa loved the foster care and always wanted to go back. Champa had finally come home.
But there was still more to come. I cannot find the words to express what I felt when Prabin told us that for the very first time Manu had a bathed himself alone thought it had taken him 35 minutes to do so. What a journey it had been but somehow at that moment I felt I had reached home!