I remember the day when I first met Sanjay. It must have been 8 years or so ago and he must have been 14. We had just begun teaching a primary class at the Lohar Bati, gypsy camp, located next to our first centre. Sanjay and some of his pals, who had all dropped out of school, use to hang around our open air class, mesmerised by the foreign volunteers who sometimes taught classes. After some time we suggested they too come and join and some did, Sanjay was one of them. Little did I know that one day the somewhat rebellious good looking kid would break all ceilings and walk the ramp.
But let us not jump the gun! Let me tell you Sanjay’s story as I know it. Actually it begins well before I met Sanjay. Like many of you who live in Delhi, I too must have passed by the umpteen Lohar camps strewn across the city and never really looked at them, certainly not with my heart! It is only when we opened an outreach programme in what is called the Janata Jeevan camp, that I had to walk by the Lohar camp situated next to the Kalakaji bus depot. The sight and plight of the small bright eyed children running about and breathing if not choking on the fumes of cars revving up at the red light caught my attention and I decided to do something. The first thing that came to mind was to start a small creche and a primary section. Now Lohars, like all gypsies, are proud people, and not one to accept charity of any kind. We met Tau, the head of the camp and explained what we wanted to do. He immediately saw the wisdom of our request and accepted it. There was an open space behind the camp and that is where it all began.
As months passed, I found myself often heading towards the camp and spending time there, imbibing the rare wisdom and sagacity of these proud people. Somehow being with them was a way of stepping off the spinning world and recharging my batteries! They always had a cup of tea ready for me if not a hot hand slapped roti. I also discovered to my horror that they had been living on the pavement for 30 years though they had been promised rehabilitation by the government. I decided to do something and urged them to file a PIL in the High Court. Sadly nothing came of it and they continue to live with the Damocles sword of destruction hanging over their heads. Sadly again we had to discontinue our classes because of the authorities. We hope to be able top resume them again soon.
In the early days of our work there, I use to spend time with the children and often asked them about their dreams. They use to share them with me and they were often small and simple ones. I urged them to dream big, very big and to hold on the dream, because dreams had sometimes an uncanny way of coming true! I remember the older boys standing in the background and listening to what I had to say. I guess Sanjay was there too, but he never then shared his dream with me, though he joined classes and went on to complete his schooling. Geeta our creche teacher was Sanjay’s elder sister. When she got married she requested us to give her job to her brother as they needed the money. We did though I recall telling him that with his looks he should become a super model. I never knew my words would be prophetic.
Sanjay has been teaching primary children for the past 5 years. His gentle ways and his boundless patience have made him a great favourite with the children. And for me the simple fact that this almost drop out gypsy boy became a teacher was something to be terribly proud of. And that is why when Camille Ponsin, a reputed French documentary maker wanted a ‘story’, I thought the one of the pavement born gypsy boy turned teacher was one he should go for. I was far from knowing that it would become a fairy tale, where seemingly impossible dreams come true.
The filming began and all seemed on track. One day Camille called me and told me that Sanjay had shared his real dream on camera: that of making it to Bollywood. At first I just smiled. Was this not the dream of every kid in the land, the one that sustained you through your darkest hours? I must admit I let it pass. Then another call informing me that Camille had a possible entree into the hallowed land, someone that could perhaps make this crazy dream happen. He wanted to take Sanjay to Mumbai and simply take it from there. The rest is now history. Last Sunday Sanjay walked the ramp for a top designer and did it with flair and aplomb.
It is with immense pride that I read the next days papers. I was tickled pink by Sanjay’s answer to a journo who asked him if he was nervous: “Chalna hi toh hai. Do saal ki ummar se kar raha hoon (All I have to do is walk. I’ve been doing that since I was two). His words reflected the spirit he was born with, the one that is the heritage of one who belongs to a proud people who have roamed for centuries without fear. Reading those words I knew that no matter what lay ahead, Sanjay would take it in his stride, whether it was walking ramps or simply walking the road of life.
My thoughts went back to the day when I had jokingly told him he should become a super model. I wonder if the God of Lesser Beings was listening.
Only the educated are free wrote Epictetus in 100 AD.
Today young Yash and little Meher took their first step towards real freedom. They are to sit for their admission test for boarding school and if all goes well join five other children of a lesser God: Utpal, Babli, Nikhil, Vicky and Aditya. For Yash and Meher this is a red letter day!
Yash and Meher both have incredible stories. Yash came to us when he was barely six weeks old. He came into this world for all the wrong reasons. No one had a road map for him. We decided to craft him one. Easier said than done and I must confess there were many setbacks. We had first thought of finding him a new home but that was not to be. Legal tangles and uncaring hearts ensured it did not happen. The little boy weathered every storm with patience and grit. He spent the first few years in our creche and then moved to a little neighborhood school. We knew that something needed to be done. Only education could save him and give him a future. He needed boundaries and proper care. That is when we decided to send him to boarding school.
Meher came into our lives one fine day, quite perchance. But as soon as we lay eyes on her beautiful scarred face we knew she had come to stay and that the God of lesser beings had a road map for her. Her morrows would be safe. Thanks to a wonderful network of caring souls her life changed: plastic surgery repaired her scalded scalsp and maimed hands and soon this spirited child was ready to taken on the world. We knew that she too needed an education and the only place she would get that was in boarding school.
If all goes well, and why should it not as we are on hallowed ground, both Meher and Yash will begin school in April. A small miracle indeed!
Yesterday was the Annual Day of the Shanti Gyan International School, the little boarding school where five of our kids study. The show was to begin at 11 am, and we were there on time! None of us were prepared for what was to enfold. More than just a school function, it turned out to be a taste of India in more ways than one.
Needless to say we were the first to arrive, guests I mean, the children were all there, dressed up and ready to put their best foot forward. And boy they did. The show was enthralling and that is what I first want to share with you. It started with a beautifully executed Saraswati Vandana by the senior girls, a delight for the eyes and the soul. Then the school orchestra took the stage and my heart swelled with pride when I saw Utpal come on stage tugging his little Casio. The piece was a foot tapping percussion and keyboard original composition and we were again spell bound. Next was the turn of the tiny ones whose action song got the audience clapping and cheering. We were then treated to a patriotic song, befitting the coming Republic Day. I was amazed at the perfect rendition and beautiful arrangements.
The moment we were all waiting for was finally there. A dance medley that included four of our pwhy stars: Babli, Vicky, Nikhil and Utpal. The children put the best of Bollywood to shame as they executed the intricate steps to perfection, swaying their hips with abandon and swinging their arms with the expertise of a professional. They were true stars and I was moved beyond words. What a journey it had been for these children of a lesser God. The next part of the show was a beautiful ballet entitled the Golden Rules. All religions were portrayed in an enchanting way: the Jewish wedding dance was perfect, the Gurudwara scene was touching, the Qawali got everyone clapping and the Bhumi dance was mystical. The finale was filled with energy and enthusiasm, a perfect ending to a perfect show. But there was more: the stage was slowly filled by the entire cast with faultless entries and all the children sang the National Anthem again impeccably.
As I watched the intense little faces singing, my eyes filled with tears and I quickly mouthed a silent prayer to the God of little beings beseeching him to always walk by the side of these five little kids who had braved all odds and done us proud.
Please spend a little time and see the pictures below. They are nothing short of small miracles. Enjoy the pictures before you read on!
The picture I conjured above should have been the one that played out in reality: an uninterrupted show by a bunch of lovely kids for all to enjoy and revel in. It would have been the case in any other land but ours. What if I told you that the show that was no longer than 2 hours at best, lasted almost 5! That the children who were dressed in their costumes at 11, appeared for their final tableau at 16.30! Never mind if some of them were tiny, never mind if some costumes were too flimsy to withstand the winter! Sadly that is what happened as concurrently to the children’s show we were unwilling spectators to another one, this one produced and staged by adults and whose main protagonists were Very Important People – or should is say Irritating -, the necessary component of any celebration in India. My heart went out to the management of the school and above all to the young and charming principal who stoically defied all odds and never lost his smile or composure.
Before I go on to describe to you the happenings of the day, I must stress on the fact that in India, the very existence and success of many business and other activities depend entirely on your ability to garner adequate support from the powers that be. No honest or hardworking soul can ever master the intricacies of the laws that govern us: they seem to be made in such a manner that help is always needed. The help comes at a price, one being the compulsion to include personalities in any celebration you organise. So the annual day of a school needs to have its plethora of VIPs!
As I said earlier the children were ready by 11.30 and so were we. But the clock ticked on and the front rows remained empty. An announcement was made requesting us to go and have a cup of tea. We did. The clock continued ticking. The children were seen peeping from behind the curtain. The head boy and head girl of the school stood patiently at the lectern, their big sashes gleaming. Another announcement informed us that the chief guest was on his way and should be with us in a few minutes. The clock struck one and still no one! You could see worried faces and people talking frantically on phones. The children waited in the wings. Then some activity as one of the guest had arrived. The show could begin. It did. It was 1. 45. The first three items were performed after the guest had been duly welcomed with flowers and speeches. We were to say the least relieved. But our relief was short lived. Around 2.20 the show was stopped. The chief guest had arrived. More speeches, more flowers.. and the children waiting.
After some speeches, prizes were distributed to a batch of kids. Great photo ops for the VIPs as I have forgotten to mention, there was a band of pressmen and photographers in attendance. The guests were plied with refreshments as is custom in our country, while we could amost hear our stomachs rumbling. This drama went on. One had to go through 4 VIPs each seeking their place in the sun. Finally it was over and the children could perform their final acts.
What got my goat and left me speechless was the fact that none of the so called VIPs had bothered to even remember the name of the school whose function they were attending and had to be prompted. The speeches were mutually or even in one case self adulatory. One wondered who their were being addressed to. The whole act was to say the least galling. A necessary evil one could well have done without. A total disregard for the hundreds of people who had waited patiently and for the little children whose day it was and who were the real VVIPs. But I guess we were all parents and thus vulnerable. Even I waited patiently. Had it been any other occasion I would have walked off!
As is often said: Oh darling this is India!
Heera is a young girl from Bihar. She comes from a very poor family. For the past two years Heera has been very sick and parents have been running form pillar to post to get her cured. To do that they spent every penny they had and even sold the little land they possessed. But Heera did not get better. Finally someone suggested they bring her to Delhi. They did and last week Heera was diagnosed with a hole in her heart. She needed corrective surgery and it came at a whopping price: 70 000 Rs. The parents were shattered and did not know what to do. That is when the God of lesser beings decided to intervene and told them about project why.
Heera came to see us with her parents. I was taken in by this quiet girl who stood there silently as her very life was being discussed. She did not say a work but just looked on. I learnt that she was studying in class 10. This was indeed remarkable as in Bihar, where she comes from, young village girls seldom go to school. That her parents had given her a good education in spite of their being poor showed how much they cared for her. There was no gender inequality in this brave family, a lesson for many! We had to help Heera.
Our heartfix hotel that had somehow taken a back seat for quite some time had a new guest. W swung into action and as I write these words help is on the way. Heera will soon be operated upon and will live. Not many can give the gift of life, we must be truly blessed.
I had to share this and the pictures below with all of you. They were taken last week on the day when our little boarding school stars were ready to come home for their winter break. It is heartwarming and touching to see the joy and happiness written all over their little faces.
All theses little kids would have been living in despair had not the God of lesser beings decided to intervene. Thank heavens he did.
I proud to be Indian was the strange title of a Bollywood potboiler and in spite of the wrong syntax of the title, it somehow stuck in my mind. Yesterday we took little Sohil to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. We had known for some time that he needed surgery to treat his hydrocephalus but it was the visit of Jeff that made us realise the urgency of the matter. Jeff had seen a child wit hydrocephalus turn into a vegetable in a remote village in Afghanistan as he has not received the simple surgery that would have made all the difference.
This set us into action. Old diaries were perused and the phone number of an eminent neurosurgeon was retrieved. I am sure the God of lesser beings decided to play his past as the doctor normally quite difficult to track down was available and yesterday we took Sohil to meet him. For those of you who have never been to an AIIMS OPD let me try and give you a description. Imagine a crowded railway station hall and multiply the numbers. In it place four doors on opposite corners, each having a doctor and in front of the door imagine the kind of queue you would have in front of a ticket sales counter on opening day of a long awaited movie and multiply it by four. The crowd is a medley of young and old, rich and poor and you can even add a prisoner chained to a gun holding cop. Voila! The stage is set. Now because you know the doctor you have been told to break the queue but that in itself is a herculean task. You somehow manage and though at that time you do not understand how you did, you realise later that unlike movie halls and railway platforms, there is no aggressive behaviour, no anger, no resentment. Actually people make way and even smile at the little child you are holding in your arms.
You reach the doctor’s room which is tiny and also overcrowded. You sit in a corner and wait while the doctor informs a family that has come all the way from a village in Orissa that there young son has a brain tumour. This is done gently. The family is told that there is hope. Then your turn comes.
Doctor Suri takes time to examine Sohil and then tells us to get the tests done in private labs as the waiting list is too long. He reassures us that Sohil will be well and that he will operate on him personally. And as we hear those words we are moved to tears. In that tiny overcrowded room here is only hope and life. And the man doling this in ample measure is one of the finest doctr you can find as not only is he a good doctor, but he is one that has not been lured by the outside world and has stood by the oath he once took. My heart fills with pride and the funny title comes to my mind: I proud to be Indian!
But the story does not end there. The tests and operation will require funds. Two young volunteers, Cat and Lukas, have accompanied me and they both decide without batting an eye lid to sponsor the tests and want them done immediately. They will be done today and on Friday we will return to the doctor and get the final diagnosis and surgery date.
In the evening I call Jeff and tell him about our visit and the need to find funds for the surgery. He will sponsor it! Jeff is my son-in-law and the money is the Xmas budget of my little family.
So today I proud to be Indian, grandmom, mom, mom-in-law and proud of project why!
Thank you Jeff, Parul, Agastya, Cat, Lukas, Benoit and Doc Suri for giving Sohil many bright morrows.