A phone call last week informed me that we had been shortlisted as possible beneficiaries of a page 3 charity do. This came as a surprise because our brush with page 3 soirees and bashes were things of the past. There was a time many moons ago when we did make almost regular appearances at such events but those days were long gone and somehow our tryst with the rich and famous had been short lived. So imagine my surprise when they came knocking again. I was informed that I had to go the next day and present our case to the members of the executive committee of the planned event. My first reaction was to refuse but beggars can never be choosers.
The meeting was fixed for the very next day. It seemed that all the short listed organisations were to be given 15 minutes to present their case and then the said committee would decide which one would benefit from the proceeds of the evening. It all seemed very cut and dry. I decided to give it my best shot and leave the rest to the God of Lesser beings.
I reached the appointed place with a few minutes to spare. Somehow I felt very alone and lost in a world I had said my farewells too long ago. Soon it was our turn and I was led to a room where 6 people sat around a conference table. An empty chair beckoned me. I sat down. A few brief presentations and greetings and then the stage was mine. The countdown had begun and I had just fifteen minutes to put forward 10 years of work, to share the hope and dreams of so many and to prove to all present that we were worthy of their help.
I did but somehow I felt no one was really listening. It seemed like a show put up for some unknown reasons, it seemed as if all decisions had been made well before the game began. The people around that table belonged to the other side of the fence and did not really want to know about Manu, Utpal or Radha. I wondered why I had been invited at all. When I had finished my presentation, the leader of the pack asked be bluntly what would happen after me. Normally that question would have shocked and angered me but it did not and I simply smiled and told him: planet why!
That is when I realised that something had changed and that I had taken a huge step without knowing. Gone was the angst of the past, in its place was a sense of acceptance and calm. I remembered the time when any mention of what would happen to pwhy once I had exited this world brought anger and wrath. Today it just brought a smile. True I was still worried about pwhy’s future, true I wanted above anything else to see planet why happen, but if it did not then I somehow knew something else would happen and take care of the problem. This new found attitude stemmed from the fact that I felt that matters were no more in my hand, but in the hand of the one who had placed the future of so many in my care. He and he alone would show the way. Today it seemed like it would be planet why but were that not to happen I am sure an alternative would come about and ensure the succession.
You are one of those few people I know who truly love what they are doing wrote a friend. Innocuous words at first but they got me thinking and setting of on an inward journey. For the past ten years I have been so caught up in keeping the ship afloat that I have rarely given myself time to take a back seat, catch my breath and savour moments the way I should have. But my friend’s remark made me stop in my tracks and realise that what she said was incredibly true. For the past ten years, in spite of all the problems and hardships I have truly loved what I have been doing. I guess it is sometimes a sense of perhaps misplaced decency that refrained me from letting out whoops of joy each time something special occurred. My friend’s question ultimately nudged me to ask myself the question: who am I today.
Who am I? I do not know how many of us ask ourselves this question over time. There can be simple answers. You are from a particular country, of a particular gender, have a particular profession, a particular religion, a certain age and so on. So I am Indian, an old woman, a social worker etc. Some of these markers can change with time, some stay with you for a life time. Some of not much consequence. The others are the ones you build yourself and have the liberty to alter and even change. And the question you need to ask yourself is Who am I, today!
Often you are portrayed through your relationships with another so you become a good or bad daughter, spouse, friend, sibling, citizen and so on. But here again the description is insufficient and inadequate leaving you still wondering who you truly are.
Another friend recently wrote about the importance of finding your voice. It was an innocuous remark pertaining to a very specific situation but somehow it struck a deep chord inside me. It seemed an answer to a deep search I had embarked on, the search of who I truly was. Over the past 10 years, when I began the pwhy journey I have felt more and more alienated by what was once comfortable and sufficient. As pwhy grew so did my loneliness. The situation was paradoxical as when I set up pwhy I was painfully alone but pwhy brought innumerable new souls into my life. Then why the loneliness? Perhaps because I suddenly felt alone in my world, perhaps because all reference points suddenly seemed pointless and empty. I realised that the time had come to redefine myself but that was no easy task.
With each step on the pwhy road I felt I moved away by quantum leaps from the world that I had known and found ample. Suddenly it felt painfully deficient. Once I had crossed the invisible line I had unwillingly abdicated the right to be one of my erstwhile peers. I had done the unthinkable in a land where you were conditioned to remain in your determined framework. If you did dare venture out of the box you had to be prepared to pay the price. Sounds cryptic. Let me try and elucidate.
Say you belong to a particular social class, then all your activities are defined by it. Your conversations, your likes and dislikes and so on on are almost predefined and that is the world you are meant to navigate in. Now say you have tasted other flavors and dare bring them into the closed doors of your predetermined orb, you are immediately considered persona non grata! I remember how quickly people moved away from me when I use to try talking about pwhy in up market parties. I felt like a pariah. But the other side of the coin was that the other world was not ready to accept you as one of them. There you were put on a pedestal and had to remain there and that is when the loneliness set in. You suddenly became no one’s child. And yet you so wanted to belong at least somewhere. It was a real predicament and there seemed to be no ready answer.
But slowly as time passed , people grew less in awe of you and more willing to accept you. True these people would never become your intellectual sparring partners, but they surrounded you with so much love that you once again felt content and wanted. Wonder who they are? Let me introduce you to some of them. It is Utpal and his endearing ways, Manu and his lopsided smile that greets me every morning, the band of special children and their cheerful Good Morning Ma’am, the tiny creche kids, the Okhla children, the Khader children and their incredible smiles. But that is not all: it is also the Lohar ladies who never failed to produce a syrupy cup of tea and a lovely hand slapped roti; the innumerable families who have always opened their homes and heart to me; the simple people who illuminate my day every single morning and make it worth living.
So today I am above all Anou Ma’am and I like what I see and truly feel that this is who I want to be till the end of my days.
I first dreamt of planet why more than a thousand nights ago! It was almost a magical moment where fact and fiction coalesced under the watchful eyes of a little prince. Like in all dreams everything was in the realm of the possible and I allowed the dream to seed first in my own mind and then in that of others. At that time planet why to me was: a happy place where those with no hope could seek not only refuge but find meaning, where no one’s children would study just like others, where skills would be taught, where days and would filled with laughter and happiness and childhoods would be reconquered with renewed assurance watched by my smiling little prince.
Please bear with me as I travel down memory lane and unravel this puzzle of dream and reality. The need for planet why stemmed from a complex web of emotions and feelings the biggest one being worry. As I watched project why grow and flourish I also started sensing its fragility as its existence was deeply entwined in mine. Many a times I imagined what would happen if I were to exit unexpectedly and what came to mind was indeed frightening. Would Manu have to roam the streets and rummage in dustbins for food? Would Utpal be compelled to leave school as no one would pay his fees? And where would would Champa, Anjali, Radha, Munna and their pals go? In those moments my blood would run cold and I would break in a cold sweat. I could not allow this to happen, pwhy had to live beyond me in some new avatar. The umbilical cord had to be severed. But how: that was the question. How would this dream become reality.
I did not know. I simply held on to my dream with both hands and all my heart. I could see the happy place and knew I had to make it happen. For a long time my dream lived in my mind. I use to conjure it at will and spend hours fine tuning it: I could see it live and thrive. And yet if dreams are to become reality you have to muster the courage to address the uncomfortable questions and the one that plagued me the most was how would my happy place sustain itself if I was not there to hold its hand. That is when my friend the God of lesser beings decided to enter my dream and lend a little help. It came in the form of a person telling me about how another dream had come true thousands of miles away. She told me about Cusco and the Ninos Hotel. Don’t ask me why but I knew that was the way to go. My happy place would not only be a home for my loved ones but also a guest house that would sustain it.
The dream became stronger. I would not only be able to help my lost souls but also ensure that pwhy lived on, albeit in a new manifestation. It was time to share the dream no matter how impossible it seemed. And I did and believe me it did not go down well initially. Many found it preposterous. But I persisted. Somehow I knew deep inside me that it was the right way to go. There were many false starts, times when we actually believed that dream would become reality but then it all came down like a house of cards leaving me hurting and bewildered but I held on to my dream even when it looked improbable to all and even if the hurt seemed too much to bear.
I guess the God of Lesser Beings must have taken pity on the old biddy as he sent one of his timely miracles and we were able to purchase a plot of land, making planet why shift from the realm of fantasy to that of reality. And the soon the rock pile ceased to be one as St Exupery’s words came back to me: A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral . The next step was to secure funding to build my cathedral. Naively as always I copied what was written on my heart to paper and credulously believed that others would embrace my way. It sounded so simple. But then the world shook as markets tumbled. There was nothing one could do but watch helplessly and tuck away the dream in the recesses of ones’ mind before someone broke it.
Time passed. The fears returned as the fragility of pwhy became even more apparent with each new grey hair or creaking knee. I could not keep watching, I had to act. I prayed for another miracle but none was forthcoming. I shared my angst with the few I trusted seeking help. Some one suggested a more business like approach; candid and passionate appeals had no place in today’s hard hitting world. The proposal needed to be vetted, but all that cost money and we had none. But when all doors seemed closed, God does open a window. An Angel appeared and agreed to do the much needed feasibility study of planet why. What followed were weeks of nail biting and furious pacing. But the God of Lesser Beings decided to be extra benevolent and the study was completed and ended with the words: In our opinion, the proposed development at Planet Why is a lucrative and financially feasible and one which would be able to generate much higher returns than are typically found in guest houses operating across Delhi. This was sheer music to my ageing years. But it also meant that the dream needed to be actualised and the search for funds begin all over again. This was nothing short of terrifying. Would I be able to achieve this? I knew I had no choice and I also knew that the God of Lesser Beings would be with me. And moreover planet why would take time as no cathedral is built in a day! That meant that funds would be needed to carry on our daily work.
As I write these words, many the world over have come forward to hold my hand and help me make my dream come true. What we need is a huge miracle, is the God of Lesser Beings listening?
Aren’t you too old to take up a new challenge like Planet Why? What difference does your work really make in a country with 1.3 billion? Why should the world care, everyone has got a lot of problems of his own? Do you think you will change the world? These are some of the questions I have been asked to answer for forthcoming interview. As I sat pondering over how I would answer these, I found myself taking stock of what I could best sum up as my life!
If I were to answers these questions with one liners they would go like this: I am old but I do not think I am too old; have you heard of the ripple effect; because we have been given the gift to care; not the world but maybe one life. Anyway I will find the right answers when needed but for the moment I need as I said to review the decade gone by.
Rewind to 2000 and the scorching day in May when I first lay eyes on Manu. Something happened on that day. It was as if I had been shaken out of a long slumber and made to come alive. At that instant it was not the about 1.3 billion people but just one lost soul whose dignity had been usurped and needed to be restored. And hence began the journey many of you know as pwhy! Why should I have cared. I do not know, I only knew that I had no choice. And funnily all my own problems paled and almost vanished. It was not a matter of changing the world but of changing one life, that of Manu. The ball was rolling..
And over the years it has been a saga of trying to make a difference, caring and changing lives and above all knowing that there was no other option. Manu’s morrows needed to be secured and to do that pwhy saw the light of day. From a small spoken English class of 40 to a family of over 700 it was all a matter of making a difference and changing lives.
Fast forward to 2010. Let me tell you what we look like today. Manu now lives in his own home, sleeps in a bed and not on the street, shares his meals around a dining table with his two roomies, and though is health is not as good as we would want it to be, he is happy and safe. His classmates too are a happy lot and spend the day in our day care centre where they are respected and loved. After countless moves often prompted by factors beyond our control we have settled in a tiny lane in Govindpuri. There about 80 pre-schoolers, most from extremely deprived homes attend our early education programme. 50 primary children get after school support and even computer classes. Thrice a week a bunch of hearing impaired children come in for extra tuition and on the remaining days of the week women from the vicinity come for sewing classes.
A few kilometers away tucked in the middle of a reclaimed garbage dump in the middle of an industrial area is our Okhla centre. I cannot forget the day when it was set up by two incredible women fighting all odds walls broken in the name of love or battling the local goons. But nothing deterred us and we soldiered on. Today the Okhla centre has over 200 children from class I to IX, yes we now have a secondary section there and that is not all, the centre boasts of a tiny computer centre too! And there is more: from January this year the children have spoken English classes as part of our what I would call ‘brave’ Focus on Quality Programme. I must admit all this makes me incredibly proud!
Across the railway line, just a short kilometer away, is our women centre. There over 300 children from class I to X come and learn. They too have a spoken English teacher and a computer centre and a library! But there is more: over 60 women attend the sewing and beauty classes held each day and a new adult education class for illiterate women was inaugurated last month. It is heartwarming to know that many of the women who have obtained their certificates are now gainfully employed. Way to go, is’nt it?
But that is not all. I forgot to tell you about our main computer centre that is open to the community and that has helped many get better jobs and our senior secondary section that has never known failure as every student has passed his or her school leaving examinations. And how can one overlook the pictures of the 16 children whose open heart surgeries we sponsored that adorn the wall of our tiny office.
Pwhy also has its library a real dream come true, and even a cine club! Wow is all I can say. Funny that it is only when I decide to write about pwhy that I am able to fathom its reach and needless to say I am filled with a sense of pride and deep gratitude.
But the feel good factor lasts but a moment as I realise the fragility of pwhy. I become painfully aware of my age and of the fact that time is running out. But the sense of helplessness is soon replaced by the determination to ensure that pwhy becomes sustainable and is able to fly on its own wings. In other words this means the setting up of planet why. As many of you know we have the land and now even have a feasibility study done by professionals that concludes that the project is viable and sound.
The sum we seek is astronomical to say the least though many feel it is no big deal. My mission now is to raise it come what may. Ten years of passion cannot go to waste. So help me God!
Last week Radha returned to pwhy after two months spent at the village. We had missed her and were thrilled to have her back. We soon realised that her holiday had not been that wonderful as most of it had been spent in cast from neck to toe! For those of you who do not know Radha, she is a little girl who has OI (Osteogenis Imperfecta) better knows as brittle bone or glass bone disease. This means that even a small tap can break the little girl’s bones. In all her nine years Radha has been in a cast more than 50 times! Her situation is difficult to handle under the best of circumstances so you can imagine what is its like in a tiny hovel or in a a village where no one knows about such ailments or really cares.
And yet Radha is full of spunk and her smile is enough to melt the hardest soul. But sadly since her return the smile is missing and even if does make a fleeting appearance at times, it is tinged with sadness. We were soon to discover why. It seems her mom has been talking about her plight to all and sundry within the little girl’s earshot: she does not have long to live, what is the point of investing anything in her! The brave little girl hears it all and her smile wanes slowly till it vanishes to reappear only for brief spells.
We had visitors two days ago and Radha agreed to dance and like always she danced with her heart and like always we were transported to another world where the sun never stops shining and only all that is good prevails. The magic was short lived and the dance was ephemeral. The smile that had accompanied the dance disappeared and Radha went back to her place, her face drawn. The moment was heart wrenching.
The next morning Radha did not come to pwhy. She had had fallen in the night and broken a bone. Not only that, the Xray attendant at the hospital had not handled herwith care, and while placing her on the Xray table had broken a second bone! We were livid but helpless in a land where suing for malpractice does not exist. Prabin the special class went see her and came back aghast. Little Radha was in terrible pain and of course the mother had not bothered to purchase the prescribed painkiller. The little girl sat on her mom’s food cart, covered with flies and in agony. We had to do something and we did. We brought Radha ‘home’, or rather back to the centre where she would stay with Manu and his friends, at least till the time her cast was off.
She is now at our foster care and will stay there as long as needed and of course she will be handled with utmost care and love. When I look at Radha and at most of her classmates, the need for Planet Why becomes more than a necessity. For many parents these children are a burden they often do not quite know how to handle. They lack sensitivity and understanding and are unable to offer the enabling and loving surrounding such children need and as they grow into teenagers and then adults they become more and more alienated and suffer in silence. Planet Why would be the haven they silently and intuitively pray for and I for one will leave no stone unturned to ensure that their prayers are answered.
We have gone from famous five, to incredible seven and now to exceptional eight. Yes little Manisha will be joining Utpal, Vicky, Nikhil, Aditya, Babli, Yash and Meher. Manisha’s story is heart rendering and I guess once again the God of small things decided to intervene. I must admit that after Yash and Mehar I had decided to put a stop ( at least a temporary one) to the boarding school saga, one that is quite extraordinary to say the least. A simple walk down memory lane brought me to a blog I had written almost 4 years ago, where I had shared what seemed at that time an impossible dream. Like all dreams it was promptly tucked away and almost forgotten. But then the God of small things (GST) decided otherwise. When things looked bleak and almost hopeless, out from the blue came a messenger who revived all dreams, even the wildest ones. It all seemed to good to be true and over and above my cherished dream of planet why, this messenger wanted to change lives of children and we set out to do just that with hope in our hearts. But then the incomprehensible happened. The messenger backed out: the dream seemed too fragile to invest in and I was left holding on to it alone.
In my shaky lap lay not only the future of Manu and his friends, but that of 4 little kids who had been taken away from their homes with the promise of a bright morrow. In hindsight I think the erstwhile messenger was simply God’s way of bringing me back to order. I knew that nothing would ever come easy but come it would! No matter how impossible. And miracles came our way, tiny ones perhaps, but blessed nonetheless. Manu was home safe and happy and soon the little children packed their bags and entered the portals of almost hallowed ground: the boarding school. I heaved a sigh of relief. It has been a long haul but one that was worth it. Who knows one day these very kids would become doctors, engineers, stars! Nothing was impossible. I wondered however whether I would be still around to see them.
Five kids in boarding school was more than enough. We still had 10 long years to go. But my friend the GST had other plans in store. Five soon became seven with Yash and Meher joining the gang of five and of course all my resolutions and resolves went for a six. It is true that when I first laid eyes on little Meher, I knew that this kid had no future. Her little face was scarred making her poor wedding material and her tiny hands maimed making her access to skills very limited and yet her joie de vivre was infectious. When a kind soul offered to repair her body I immediately added a caveat: if we did then we also had to give her a way to break the circle of extreme poverty in which she was imprisoned. Meher belonged to a very poor family where the men lived in the city and worked as house painters, the women stayed in the village and the kids played in the nearby graveyard that was the best playground available. It was a stroke of luck, or rather the GST’s ploy that she had been in the city the day I first met her!
So six it would be, or so I thought. But then what would happen to the little boy who had almost been adopted by some fancy outsiders and then dropped like a hot potato when they found a ‘better’ child! You see six had to become seven. And when a kind gentleman absolutely wanted to sponsor the school of another child, another masterstroke ensured that Manisha would be the chosen one! Seven had become eight!
In a few hours little Manisha will be joining her new friends in boarding school. She spent the night at the foster care so that she could be ready on time. We were a little concerned about how she would feel but to our utter surprise she spent the evening quietly watching TV and telling the housemother about her life. Children like Manisha are born survivors. They sense intuitively what is good for them and hold on to it with their heart and soul. I first saw this in little Utpal long ago.
It is a spirit I for one salute. Chapeau Bas! God bless them all!