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.
The flood waters have receded. Luckily they did not enter the Yamuna centre. The incredible Yamuna team is now busy executing Plan B whereby they will open the centre and resume classes but with the minimum needed as rains can still come and bring floods with them. They have decided not to bring all that was removed to a safer place as yet. They will simply get the bare essentials that will allow them to teach the children and serve the daily lunch. Project Why’s Yamuna centre is back on track!
Last week the waters came to the very edge of the centre and we all feared that they would enter it. Mercifully that did not happen. But for a few days every one was on edge. Everyone had moved to the minuscule tents erected by the government on the embankment to shelter the displaced families. The teachers came every morning and braved all odds to stay with the children and occupy them as best they could. In one tent a teacher sat with the small children playing games, in another the older students studied so as not to loose a day. Lunch was given to the children every day and even to some of the families who were unable to cook. Not one day were the children left alone. Surendra, Anjali, Sabrun and Amit and of course Dharmendra stood by them in their hour of strife.
I feel so proud of my teachers who have always risen to the occasion whatever the challenge thrown at them. They have walked the extra mile and come up with ways to meet the challenges head on. Their dedication is laudable. They have proved time and again that they are worthy of the trust reposed in them.
When I look back at the years gone by I realise that it is the teachers who are the corner stone of Project Why and essential to its very existence. Without them we could not exist and with them we do not need much to exist. They have taught with barely any resource on roadsides and under trees, armed with their determination and love of teaching. I feel blessed to have such a dedicated team. They have braved the elements, faced the wrath of the politicians, the anger of the community and even bulldozers but have always emerged stronger. They have found solutions out of the box and given me the strength and courage to continue. Without them there would be no Project Why.
To each one of them Chapeau Bas!
2019 has been the year of floods as many parts of India have received unprecedented rain. Delhi has been on flood alert since the past few days.
For many of us it does not matter as we are safe in our homes, but for the thousands who live close to the river it is devastating. We at Project Why are one of those as our Yamuna centre is located in the flood plain. It caters to the children of the agricultural labour who grow vegetables in the flood plains, and live there.
Our Yamuna centre is probably one of the most endearing of all our centres as it is located far from the maddening crowd and the hustle bustle of the city, amidst trees and fields, in almost idyllic settings. We opened the centre in 2015 and today we reach out to 85 children.
Unlike other centres the Yamuna centre runs all-day courses as these children do not go to any school, and a hot lunch is provided to the children every single day, something every child and parent looks forward to. The children are bright and free-spirited. Six of them are ready to sit for their class X Boards and have been admitted to the Open School.
Every year during monsoon time we fear the coming of floods but until last year, our school was spared and we heaved a sigh of relief. But this year is a red letter year.
Two days back we were told to vacate the premises as waters had been released into the Yamuna and would hit the city in a matter of hours. Everyone was shocked and heart broken.
The smaller children looked lost as we began to pack our ware. Older children were taken by their parents to pluck as many vegetables as possible before the waters arrived as everyone knew that this would be the last income for a long time.
The plain started filing as we removed our things one after the other. Most of it the things be taken to our Women’s centre at Madanpur Khader. Some of it would be put in the tents the government was installing on the embankment for the families to move into. Everyone has been running helter-skelter trying to salvage as much as possible. We all felt sad and helpless.
The waters rose slowly, today they have reached the centre itself and more water is expected. No one knows how much and for how long. Even after the waters recede it will take time for everything to dry up and for the school to be up and running again.
My heart goes out to the children who have lost their school and their right to be children, to laugh, learn and play. My heart goes out to my team who built this school from scratch and have to now witness its destruction. But I know deep in my heart that this is a temporary phase and that we will rise like the Phoenix and build it all up again.
Till then, the teachers plan to work with the smaller children in the tents the families are living in. They will teach the older ones on the roadside if need be.
They have also decided to continue feeding the children at lunch time as the families are not allowed to cook in the tents and the lunch provided by the state always reaches very late.
We are determined to see our work continue. Whether it is in the same spot or another. We cannot leave these wonderful children, for their tomorrows are in our custody.
If you’d like to help these children continue their education, and contribute to our efforts at rebuilding, please consider donating a small amount.
Hoisting the flag at the Giri Nagar centre last week was a walk down memory lane. This is where it all began way back in the winter of 2000. In those days we had just acquired a small mud jhuggi across the street where the flag was hoisted and had begun our spoken English classes with a handful of students and a few volunteers. Then sometime later we opened our first class for special needs children at the very spot we hoisted the flag.This happened because a special educator landed on our threshold a few special kids in tow stating that the school they went to had shut their doors and they had nowhere to go. To her question: did we have a special needs class the answer was an immediate yes. It was one of the first deafening whys to be answered. Thus began our special needs class and some of the kids that came to us that cold winter morning are still with us today. Next to it was the first senior secondary class with a handful of class X students preparing for their Boards, the result of a challenge thrown by their Principal who stated that these boys could never clear their Boards. They all did. That was the sum of Project Why in early 2001!
Unfurling that flag to the singing of the National Anthem by the students of Giri Nagar was a moving movement. Two decades later I was standing at the very spot where the journey began. I was choked with emotion. This was also the place where Manu’s blue plastic chair stood and where I shared many meals with him, sitting on a red stool and partaking of the morsels of flat bread dipped in dal that he so lovingly preferred. To me it was manna from the Gods.
We have come a long way from that winter in 2000. Today we have 6 centres spread across South Delhi, 1200 children in our after school programme, 160 women learning a skill to become financially independent and of course our very special children who have ‘graduated’ from the pavement to their own three room centre. It has been an eventful and rewarding journey, one I am terribly proud of. Quite frankly way back in 2000 I never would have imagined how far we would get. I cannot say it was an easy ride. There were many challenges along the way but somehow we met them all head on. What allowed us to grow and flourish was the network of people from across the world who reached out to us and believed in what we did. My heartfelt gratitude and unconditional love to each one of them.
Today we stand at crossroads again. We need to raise funds for two of our biggest centres as we lose their funding in March 2020. And though it looks like mission impossible at this moment, I know deep in my heart that a miracle is on its way. We simply need to hold on to our dreams tight and walk the road less travelled as we have always done.
Standing on that roadside unfurling the flag I could feel the presence of Manu and the pledge I made to him to honour his life by never giving up.
Today it is my privilege and honour to reveal the cover for my friend Damyanti Biswas‘s debut crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin to be published next September by Simon & Schuster, India. I’ve known Damyanti for many years now and what began as a mere exchange of emails has blossomed into a life long friendship based on mutual respect and unconditional love. I’ve been a part of the journey of this book, and now it is always going to remain a part of my blog.
So, without further ado, here’s the cover! The red and black immediately captures nuances of an atmospheric crime story, and the face visible under the title makes you wonder who she is, and what her story might be.
Here’s the back cover blurb to tell you a little bit more about the novel:
Lies. Ambition. Family.
It’s a dark, smog-choked New Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious Police Commissioner Jatin Bhatt – an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives.
Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached.
Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all.
In a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.
My dearest friend Damyanti asked me to read her first novel and sent me an advance copy of you Beneath Your Skin.
It was a PDF file and being environmentally conscious I decided to read it on my computer and not print it! I thought it would take me a couple of days with a bad back and an uncomfortable chair!
I began to read and was immediately taken in by the story wanting to know more, not being able to stop. Soon I was drawn into the familiar world of slums in Delhi where I work, and all my senses were tickled as I relived the sounds and smells and mood of what has been my life for 20 years.
Being an ardent lover of suspense novels I was on edge wanting to know what happened next and the bottom line is that I finished the book in one long sitting from morning to evening, even eating in front of my screen. I just could not move away.
I loved the characters and the numerous twists in the story. I look forward to reading the final version in a book form comfortably . I recommend it to all those who love suspense novels.
Do you read crime novels? What do you think of the cover of You Beneath Your Skin? Would you like to read this book?
All proceeds to the author from You Beneath Your Skin would be divided between Project WHY, and another organisation that works for the welfare of acid attacks survivors, Chaanv Foundation. If you would like to support a good cause, while reading an absorbing book, please pre-order You Beneath Your Skin.
Tomorrow Ranjan, my significant other, celebrates his 70th birthday! We have been together for 45 years. That is more than a life time. He has stood by me like a rock and supported me in every way possible. He has given wings to all my dreams, even those that had the propensity to turn his life on its head. I could not have been who I am without his silent and loving support.
When I look back at our life together, I realise that I have made impossible demands on him and that he has always been there for me, Project Why being possibly the most challenging one. Imagine being told one day that life as you knew it is going to change drastically because your partner has decided to bring in a world that you barely knew existed within the confines of your home. Ranjan did not bat an eye lid when I told him I was setting up an organisation to help slum children and that its first office would be the guest room of our house. Now Ranjan loves the good things in life: good food and music, antic furniture and objets d’art, and an organised existence to say the least. And lo and behold one fine morning your sanctum sanctorum is suddenly invaded by people the kind you never met or even knew existed, by children running about, by strangers sharing your dining table, by cartons cramming the entrance door. Anyone would hit the roof. But not Ranjan. He simply accepted it all because he knew it made his partner happy. Unknowingly he had embraced seeing with his heart.
Twenty years is a longtime, and for twenty years Ranjan has had to live with the larger than life presence of Project Why. Even tough we eventually moved out of the house quite early, Project Why remained a permanent resident of my home. Ranjan became my sounding board in times of strife, the shoulder I could lean on when things got rough, the person I could share all my problems and angst with and he always listened patiently and gave the advise sought. His tender words of encouragement were the panacea for all ills and allowed me not to give up.
As time went by, Project Why worked its magic on him too. He came to appreciate the work we did, and enjoy the presence of the many volunteers who stayed with us, some becoming close to him too. When he was diagnosed with cancer, some even flew all the way to Delhi to be with him, some called regularly and others sent him feel good parcels. Ranjan had become part of the Project Why family.
I was deeply touched when I heard from friends that from the very early days of Project Why, Ranjan was very proud of what I did and though he did not tell me much, he shared his feelings with his friends and colleagues. I felt blessed.
I would not be wrong in saying that he has been my and Project Why’s staunchest albeit silent supporter.
Happy birthday dearest Ranjan.
Note: the picture above was taken at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, where thanks to Ranjan we could organise a lunch for all our staff members.
With love and happiness
Remake the world
Put your conscience in the test
Remake the world
North, south, east and west
Remake the world
Gotta prove that are the best, yeah
At a time when the future of Project Why is hanging by a thread as we struggle to find our feet and long term sustainability, I sometimes find myself in need of a feel good shot to reassure me and give me the needed impetus to soldier on. One of the things I find myself doing is looking back at the two decades gone by and reliving a chapter of the Project Why story. Today I look back at our Khader women centre as it is one that may have to be shut by March 2020 if we are not able to find funding for it.
Like every part of Project Why, the women centre has a wondrous story. Though I have always believed that true change is to be routed through women, something Kamala my mother firmly believed in, it took some time for the women centre to see the light of day. The obvious way would have been to seed a women centre at the very outset but that was not to be as Project Why grew organically answering the whys that came its way. It would be the same for the women centre, a why that needed to be answered.
When two marginalised women one an alcoholic on the road to recovery and the other needing post surgery care came our way seeking help, we had to step up and give it. The need of the hour was to create a safe place for them to help them rebuild their lives. We did just that: set up a small residential facility for these two ladies. Easier said than done as when the community came to know about them, we were asked to vacate the premisses. Society is not kind to marginalised women. That is when we realised that to be able to find a place to house our ladies, we would need to do more than just that. We decided to follow the pattern of the other centres and set up a children centre next to our residential unit and also run a vocational centre to empower women of the community. We were lucky to find the exact space we needed at Madanpur Khader and the women centre began its activities in 2007 with two ladies in a residential facility, scores of children in an after school study programme and a handful of women in a stitching course. Our women centre was well on its way.
We would go on to close our residential centre as sadly one woman went back to the bottle and the other healed and went back to normal life. The space reclaimed would be used to extend our work with children and women. We would add a beautician course, secondary classes, a library and a computer centre as well as adult education classes. Today the Khader centre is a family of over 350 souls with a team of 15 people gently but firmly guided by the incomparable Dharmendra. One of our funders wrote beautifully about this centre. I share her words here.
Needless to say, I dedicated the centre to Kamala as every lesson I learnt at her knee was fulfilled within the walls of this beautiful centre.
The Khader centre is also dear to my heart for many other reasons. It was Utpal’s home for a while as that is where his mum was recovering before she finally left to disappear. It was the place where we first saw Meher and were able to conjure a better life for her. Today both Meher and Utpal come back and volunteer at Project Why during their holidays. There is really a kind of magic in this hallowed place.
So closing it is not an easy option. I will have to do whatever is needed to ensure that our work carries on. Today I want to believe in miracles and pray for one.
One can hardly imagine how things unfold, almost serendipitously! Since last year our boarding school kids have been spending their holidays at Project Why teaching the younger children and participating in all activities of the centre. It all began in April 2018 when Utpal and Babli started going to the Khader centre to ‘pass’ time as they had just finished their Boards and had a lot of time on their hands while waiting for the results. They both taught junior classes and Utpal also taught he children dance. They enjoyed the experience and were all set to return during the winter holidays.
During the winter holidays as the children were preparing for their New Year Party and Republic Day celebrations, Utpal, the born entertainer, took on the role of master of ceremonies and choreographer. Needless to say the shows were perfect.
Volunteering became a part of these kids life. Every holiday they would return to Khader soon joined by Manisha, Meher and Vicky.
They did it with love and dedication, as if they knew in their hearts that this was the right thing to do. They were paying back!
One fine morning Utpal told me that his Ma’am Madhumita was going to visit the Khader centre. I was pleasantly surprised but did not give it much thought at that time. Madhumati Ma’am came and taught at both our Khader and Yamuna centres. I put up a post on facebook thanking her for her visit and it is only when I saw her answer that I realised how Utpal had organised this visit. He had taken ownership of the Project. I share her post here: But I am really grateful to my dearest Utpal who had called me up one fine afternoon , when I was in Kolkata, requesting me to take class it was as though he had heard my hearts wish. I had been always wanting to pay a visit but due to my ill health , I was unable to do so but Utpal’s call came to me as a blessing from heaven, and Utpal was that messenger of God. Madhumita Nag Pathak Teacher CSKM
My heart filled with gratitude and joy. Looked like we had done our job well and instilled the right values in these children even though they were away from us in boarding school. Utpal had felt the desire to have his beloved teacher come and share her knowledge with the Project Why children. It was his initiative. He had taken ownership of the Project.
Utpal even invited the manager and of his school canteen to discuss funding options as he knew we were short of funds. Mr Sharma spent time talking to Dharmendra and sharing his ideas. It was a fruitful interaction that opened other ways of thinking and new possibilities.
At a time when we are all worried about the future of Project Why, these small initiatives are like a breath of fresh air. They are also proof of the fact that the next generation is ready to take the lead of Project Why 2.0. It was simply a matter of time.
It is also time for the likes of me to realise that our ways may not be the right ones anymore and that one has to accept change and go with it. It is time to pass the baton. We have done our bit and done it well. Now our role is to help the new generation take ownership.
It is customary for the special needs class to celebrate the end of their summer camp with a memorable outing. Normally they go to a park or to their favourite place the Lodhi gardens. But this time would be different. They would visit a mall. A first for most of them. Everyone was very excited as they set out bright and early. The idea was to walk though the mall and have lunch at the food court.
Our special meeds children are to the major born as no one would have guessed that they had never set a foot in a mall. They walked through the mall looking at everything around them with interest, stopping at some shops longer than the other, fascinated by the sight they saw but extremely well behaved. They posed for photographs when asked. They enjoyed their walk through the mall working an appetite for the treat to come.
It was soon lunch time and everyone headed for the food court. They waited patiently as the teachers purchased the coupons. Every one was given a choice and the children zeroed in on scrumptious dosas and chola bhatura. Everyone enjoyed the meal!
It was soon time to head back to school. But not before enjoying an ice cream!
Outings are very special for these souls who rarely go out of their homes. At project Why we try and take them out as often as we can but not as much as we would like to for want of funds. Taking them out and seeing them enjoy themselves is a real treat for all of us as you witness pure unadulterated pleasure.
Bhutan has just made teachers and medical staff the highest paid civil servants in the country. Let us not forget that Bhutan is the country where Gross National Happiness is more important than the GDP! Education and health are now the highest priorities in the tiny country. This means that Bhutan puts its children and people first.
On the other side of the planet a young Prime Minister has also turned things on their head. Jacinda Ardern presented a budget “where spending is dictated by what best encourages the “well-being” of citizens, rather than focussing on traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth.” The young New Zealand Prime Minister also puts people first!
I wish we did the same in India!
In the last week over 170 young children have died of encephalitis in Muzaffarpur Bihar due to poor medical facilities and most of all due to malnutrition and poor care. According to data this was mostly due to the indifference of the state government towards nutrition and healthcare in spite of many schemes in place. Let us not forget that 5000 children under five still die of malnutrition in India EVERY DAY. A statistic I have often quoted as it makes my blood run cold. And in Muzzffarnagar every second child under the age of 5 in stunted. Had a simple programme like ICDS launched in 1975 worked then no one under age of 44 should have been malnourished in India. Where are our priorities!
The same is the case with education. In spite of a Constitutional Right to Education the education system across the land leaves a lot to be desired. Again it is not a priority. There are schools with no teachers or with one teacher! There are schools without desks or books. There are schools were more than 100 kids are cramped in a single classroom. There are over 15 million of children out of school. There are over 33 million children engaged in child labour. There are children begging at every red light. Something is not right. We as a nation have lost the ability to see with our hearts.
It is time we prioritised education and health care. For those who cannot afford a private hospital, the only option are the state run facilities. If these do not work then a large chunk of the population is again left out and forced to go to quacks or even faith healers. The other option is a private hospital but that entails high debts.
Making teachers and health staff the highest paid civil servant would ensure that the best opt for such jobs and hence the quality of education and public health would improve in quantum leaps. Government spending as Jacinda Ardern says should be on ensuring the well being of every citizen particularly the poorest or most marginalised. This is the way governments should go as this is what would bring the much needed change we all aspire for.
Children are the most precious asset of any country and we must ensure that each and every one of them get the best.
The last few weeks haven’t been easy. I have spent many a sleepless nights trying to figure out how we will meet the crisis we face. We have lost one of our big funders and come 2020 we will be in a fix if I am not able to conjure a miracle and come up with the missing numbers. All our efforts till now have been futile and I can only hope that things will work out for us. I am really not in a happy place.
Last week the special section had its summer camp and after a long time I found myself climbing the three flights of stairs that take you to that class. As soon as I entered the class I was greeted by a loud ‘good morning ma’am’ and a big hug from Shalini. Within moments all the students came around me with huge smiles and I felt my spirits lift up instantly.
I had forgotten how this class and these incredible gentle and caring souls have always had the ability to make me smile and lift any blues I may have sunk in. A visit to their class is my instant feel good shot. Their smiles are irresistible and their candid and honest love for life is infectious. You just have to forget your worries as you enter their world.
But that is not all. Seeing them was also realising that I had to do whatever it took to ensure that Project Why carry on beyond 2020 and beyond me! All these children come from difficult backgrounds and homes where they are often not accepted by all. It is in this space that we provided them that they are treated with dignity and love and given hope. It is a fun filled space where difference is celebrated and bonds created. There was no way I could deprive them of their centre.
I came back filled with determination and motivated to soldier on and craft the miracles I needed and I realised that whenever I felt I was slipping all I had to do was climb those flight of stairs to my go to place.
Thank you darling souls for being there for me.
If you are in Delhi or plan to visit, I strongly urge you to find a moment and visit my incredible children!
Last week was world environment week and in site of the scorching heat, children of all centres of Project Why celebrated environment in their own special way. Drawing competitions were held in all centres and children shared their vision on how to save the environment.
Workshops on the Dead River Project were held at our Khader and Yamuna centres to talk about the road ahead for India in terms of sustainability and conservation of water and create awareness about the condition of river bodies and what we can do to save them. The children were very attentive and committed to do their bit to save water.
On June 8th and workshop on pollution and a small plantation drive was held at our Govindpuri Centre by the PwC Foundation. The PwC team talked to the children about all forms of pollution: air, water, noise, land etc. Children shared their views and ways to combat the pollution menace. It was a fun filled session with a lot of interactive activities. Children sang and danced and shared their dreams for the future. Some children wanted to join the army or the police; others wanted to be doctors and teachers and yet other dreamt of being cricketers! When quizzed about cricked they were spot on!
But the most touching dreams were those of some of our special children. Geetu who has recently been appointed as a teacher’s aide wants to become a ‘Ma’am’ like all her teachers, Shalini who is also a teacher’s aide is happy continuing what she is doing now and Ritu wants to be Bharatnatyam teacher like her mother.
All the children then participated in the plantation drive filling pots with earth and carefully placing the plants and then watering them. They all promised to look after the plants and invited the guests to come and visit again. The celebration ended with a distribution of cool lassi and bananas and of course chocolates. In spite of the terrible heat everyone had a great time.
We are grateful to Sourabh Sengupta from the Dead River Project and to Jaivir Singh and the PwC Foundation for having chosen Project Why to come and celebrate Environment Week.
“I fell in love with Project Why and India and I want to help as much as I can even from 7000 km away. Project Why is like a family for me and I want to share how wonderful Project Why is with people here in Europe” Claire De Felice Volunteer from Luxembourg.
For We are the World Blogfest I want to share a simple love story. The story of a young woman of substance who came to Project Why and fell in love with India and Project Why, as we fell in love with her.
The genesis of this unique love story goes back half a century to a friendship cemented in college, a friendship that withstood the test of time! Prajna my old friend wrote to me last year about the daughter of dear friends of hers, Claire, wanting to come to India and spend some time in an NGO. Prajna suggested Project Why.
Claire wrote to me saying she was interested in women’s empowerment, and wanted to visit Project Why. I must admit I was a little worried as our primary work is with children but told her she was welcome as we did have a women’s empowerment programme.
I first met Claire a few days after her arrival and was immediately taken in by her quiet yet incredibly warm persona. We talked for a long time and as I shared the Project Why journey with her I realised that we had done quite a lot for women be it the women who we had employed and skilled to take on many roles, or the girls that were getting an education thanks to our work. Project Why was undoubtedly a very women-oriented organisation. We decided that this could be the direction of her work with us: document the role of the women of project Why! At that moment none of us knew what was awaiting us.
It was the time we had launched an online fundraiser that needed a lot of social media support and we at project why were quite social media challenged. Our mentor was Damyanti who guided us over numerous phone calls and Whatsapp messages and we did our best. Claire gently suggested that she could help us as she was not only a mean lenswoman but also quite savvy on social media. I connected her to Damyanti and both of them took over. The rest is history as the fundraiser was a great success.
What endeared Claire to me as I slowly got to know her was her willingness to help wherever she was needed and her ability to get along with each and every one, be it a student or a teacher. She was all heart and could establish a link with anyone in a jiffy. Everyone just loved her. And being all heart she instinctively knew that we needed help and decided that she would do all she could to help us.
Many of her friends generously donated to our fundraiser and knowing our difficulties with social media she decided to take over our Instagram and still does it today from 7000 km away. Upon her return, Claire wrote an article on how Project Why empowers women.
A few weeks ago she told me she was planning a fundraiser and on May 21st organised one in Brussels where she invited some eminent personalities from the European Parliament!
Claire’s relationship with Project Why did not end with the seven weeks she spent with us. It has gone beyond as the bonds established transcend space and time. She has left an indelible mark in our hearts and we think of her as family! We now look forward to her coming back.
People like Claire restore faith in humanity as they exemplify all that is good. For me personally, they give me the strength to carry on, particularly in times when things look bleak and even scary.
Today we stand on very fragile ground. We need to find long-term support to be able to carry on our work of twenty years. The fear of not being able to keeps me awake at night but then just remembering the smile and quiet confidence of a young woman like Claire gives me hope and the courage to soldier on.
Thank you Claire for being who you are.
This post was the 24th installment of the monthly We Are the World Blogfest: I’d like to invite you to join, if you haven’t as yet, to post the last Friday of each month a snippet of positive news that shows our essential, beautiful humanity.
The new education policy is soon to be revealed. It has been four years in the making. Though no details are known, the major focus it is said will be on improvement of quality of education, curriculum, bringing in new technology, and changing the pedagogy. This is truly music to one’s ears as the present education system is due for an overhaul. This system was inherited from a colonial past where the need of the day was to have a docile workforce willing to follow rules blindly. There was no room for independent thinking or creativity.
Over the years we have witnessed how the system has deteriorated to become one where learning by rote is lauded. Today you simply need to learn your text book by heart to get a 100% even in subjects like English. There is no room for personal views or creative thinking. And as entry to colleges is based on marks, only those who have the ability to learn by heart can hope to accede to higher education in state run universities. This means that children from humbler homes, who cannot compete with their peers from richer ones and who cannot effort private universities simply fall off the wagon.
What the present system is teaching today is not in sync with the needs of the XXIst century job market. Some of the skills required to succeed in today’s world are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, initiative, leadership etc. One sincerely hopes that the new education policy will address some of these so that those who graduate will have a fair chance on the emerging job market. School education should be able to inculcate such skills in each and every child. This is a far cry for what they are taught today!
Many countries have changed their school education system and one of most acclaimed is Finland’s. For the Finns, ‘real winners do not compete’ and school is not about competing but about cooperating. School becomes an even playing field where all children find their place in the sun.
I hope and pray that the new education policy will rid the education of system of its colonial past and usher in the changes needed to succeed in this day and age. India children are bright and deserve the best.
A very special summer camp is on at the very special section of Project Why. It is the third of its kind! Every year the students of the special needs section of Project Why have a vocational summer camp that culminates in an exhibition cum sale of the products they have created. This is part of our effort to not only teach the students new skills but also teach them how to market and sell their products to all the visitors that come to the exhibition. All proceeds of the sale are used to buy something for the students.
This year is a very special one as thanks to the generosity of our friend Swarup the vocational programme has its now ‘shed’ on the terrace of the centre and two new supervisors: Geetu and Shalini are now gainfully employed and run the centre under the benign care of their teachers.
Last month was a great moment for them as they received their first pay check! Shalini delighted us all as she went form class to class showing off her cheque and saying to one and all that she had passed!
Each year the team tries to be more creative and over and above bags and coasters, this year we have table mats, embroidered handkerchiefs, stunning bangles and earrings and much more. What is lovely is that everyone participates in someway or the other and all is done in s spirit of joy and fun. If you drop by the camp, all you see are smiles.
The special needs section of Project Why is by far the happiest place you can find and always brings a huge smile on your face. It is a real feel good shot. Our effort is to make this centre a happy place for the students, one where they are not judged or riled, where they can be themselves, laugh and have fun, one that restores their right to a fulfilling and dignified life.
If you are in Delhi on Saturday June 1st, please come and encourage these wonderful souls.
The class X and XII results are out and it is time to celebrate. Over 40 Project Why kids have cleared their boards and I am proud of each and every one of them. I am proud of the ones that got the sought 90% but also of those who just passed! It is true that marks make a difference in the present education scenario and that if you are not in the top percentile you may not get access to higher education in the college of your choice but have you ever thought of how unfair the grading system is to the child! Only those who have the ability and capability to learn by heart can accede to those high marks. But does that mean that those who can’t are less capable? And more so the child is judged on her or his performance on the five days of the examination! Do you call this fair? I don’t.
I recently came across a post on social media, that said the following:
Congratulations , for getting that 90% and more marks….
Congratulations for getting 60 % and more…..
Congratulations for getting 33% percent and more….
Congratulations for getting less than 33 %….
It’s an exam of education not LIFE…..
Please celebrate whatever results your kid has got.
These words were a real eye opener as one does not realise how hurt a child can be if he is constantly reminded of his poor performance and also as the author says that this is just an exam of education not of life!
Another social media post is a letter written by a mother to her son who had secured 60%! A lesson in parenting indeed. She wrote: “Super proud of my boy who scored a 60% in Class 10 board exams. Yes it is not a 90, but that doesn’t change how I feel. Simply because I have seen him struggle with certain subjects almost to the point of giving up, and then deciding to give his all in the last month-and-a-half to finally make it through! Here’s to you, Aamer. And others like you – fishes asked to climb trees. Chart your own course in the big, wide ocean, my love. And keep your innate goodness, curiosity and wisdom alive. And of course, your wicked sense of humour.” Every word rings so true. No education system should rob a child of his innate values.
Do we realise what we ask children to give up just to reach those hallowed marks! I think this is something we should mull on. We ask them to give up all that is fun in life, all that makes them children, all that makes them creative, curious and unique. It is a lot to ask.
I have my battles with my darling Utpal who tells me stubbornly that he does not like to learn what he does not understand, that we wants to skate and paint and read books and dance and volunteer at Project Why. He never got high marks in his class X but on the other hand developed so many skills and talents in the last two years and above all learnt compassion. I know he will do his best in class XII and that is all I should ask of him as I celebrate every step of his journey.
It makes one wonder about what one truly needs to teach a child in order to make him or her a good human being. We need to teach compassion and tolerance above all and that is not found in school books. We need to teach leadership and the ability to work and live with others; we need to teach problem solving and thinking out of the box. This is what is needed to succeed in life.
Today I celebrate every Project Why student who has passed her or his Boards as I know that each one did its best. Every child is unique and that is what we need to celebrate.
The class XII results are out and once again I am flummoxed at the results. 499/500 in humanities! 99.9% in subjects like English, history, psychology etc. I fail to understand how one achieves that except if the paper was entirely a multiple choice one and that is no the case. A couple of years ago a topper had admitted that she has learnt all the books by heart. My heart went out to the poor child and to all those who like her mug up the text book word for word. But that seems to be the way to go, or so it seems. I feel sorry for the children who have been usurped of their right to play, have fun, be creative, think out of the box, develop extra curricular skills and so on. To ‘succeed’ you have to excel in rote learning. Any child who cannot do that cannot get admission in the prized colleges and universities. Sadly the 99 percentile is something Project Why children cannot achieve as they run the race with many handicaps and try as we do, we cannot give them all that their peers from better homes have.
Quite frankly in my opinion a 99% obtained by rote learning does not define an intelligent child and does not open doors to carriers in today’s world. What is needed in the Information Age are skills like creativity and imagination, critical thinking, problem solving, initiative etc. A far cru from rote learning. This is the antithesis of the education system our children follow and which is rooted in the colonial past where what was required were pen pushers willing to obey orders. Education as we know it needs to be turned on its head.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an article about a proposed change of pattern in grading class X and XII examinations. The article was music to my years as it talked about a possible revamp of the examination pattern with a view to discourage students from rote learning! The new pattern would test students on their analytical skills and reasoning abilities instead of blind copy pasting of textbook text. The plan has been submitted for approval and it is hoped that the changes would be effective in 2020. This is a huge step in the right direction and I do hope it will lead to more changes in the education system itself. Way to go!
There is always Room for Hope is the title of the book I wrote when battling my partner’s cancer. Writing helped me cope with the elephant in the room and hope was what I held on to with both hands and my heart. And somehow we managed to survive and ultimately win the battle against all odds. This was six years ago. With life resuming its normal course I had forgotten about those terrible days.
It is only this morning when I sat on my balcony after yet another sleepless night wondering where we would be next month, next year, next…., that the title of my book suddenly appeared in my mind and I once again understood that in the darkest hour, hope was the only lifeline you could cling to. And hence, today, when all seems dark in the horizon I need to hang on to hope like never before.
Project Why’s life is a stake as in spite of all our efforts and prayers, the miracle we sought is nowhere in sight. We are again on life support and need to find a long term solution to continue our work or else look for the honourable way out, if way out there is. My blood runs cold at the very thought as every part of Project Why is like a child to me and I do not want to be face with Sophie’s choice. Yesterday we received a rejection from a funding institution; many of our appeals have gone unheard and unanswered; the situation is grim to say the least.
And yet amidst all this, hope remains alive.
When I look back at the last two decades I recall the umpteen times when we have been at the edge of despair and yet never gave up hope. And each and every time a miracle, for want of a better word, occurred making me believe that there was someone, the God of Lesser beings, who intervened and ensured we remain on track. I must confess that there were times when we were almost hubristic in our approach, making promises and commitments that defied all reason. But somehow we knew in our hearts that we would be able to stand by them: we never gave up hope.
Today I have over a thousand children with dreams in their eyes who believe that we can fulfil them. I have a team of almost 50 souls who depend on us to feed their loves ones. So how can I give up hope?
I did not give it up when a scalded baby landed in my arms and today he is a lovely teenager who walks in your heart or when a little girl was found rummaging the garbage dump for foods, her body burnt her fingers fused and today she is an impish young girl who you cannot help but fall for.
I did not give it up when broken hearts came to us for repair; I did not give it up when bulldozers raised my happy place to the ground, I did not give it up when a bunch of boys were riled by their principal who branded them as gutter snipes, I did not give it up each time a mother came with a prayer that needed to be answered. I never gave up because I knew that no matter how dark the night, there was hope at the end of it when the sun would rise again.
So today again I need to hold on to hope as tight as I can, and believe in my heart that the sun will rise again tomorrow. I just need the strength to go through the night.
Seeing this picture today warmed the cockles of my heart, brought a huge smile on my face and sent me down memory lane. The girl in the striped Tshirt is none other than our darling Kiran! She has just finished writing her class XII examinations and while waiting for the results is ‘volunteering’ at our Yamuna centre where she teaches English to children of all classes. She is a diligent and committed teacher, what else would she be? Kiran has always been a serious child, way beyond her age and my companion in arms in the early project why years. She was born the year we began Project Why. I actually held her in my arms when she was just a few days old. A year or so later she would be joined by Utpal and the three of us would be inseparable. The fact that she was born on my mother’s birthday gave her the right to call me Anou!
Kiran was always a serious and quiet child, who would surprise you by her mature almost adult ways. As a child her preferred drink was a ginger ale! She was to the manor born and a pleasure to be with. In those days I would tuck Kiran on one hip and Uptal on the other and set off on many expeditions. They both joined the same play school and it was my duty to fetch them at noon. Then the three of us would swing by the momo shop (momos were rare in those days) and gorge ourselves before heading back. Once when we were walking to Project Why we passed by mounds of food thrown on the ground after a wedding party. Kiran looked upset and looked up at me and said: they could have fed it to the cows! When it was time to admit her to school, we all lived the ‘admission nightmare’ together and I could understand first hand what millions of parents went through each year!
Kiran’s favourite class at Project Why was always the special needs section. From a very young age she warmed up to these very special kids who became her friends and each summer she would spend her holidays ‘volunteering’ in that class. And each summer holiday homework was a bane we had to live with together.
When Utpal went to boarding school at the age of 4, she was heart broken. She made it a point to come to every PTM as she missed her little soul mate. She was over the moon when we decided to send her to the same boarding school as her pal after she completed her class X. They spent two great years together.
Next month she will get her results and decide what she wants to opt for as a career. I know that she will shine in whatever she chooses to do as she is an extremely bright child who can withstand all challenges and find her place in the sun.
She is our little ray of sunshine.
Update September 2019: So proud to share that Kiran is now the youngest member of our staff all of 19 and the English teacher at Okhla. The students love her and she is to the manor born. We wish her success and hope she grows with us in the coming years.
My friend and supporter Damyanti Biswas has asked to be a guest on her blog every second Friday of the month. The first post was up last week and was entitled When at the Edge of a Precipice, What Gives You the Courage to Go on?
It talks about Project Why and how over the years we have been faced with obstacles and challenges and come out of it each time simply because we never gave up. It makes me ask myself whether courage was something I always had in me, or whether, as much else in my life, it was something Project Why gifted me. The answer is undoubtedly the later.
True I had in my life before Project Why shown the ability to overcome fears, but the courage I refer to today is the one that makes you stand for your beliefs without wavering, in the face of all adversity, and know you have to go on no matter what. You can call it crossroads, or standing at the edge of a precipice and knowing you have to jump even if you do not have a parachute. You just have to create your own.
In the twenty years of running Project Why I have found myself in this position many times and each and every time found the courage to carry on. I have lost count of the number of instances when the reasonable option was to stop and even walk away. For me that was never an alternative. And that is how we grew from a small family of two scores to one off over thousand members; that is how scores of broken hearts were repaired and moribund children given the hope of life; that is how every challenge was met and solutions found.
Today I ask myself where did I draw the strength and find that ‘courage’ in spite of so many setbacks. Or let me take it a step further: was it really courage or as someone said the fear of falling! I do not know. Maybe it was/is the fear of facing myself on judgement day if such a day exists. There was no alternative.
And the ‘courage’ – let us call it that – came and comes from all the souls who have entrusted me with their dreams. Every child that enters the portal of Project Why does so with the hope of changing its life. It is a pact we make and each has to stand by it. And to do that means not to give up.
Today I am again at the edge of a precipice. Project Why is on life support with some centres only funded for a few months. We now need to look for people willing to support our work long time. It is daunting indeed but we have the courage to continue!
Last week I celebrated my 67th! I had made no special plans barring a small celebration at home with the family and two friends. A day before I was asked if I would visit the Project the next day and I said I would try to. The request to visit came from all centres and everyone was so insistent that I had no option but to say yes.
I woke up early as I normally do and was pleasantly surprised to see birthday messages both on my phone and on Facebook! The first one I saw was from Utpal, sent at the dot of midnight from my home as he had taken leave from school to be with me on this day. I was touched by the number of people who had sent loving messages from across the world. Before Project Why I barely got a few calls as the recluse I had become after the demise of my parents had but a handful of people to remember my birthday. But here I was today, flooded with messages from New Zealand to the west coast in the US via every country I could think of. I was overwhelmed. The only child today had a family as large as the planet!
After having answered some messages I set out to visit Project Why as promised. First stop was Govindpuri. I had barely entered when I was greeted by a loud Happy Birthday from our one and only Seema. I walked up the stairs and entered the creche where the children were ready to sing for me. I felt choked with emotion and sat down to catch my breath. It was then time to move up to the office where I was greeted by balloons and a loud happy birthday from all the teachers of the centre. There was a cake, and presents, and flowers everything that makes a birthday special. We chatted for a while and then it was time to move to the next destination: Khader.
Here again I was greeted by loud wishes. The boys were waiting upstairs and wished me by singing the ubiquitous birthday song. I was again moved to tears as I realised what a big and loving family I had. It was cake time again and the teachers had even made a piñata filled with confetti. Utpal and Babli were there too, Utpal the perfect master of ceremonies. Time to move on to Okhla.
I was still in the scooter when I got a call from Utpal telling me he was going Live on Facebook as the boys had prepared a play for me and were disappointed that I had left so thanks to technology and our whiz kid I saw the play on the way to Okhla. At Okhla there were children waiting to wish me, a birthday card and a gift made i house and lots of love and laughter. I was over the moon. It had been such an unexpected and joyful celebration, one that I would remember in times to come.
In the afternoon I was made to tune in to another Live on Facebook and watch the show the Khader girls had organised. I must admit it was a very gratifying experience. The day ended with a small party at home with scrumptious food provide by my dear friend Kabir and more song and merriment. More messages had come by then and I ended the day by replying to all of them. I went to sleep my heart filled with the love I had received throughout the day.
I realised how much Project Why had given me over the years: a wonderful team that was more than family, a wonderful network of friends some I had never met but who showered me with so much trust and love, and more than a thousand children who had chosen me to secure their dreams. I felt elated and humbled at the same time and could not help from asking myself what had I done to deserve so much.
For the past two decades I’ve been busy, being grateful.
Ever since the day I met Manu and was shaken out of the torpor I had allowed myself to sink in after my parents’ demise, I was blessed with abundant miracles that I could not have imagined existed. The biggest one was Project Why. It set me on a journey that was replete with wondrous occurrences, leaving me speechless and filled me with gratitude. Words like Miracles and Angels became commonplace. True, there were a few setbacks along the way but these paled in the wake of the blessings and bounty that came my way.
When I decided to give Manu a ‘home’ I had absolutely no idea of how that would pan out. But a miracle was being conjured. I use to buy shoes from a shop in a nearby market and had befriended the lady who owned the shop. I would stop by for a cup of coffee or a cool drink and chat with her. I shared my predicament with her en passant, more as a conversation piece than a plea for help and fell off my chair when she asked me to look for space that she was willing to buy for us. That a little mud jhuggi on the very street Manu roamed was for sale was another miracle. We had our first ‘centre’ and there was no looking back. The shoe lady and Manu had laid the foundations of Project Why.
I always wondered if this is what Angels looked like. I lost touch with the shoe lady as her shop soon closed but she remains in my prayers each and every day. As for Manu, his spirit is what gives me the strength to carry on.
Miracles and Angels have abounded in Project Why. It would take volumes to write about each one of them and many lives to express the extend of my gratitude . Many of you know Utpal the little fellow who landed in my arms via a boiling wok and became my master in unconditional love.
There are all my special needs children who are my never-fail feel-good shot. My amazing team who gave wings to all my dreams, even the most outrageous ones and all the wonderful people who have reached out and given us love and support to make Project Why a reality. What is extraordinary is that many of them have not even seen us and yet they believed in us and gave with abandon. What would you call them but Angels? True they do not have wings but have something more precious: the ability to see with their heart. I am deeply grateful to each one of them.
Last week saw yet more miracles.
The first one was the success of our fundraiser where 155 souls came forward to help us save our Okhla centre. It was truly overwhelming and humbling. My heartfelt gratitude to each one of them and to Damyanti Biswas who has never stopped believing in us.
The second one was a picture sent by one of the teachers that showed the results of the end of year exams.
Many of our kids have once again secured top positions in their schools. This has been happening every year and has been the validation of all that we believed in and stood for. With a little help from our Angels and lots of love, these children can move mountains.
So here I am, busy being grateful! If you’re ever in Delhi, please visit us for a chat and a cup of tea. We love visitors, and teachers and children at our centres are friendly and enthusiastic hosts.
A few weeks back we launched a fundraiser to help four teachers of Project Why save their school from closing.
This school has an incredible story. It was set up more than 15 years ago by two incredible women Pushpa and Sophiya to help children who were being abused by predators, looking for hands to steal and push drugs.
These children were from an industrial area bereft of any school and were left to their own devices by parents too busy surviving. The catch was, that in this area, there was no place to start a centre as barring factories and tiny settlements in empty spaces there was no space that could be used. This did not deter our formidable duo and they found a space that was a garbage dump. Where others saw squalor and filth, they could see a school and hope. It took their determination and a few trucks of mud to reclaim a space large enough to start a school under a plastic sheet held by four bamboo poles. There was no looking back.
Today over 350 children come to our Okhla Centre where classes from I to XII are held and many have graduated and gone on to take their place in the sun. Along the way a computer centre run by incredible Mithu was set up to ensure that the children have IT skills. The secondary section is spearheaded by Naresh who has the ability to turn failures into toppers! It is a win-win situation.
Today this school has lost its main funder and is at risk of closing down. To keep it open and give us time to find a long term solution, it is critical that we are able to pay the salaries of our staff for the next few months and that is why we launched this fundraising campaign.
We are nearing the end of the campaign and have managed to raise the funds. This was made possible by the wonderful way in which old and new friends came together and reached out with their support. The magic of the Internet allowed us to reconnect with many old friends and supporters and I am so touched by how each and everyone responded with so much love and generosity.
What was also overwhelming was the number of new friends we made during this campaign.
With help from our dear friend Damyanti Biswas, we were able to organise a Blogathon that helped us reach out to more people and I was touched beyond words by those who blogged for our cause, and shared the campaign on their networks allowing us to reach out to a wider audience. Many of them contributed generously to our cause and thanks to each one of them our Okhla school may get the breather it so needs.
With the help of old and new friends we have been able to do what may have seemed impossible: Save our Okhla School.
I have no words to express my gratitude. The fundraiser closes in 2 days, but anything extra raised will go to Our Okhla Centre.
CLICK HERE to support the Project Why #HelpMithuSaveSchool Fundraiser.
It had been ages since I attended a Parent’s Meeting in any of the Project Why Centres, so when the Okhla staff asked me to come and be part one I immediately accepted. I was curious to know what parents thought of our work and how they perceived us. The meeting was scheduled for 10 am and I reached a little after that wondering how many would come as this was morning, and most were busy either at work or in their homes. Imagine my surprise when I walked in to find the place teeming with mothers all dressed up in their best attire, some with babies at their hip, each wearing a huge smile on her face.
We settled down to business. The question that was looming large was whether they were happy and satisfied with our work. The answer was a loud resounding YES! Many chose to share their experience. One mother said that her children had been studying for over 10 years now, all five of them. One had passed out and was in college and one, the elder daughter was married. When I looked at her a little perplexed she was quick to say that her daughter was 20 and had completed her school. She had understood that education was important and would make her a better mother. Another mother shared that it was only because of our presence that her children were able to pass their exams with good marks. They would have dropped out otherwise as the family could not afford the much needed tuition. Because of Project Why children were now busy, not roaming streets and prey to abuse. All mothers felt that things had changed since we began our work in 2007.
As they talked, I was filled with so much gratitude and emotion. Gratitude to Sophiya and Pushpa who had found about the plight of these children and decided to urge me to reach out to them, and emotion at the magnitude of what a little effort on our part could do. A recent alumni meeting had showed us how far our children had gone and how they had broken the cycle of poverty in which they were born.
One mother was very grateful that even after having all our computers stolen, we had not given up and packed our wares as many would have done, but replaced the computers and carried on our work. All others were very happy that their children were acquiring computer skills. The one thing that warmed my heart was that all mothers present and the two fathers said that they had realised that education was the only way out for their children.
One mother asked whether we could start sewing classes for them as they too wanted to learn a skill. The thought has seeded and who knows, with the right support, the Sewing Circle of Okhla may soon see the light of day.
After I had left, I was surprised when a teacher came rushing to ask me to come back. I was perplexed not knowing what to expect. As I reentered the room the ladies started applauding. That is what they had called me back for. Tears welled up in my eyes.
That this centre may close as we have lost its main funder and are desperately trying to find a new one is nothing short of heartbreaking.
We have started a small fund raiser to help us tide over the next months. But the miracle I pray for is a generous donor who would take over the whole centre and understand what a huge difference a little help can make in the life of these children.
March is exam month in India and every child is busy studying! I remember when my children were young, come exam time and the whole house went into exam mode. The TV was disconnected, everyone almost tiptoed around the house, favourite meals were cooked, coffee was made late into the night and we were all ever present to the needs of the child preparing for her exams. Parents were as tense as the children, if not more.
For Project Why children it is an altogether different ballgame.
These children come form homes where parents do not care about exams at all. They live in one room cramped tenements where the TV blares regardless, where life goes on as usual with the drunk father coming and being abusive and the meal prepared by the mother may be kicked to the ground and the family would sleep on an empty stomach. In such homes studying for an exam is close to impossible and yet our children do the best they can, sometimes huddling in a corner and making themselves small so as not to disturb others.
That is why at Project Why we ensure that during exam time, children have the space and support they need. Teachers give extra time even if it means going beyond the stipulated closing time or even on a holiday or Sunday. Children are encouraged to ask questions and clear their doubts and mock tests are taken regularly to assess the preparedness of each child and take remedial measures where needed.
And year after year the children have done us proud, as they have cleared their exams with respectable marks, many even topping their classes. I have a profound admiration for these children who run the race with many handicaps and yet come out winners. Hats off to all of them and to their teachers who leave no stone unturned to ensure that each child passes.
In a few days, the results will be out and children will move to the next class. Most of them will come with sweets to share with all of us. And though it has been almost two decades, I still feel a sense of immense pride and joy every time a child comes to me and tells me she has passed! Exam time at Project Why is truly a blessed moment.
March 8th was International Women’s Day. It was also the day I was asked by my friend Damyanti to do a Live on Facebook and share the story of the women of Project Why, the women who had inspired it, helped set it up, run it and manage it. I must admit that I had never truly given a thought to the role of women in Project Why. It had always been an education programme for children!
I was very nervous about going live. Till date I had been interviewed on camera and even ‘talked’ about Project Why in front of an audience, but it had always been known ground. Going Live on a social media platform was nothing short of daunting. And that too on Women’s day which meant that the discourse had to be different. Simply talking about our skilling programmes for women was far from enough.
I sat with my thinking cap on and took a walk down memory lane trying to see what role women had played in enabling Project Why. It is then that it struck me that actually Project Why was inspired by the life of one woman, Kamala, my mother, whose life and spirit imbues every aspect of the work of the last two decades. That it is education that I chose to make its centrepiece, came from the importance Kamala gave to education and the way she fought to get an education for herself. That I decided to select a staff of women from the community, came from her fight for women’s rights and her belief that every woman had the right to make her own choices. That I am my mother’s daughter is validated by Project Why!
Project Why is steered primarily by women, women no one believed in, women no one would have given a second thought to. It is such women that run it today. Every single one has walked that extra mile and proved her worth in more ways than one. They have guided me and counselled me and stood by be at every step. Just like Kamala, I believed in them and felt that I had to help them find their voice and make their own choices.
Today almost 40 women run Project Why. Thousands have been skilled and become financially independent. Thousands of girls have entered its portal and left as determined young women who would live their dreams and become equal partners and super moms.
This is the story I would share on the famous Live, I decided.
Easier said than done. For the next days I tried to write a script but was unable to as I sounded flat. I wrote some points and walked around the house rehearsing what I would say but mumbled and fumbled. I slept fitfully and was up before dawn on that morning. When faced with the camera I almost froze and the first lines sounded terrible but then I do not know what happened. I think it was Kamala’s spirit that took over and I shared my story from deep within my heart and the words flowed with ease. It was soon over and I was told it had gone well. For me it had been an incredible experience: that of my sharing my life with the world. I felt humbled.
Today Project Why is at crossroads, its future in peril. If I am unable to find funding, part of it may shut down. I know I have to once again draw strength from the spirit of Kamala and do everything I can to save it.
I owe it to her, I owe it everyone woman who has reposed their faith in me.
If you’ve read so far, please consider making a small donation to the Project WHY Okhla school established by Pushpa and Sophiya, whose quiet perseverance not just established the school, but help run it today.
It is an honour to be part of this Festival and to talk to a new audience about Project Why. I hope all my readers will join me in this exciting journey.
The posts are based on word prompts and the schedule is as follows:
- 4 March – Forgive
- 5 March – Miracle
- 6 March – Serenity
- 7 March – Nurture
- 8 March – Influence
- 9 March – Trust
- 10 March – Grief
So look forward to this exciting venture at the Write Tribe Festival of Words, with trepidation and a little nervousness.
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye wrote Antoine de St Exupery in the Little Prince. These words were the ‘secret’ the Fox revealed to the Little Prince. Somehow they seemed to have been seared in my heart long before my I read this wonderful book and an eternity before Project Why came into being. I remember have been asked by a friend to write the 1000th post of his blog and I decided to write about childhood dreams and the courage to go back to them and see them fulfilled. What I shared was a memory of when I was just a toddler and had created a ruckus when my grandmother had refused to give a coat to the man with the dancing bear. I only stopped waling when the man was given a coat on that cold winter day. Randy Pausch in his Last Lecture defines life as being a platform to fulfil childhood dreams and we need to have the courage to go back to that child at least once in our lives and see whether we have been true to it. I may have worn many hats in my life but the one that truly reflected the child I was was that of the Founder of Project Why! The Fox is right, it is only with the heart that we see rightly and somehow this maxim defines Project Why in more way than one.
At first sight it may seem that I am limiting myself to what Project Why does on a day-to-day basis and yes there have been many ‘coats’ given along the way. But that is not where it ends. It is said that you attract who you are and over the past two decades I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who see with their hearts and who have reached out to help us in ways beyond imagination. Today I would like to salute them all and share some of their stories that sound almost like fairy tales.
Many years ago a man came into our lives. He visited Project Why and unlike most did not hand over a donation but left silently. We were a little perplexed but soon forgot the whole incident. A few weeks letter I received a mail informing me that he had been so touched by the Project that he had felt he needed to do something larger than hand out a cheque. He had set up an organisation in his country with the sole purpose of supporting Project Why long term. The man in question is Xavier Ray and his organisation Enfances Indiennes! There was no looking back. But that is not where it ends. Xavier has stood by us through thick and thin and been a rock each time we have faced a challenge. He has also invested himself in more ways than one even taking on the role of parent to our darling Utpal! Talk about seeing with your heart.
Another person who saw with his heart and even read between the lines was Kannan Iyer. I had applied for funds to Asha for Education but found that we did not tick all the boxes and fell short of many of the required stipulations. I followed my heart and simply wrote that we were at least worth a visit. The person who came was Kannan and he saw with his heart and became a very successful Ambassador for Project Why as he was able to convince his Board to help us. Again there has been no looking back.
Hans Emde came all the way from Germany and visited our Project. He too saw with his heart and decided to set up an organisation in Germany to help Project Why. Project Why Deutschland brought into our lives wonderful people like Julia Wuppermann and Claudia Huetwohl who have again stood like rocks with us at all times.
Age does not matter when you see with your heart. Harriet Page was a teen ager when she came to Project Why to spend a short week with her parents. She was so touched by the Project that she made it her mission to help us long time. From organising bake sales in her school to raising funds in incredible ways she has never stopped helping us. Now a young lawyer she is helping with setting up Project Why UK.
Carla Berke was an expat living in Delhi for a few years and helped us immensely in making us understand the need of organising ourselves. She gave us our first much needed makeover. She helped us in a multitude of ways and is the mom of one of your youngest and most ardent supporter Malte! When the family visited Delhi recently for a holiday one of the highlights of their trip was to share a biryani with the staff of our Okhla Centre.
When things look really bad God sends you an Angel. We have had many at Project Why and feel blessed. One of them is Kabir Suri of Azure Hospitality. He came into our lives when we were in dire straits and helped us weather the storm and has taken upon himself to help us stand on our own feet. We are deeply grateful.
Project Why has been a journey of discovery of people who see with their hearts. It is thanks to each one of them that we have been able to carry on our work for two decades now. I feel overwhelmed and humbled at the amount of love I have received over the years. To have so many people reach out and give wing to my dreams is extraordinary to say the least and restores faith in humanity. And it never ends. Recently Damyanti Biswas who has been a friend for over a decade and also my staunchest supporter and the mirror to my soul, took on the mission of saving Project Why at a time when we have lost one of our big donors and launched a Blogathon and once again I was amazed by the kindness and warmth of people I had never met but who reached out to help our fundraiser. My deepest gratitude to every one of them.
It will take volumes to write about every soul that has seen with her of his heart and helped Project Why. I just want to thank each and every one. Without you we could not have been.
Each share can bring us three times the donation.
Add in a little to the fundraiser–with small contributions from a big crowd, we can get together to help keep this wonderful dream alive!