Since July 2020 when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma I have been compelled to stay away from my beloved Project as I was immuno compromised and that mixed with the Covid pandemic was a heady toxic cocktail. Over the past three years I have been to the project a handful of times. However I keep in close touch with the Project thanks to the innumerable pictures posted every day in the famous Project Why WhatsApp group.
Pictures of children studying diligently, of children playing, singing, dancing, painting with fervour, of visitors dropping by, Pictures of the meals at the Yamuna centre; pictures of celebrations. Sometimes children are prompted to share their thoughts and dreams as was the case recently when a group of children were asked what they want to be when they grow up. The answers were heartwarming: engineer, teacher, IAS officer, police officer, bank manager and even artist. The list is endless, the dreams are big for only if you dream big can you aspire to see your dreams come true.
We at Project Why strive to give wings to all these little big dreams and hope to make as many as we can come true. And we have seen many come true over the last two decades.
When I see the pictures of these children holding their dreams for all to see my heart fills with joy, my eyes go moist and my throat constricts. I feel blessed but also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task but nowhere ready to give up.
Over the past two decades I have felt the presence of a very special God, the God of lesser beings as I chose to call him or her! This very special God has helped me at every stage and brought so many miracles in our lives. It is to this God that I pray everyday to give me the strength to soldier on no matter what.
Soldier on I will.
So help me God.
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” wrote Frederick Douglass. At Project Why we strive to instill the love of reading in all our students.
That is why we have a library period where children can go look at books, feel them, browse hem and be motivated to read them
2022 turned out to be a rewarding year after many months spent wondering how we would carry on. The pandemic had been a huge blow though we managed to stay the course even on choppy seas. Thanks to all our well-wishers, friends and supporters who never stopped believing in us, we continued our work in spite of all the challenges, with Project Why looking a far cry from the vibrant space it was packed with children and replete with smiles and laughter. The small masked groups of children sitting far from each other, the sanitization between each class, the online classes for the few who had the resources to take them, in no way reflected the spirit of Project Why. To say the least, these were sad times.
But the clouds lifted slowly in the beginning of 2022 and by April 2022 we were almost back on course. At the end of 2022 classes were again jam packed with long waiting lists! But the pandemic had taken its toll on the education graph of our children. Two long years without proper studies, when children got promoted without any teaching having been done. Suddenly a student who was in class VI in 2020 was now in class VII! Needless to say, she was completely lost. It was a huge challenge for our teachers but Project Why teachers are one of a kind and took on the challenge head on. A lot of planning had to be done, but in no time new methods of teaching were adopted, new groups made according to the level of the children and work began in earnest. By the end of 2022, the teachers were pleased to see that most of the gaps had been bridged and were confident that the remaining would be by the close of the academic year in March 2022.
By the end of 2022, the Project Why family was back to its strength of 1200 and we were all happy and relieved. It was not all studies. We resumed our fun activities too. The children went for outings to different places: the crafts museum, the rail museum, the garden of five senses and the Red Fort. On children’s day 45 children were treated to lunch by Azure Hospitality at several outlets of their Dhaba restaurant chain. It was a unique experience. The staff were treated to a day long outing at Pratapgarh Farms courtesy Enfances Indiennes. A wonderful day of fun and bonding.
As always, the children did us proud. Everyone passed their school and Board examinations and two of our students from Okhla got into Delhi University cracking the new All India Entrance Examination. This motivated us to look at beyond class XII. We decided to begin career counselling and also started Spoken English classes and coaching for competitive examinations for Government jobs. These classes are taken by a Project Why alumni and are open to Project Why alumni and the community. The classes are free of cost.
We celebrated all festivals with fervor and fun. The children sang and danced, made posters and wrote slogans and sweets were distributed to all. 2022 was also the return of our volunteers, with Felix, a young volunteer from Germany spending six weeks at the Yamuna centre. We are expecting more volunteers in the coming year.
It was a year when the Gods were kind to us.
In January 2022 we were in a precarious situation on the funding issue. Things looked gloomy as we were short of funds and did not know where to go. But then the Universe sprung into action. The better half introduced us to the Trivedi Foundation who generously accepted to support the Khader and Yamuna centres for a year. Meenal Madhukar, one of our board members brought Mr. Adish Jain into the picture. He and his wife Asha visited the Okhla centre and decided to adopt it for ‘as long as it existed’! That was a huge moment for us. Another board member introduced us to Avantika Chopra who decided to help us full on. She led a crowdfunding initiative with the Fuel-a-Dream platform and managed to raise over 24 lacs. She also helped us increase our visibility in India something we were always wanting to do. She brought in the Max India Foundation who decided to adopt our Giri Nagar centre. We have now inducted Avantika to our Board as an Advisor.
Our regular donors continued their unstinted and generous support be it Enfances Indiennes, Project Why UK or Asha for Education. And to our utmost delight Project Why Germany came back after a short break during the pandemic. We are grateful to each and everyone of them. Their valued contributions allowed us to fill in the gaps and at times undertake much needed repairs. They are the ones who have allowed us to continue our work for over two decades now.
We hope that the Trivedi Foundation and the Max India Foundation will continue their support in 2023.
We will continue to work towards sustainability as only then can I be sure that Project Why will live beyond me. With each passing day my team is taking on more responsibilities and is now communicating with donors. I wait with bated breath for the day I become redundant.
We move into 2023 with renewed fervor and faith.
My eternal gratitude to my team, my Board and all our donors, well-wishers and supporters who stay the course. Without them Project Why would not exist.
Miracles are again waiting to happen in 2023.
I have a lot to be grateful for! We survived the pandemic almost unscathed. Thanks to our die hard supporters we were able to ride the storm and find our way back to days gone by after two years of uncertainty.
Schools have now reopened and we are inching back to a new normal. The children are back and the centres are once again humming with activity. The sound of children laughing albeit behind masks is nothing short of heart warming. New patterns have emerged with smaller groups and longer hours but that is a small price to pay. Everyone is thrilled and ready to go.
The gods too are smiling and showering us with their choicest blessings. After years of a hand to mouth existence, where every end of month found me gnawing at my nails wondering how we would meet the expenses of yet another month, we finally were able to secure some long term funding. Two of our centres, namely Khader and Yamuna were adopted for at least a year and Okhla was adopted for as long as it would exist. And to crown it all, a crowdfunding initiative yielded far more than anticipated. Our long term funders continue to be by our side. We can breathe easy, at least for some time. This is a first for Project Why. I am enjoying every minute, at least for the time being. I know that the search for funds will have to resume and we are ready for that when the time comes.
But today I want to express my gratitude to those who ensured that this year will be an easy one. Khader and Yamuna was adopted by the Trivedi Foundation thanks to the unrelenting efforts of my life partner. Okhla was adopted by the Jain Foundation thanks to our dear board member Meenal and the fundraising effort was made possible by the dynamism and never say die attitude of Avantika and her band of friends. To all of them I say ‘Chapeau Bas’!
We may have to face another upheaval as Delhi schools may shift to a single shift mode thus making our present model of boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon redundant. Children will only be free post lunch and the team is busy working out a new pattern. We may have to change timings and run the centres till late evening. But we are ready for that too.
We will also have to find new activities for the mornings where the centres, barring Yamuna, will be empty. Many ideas are being mooted: sewing classes, spoken English classes, adult literacy classes etc. This will take a little time to set up but I am sure that by the end of the summer vacation we will be ready to go.
New and exciting times await us and I am looking forward to them.
For now I am simply busy being grateful.
The children, staff and management of Project Why wish you a very happy 2022!
In April 2022 I turn 70. A milestone in any life. A time when you feel the need to pause and look back at the years gone by. A time to look at your life with utmost honesty: the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joy and sadness. Seven decades is a long time and I do not intend to subject you to life long reminiscences. Today I just intend to look back at the last two decades.
2000 is a watershed moment in my life as that is when Project Why began its work on the field. Project Why is undoubtedly the sum of my existence as I poured into it all that I had learnt and experienced over half a century as well as my hope and dreams: be it the lessons learnt at my parents’ knee, the joy of becoming a parent, the challenges faced at the workplace, the anger felt at all injustice, the desire to change things and so much more.
Project Why became the new challenge I embraced in my 50thyear. As my thoughts travel back I remember the little street and tiny mud house where it all began. I remember how Manu’s plight seared my soul and compelled me to find the first answer to that very resounding why. That was the beginning of an exhilarating journey where the sky was the limit. From a mere 20 we became 40 then 100 and reached 1000 in no time. We opened new centres in different locations, each to answer yet another why. Our enthusiasm was almost hubristic but somehow the Universe helped us in extraordinary ways bringing us support from the world over.
I look back at the wonderful family we became: the children, the teachers but also a plethora of people from many lands who came and volunteered with us and left an indelible mark in our hearts. Some even came back many times! Very precious legacy.
But it was not just a fairy tale. Project Why brought to the fore the many social inequities, the injustices and the ever growing gap between the privileged and underprivileged. This compelled me to raise my voice. This is how I began to blog. The attitude of the powers that be was nothing short of incomprehensible leading to ugly spats. But we overcame all.
This walk down memory lane is meant to be honest and I would be failing if I did not look at the failures, the biggest one being our inability to seed a proper sustainability option. It is not that we did not try. Our biggest attempt was Planet Why. Alas we were unable to raise the funds needed. If I look back with brutal honesty one would have to admit that the ‘success’ of our hand to mouth existence clouded our ability to see the writing one the wall. What we resorted to was crisis management. Not the best way to go.
Once again we face a crisis. True we will need to go into crisis management mode, but it is time we looked beyond. It is time to build our sustainability model. That is what I pledge to do as Project Why deserves to live beyond me.
So much for reminiscences. Time to look at the year gone by. In a nutshell 2021 was the year we seeded Project Why 2.0. It took a while as the situation on the ground kept changing. Schools barely opened and online teaching was here to stay. However the past year had taken its toll on the education of children from underprivileged homes and it became imperative for us to work a hybrid model that would address the situation. Project Why 2.0 aimed at bringing back children to school. That is what we are in the process of doing.
It was not an easy year. I end it with abundant gratitude to my team, the Board, and our supporters and funders who stayed with us in these harrowing times. Without them Project Why would not be.
I do not know what 2022 will bring us. I just know miracles are waiting to happen.
Mataji breathed her last yesterday evening.
I met her for the first time in May 2000 when I had gone to her in the throes of the deep grief I had sunk in after the untimely death of both my parents. For years I had just lpcked myself up and lost the key. No doctor, or soothsayer had been able to help me get out of the hole I had sunk in. It was the young woman who came to do my nails that hesitantly told me about her as she feared I would not accept to go to a slum as that is where Mataji reigned. But my grief was so raw that I was willing to go every and anywhere I could find solace.
She lived in a temple, where Gods and humans lived side by side in perfect harmony. The tiny abode was a cornucopia of eclectic things that the senses took time to get used to, but notwithstanding the initial shock, it was the feeling of peace and love that embraced you as you stepped in the tiny door. I found myself going day after day to that haven of peace. Slowly I shared my grief and the loss I felt and she gently just kept telling me that it would all be OK. All I needed to do was to transform the negative energies I had let myself sink in to something that would make my parents proud.
I did not know how but as I spent time with her, the answer came. To all of you who have followed my journey the answer was Project Why!
It is Mataji who found us the first tiny slum tenement that we would buy and begin our work in. It is in a corner of her home that we set up our first office and it is with her blessings that became who we are today. She helped us weather every storm and fought with the community when detractors raised their ugly heads.
For almost two decades my day would begin with a stop at her temple and a lovely cup of tea shared with her. It was the highlight of my day. But with the pandemic and then my being diagnosed with multiple myeloma that lovely ritual stopped.
For the last year or so I hardly met her. With my immunity being at its nadir I gad to remain locked up in my home and got news of her ailing health from Shamika or Rani. Even today I will not be able to pay my respects. But Mataji and I have her heart connect and I know she knew that she was always in my heart.
For Project Why its is the end of an era. The only way we can honour Mataji is by continuing our work with renewed commitment with the hope that she continues showering our blessings on us.
I have lost a mentor, a guide, a friend….
May she rest in heavenly peace.
I has been months since I have not written a word. It is not that I did not want to write. I just could not. Each time I sat at my computer hoping to write something, my brain would go mushy. Thoughts would vanish or become incomprehensible and the ensuing frustration would make me shut my computer in anger. I had heard of ‘chemo brain’ but never knew that it would be so debilitating. My chemotherapy stopped way way back in October 2020, but the side effects are still here with me the biggest one being this d**** chemo brain!
But today, the head seemed lighter and the urge to write was strong. So here I am trying to string one word after the other in the hope that I come up with something coherent. I will just let my thoughts flow and try and remember the past few months.
The biggest joy that came into my life was little Inaya. She landed in my lap on a cold January morn looking at the me with big eyes filled with trust and hope. She was 7 months old. Inaya is my granddaughter, Shamika’s adopted child. A real gift from God! And as I looked into her eyes I too was filled with hope: hope that all will be well, that the clouds would lift, that I would heal from my terrible ailment, that Project Why would be safe for years to come. In short that all my dreams would come true.
Inaya brought with her the strong belief that nothing is impossible. You just have to hold on like she did for 7 long months in an orphanage waiting for someone to rescue her. What I learnt from that is that no matter how bleak things get, there is light at the end of all tunnels.
Inaya is 15 months now and has set the mood for our household. She is a feisty little person who has each one of us dancing to her tune. There is no room for sadness; only laughter and joy.
Since she has come my health has improved and I am now feeling well. I am out of the stranglehold of conventional treatments – chemo etc..- and into alternative therapies. My blood counts are holding and the myeloma seems to be in check. I hope I can sail this course steadily.
Project Why took a set back and is in the process of reinventing itself. Our teachers have met all challenges head on and fine-tuned their online teaching approach. Due to the pandemic we have lost some children but have now open our doors to new entrants as the present online teaching enables us to do so. But online teaching is not sufficient for underprivileged children and hence we have decided to call students in tiny groups – maximum of 4 at a time – to clear their doubts and help them in this critical situation.
The sad reality is that the pandemic has hit education at all levels, but more so education for the less privileged. We need to come up with a flexible approach with on line and face to face teaching. We are in the process of doing just that.
Our staunch supporters have stood by us and hence we were able to remunerate all our staff even during the pandemic but our secure funding meets about 60% of our needs so we still need to find new avenues to raise the shortfall. We are trying to approach institutions and corporates. Fingers crossed!
At this juncture we do not know what the future holds. Are we going to see more lockdowns and new deadly waves? Are schools going to reopen soon? Will life ever go back to what it was? To the last question the answer seems to be no! We are going to have to come up with a new normal where masks and social distancing will be par to the course. We just need to accept the new normal and carry on.
The fact that I could write this blog is yet another miracle. Has the time come to say Bye Bye chemo brain! I certainly hope so. But I will take it one day at a time and let Inaya lead the dance.
In lock down times project Why does not stop work. Our team of dedicated teachers take online classes for all their students. Our goal is to ensure that no child drops out of school in Covid times. we hope we can meet our goal
Once again it is the time of the year when I sit and look back at the months gone by and share with you plans for the future. Last year when I penned my dreams for 2020 nothing could have prepared me for what we would encounter. I thought the Project Why ship would cruise on as usual and that our main concern would once again be our search for sustainability. We had some plans in our head. Our Adopt a Teacher initiative had been well received and we were looking at fine tuning and strengthening it. We were also hoping to widen our donor base and looking for new ways to do so. Little did we know that a small invisible virus would turn the planet on its head. Come March and we were all taken hostage by Covid 19! As India went into complete lockdown, Project Why shut all its doors. An eerie silence took over our lives, and the end of the dark tunnel was nowhere in sight.
We watched silently things unfold. The plight of the migrant labour was terrifying as they lost their livelihood and homes and many began a long walk to their homes of origin. For those who stayed back, hunger loomed large. We could not remain mute. We had to do something.
The need of the hour was ‘food’! The district administration was urging people to join the effort of feeding those in need. We reached out to our donors and were overwhelmed by the positive response we got. The Savitri Foundation UK accepted to sponsor 1000 meals a day for almost two moths. The 7 trustees of Project Why UK took on the ‘I will walk 500 miles’ challenge and raised a substantial amount that helped distribute dry rations to families in need. Many individual donors reached out to support this effort.
From April 2020 to end May 2020 we were engaged in food distribution. I am deeply grateful and proud of the Project Why staff who did not think twice before accepting to lead this programme. PPE kits were provided to them, and they braved the scorching heat day after day to fulfil the mission we had set for ourselves. Kudos to all of them!
Nobody would have expected what would befall on us in June. A nagging back pain that refused to go away would lead to my being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I must admit that upon receiving the news I was devastated. The excruciating pain and the stigma attached to multiple myeloma left me rudderless and at a complete loss. It would take weeks for me to fathom and accept what had happened. It was the overwhelming support from my family, from my project why family and from friends the world over that would enable me to regain control of my life.
The first thing that was on my mind was the future of Project Why. I convened a virtual meeting of the Board and was again deeply touched by how everyone extended their support and pledged to ensure the safety of Project Why. I stepped back from the chair, and Meenal Madhukar accepted to steer Project Why while I regained my health.
I began treatment. Chemotherapy and a host of alternative options saw me regain health and enter remission.Today I am pain free but still need to heal.
Project Why entered its Cover 19 avatar. We soon realised that schools would not reopen and that we needed to find new ways of reaching out to the children. The creche and special needs class were temporarily closed. The teachers began online classes for the older children with limited means. Many chidden did not have access to smart phones and net connections so the teachers prepared work sheets and created WhatsApp groups. They tailored classes to the needs of the students. Some teachers even took late evening classes as some children could only have access to phones after the parents came home from work. Once again the Project Why team proved its mettle and rose to the occasion. Our aim was to ensure that we reach every child possible. Teachers went to children’s home and took classes for them. Sadly some families left Delhi in the May exodus to never return. Older children were put to work by their parents. It was our endeavour to try and have them join classes again.
By the end of the year a steady pattern of online classes had emerged. We also decided to call the weaker children to the centre in small groups and take classes whilst respecting all Covid SOPs. It looks like this will be the model for the coming year too. Project Why has to reinvent itself. That is what awaits us for 2021!
We had to suspend all vocational and skilling activities. However the ladies of the vocational unit got busy making masks which were sold on the market. We even sent masks to France ad the UK.
Funding was erratic. Some of our sponsors continued to help us as usual but some scaled down their donations. We ran 4 online campaigns and they were very successful.
The end of the year brought some cheer as we got some new contacts we hope will bear fruit. On December 20th 2020 we organised a Facebook Live fund raiser. Ranjan, my better half, played a medley of Beatles song and many supporters joined from different parts fo the world. This concert opened new funding avenues. We enter the new year with hopes in our heart.
I end this difficult year with abundant gratitude. Gratitude to the team, the Board, the sponsors and supporters who stayed by us in these difficult times. I do not know what awaits us in 2021. I just know that miracles are waiting to happen.
The children of Project Why wish you a happy and peaceful New Year.
For the past six months now Project Why has been teaching online! Our stellar teachers did not take long to adapt to the new normal and came up with innovative ways to make sure that the children study in the best way possible. With the help of smart phones, whatsApp groups, worksheets and home teaching the team ensured that the children keep busy and do not lose interest in studying. In some cases, when the child can only get access to a phone late in the evening where parents come home, the teachers have taken classes way beyond working hours. Over 500 children are being reached mostly secondary students. Hats off to this incredible team.
Many of you maybe wondering where my blog and I have disappeared for the past few weeks. Yes, we did go AWOL but this is because I got diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. Suddenly the world as I knew it changed forever. It was a double whammy with Covid having taken centerstage. I shared the news on Facebook and I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love that came my way from the four corners of the world. It gave me the will to fight and beat the beast. My life partner of more than four decades and my family took matters in their hand and soon we had a roadmap to follow.
Today I have had two chemos and have 12 more to go. Then the situation will be assessed. It is a long run.
The pain at times is excruciating. At times my brain feels muddled and mushy. I have been away from my computer for all these days. It is only today that I mustered the courage to come and sit at the computer and write a few words to all of you from Delhi with love.
Meet Project Why and Azure hospitality’s Covid 19 warriors: Vijay, Seema, Sanjeet, Dharmendra (Project Why) and Manoj Kumar (Azure Hospitality)
For the past 2 weeks now they have been distributing over a 1000 meals to the agricultural labour families on the banks of the Yamuna. They set off at 12 in the scorching heart and distribute the meals till past 2 or even 3pm. They do it with love and compassion and without any fear for their well being. True warriors!
When we received a request from the authorities to help with feeding those in need we reached out to our donors and the Savitri Waney Trust responded immediately by sponsoring 1000 meals a day for a month. Azure Hospitality agreed to prepare the meals. Our one and only Satish Chandra aka Mamaji song into action and contacted the authorities to get all passes and permissions. From Project Why Seema was the first to join the bandwagon, Sanjeet was ever ready wit his auto. Dharmendra suggested we feed the Yamuna people as they were not getting any help at all and Vijay joined the distribution team with great aplomb. I had my four musketeers.
The task is unrelenting day after day. The Azure team starts bright and early preparing 1000 meals. By noon it is time to go and the distribution is done at three different points. It takes a good 3 hours.
With soaring temperatures PPE suits are pure hell to be in but security measures have to be followed. The team braves it all with a smile. There has been not a word of complaint . On the contrary they feel grateful and honoured.
I am so proud of them and can only say Chapeau Bas!
For the past weeks we have been trying to ‘imagine’ what Project Why would look like post Covid 19. If and when schools ‘reopen’ it is likely to be without children or at a later stage with children sitting six feet apart, their faces masked and their eyes brimming with questions that may remain unanswered. A dystopian morrow awaits us all. Children from privileged homes will ‘return’ to school virtual or real. But this might not be the case of children from poorer homes. A large number of migrants have taken the long road home and they may or may not return. Many had children attending government schools. From past experience we know that often girls above a certain age are left in the village as they are likely to be wedded. I wonder how many girls will see their eduction come to a halt.
At present schools are resorting to ‘online’ teaching. Not an ideal situation. Eyes glued to a screen for long hours cannot be good for any child and the absence of your classmates and the energies that emanate from a regular classroom will ultimately take its toll on the mental well being of all children. School is not just about the subject taught but it is also about all the life lessons you learn along the way. Let us not forget that one of the four pillars of education according to Jacques Delors was: learning to live together. This will be scarified at the alter of Covid 19.
But let us get back to Project Why post Covid 19. I am confident that our teachers will be able to adapt to online teaching but I also know that most of our children do not have access to smartphones and Internet and have hardly any space in their overcrowded tenements. Squinting over a tiny poor quality screen will do more harm than good. Moreover parents will not be willing to pay for Internet access. And if there are more than one school going child in a family, it will be impossible for all of them to learn.
At present our 5 boarding school children are following online classes but with innumerable problems: from poor connectivity to the father needing the phone, to the smaller sibling wanting to see her favourite cartoon, it is nothing short of a nightmare. My heart goes out to them as 4 of them have Board exams in 2021.
If and when we are allowed to open Project Why we will have to find a way of supporting our children. If children are not allowed to come then it will have to be online and perhaps it is time to start exploring ways of acquiring tablets or phones for those who do not have any and also raising funds to pay for internet access. Time to review the way we were. All suggestions are welcome.
Schools are closed and are likely to remain closed. Education has never been a priority. Once again this ‘new’ normal has drawn the lines between the haves and have not. Privileged schools are running online classes and their students are busy studying. Laptops and tablets are in use with stable internet connections. There is sufficient space in privileged homes for finding a secluded spot even if there are siblings. Parents hover around to make sure that the child is studying.
For children from the underprivileged homes the story is different. An ersatz of online teaching has been put in place: a poor quality smart phone, an unstable internet connection, a tiny space shared with many where the TV blares, no parent to hover over you, WhatsApp groups where no smart phones exist and in many cases no study at all as no adult is willing to give you their phone.
Welcome to the world of education in the times of Covid 19!
Class XII 2020 children are living on a razor’s edge. Every section has one or more papers left. No one knows when these will take place and when the results will be announced and how that will affect college admissions. My heart goes out to all these kids.
No one knows when schools will reopen and what will be the ‘new’ normal then. Will children have to wears masks? Will there be fewer kids in a class and many shifts. And what about play?
Schools are the opposite of social distancing. They are a place where you share a bench, share your tiffin box, share your secrets, your dreams, your pain and your joy. How do you do that six feet apart!
And what will happen to Project Why? It was a place where you packed as many children as possible in the space you have as the motto was to help as many as possible and try never to send a child away. Here again I cannot imagine the new normal. I know we will need to reinvent ourselves but I wonder how. Education in the times of Covid 19 is indeed our biggest challenge.
Last week Jennie one of the trustees of Project Why UK wrote asking whether we were doing anything to help underprivileged families survive the Coronavirus pandemic. I told here that we had identified about 100 families who were in need of food and were providing them groceries to ensure they do not remain hungry. Each distribution cost us about £700 and would last 15 days. She wrote back saying they would do something to raise funds for another distribution. On April 18 they launched a fund raiser to help us raise funds for another distribution by having their 7 trustees walk 500 miles over 21 days during their daily exercise.
Imagine my surprise when I received a mail on Sunday morning, the day after the fundraiser began, informing me that they had raised the whole amount in ONE DAY and had now doubled their target. I was speechless.
Project Why UK is a perfect example of the magic that Project Why can weave. The seven trustees are all volunteers and friends who came to spend some time at project Why, and carried us back in their hearts. They became staunch supporters and last year decided to formalise their support by registering Project Why UK as a charity. They have stood by us through thick and thin. I feel overwhelmed and humbled.
Thank you Jennie, Harriet, Cat, Catherine, Jon, Mahua and Viren for truly seeing with your hearts. And a big thank you to little Zephyr who ‘walked’ for Project Why on his mum’s back. I love you all!
You can also donate by Paypal on this link.
Meet Project Why’s corona warriors. Seema, Dharmendra, Vijay, Sanjeet, Amit, Mithu. For the past days they have been busy organising passes, identifying needy Project Why families, procuring and packing goods and braving all odds to see that these reach the beneficiaries. In the first lot 30 families from Okhla and 70 families from Yamuna were identified and a care package delivered to each of them. It consisted of rice, flour, lentils. cooking oil and salt.
The first distribution was organised at Okhla with our one and only Seema taking the lead. The next day it was dependable Dharmendra who spearheaded the distribution in Yamuna with the help of the local police beat officers who ensured proper social distancing.
In the meantime we received a letter from the Home Ministry asking for our help in arranging cooked meals for the homeless and daily wage workers. Kabir from Azure Hospitality and the Savitri Foundation came forward and immediately agreed to sponsor 1000 meals per day for a period of 30 days These will be distributed in Okhla from next week onwards. It will again be our corona warriors who will take the lead and ensure that this is done in the best way possible.
It is heartwarming to see how the Project Why team responded to the call. Each one of them was willing to come forward and do what was needed.
I am deeply grateful to my incredible team and to Kabir and the Savitri Foundation for rising to the occasion and am confident that we will win the war against this invisible enemy.
Last Saturday was my 68th birthday. It was a quiet affair coronavirus oblige! Normally my birthday is quite a celebration that begins early in the morning with a call from the US and a cheery message from my grandson. Then it is time to visit as many centres of Project Why as I can. Everywhere I am greeted with flowers, balloons, cake, cards and even presents. I feel spoilt silly. The evening is a celebration at home with family and close friends. All along the day there are messages and calls from all over the world starting with New Zealand and ending with the USA.
This year would be different. It would be my first and I hope only birthday in lockdown.
However the day began at the crack of dawn with the call from my grandson who had composed a song for me. The little bloke is an expert at tearing me up as he always comes up with something that tugs at my heart. This year was no different.
After getting ready I opened my computer and was taken aback by the number of messages that were waiting for me. It seemed that everyone I knew had decided to make this day special. I was moved by the warmth of the greetings and the love that poured from them. I saw that many messages had been sent at midnight. Utpal and Kiran sent loving messages that made me tear up again. Malini even had a special post on Facebook that made me feel humbled and overwhelmed. Every volunteer, donor, virtual friend was there to greet me and send me their love and support.
The Project Why WhatsApp staff group was flooded with messages and I was touched by the number of people who had taken time to make little movies taking pictures from past Facebook posts and putting them altogether with music and song. It was heartwarming to see how savvy they were at social media. I was gobsmacked!
What I coud feel in every message was the ardent desire to see things return to normal and Project Why reemerge unscathed. That is what we all hope. That is what I hope. But the fear of this not happening looms large even if one tries to remain as optimist as possible. None of us know what the future holds.
But we need to hold on to every shred of hope. More so because I would be unable to see Project Why close. It would kill me. I pondered on this and asked myself why I felt like that and the answer came to me in the lovely post my friend Aparajita wrote for my birthday. I will simply share the last lines of her post: you are what each child, each student wants a teacher to whisper in their ears: ‘dream. I am there’.
No matter what happens. No matter how bruised and battered we are on the other side of these terrible times I still want to be able to whisper in every child’s ears: DREAM. I AM THERE.
It has been a week since we are under lockdown. We at Project Why are trying to find our new normal. The uncertainty of the future is daunting to say the least. Many questions beg for answers. How long will it last? Will things ever be the same again? Will we be able to pick up the pieces from where we left them and start again?
Project Why staff has a WhatsApp group that keeps it connected. We try and greet each other and share news about each other. It is heartwarming to see that some of our staunch supporters from other lands do also send messages on the group. Xavier has even coined the phrase United Colours of Project Why and created an image with the flags of all the countries our friends and supporters come from. This undoubtedly give us hope.
The centre managers hold meetings on Zoom to try and plan for the future. It is nice to see them connecting and learning to use new virtual tools. They are busy upgrading their skills. Making plans also gives hope and hope is something we need to hold on to. The future looks bleak today more so as we do not know how long the crisis will be and what awaits us on the other side but to keep our sanity intact we need to remain positive. At present we must plan on getting the staff their salaries in spite of the lockdown. Many depend on them to survive.
Thanks to the internet and all virtual applications, we are able to keep in touch with donors and volunteers. This also gives a sense of hope. It is touching to see how concerned they are about Project Why.
We have no news about the Boards. This is very nerve wrecking for all the children who were hoping to complete their studies. I hope that they are able to sit for their remaining paper and get admission for higher studies. I pray 2020 is not declared a zero year!
Some teachers have created WhatsApp groups with their students and I am urging all to do the same. This is a nice way keeping in touch and sharing news and advise. This way we will also know that the children are safe and be informed of any problem that can then be taken care of.
It is very frustrating to be in my seventh decade and thus considered as high risk for the virus. I would have liked to be able to move around, find out about the children, help those in need and do something positive. But alas that is not possible. I just try and connect people to the best of my ability.
We have at least another two weeks of lockdown and maybe more. I hope and pray that we are able to flatten the curve and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
To keep going I spend a lot of time looking at old pictures and finding strength from the smiles of our beautiful children.The picture above is one of my favourites.
Will the world ever be the same again?
This is a question I ask myself every day. For the past few weeks now the corona virus has taken over our lives. It began with schools shutting down. First the primary classes, then classes which did not have exams, then all classes and to crown it all the postponement sine die of the remaining board exams. The upmarket schools swung into action and organised online classes for their students. However for the government school children, a closed school meant no learning at all, and for the primary children no midday meal! The class lines are drawn as is always the case.
With the Covid 19 crisis deepening one has no idea about what the future holds. Delhi and most of India is in complete lockdown and curfew has been imposed. Many theories are doing the rounds. Some think it will be a few weeks, others a few months before things quieten down. The peak in India is expected to come in June. Based on what has happened or is happening in other countries, the worst is still to come. I shudder to think about what will happen when the virus enters the slums. And it will unless a miracle occurs.
Many are not understanding the gravity of the situation and the necessity to remain locked up in our homes and the importance of sanitising ourselves and the environment. For the poor this is almost impossible. Water is scarce, sanitisers expensive and staying at home a chimera when home is a few square feet inhabited by many. No one knows or can even imagine what awaits us and hence the question: will the world ever be the same again?
Will the day dawn when we can pick up where we left and carry on the way we were? Will we hear the laughter of our little creche children again? Will we be greeted by the warm smiles of our special kids or the loud “Good morning Ma’am” of our primary students? Will we walk again in the different centres and see children studying? Will the board exams take place or will the likes of Utpal and Babli loose a precious year. I do not know. Actually I fear not. The virus has hijacked our lives and above all our dreams.
Will the world ever be the same again? Sadly the answer is no. This virus has redefined everything. When it decides to leave us or when we find a way to protect ourselves, the world would have changed. I hope for the better as we would have got time to ponder on our excesses and mistakes and hopefully look at things with our hearts, but the toll on the economy will be a stark reality that we would have to learn to live with.
The world as we knew it has gone forever. The battle with the corona virus will lay the foundation of the new normal that awaits us. Let us hope it will be a wiser and saner place.
The Corona Virus pandemic has undoubtedly set out new rules for us to abide by. It is redefining the way we will live. India locked itself down in an effort to contain the virus. Till date over 100 people are infected and 2 have died. To keep one’s self safe it is recommended that over and above basic hygiene rules one should practice social distancing. In this effort the Government has ordered closure of schools, colleges, malls, movie halls etc. Big companies are asking their staff to work from home.
Today I would like to share some thoughts on social distancing and how it affects us. As my friend Damyanti wrote, social distancing is a privilege and exercising it may save lives. But many do not understand this. What we need to know is that for the young and healthy the corona virus may come and go like a flu but the same can kill someone who is aged or sick. The lady who died in Delhi contracted the virus from her son who had travelled recently. Had he self quarantined himself, his mother may have still been alive. As of now all the people infected have a travel history and belong to a certain strata of society. But how long will this last? One can easily infect a maid who comes to your house but lives in a slum. It is imperative to act responsibly.
There are many around us who cannot follow social distancing. They have to step out of their homes and go to work on daily basis or else they will starve. And should any of them be infected the results will be disastrous. It is crucial to understand this if we want to contain the virus. It is quasi impossible for anyone living in a slum to practice social distancing. People live in crowded one room tenements and so if one is infected the likelihood of others being so is very high. Maintaining high levels of hygiene is also difficult when one does not have access to water or can barely afford a hand sanitiser.
It is imperative for those who can be potential carriers to exercise extreme caution and utmost responsibility in order to prevent an exponential rise of the infection. At present we in India are at stage 2. Stage 3 would be a disaster.
In Italy they went from 4 cases to 15000 in 25 days! This was because restrictions were not enforced in time. It is crucial we exercise self restrictions, go out as little as possible and take all suggested precautions. This is the only way to beat the virus and avoid a catastrophe.
The world is in the grip of the Cornona Virus. It has bamboozled everything. As the fear of the virus takes hold of one and all, preventive measures are taken in the hope of containing it. In Delhi all primary and pre primary schools have been closed till March 31st and thus we at Project Why have been compelled to do the same: the creche and all primary sections are shut. Only secondary classes are open with examinations going on.
One misses the presence of the younger ones, the loud singing in the creche as children learn poems and alphabets, the giggles and laughter of the primary classes. All that remains is an eerie silence in empty classrooms. The teachers try to keep busy cleaning up classrooms, competing files and assessment work but their heart is not there. Everyone misses the children.
A sense of uncertainty prevails as no one knows what the morrow holds. Will the virus spread or will it slowly die out with the coming of summer. Everyone is praying for it all to end.
My heart goes out to the children who must be totally bewildered at what is happening. With no school and no Project Why they must be lost not knowing what to do, left to roam the streets as their parents go about their daily routine. No one thinks of slum children when decisions like closing schools are taken. For them school is still a safer haven than their homes.
We just hope and pray that normal days will soon return. Till then little Astitva is the only student of the Project Why creche!
For the past week I have been down with high fever. My only connect to reality has been the TV news the better half switches on. Words and images cross the feverish mind and sit there waiting for them to be processed. Only I find almost impossible to do so as the horror of the recent riots in Delhi is incomprehensible to me. How could this have happened in a city where different communities have lived in peace and harmony? Where did the seed of hate come from and who tended to it allowing it to grow? In my feverish state I hear of schools being burnt down, of shops being destroyed, of livelihoods lost. I hear of deaths of young and old, death across the divide the blood running the same red
My febrile mind is unable to take it in and I sink back into semi consciousness.
Mercifully amidst all the violence and gore, the stones and bullets there are stories of hope, neighbour helping neighbours, a man from a community risking his life to save people from another, a tiny hospital bravely providing all the succour it can, a place of worship being saved by people of another faith, stories that restore faith, stories that prove that all is not lost.
So the question that comes to my mind is what makes certain people behave in one way and others in the exact opposite? Why are some willing to pick up stones and guns and destroy while others are eager to heal and spread love. Why are some willing to follow the mob blindly while others have the courage to stand for what is right.
The reality is scary. On Sunday night a spate of fake calls and rumours create panic in another part of the city, the one where we have centres too. Calls are made. In one locality inhabited by people of one community only, people start gathering stones. One wonders who would be the targets. When asked by a sensible soul, they look around sheepishly. It just needed one person to show them the mirror.
What will it need to have more sensible souls around?
I think it is the education we give our children both in home and schools that will make the difference. It is easy to follow the crowd. It is hard to take the road less travelled. In order to do so we need to lead by example and teach our children values like compassion and respect for the other, we need to make them strong enough to defend what is right when the need arises. To not be afraid of standing alone when the need arises. It is sad that moral science is no more part of the curriculum in schools. I wish someone collects all the examples of hope that occurred in the last days and share them with children in schools as that is how they will learn.
We at Project Why are committed to teach our children values like compassion and respect. We want them to believe in themselves and stand for what is right, even if they have to stand alone. It is tall order I know but there is no other choice. We are just doing what is right.
I cannot believe that in a few weeks Utpal and Babli will have finished their class XII Board Exams and that in just about two keeks Utpal will turn 18 and thus become an adult! To me they both remain the little burnt scalded one year old and the little heavily breathing four year old I lay my eyes on for the first time so many moons ago. That was when I decided or actually was guided to reach out to them and craft their morrows. At that time I had no clue of what the future had in store for us. It would enfold one day at a time.
With Utpal and his third degree burns the first step was to heal his wounds and get him back on his chubby feet. I remember the ordeal of his bandages and the fear we had of any infection setting in. He spent the days in my office in a little cot under my watchful eye. And day after day we witnessed the miracle of his healing. I can never forget the day when I left him under the care of one of our teachers and was told that he had eaten SIX BANANAS! I realised quite early that he was a survivor. I witnessed his first word and was there for his first step. We enrolled him in a play school and I remember dropping and picking him up every day. In our minds we had charted out a roadmap whereby we would try and secure his family and make sure he gets a sound education. But the heavens had another plan for him. A series of rather dark events led to him landing up in my home at the age of 4. He would soon go to boarding school and I would become his legal foster parent. At that time end of school days seemed truly far away. We moved from class to class with our share of hurdles that we both surmounted. And before I knew it he was in class XII. In a few days he will come home for good and his room awaits in the newly constructed house. In hindsight I realise how the heavens conjured to make all this possible as it was their plan that was unfolding, I was just the chosen lead. A new chapter of both our lives is ready to unfold. I feel a tad nervous but immensely blessed.
Babli joined Project Why in class II and was a spunky kid with stars in her eyes but a big hole in her heart that made it difficult for her to breathe. But in a halting way she voiced her dream: to be police! Upon enquiry I came to know that she was in critical need of an open heart surgery that was quite expensive. Again the heavens went to work and we found a kind hearted soul to sponsor the surgery. I thought that was the end of my role. Sometime later I was told that Babli had not been sent back to school but was tending to her father’s cart selling knick knacks. I was livid and knew I had to intervene. Babli would join Utpal in boarding school. The rest is history.
My two little ones are all grown up now and ready to conquer the world. I do not know what awaits them but am confident that once again the Universe has plans for them. I simply need to play my role and see them fulfilled.
I feel incredibly blessed.
My dearest children
In just a few hours you will be sitting for your Board exams. Before I say anything else I want to tell you that no matter what the results are YOU ARE ALL WINNERS!
Look at where you have reached in life. From being a baby in a crib you learnt to walk, talk, read, write and went on to school where you spend long years not only learning many subjects but mastering many skills. You fell down many a times but were back on your feet to soldier on. You moved from class to class imbibing many values, learning to care for the other, to respect your elders and to tend to those younger than you. True you may have slipped sometimes but those were invaluable lessons on the path to becoming an adult. You may have encountered failure but that too was needed to know success in its true form. For success lies in the ability to rise from failure.
Today you stand tall ready to take on life. Your exam is just one more stepping stone but do not get discouraged if you are unable to score high. Marks are not what defines you my children. It is also not what you will be judged by as you take your first step into the adult world. What will hold true are the values you uphold. What will stand with you in your professional life is your creativity, your ability to think out of the box, your ability to lead others, your ability to be fair and stand by what is right. This is what will define you.
It has been a matter of pride to have you as Project Why students and I sincerely hope we have been able to instil the right values in you and help you find your true calling. You will always remain part of the Project Why family. My love and blessings are with you wherever you go.
Life waits for you and the universe has charted your course. Your exams are again just a portal you need to step trough. Believe in yourself and give the exam your best shot.
As I said earlier you are already a winner
Meet my class of 2020: spunky Babli Thakur and one of a kind Utpal Mandal. On 20th February they begin the last chapter of their school life: their final class XII exams. The chapter ends on 30 March with their last paper and then another story begins. I went to see them on Sunday and they both looked relaxed and happy. It was I who was the stressed one!
Seeing them was an emotional moment for me as my mind travelled back to the first time I saw them both. The first to enter my life was Utpal way back in 2003 when he was just about one. He was a bony lad with amazing eyes and a heart warming smile. At that moment I never knew he would become part of my life. His accident a few weeks later would change his and my destiny irrevocably. I would become his foster parent and he would be part of my family. He was barely 4 when he entered boarding school. At that time I had no idea what the future would hold. By the time he was 7 his natural family vanished and the child was left alone. It was not easy for either of us and we slowly crafted a new life for ourselves. Today we stand strong and happy. I cannot believe that in little over a month his school days will be over and he will be home and we will get busy planning his future. His life is nothing short of a miracle and I know deep in my heart that his morrows will be safe. Another miracle is in the making.
Babli came into my life some years later when she was already in school. That tiny little girl looked way beyond her age and in spite of her laboured breathing had eyes filled with dreams for the future: she wanted to be a police! We discovered later that she had a hole in her heart and needed immediate corrective surgery. A miracle enfolded as we found a kind soul to sponsor her surgery and we nursed her back to health. It was a few months later that I discovered that her family had not sent her back to school and saw red. I decided to take matters in my hand and soon Babli too was on her way to boarding school as Utpal’s class mate. Her dreams were safe!
In a few weeks they will graduate from school and be ready to fulfil their dreams. I know I will be there to help them at every step.
I am so proud of my tiny class of 2020!
When our dearest friend Damyanti Biswas decided to share the proceeds of her debut bestseller novel You Beneath Your Skin to two organisations: Stop Acid Attacks and Project Why she also seeded a new bond between two worlds that till then were unknown to each other. If not for her we at project Why would have never met the wonderful acid attack survivors and made lifelong friends. It all began at the launch of the book way back in September 2019. That was the first time many of us came to face to face with these amazing souls and with Alok Dixit who runs Stop Acid Attacks, the organisation that helps rehabilitate acid attack victims and transform victims into real troupers. At that first meeting we promised to keep in touch but it would take some time before that happened.
It was in December, at another book event that I shared the dais with Ritu Saini and was moved by her story and impressed by her zest for life. I was impressed by two statements this young and feisty survivor made. The first one was that she was grateful to her attacker as the attack was what made it possible for her to break free from the restricting walls of her life and come in the open and receive so much love. And the other was that she would like to ask her attacker without any acrimony what went in his head when he perpetrated that terrible act because she never wanted anyone to ever feel that way! Wise words from such a young soul. Ritu was 17 when tragedy struck and is in her early twenties now. I pondered on what she said and realised how true she was. Had there be no acid attack her life would have been that of any young girl from her community, confined to the walls of first her paternal home and then her marital one. It is the attack that propelled her out of that world into one where she could find an identity and a voice. Today she advocates for acid attack survivors in more ways than one. Ritu Saini has much to teach us and this is when I decided that I would invite her to Project Why and have the children meet her.
I was over he moon when I was informed that she had agreed to come to our Republic Day celebrations at Khader and was overwhelmed when I heard that Alok Dixit would come too in spite of his busy schedule. It was indeed an honour for us at Project Why. I was looking forward to that moment. Unfortunately a bad back made it impossible for me to be there and I was devastated but thanks to the magic of social media I was able to see some of the function as part of it was live streamed. I was happy to see the smiling faces and was very moved by Ritu’s speech. I believe the message she gave would resound in the minds of our children. I also knew that this was the beginning of a long relationship where we would learn from each other and strive to make a real difference.
My gratitude to Alox Dixit for having graced the occasion with his presence and accepted to celebrate Republic Day with us. My gratitude to young Ritu Saini for sharing her smile and confidence with my staff and children and showing us that beauty lies in the soul.
Ritu acts in Chaapaak, the recently released movie about acid attack survivors. The story is based on the life of Alok Dixit. Please support them by seeing the movie!
Today as I sat fearing for tomorrow, wondering how we will continue our work beyond April 2020, where will we find the missing numbers and so on, I decided to give myself a feel good shot. I have always said that Project Why is replete with miracles. It was time to revisit at least one and why not the very first one which we sometimes tend to forget: the bag lady miracle. Cryptic, is it not?
Rewind to the summer of 2000.I had landed in the street where it would all begin. I had met Manu and decided to ‘do’ something for him. I had met children and parents who urged me to teach their children English. A small jhuggi was available for sale in that very street. Things were falling in place but I did not have access to any funds to buy any ‘property’! I did not know who to go to. At that time miracles and angels were no part of my lexicon.
I use to often go to the market near our home in the evenings just for a stroll. A new bag and shoe shop had opened recently and was owned by a young woman who I befriended. I found myself sharing all my plans for Project Why and even told her about the jhuggi for sale and about how it would help us start our work. All this was mentioned ‘en passant’ and we were soon talking of other things and viewing her latest collection.
A few days later she called me and asked me the price of the jhuggi. I was taken aback but told her it was 90 K, a number way beyond my imagination at that time. I fell of my chair when I heard her next words: I am buying it for you!
The rest is history. In a few days the jhuggi was ours and she even gave us money to repair it. We were all over the moon. The bag lady remained in touch for some time but then vanished and I was unable to locate her in spite of my best efforts. That is when I realised that miracles happened and that angels looked just like us.
The jhuggi allowed us to seed Project Why. In hindsight I now believe it was a message to tell me I was on the right track and that no matter what impediments would come there would always be a way out. The last twenty years have been ample proof of that.
Remembering the bag lady has not only filled my heart with gratitude but given me the belief that another miracle is on its way. I wonder what this Angel will look like.
Note: The picture above is of the said jhuggi with the merry band that steered Project Why. This was the only snapshot I could find as in those days we did not have digital cameras.
January is the first month of the year when you make resolutions and plans for the year to come. January 2020 is the beginning of the 20th year of Project Why and I sit and wonder how it will enfold for us. Before I move ‘forward’ and try and define what awaits us, I would like to take a moment and look back at the two decades gone by. What began as an almost hesitant journey undertaken to find a way to give Manu a dignified future, took a life of its own and became what every knows as Project Why. Way back in 2000 I would have never imagined what it would turn out to be.
The magic lay in its name: Project Why, where the why stood for every question that begged for an answer, an answer that needed to be found. And somehow the heavens conspired to make that happen. Every ‘why’ thrown our way found the answer sought. Nothing seemed impossible. So what began as a tiny spoken English class for a handful of students mutated into primary and secondary classes, early education, day care for special needs, skilling programmes for women and the handful of beneficiaries grew exponentially to more than a thousand.
The last 20 years were not easy and we had to face many challenges but somehow each one was met with success and the trials and tribulations soon forgotten. The only thing that mattered was to carry on. And we did just that.
We can be proud of what we have achieved. But what does tomorrow hold?
In an ideal world we would hope to be able to continue our work unhindered but sadly that is not the case. In spite of all our efforts we were unable to raise the funds needed to meet the shortfall due to the loss of one of our main funders. Come April 2020 we are short of almost 50% of our needs. This is nothing short of scary and as I write these words I wonder how will we be able to find the missing numbers in less than three months. The alternative is a real Sophie’s choice.
I need to remain optimist. I need to keep on believing in miracles as so many have come my way in the past twenty years. I need to petition the Lord with Prayer. I am reminded of a prayer I wrote six years ago when I found myself in a similar situation and hope the Lord will hear me.
It was on this day, nine years ago that Manu tiptoed out of our lives. I had seen him earlier in the day and he was his usual self, complaining of the cold but not losing his smile. I had given him a hug promising to come and see him the next day with biscuits, his all time fav! He waved good bye as I left the room. A few hours later he simply gently moved on to light. He had asked for a glass of water and his teacher gave it to him and went on to get him a cup of tea and his beloved biscuits but by the time he came back Manu was gone. Just like everything else he did, he left our world without fuss, without a sound.
His death was a huge shock. Somehow Manu had always seemed invincible having weathered so many storms. I could not believe the news. I rushed to his side, sat beside him, stroked his brow, murmured sweet nothings hoping he would wake up and give me one of his lopsided smiles but that was not to be. His saintly soul had moved on. Only a broken shell remained. I too tiptoed out of the room knowing that no matter what, I would always carry a part of him in my heart.
Today nine years later I still feel his presence, at times I even feel that he will appear at the corner of the street mumbling to himself and breaking into his endearing smile. But reality hits hard. There will be no Manu. He has fulfilled his amazing soul plan and moved on.
You may wonder what soul plan a mentally and physically challenged soul born in abject poverty could have. Most of us would have brushed him away as yet another wretched beggar had we come across him wandering his street, dirty and half clad; his heart rendering cries would have seemed an irritant that we may have quietened by throwing him a coin. I still do not know why I did not do just that. Maybe everything was preordained. I stopped and looked at him with my heart and my life changed forever. There was no looking back. Manu’s life mission was to set me back on the right path. He was a mirror to my soul.
My ardent desire to do something for him led to my having to set up Project Why in the very street he was born and where he was once loved but then shunned. Setting up our first outreach programme allowed us to start caring for him. Manu had a home. But this was only the beginning. Project Why would grow and expand and reach out to thousands of kids, all because of Manu. The biggest lesson Manu taught me was that no life however hopeless it may seem was futile. Every life was blessed and needed to be celebrated. Manu was the perfect example.
When Manu died, I was lost. I realised that Manu had been my guiding light and given me the strength to carry on. With him gone my feet faltered and it almost seemed as if I too had reached the end of the road but then I felt his presence and understood that to honour his life Project Why had to carry on. It has till now.
Today we are at crossroads again having lost a large chunk of funding and not knowing where to look to replace it. It would be easy to close the door and lose the key but I can feel Manu’s spirit urging me to soldier on as the light at the end of the tunnel is just a few steps away, steps that I have to take for Manu.
I will continue to honour his memory while Manu stays safe in my heart.
Another year ends. Tomorrow we usher in 2020, a new decade and twenty years of Project Why! On this last day of the decade I feel somewhat nostalgic. The desire to travel back in time is overwhelming and I let myself embark on a trip down memory lane. Twenty years is a long time, a generation it is believed and by this yardstick Project Why has entered adulthood but it just seems it all began yesterday and that Manu would appear at the end of the road anytime. I cannot believe that 20 years have passed. I can still hear his cries and feel how they shook me out of the almost catatonic state I had sunk in after my parents deaths. I understand today that Manu gave me a second life, another chance to prove myself and be worthy of his gift.
That is how the journey began two decades ago with no road map, no instruction book, no guidelines but just the overwhelming desire to follow my heart and answer all the ‘whys’ that would come my way, the first being Manu. In my quest of ways to take care of Manu, I would be confronted with innumerable questions all begging for an answer.
Taking care of Manu meant having to sink roots in a world I barely knew existed, the one that lies on the other side of invisible lines drawn by the society we live in. It meant making that world mine. In spite of many hurdles it was easier than I thought as in the lanes of the slums of Delhi and behind the door of every home I found the India so lovingly portrayed to a child growing in faraway lands by her parents. And even if it was a far cry from everything I had known till then, the love and acceptance I received in abundance made up for everything. The rest is history.
From a small spoken English facility with barely 40 children we grew to become a family of 1200 in a couple of years with primary and secondary classes as well as a special needs class that was Manu’s class. Along the way we also began working with women and today over 400 women are skilled every year in our women’s centre. From the small lane where it all began we spread our wings to other parts of the city and today have centres in 5 locations. All this was made possible by an incredible team of 40 souls who are the cornerstone of the Project and steer it from challenge to challenge, from success to success.
We strived to answer every challenge, even those outside the box from sponsoring over 20 open heart surgeries to taking care of burn survivors. No one was ever turned away. Today our two little burn survivors and one of our open heart surgery child study in a boarding school, two of them Utpal and Babli will sit for their class XII Boards in 2020!
But that is one side of the coin.The other side is the incredible souls who reached out and made all this possible. Individuals from across the globe who believed in us and donated with compassion and generosity. Some of them even set up organisations* in their country to raise the funds we needed. Each an everyone of them is part of the Project Why family.
Twenty years ago I began this journey as an orphan. Today I have the largest family you can imagine. The love I have received is overwhelming. Be it the children of Project Why, the team, the volunteers, the supporters, each and everyone is my family and has a special place in my heart. I feel humbled and grateful beyond words.
We have come a long way and it has been a beautiful journey. I feel so incredibly blessed.
As we enter into a New Year, I pray that we are able to continue our work and fulfil all the dreams we hold in custody.
Happy New Year
When we began the Yamuna centre almost five years ago we did not know where it would lead us. The children had never been to school. They were free spirits who roamed the fields and helped their parents in their agricultural work. We did not know if they would sit in class for a whole day and take their studies seriously. It was a surprise and a pleasure to see how quickly they would adapt. For us it was a challenge to create a school like environment and ensure they feel comfortable, safe and motivated.
They took to studies like fish to water and made up for lost time. They have done us really proud as seven of them are ready to sit for their class X through the open school in 2020. One could not have imagined this.
Last week we registered them and paid their fees. Now they are busy studying hard and we are helping them in whatever way we can.
Passing your class X may not seem like a very important milestone for many, but in the case of Bhagwan Shree, Shivam, Prem, Mohan, Jai Prakash, Ankit and Sachin it is truly life changing. Without education they would have been condemned to live the same life their parents did: cultivate land belonging to others, marry early, start a family and make a meagre living at the mercy of unpredictable landlords. The land is leased from year to year with no certainty at all. At any moment the Government may put an end to vegetable cultivation on the banks of the Yamuna and all these families will be without an income. Not having any savings would mean that their only option would be to join the unskilled labour force of the city.
They all take their studies very seriously and hats off to Shree, the only girl whose family shifted last year to the other side of town but who still comes every week to prepare for her exams with her colleagues. Senior teachers from our Khader centre go regularly to the Yamuna centre to teach these children.
The hope is that with some education they can aspire to better jobs and break the cycle of poverty in which they were born. This is what we hope for all our Yamuna kids.
So for us at Project Why this is indeed a red letter day, a turning point in our effort to change lives through education.
Last Sunday our dear friend Damyanti organised a blogger’s meet. Though it was around her bestselling novel You Beneath Your Skin, her main aim was to have the two charities her book supports come and share their work and success stories. Stop Acid Attacks was represented by Ritu Saini , a young acid survivor and Project Why by Rani, Anita, Kiran and Sanjay. The main topic was violence against women and what can be done to stop it.
It was a cozy meet with a few bloggers and us and hence it was easy to talk and share what each one of us felt.
I was deeply moved by Ritu’s testimony but what truly shook me was two statements this young and feisty survivor made. The first one was that she was grateful to her attacker as the attack was what made it possible for her to break free from the restricting walls of her life and come to in the open and receive so much love. And the other was that she would like to ask her attacker without any acrimony what went in his head when he perpetrated that terrible act because she never wanted anyone to ever feel that way! Wise words from such a young soul. Ritu was 17 when tragedy struck and is in her early twenties now. I pondered on what she said and realised how true she was. Had there be no acid attack her life would have been that of any young girl from her community, confined to the walls of first her paternal home and then her marital one. It is the attack that propelled out of that world into one where she could find an identity and a voice. Today she advocates for acid attack survivors in more ways than one. Ritu is also part of the cast of Chhapaak the film soon to be released.
Her other almost candid question addresses the one we all ask and seek answers to: what is the root cause of violence against women? The answer is very complex and sadly there are no quick fixes as violence against women is deep seated into the patriarchal society we live in where boys and girls are not treated equally even by their own mothers. It is all about mindsets and changing mindsets is long haul.
In my opinion education is the only way this can happen, but again education has to be one that is not set in a patriarchal mould. This is what we strive to achieve at project why. The stories shared by Rani, Anita and young Kiran are ample proof of the fact that education can bring about a real transformation.
Rani would have been married off at a young age and would have lived within the restricting walls of a traditional marital home but was able to break free because she came to us and never looked back. She completed her education, opened her horizons and lived life her way. That does not mean she went haywire as many think women do if given a modicum of freedom. Rani is now married and a mother but has broken free of the shackles of patriarchy.
Anita too found her voice thanks to Project Why and was able to complete her higher education and refuse a marriage when the dowry demands were unreasonable. She was ready to live on her own terms.
Education is the only way to put an end to violence against women. It is a slow process indeed but a sure one. School curriculum needs to be altered to include lessons on gender equality and sex education. It needs to be able to slowly change mindsets so that tomorrow’s mothers do not differentiate between sons and daughters; so that boys grow up respecting women as individuals and peers; so that no code of silence is imposed on anyone.
Addressing all these issues was empowering and I hope that those who were present will use their pen and voice to share these stories and show that things can change. One only needs to take the first step.
In September we launched the Adopt a Teacher Campaign. This was a new approach at fundraising whereby we asked people to ‘adopt’ a teacher as we felt that teachers are the cornerstone of our organisation and that without them there would be no Project Why! The campaign was part of our effort in finding new avenues of funding in the wake of losing our largest donor in March 2020. The reality was that if we did manage to get our 41 teachers adopted, we would be safe. Some warmed up to the idea immediately, others felt it would not succeed. True it was a shot in the dark but in our situation it was imperative to try any and everything.
A month long campaign was launched in Facebook in September and the initial response was lukewarm. We got a couple of teachers adopted but nothing to write home about. But we did not give up and this December decided to push the campaign again, as a Xmas initiative. Today 16 teachers have been adopted and this is heartwarming.
Who are the people who have reached out? Quite a motley crowd. We have some individuals, some families that have come together, some friends that have also got together, staff of an office, one Foundation that is a regular donor, one Funding Institution who is again a regular donor. Most picked up one teacher but one generous donor who choses to remain anonymous picked up four!
So even if we are not even close to the half way mark, we really feel that we will be able to meet our target.
This Xmas we urge you to ‘adopt’ a teacher. By doing this you will be reaching out to over 50 children and helping them transform their lives and fulfil their dreams. It is these very teachers who for the past years have patiently taught their students and helped them move from class to class and finish school. Some of these students were deemed failures and doomed to drop out, but with love and determination these very teachers ensured that this did not happen. Not only did they bring them back on track but even helped them do well, many even topping their class. And above all ensured that they pass out of school with respectable marks.
Today Project Why alumni are doing well and working in various fields. Some have chosen to pursue higher studies and done well. None of this could have been possible without the very teachers we are asking you to adopt today.
If we are not able to meet our goal, we may have to close one or more of our centres as we have lost our largest donor. We need to make up the shortfall by March 2020.
So please help us get all our teachers adopted by joining our Xmas initiative.
Merry Xmas to all!
Saturday 30th November was a very special day. Students of CSKM school were coming to visit their Project Why friends. Normally about 40 children come every year but this year over 80 wanted to come. This necessitated some adjustments and it was finally convened that the boys would come to Khader and the girls Yamuna. The boys were to be led by Utpal and the girls by Babli. They both got special permission to come. Everyone was very excited. It promised to be a fun filled day. The girls were to have lunch at the Yamuna centre and the boys were bringing their lunch with them to eat at the Khader centre. Game were being planned and gifts were being packed.The day was that much more special as our dearest Xavier Ray was there to share with us.
Come Saturday and we were all waiting for the buses to come. They reached on time and we were surprised to see the number of packets carried in. They were accompanied by two teachers Mr Singh and Mr Tiwari. The boys also carried a huge container which we presumed was their lunch! It did not take long for everyone to settle in. The children sat in mixed groups and it was game time. Everyone was having a ball. One could hear giggles and laughter, friends meeting friends and catching up. Utpal was the perfect master of ceremonies. After some time one heard music and the stage was set or dancing. We had some stellar individual performances and everyone was a winner.
But soon it was almost time for our children to leave as they had to go to school. That is when it was revealed that the chow mien they had bought was for our children; the CSKM lads would have lunch when they got back to school. They had brought plates and forks and were all set to dole the treat out to our kids. That is not all. The CSKM children had spent the past few evenings making gifts for our kids: origami birds and butterflies. These too were distributed as where the caps. And in the midst of it all it was photo time with our children. There were more goodies – peanut candy – for the afternoon shift at Project Why and stationery that would be distributed later. In the meantime Dharmendra organised samosas and ladoos for the CSKM kids and these were distributed and eaten with relish. I was soon time to go. Everyone was a little sad to see the CSKM boys go. Goodbye Children. Till we meet again.
Another bus reached the floodplain of the Yamuna river and our Yamuna centre. These were the CSKM girls with their two teachers Vandana Ma’am and Nishi Ma’am. A warm welcome awaited them. They too carried many boxes to be given to the Project Why kids. They played games and danced and had a merry time. It was again smiles and giggles. Babli was the perfect MC ably helped by our very own Kiran, a CSKM alumni!
It was lunch time and as the Project Why children settled to have lunch the CSKM girls decided to visit the fields and go to the bank of the river. It was selfie time and the girls went overboard clicking selfies. Soon it was lunch time and the girls settled down to savour the lunch graciously sent by Kabir Suri of Azure hospitality. After which caps and stationery were distributed as well as the orgimani creations so lovingly made. But as always time flew too fast and it was time to go. ‘We love you‘ said the girls. We love you too dear children. Au revoir!
For me it was a very special day as it validated my belief that children from all walks of life are made to be together and learn from each other. I have a great respect for Dr Shakuntala Jaiman the Principal of CSKM who walks the talk and ensures that all barriers are broken. She immediately warmed up to the idea of having regular interaction between her school and Project Why, something we truly cherish.
It is not what is learnt in books that will help the children succeed in life. It is values like compassion and skills like leadership that will stand them fast. This is what is learnt when CSKM visits Project Why.
There was another special moment that happened on that hallowed day. Xavier and Utpal came together after a long time. A beautiful love story that needs to be celebrated as one of the proudest moment of Project Why
Usually for We are the World Blogfest, we share a positive story–one that shines light amid the darkness,
For the past two months Delhi has been in the throes of severe pollution with the Air Quality Index reaching impossible figures. This sadly happens every year around the same time due to a series of predictable factors: change in wind direction, drop in temperature, burning of crop stubble by farmers in neighbouring states, burning of crackers in the festival season and of course pollution caused by cars, construction and industrial activities and burning of garbage. All this produces a toxic cocktail and turns Delhi into a gas chamber. Sadly once things get better all is forgotten and nothing is done to ensure that things improve the next year.
So every year come October, Delhi goes into pollution mode as everyone evolves coping strategies to brave the assault.
Those who can afford it bring out air purifiers and swanky masks. Some simply leave the city. The government issues advisories that one can barely follow as few can afford to remain indoors and cease all work. Most just have to carry on our activities and hope for the best.
When things get really bad (think an AQI of 900, when less than 100 is safe) the Government kick in emergency measures: odd and even number for cars on the roads, ban on construction and industrial activities and closure of schools. As usual it is the voiceless who are the most affected. This year the authorities closed the schools on 14th November celebrated as Children’s Day. It was extremely distressing to see all arrangements go in vain. Schools remained empty, balloons and streamers fluttering in the eerie space. At Project Why we had to cancel the much awaited Sports Day much to the sorrow of all participants.
What no one realises is that closing schools does not help all children. True, the privileged ones remain within their homes in air purified spaces. But that is not the case of underprivileged children whose homes are small and polluted hovels and the child has no recourse but to ‘play’ in the open often next to revving cars. The hours s/he would have spent safely in school are now spent in the midst of pollution. And the masks distributed by the authorities remains in the school bag as NO child likes wearing a mask, and no one is there to urge them to do so. We remain open at Project Why to ensure that the children have a safe space to go.
Life does change in the time of pollution.
For the past weeks I have been driving past empty spaces, spaces where normally ad hoc labour markets emerge in the mornings with skilled and unskilled workers congregating in the hope of getting a day’s work. There are painters and carpenters, masons and plumbers and just simple labourers who wait eagerly for someone to approach them. As construction work has been stopped now for over a month these persons have got no work. Their meagre and barely existent savings have dwindled and life in the city being too expensive, many have chosen to go back to their villages waiting for the day when work will resume.This sometimes means that children are taken out of school and may not return. My heart goes out to these people who pay a heavy price for no fault of theirs.
One wonders whether it will be Action Replay in October 2020 or whether this time authorities will take some measures to preempt the situation. One can only hope and pray.
They say pollution affects the young and the old most. I shudder to think at the tiny blackened lungs of the Delhi children who will have to pay a lifelong price for having been denied to basic right to BREATHE.
A heartening piece of news in the circumstances is the invention of a device that could reduce pollution:
Given the fact that particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns is the most harmful component of air pollution, a city-based
start-up has come up with a unique device that can be attached to the exhaust pipes of vehicles to convert PM2.5 particles into coarser dust.
“Acting like a magnet, particulate pollutants get attached together and grow bigger in size becoming harmless
PM100 or PM200 particles, like soil or sand. They just fall to the ground and never enter our lungs.”
It could be a case of too little too late, and we this is only a treatment of the symptom. Much more needs to be done to beat the causes of the pollution, but in the meanwhile, let us hope this device is verified, and becomes mainstream soon!
For the almost 10 years now students of the senior classes of Gefion Gymnasium upper secondary school Copenhagen have been visiting Project Why every year to spend some time and interact with our children. This is part of their annual study tour to India. Their teachers felt that it was important for the students to see more than just tourist spots, and learn about the real India. This year we were privileged to welcome the students and teachers of class 2 L to our Okhla and Yamuna centres. The students not only learn about India before coming but raise money for Project Why. They work in their free time in shops and restaurants, in amusement parks and football stadia, in bakeries and cinemas, babysit and clean homes to collect money for Project Why.
A big thank you to Ellen Klebak, Ellen Eva Balshev, Anna May Marsh, Emilie Kroyer Kopek, Frida, Hannah, Freya Gudkov, Frida N Vangsbo, Kamille, Otto, Clara Engmark, Sander, Thamea, Haralld, Freya Stage, Julius, Laura, Casper, Albert, Thea and Emil. We are truly grateful and deeply touched and humbled by your love and support.
It was fun and laughter as children from two worlds came together for a few hours, blond heads mingling with dark ones, building invisible bonds of love and compassion. A few bubbles and balloons was all it took to create true magic. I watched from the wings with moist eyes.
I have tremendous respect for Gefion Gymnasium as it truly understands the meaning of education and imparts values like compassion to their students. I know that this will make their students better human beings. I hope they all fulfil their dreams .
It was wonderful to see Ask again but we missed Mette. We do hope to see them all again in 2020.