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.
Last Thursday, November 14th, was Children’s Day. In every school celebrations are planned with fervour. At Project Why we had planned a Sports Day for the Govindpuri and Giri Nagar centres and essay and painting competitions. In CSKM, Utpal’s school it was the annual fete with rides and fun activities and of course scrumptious food stalls! By the 13th evening everything was organised and everyone was looking forward to the next morning. Late in the evening an announcement was made by the anti-pollution authority: in view of the very severe pollution schools would remain closed on the 14th and 15th.
I immediately called my staff and told them to cancel the Sports Day and some time later we got a message fro CSKM that the fete stood cancelled! So much for Children’s day.
Closing schools because of pollution may seem the right thing to do as you would think that children will spend the day within their homes with air purifiers but what about the slum kids. They do not have rooms where they can sit comfortably and breathe pure air. These children live in tiny spaces and spend most of the time ‘playing’ on the highly polluted roads where cars and trucks whizz past. A holiday means more time on the street. Closing schools does not help them in any way. It would be better if the state mandated all schools, particularly state run ones, to have air purifiers and even extend school hours! But that is not the way it is. Every thing is tailored to the needs of one side of the divide.
My heart goes out to the boarding school kids who wait for the annual fete the whole year. My heart goes out to all the persons who set up their stalls and rides in the hope of making some money that would fill up their empty coffers and who see their much awaited source of income vanish for no fault of theirs. My heart goes out to all the children of the other side of the divide who will spend their day(s) breathing in more fumes.
What makes me sad and angry at the same time is the that that this scenario happens every year, with obsessive regularity. Come September and we all start talking pollution. We vent our ire. We take out processions, write articles, rant and rave. The authorities kick in knee jerk measures that have scant effect on the pollution. Construction is stopped and hordes of workers are without income. For a daily wager it is disastrous. The ad hoc ‘labour’ markets that appear every morning at specific locations lie empty. This is where skilled and unskilled workers congregate in the hope that some contractor will pick them up for a day or more’s work. Some must have returned to their villages; others huddle in circles in the smog playing cards to while away time hoping that construction will resume soon, before their meagre savings are over.The odd even car scheme kicks in and everyone complies. Courts intervene and admonish the authorities while passing strictures that often go unheard. And then as winter passes and the pollution dips all is forgotten till next year when the whole drama unfolds again.
How long will this continue? When will we understand the gravity of the matter, the fact that pollution kills or maims for life. That children who breathe toxic fumes will suffer lifelong ailments. When will we understand that no authority holds the magic wand to set things right. That it is for each one of us to play our part and change our mindsets. This is a million dollar question.
Children’s day 2019 was a sad one indeed. Schools were decorated with balloons and streamers but remained eerily silent as not a child entered their portals. No sound of laughter or giggles, no songs or dances. Just the stark realisation of how we adults had usurped children of their right to BREATHE. Unless we remedy to this now, we will never be forgiven.
For the past weeks now Delhi has been akin to a gas chamber. The levels of pollution have gone beyond imagination. The air is heavy with pollutants of all kinds. There is a terrible sense of deja vu as I read a post written exactly one year ago which still relevant today. It is as if time had stood still. I chose to share it with you again today:
Come November and the pollution levels in Delhi run amok.This happens year after year, and year after year knee jerk measures are taken to be forgotten when pollution levels drop. Crisis management is what we thrive on. Long term measures are not the preferred route.
November brings its heady toxic mix of stubble burning and festive crackers laced with unfavourable weather conditions and thus aggravates the situation forcing upon us the short term measures we have now become used to. Construction has been stopped for 10 days, stone crushing and other polluting activities have been halted. Crackers sale is prohibited till Diwali day and then too burning of crackers have been limited my the Supreme Court for two hours on the festival night.
The air quality is extremely hazardous and Delhi feels like a gas chamber. Political blame game is at its peak as citizens are coping in the best way the can. The privileged simply chose to leave the city for healthier spaces in or even outside India, those who cannot leave sit in their homes with state-of-the-art air purifiers and travel in air conditioned vehicles. But there is a vast majority who have no option but to carry on their activities as it is a matter of survival. They do not have the luxury of taking off or sitting in a air purified home. They just have to breathe and exhale whatever quality the air is hazardous or unhealthy.
And for many all the measures taken to better air quality translates into loss of work and livelihood. With construction work at a halt, thousands of daily wage labourers have no source of income and will have to dig in their meagre resources to survive till the ban is lifted. My heart goes out to them. Theirs will be a dark Diwali.
The question that begs to be asked is why do we have to face this situation year aft year and what can be done. We seem to believe that it is for the government to weave a magic wand and clear the air. None of us is willing to assume responsibility and see what each one of us can do. Climate change will affect us all. The day will dawn when there will be no place to run and when all the money in the world will not be able to buy us a whiff of fresh air.
Charity begins at home it is said. It is also said one must lead by example. So let us do some soul searching and see whether we are playing our part. How many of us have given up using plastic bags? How many of us segregate our garbage? How many of us carpool? How many of us use public transport? How many of us save water? Not many. We all behave like ostriches, wishing that things will improve on their own. But that is not the way things happen.
Why do we need the highest court in the land to tell us not to burn crackers? Can each one of us not take this wise decision ourselves? The same goes for plastic and water and all other environment related issues. We need to be proactive and take matters in our hand. We need to raise awareness and teach our children to be environment conscious. That is what we strive to do at Project Why each and every day. Delhi 6 November 2018.
Nothing has changed. The words of a post written a year ago ring true. No lesson has been learnt. None of us realise the magnitude of the problem. Year after year come November we make the same noises, express our concern, our worry, make empty promises. That is all. Once the situation improves all is forgotten. How long will it take for us to realise that nothing will change unless we change!
I wonder if next November I will be again writing a blog with the same words.
A very irate daughter came to me one evening last week as she has just heard from her Personal Trainer who wanted her to do ‘functional training’, something she does not like, the next morning. This is normally scheduled for Thursdays and the ‘next’ day was Monday, the day after Diwali. The reason he gave was that is was Vishwakarma day, a day on which Hindus worship their tools and do not use them so the PT did not want to touch weights, bars etc. Sounds logical but wait there is a catch: the PT is a devout christian, the kind who fasts during Lent! Confused? Do not be, this is India where respect for all religions is ingrained in our DNA and festivals are celebrated by one and all with the same fervour.
On that day all the sewing machines of the Project were worshipped by people of diverse faith. The machines at the Khader Centre were all cleaned and laid out ready to be worshipped. That day they would not be used but staff and students turned up in their Sunday best to take part in the ceremony. As I happened to be in the centre I was asked to be part of the prayer too! At the vocational centre of our special needs section, Geetu and Shalini had organised their ceremony and everyone participated with joy and fervour.
Recently a donor from France visited a government school and was perplexed to see that the morning assembly began with a religious prayer. In France religion is kept to of schools and to him seeing this was confusing. We had to explain to him that in India religion was ingrained in every activity and prayers from different faiths were sung in school assemblies across the board. It is also the country where the auto rickshaw driver begins his day by praying to the image on his dashboard and the shopkeeper too begins his day with prayer. Our brand of secularism is one that embraces all faith and celebrates all religions.
I was taught this early in life as a child growing in different lands by parents who were deeply secular. So I found myself going to church in school, fasting with my Muslim friends or celebrating the Sabbath with my Jewish ones, all with the blessings of my parents.
At Project Why we strive to teach our children to respect all religions and celebrate all festivals. That is what India is all about. That is the India of my dreams.
Last week the special class of Project Why put up stalls in many places to sell their beautiful Diwali diyas (earthen lamps) and other Diwali ware. Of all the sales the most touching one was undoubtedly the one held at the CSKM school. Anita, Himani and Geetu were the ones who were to man the stall and everyone was most excited. Shamika accompanied them to get things going and I too tagged along as I love visiting this school as it is after my heart. By the time I reached everyone was busy opening boxes and setting up the tables with the help of Deepika the headmistress and some other staff members.
Once everything was set up it was time for the children to come and make their purchases. First ones to come where the middle school kids and within a jiffy the huge AV hall was buzzing with activity with children examining everything, asking the price then moving on to something else and coming back, calculating in their head what they would buy: diyas for the puja or a bracelet for mom, or both. After a while with some gentle and not so gentle prompting by their teachers sales were made and it was time for the next batch to come in. Things flew off the counter as class after class came and selected their ware.
The tiniest ones were adorable. They clutched their money in their hands and went around the tables looking at everything before deciding what they would buy. They knew their mind and got what they wanted. By lunch time they had sold a whopping 7000 Rs worth. The team was elated. But there was more to come. Angels were at work.
The Project Why team was graciously invited to share lunch with the children in the main dining hall and they all enjoyed the lovely dal, rice and vegetable curry. Then it was back to the exhibition hall. In the morning as there was a cross country zonal event many children had not been able to come for the sale so they turned up in hordes in the afternoon. The senior children helped our team with the sales and post lunch the coffers filled fast! At the end of the day they has sold for 15000 rupees, the biggest sale they ever made. Everyone was on cloud nine.
It was time to pack up and head back. Everyone was tired but it did not matter as the day had been magical with hordes of little Angels with big heart at work. At CSKM everyone sees with their hearts.
Thank you for a wonderful day!
Miracles are what happens when you get out of the way of yourself wrote Brad Szollose. Words of wisdom I need to heed as I am seriously in need of a miracle at Project Why. A grant we were confident would come our way slipped by and we also lost a substantial chunk of money from a regular donor by force majeure! This is a setback for us as we are still recovering from the loss of a large donor whose donation stops in March 2020 and we were hoping that said grant would make up for part of what we were losing. But that is not to be. We are not back to square one, but a few steps behind square one.
There are many adages the prepare you for such a moment promising windows will open even if doors shut, or that better things are around the corner or that there is always light at the end of a dark tunnel. And true we take comfort from these. What else can we do?
As I sit and write these words I cannot but think of the 1200 Project Why children, of the almost 50 souls on my team, of the hundreds of women whose dreams we help fulfil and wonder what would happen should no window open? My spiritual teacher says that the Universe always works in our favour and that we should release all our fears. That is what I intend to do. Release all my fears and let the Universe show me the way. Be in equanimity though some time it is not easy. But I need to keep calm and keep the faith alive in me and accept with grace whatever the future holds.
It does not mean that I stop doing anything. Far from that. It is all hands on deck. The only tiny and yet momentous difference is that this time I am at peace within me and ready to accept whatever comes.
So what is the road map? To push our new Adopt a Teacher programme and find people or groups of people to reach out and adopt one teacher. To reach out to institutions and organisations and companies with renewed effort. To seek the support of friends. To ask the Board members to help find new avenues. There is a gala dinner on the anvil for March 2020.
But that is not all. What is the most important is the innumerable souls around the world who are rooting for us. When I shared my dilemma on social media I was overwhelmed by the amount of people who reached out with their love and good wishes. That is when I understood that for miracles to happen one has to get out of the way and let the Universe take over and as Fannie Glad says: Not give up before the miracles happens.
Project Why is the land of miracles. I have always believed that even in the face of adversity and have not been proven wrong. In the past twenty years miracles have come our way with almost obsessive regularity. They have come in the form of Angels of all sizes, who do not wear wings or have halos but have one thing in common: they see with their hearts. Over the years these miracles have renewed my faith in the one I call God of Lesser Beings to whom I pray every day and to whom I surrender. These miracles happen to remind you that there is good in the world, and that you should never give up.
Miracles happen every day. They are the hands that reach out to you when you feel lost and alone as I have been for the past few weeks wondering how I would keep Project Why safe. In times like these, all you need is that little miracle to just tell you that all will be alright. This time it came in the form of an email that simply said : My uncle wanted to know of any place that looks after women and their education. I gave him your contact details. The Angel this time was a wonderful soul who I have not yet met in person but who has reached out to me virtually in more ways than one. Her name Sunita Saldhana! Soon after we were contacted by a person who informed us that Mr Victor Lobo had donated one lac rupees to Project Why for women’s education. Mr Lobo is Sunita’s uncle.
In moments like these you remain speechless and simply look towards the heavens with immense gratitude. The clouds lift and you know you are safe. True you will have to work hard and face hurdles but the miracle sent your way is there to tell you: everything is going to be alright.
Thank you Sunita. Thank you Mr Lobo. Stay blessed.
Miracles are what happens when you get out of the way wrote Brad Szollose. Maybe the message this time is just that: get out of the way and let the Universe work for you.
Thank you Sunita. Thank you Mr Lobo for believing in us and trusting us. We hope to see you at Project Why.
If you want to help some very brave women and children make a life for themselves, you can donate here. Every little bit counts.
It is serendipity at work again as in the very week of Kamala my mother’s 102nd birthday I have been asked to speak on a panel on crimes against women and how to empower them. The event is part of the promotion of our dearest friend Damyanti Biswas‘s debut novel You Beneath Your Skin. I intend talking on how we at Project Why empower women though we are primarily engaged in education.
There are more girls than boys enrolled in Project Why and the majority of our teachers are women from the community, many of whom were either housewives or engaged in menial jobs, but in whom we saw the desire to step up and transform their lives. We simply had to reach out to them and lend them a hand.
Project Why is the field of operation of a trust that bears my father Ram’s name as he was the more flamboyant one, but the work we do is deeply seeped in the gentle lessons I learnt at my mother’s knee as she shared the story of her life with me. Kamala was one of a kind, a born feminist who believed in women’s rights and the need to empower them through education.
In the days when girls were married in their adolescence Kamala fought many battles to ensure she got an education and she won them hands down as she not only finished school but got her BA, MA, LLB. She would crown it all with a PHD acquired after she got married in Prague. That is how much she believed in education. Educating girls is definitely at the core of Project Why’s work. When I decided to start a Women’s Centre to provide vocational skills to women in order to make them financially independent, it was a foregone conclusion that it would bear her name.
For the past 12 years the Kamala Goburdhun Centre for Women has been imparting vocational skills to hundreds of women each year and most of them have put what they have learnt to use and thus become financially independent. The subjects taught are stitching, tailoring and beauty. Many women have begun working from within their homes as they come from very patriarchal families but some have stepped out to work in export houses and beauty parlours. The money they earn is used for the betterment of the lives of their children and homes. It is a win win situation.
On Saturday two women who have been empowered by Project Why and come back to teach others will accompany me to the event.
Renu , the stitching teacher was in financial distress when she first came to Project Why. To overcome her problems she decided to skill herself and joined our stitching class. When she graduated we were in need of a teacher as our previous staff had to leave and she joined us. There was no looking back.
Shanta our beauty skills teacher was also a student who later joined as a teacher. She lost her husband in tragic circumstances and is now a single mom bringing up her children. Both ladies will share their journey at the event.
Violence against women is prevalent in patriarchal India. It can take extreme forms, the worst being acid attacks or almost seemingly innocuous ones like not celebrating the birthday of the girl child whilst doing so for her brother, and everything in between. The hurt and the scars remain for a lifetime. It is only by empowering women, giving them financial independence, and above all a voice that we can counter this violence. It is a long haul but the first step needs to be taken.
It will be an honour to share the stage with Alok Dixit of Stop Acid Attacks who works tirelessly to help acid attack vsurvivors, and Shibani Chand Sethi, who has been a supporter in her role as mentor for NGOs. We are grateful to Damyanti Biswas for believing in our causes and so generously donating the author proceeds to Stop Acid Attacks and Project Why.
To support Project WHY directly through donations, CLICK HERE.
To support Damyanti’s book, and help Project WHY gain visibility and funds, CLICK HERE.
It has been just over a week since our dearest Damyanti’s debut crime novel You Beneath Your Skin was published. In this short time not only has it got rave reviews but the screen rights have also been picked up by a renowned Bollywood agent. Damyanti is now busy promoting her book across India with launches, signing sessions and even literary festivals while we watch her from the wings our hearts swelling with love and pride.
Way to go Dearest Damyanti!
The author’s proceeds will go to Stop Acid Attacks and Project Why‘s women empowerment programmes. Thanks to this we will be able to continue giving wings to the dreams of underprivileged women by helping them become financially secure and also support some of the most incredible and hard working women I have ever met: Project Why’s teachers. This will enable the later to continue working with underprivileged girls enabling them to complete their education and also giving them a voice! Maybe we will be able to open Project Why’s tailoring unit which would be our first step to sustainability. We need to dream big.
Over the years we have seen many women become independent by setting tailoring units within their homes and opening their own beauty parlours. Some have got jobs in export houses and beauty parlours. Hundreds of Project Why students have completed their education. Some have gone on to higher studies. Many have got good jobs and some have come back to teach at Project Why completing the virtuous circle.
You Beneath Your Skin talks about crimes against women, a subject close to my heart. Over the years we have been witness to the many surreptitious ways crime against women happen. We often hear only about the violent and extreme ones, but every day women in India are subjected to violence, sometimes in very subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. The only way to counter that is by empowering women to become independent and by giving them a voice. This is what we endeavour to do at Project Why.
With Damyanti’s support we will be able to continue our journey unhindered.
Thank you Damyanti!
Last Thursday was a very special day. It was the launch of our very dear friend Damyanti’s first crime novel You Beneath Your Skin at the prestigious India International Centre. The author’s proceeds will come to Stop Acid Attacks and Project Why. So the guest list included over 20 Project Why teachers! The excitement was palpable and the buzz in Project Why the days preceding the launch was all about what to wear. As Damyanti had asked some of the staff to speak on camera about their relationship with her as a Project Why volunteer, many were seen rehearsing their speeches. On the launch day everyone looked their best. They reached on time and were all set to play their part perfectly.
Before the launch those who were to speak on camera did so without a glitch, like true professionals. They all enjoyed the high tea that was laid out and then it was time for the show to begin. A large part of the audience was the Project Why team. I was so proud of them.
The evening was a great success. Damyanti had very kindly asked me to say a few words. She also got some Project Why staff to come on stage to reveal the book. We were overwhelmed. As the evening ended, everyone went to congratulate Damyanti and get books signed. We were also introduced to the Stop Acid Attack team who very graciously invited us to visit their office. A bond was made and we know we will work together to fulfil our dreams.
It was a very special evening for the Project Why team and one they will remember for a long time. For me it was a moment of immense pride to see that they were to the manor born.
Project Why UK is now a registered charity entered onto the Register of Charities with the Registered Charity Number 1184910. This is all thanks to the unstinted efforts of wonderful souls who have worked hard to make this happen. Thank you Jennie, Harriet, Jon, Cat, Viren, Catherine and Mahua. They all came to Project Why and carried it back in their hearts.
Jennie came way back in 2008 with Colin her husband and Harriet their lovely daughter. She wrote these lovely words soon after her return: I really wanted to let you know that Project Why is still very much in our thoughts. Now that a few weeks have passed since our return from India I can honestly say that what had the biggest impact on us was our time at the Project. Yes, the Taj Mahal was stunning and spotting a tiger was exciting but these memories quickly become more what I would call ‘photograph memories’. Our time at the Project on the other hand seems to move more to the forefront of our memories and it is certainly what we talk about to our friends. Since then she has helped us in many ways running the informal Project Why UK account and being a huge support
Her lovely and amazing daughter Harriet was in her early teens then but became one of our staunchest supporters. She organised bake sales in her school and wrote an article in her local magazine entitled A Ray of Hope in the New Delhi slums. I have watched her grow and blossom in to a lovely young woman who is a soon to be lawyer. So proud of you Harriet!
What does one say about Cat! I have lost counts of the number of times she has come to India and Project Why bringing her very own brand of love. Cat simply walks into your heart. She volunteers in the special section and his every one’s favourite Cat Didi. Today Cat is a mum and we hope she and Zephyr will come back to Project Why some day bringing their special brand of magic.
Catherine came to India in the summer of 2009 and spent two months volunteering wit us. I still remember the fruit salad she made with another volunteer making the experience a memorable lesson for the children. She would come back again a few years later and it was always special to see her.
Jon West came to us in 2011 and though he had a difficult time initially he soon took to Project Why like fish to water. He had intended to stay for a month but stayed on for six! Since he too has been a big support and always been there in times of need.
Viren came to us in 2016 and again walked into our hearts. A serious and incredibly kind soul, Viren introduced me to the 7 vegetable pizza! But on a more serious note he was a huge help in putting together the first version of our success stories and in helping us raise funds. He even participated in a cycle rally to help raise funds for Project Why,
I only met Mahua last month but was introduced to her by our friend Damyanti way before that. She came to know about Project Why through Damyanti and met with Jennie and agreed to become a trustee of Project Why UK. This was most humbling. She visited us last month and it felt as if we had known each other forever!
They are all trustees of Project Why UK. My deep gratitude to them for believing in us and trusting us. I can assure them that we will be worthy of their trust.
There is a new kid on the block! Kiran has joined the Project Why team as English teacher. Her first assignment: Okhla! I could not resist going to see her on the second day of her teaching and was amazed to see how comfortable she was. Was this the tiny baby I had held in my arms when she was 2 days old and Project Why was in its infancy? We did not have digital cameras then so I have no pictures of the early years. Just memories. The earliest picture I could ferret out of the two of us is the one below and next to it one that was clicked yesterday. We have come a long way Kiran and I.
Kiran just completed her class XII. Sadly she could not get the outrageous percentile needed for admission in Delhi University and none of us can afford the fees of a private university. So she decided to do her English Honours from the Open University and join Project Why as an English teacher as her English is impeccable. Kiran had volunteered at the Yamuna centre while waiting for her results and everyone has been impressed by her maturity and commitment.
Yesterday seeing her in class I knew we had all made the right decision. She is to the manor born. In spite of her young age she commanded respect from her students and had their undivided attention. I was really impressed. I know that this experience will go a long way in crafting her morrows.
I felt very emotional and even teared up. It was as if we had come full circle. Here was a girl born virtually when Project Why began, teaching secondary children English. I wonder what life would have been for her had Project Why not existed. It is in moments like these that I feel very proud and blessed. I remember telling a detractor when it all began that if I changed just one life it would all be worth it and here I was witnessing yet another changed life. I have stopped counting.
Kiran is a a real ray of sunshine and will shine wherever she goes. Wise beyond her years, she is someone I love and admire. That she is born on the same day as Kamala my mother makes our bond even deeper. God bless her.
We are the World Blogfest (WATWB) is about positive stories no matter where they come from. It is about remembering that there is good around you, all you need to do is look with your heart. Today I would like to invite you to a little beauty parlour located in the hustle and bustle and dusty lanes of Madanpur Khadar, where for a few hours a day a bunch of women from deprived homes come together in the hope of changing their lives.
For the past 10 years now in a tiny corner of the Project Why Khadar is a small room that houses a minuscule beauty parlour where scores of women come everyday to learn the art of becoming a beautician. Most of them come from very traditional homes in the hope that learning this skill will help them break barriers and gain financial independence. Every year over 120 women get their diplomas and go on to take their first step in a new world. Most become small entrepreneurs and work from their homes or from their client’s homes, some take a bolder step and open a small parlour of their own.
The tiny parlour is beautifully decorated in bright colours with pictures on the wall and in spite of the paucity of space it has its beautician chair, its massage table and even its hair spa steamer. Every day 4 batches of ladies come to this haven of beauty and learn the intricacies of beauty therapy. They are taught by Shanta, a feisty and brave woman who did not let a terrible tragedy alter the course of her life. Last year Shanta lost her husband in tragic circumstances but came back to teaching as soon as she could. She knew that her job was the only way to secure the future of her children. A befitting example for her students!
The ladies are taught all the skills required to become a full fledged beautician: from simple manicure and pedicures, to threading and waxing; from hair cutting to complex hair styling; from facials to bridal make up, from henna application to hair colouring, from head massage to hair spa, everything you can imagine is taught in that tiny space. What makes this unique parlour so special is the joyful atmosphere that prevails at all times. You can always hear laughter and giggles from behind the closed door as this is a women-only space.
For these women who often live lonely lives in their patriarchal homes, coming to class is also a social event as they can share their problems and stories with other women and be heard and even helped. It is undoubtedly the highlight of their day.
I feel so grateful and blessed when I see these women as they take charge of their lives. I feel immense pride in having been able to help them do so.
If you are in Delhi, please come and visit the ladies of the Project Why beauty parlour. It will warm the cockles of your heart.