I cannot believe that in a few weeks Utpal and Babli will have finished their class XII Board Exams and that in just about two keeks Utpal will turn 18 and thus become an adult! To me they both remain the little burnt scalded one year old and the little heavily breathing four year old I lay my eyes on for the first time so many moons ago. That was when I decided or actually was guided to reach out to them and craft their morrows. At that time I had no clue of what the future had in store for us. It would enfold one day at a time.
With Utpal and his third degree burns the first step was to heal his wounds and get him back on his chubby feet. I remember the ordeal of his bandages and the fear we had of any infection setting in. He spent the days in my office in a little cot under my watchful eye. And day after day we witnessed the miracle of his healing. I can never forget the day when I left him under the care of one of our teachers and was told that he had eaten SIX BANANAS! I realised quite early that he was a survivor. I witnessed his first word and was there for his first step. We enrolled him in a play school and I remember dropping and picking him up every day. In our minds we had charted out a roadmap whereby we would try and secure his family and make sure he gets a sound education. But the heavens had another plan for him. A series of rather dark events led to him landing up in my home at the age of 4. He would soon go to boarding school and I would become his legal foster parent. At that time end of school days seemed truly far away. We moved from class to class with our share of hurdles that we both surmounted. And before I knew it he was in class XII. In a few days he will come home for good and his room awaits in the newly constructed house. In hindsight I realise how the heavens conjured to make all this possible as it was their plan that was unfolding, I was just the chosen lead. A new chapter of both our lives is ready to unfold. I feel a tad nervous but immensely blessed.
Babli joined Project Why in class II and was a spunky kid with stars in her eyes but a big hole in her heart that made it difficult for her to breathe. But in a halting way she voiced her dream: to be police! Upon enquiry I came to know that she was in critical need of an open heart surgery that was quite expensive. Again the heavens went to work and we found a kind hearted soul to sponsor the surgery. I thought that was the end of my role. Sometime later I was told that Babli had not been sent back to school but was tending to her father’s cart selling knick knacks. I was livid and knew I had to intervene. Babli would join Utpal in boarding school. The rest is history.
My two little ones are all grown up now and ready to conquer the world. I do not know what awaits them but am confident that once again the Universe has plans for them. I simply need to play my role and see them fulfilled.
I feel incredibly blessed.
My dearest children
In just a few hours you will be sitting for your Board exams. Before I say anything else I want to tell you that no matter what the results are YOU ARE ALL WINNERS!
Look at where you have reached in life. From being a baby in a crib you learnt to walk, talk, read, write and went on to school where you spend long years not only learning many subjects but mastering many skills. You fell down many a times but were back on your feet to soldier on. You moved from class to class imbibing many values, learning to care for the other, to respect your elders and to tend to those younger than you. True you may have slipped sometimes but those were invaluable lessons on the path to becoming an adult. You may have encountered failure but that too was needed to know success in its true form. For success lies in the ability to rise from failure.
Today you stand tall ready to take on life. Your exam is just one more stepping stone but do not get discouraged if you are unable to score high. Marks are not what defines you my children. It is also not what you will be judged by as you take your first step into the adult world. What will hold true are the values you uphold. What will stand with you in your professional life is your creativity, your ability to think out of the box, your ability to lead others, your ability to be fair and stand by what is right. This is what will define you.
It has been a matter of pride to have you as Project Why students and I sincerely hope we have been able to instil the right values in you and help you find your true calling. You will always remain part of the Project Why family. My love and blessings are with you wherever you go.
Life waits for you and the universe has charted your course. Your exams are again just a portal you need to step trough. Believe in yourself and give the exam your best shot.
As I said earlier you are already a winner
Meet my class of 2020: spunky Babli Thakur and one of a kind Utpal Mandal. On 20th February they begin the last chapter of their school life: their final class XII exams. The chapter ends on 30 March with their last paper and then another story begins. I went to see them on Sunday and they both looked relaxed and happy. It was I who was the stressed one!
Seeing them was an emotional moment for me as my mind travelled back to the first time I saw them both. The first to enter my life was Utpal way back in 2003 when he was just about one. He was a bony lad with amazing eyes and a heart warming smile. At that moment I never knew he would become part of my life. His accident a few weeks later would change his and my destiny irrevocably. I would become his foster parent and he would be part of my family. He was barely 4 when he entered boarding school. At that time I had no idea what the future would hold. By the time he was 7 his natural family vanished and the child was left alone. It was not easy for either of us and we slowly crafted a new life for ourselves. Today we stand strong and happy. I cannot believe that in little over a month his school days will be over and he will be home and we will get busy planning his future. His life is nothing short of a miracle and I know deep in my heart that his morrows will be safe. Another miracle is in the making.
Babli came into my life some years later when she was already in school. That tiny little girl looked way beyond her age and in spite of her laboured breathing had eyes filled with dreams for the future: she wanted to be a police! We discovered later that she had a hole in her heart and needed immediate corrective surgery. A miracle enfolded as we found a kind soul to sponsor her surgery and we nursed her back to health. It was a few months later that I discovered that her family had not sent her back to school and saw red. I decided to take matters in my hand and soon Babli too was on her way to boarding school as Utpal’s class mate. Her dreams were safe!
In a few weeks they will graduate from school and be ready to fulfil their dreams. I know I will be there to help them at every step.
I am so proud of my tiny class of 2020!
When our dearest friend Damyanti Biswas decided to share the proceeds of her debut bestseller novel You Beneath Your Skin to two organisations: Stop Acid Attacks and Project Why she also seeded a new bond between two worlds that till then were unknown to each other. If not for her we at project Why would have never met the wonderful acid attack survivors and made lifelong friends. It all began at the launch of the book way back in September 2019. That was the first time many of us came to face to face with these amazing souls and with Alok Dixit who runs Stop Acid Attacks, the organisation that helps rehabilitate acid attack victims and transform victims into real troupers. At that first meeting we promised to keep in touch but it would take some time before that happened.
It was in December, at another book event that I shared the dais with Ritu Saini and was moved by her story and impressed by her zest for life. I was impressed by two statements this young and feisty survivor made. The first one was that she was grateful to her attacker as the attack was what made it possible for her to break free from the restricting walls of her life and come in the open and receive so much love. And the other was that she would like to ask her attacker without any acrimony what went in his head when he perpetrated that terrible act because she never wanted anyone to ever feel that way! Wise words from such a young soul. Ritu was 17 when tragedy struck and is in her early twenties now. I pondered on what she said and realised how true she was. Had there be no acid attack her life would have been that of any young girl from her community, confined to the walls of first her paternal home and then her marital one. It is the attack that propelled her out of that world into one where she could find an identity and a voice. Today she advocates for acid attack survivors in more ways than one. Ritu Saini has much to teach us and this is when I decided that I would invite her to Project Why and have the children meet her.
I was over he moon when I was informed that she had agreed to come to our Republic Day celebrations at Khader and was overwhelmed when I heard that Alok Dixit would come too in spite of his busy schedule. It was indeed an honour for us at Project Why. I was looking forward to that moment. Unfortunately a bad back made it impossible for me to be there and I was devastated but thanks to the magic of social media I was able to see some of the function as part of it was live streamed. I was happy to see the smiling faces and was very moved by Ritu’s speech. I believe the message she gave would resound in the minds of our children. I also knew that this was the beginning of a long relationship where we would learn from each other and strive to make a real difference.
My gratitude to Alox Dixit for having graced the occasion with his presence and accepted to celebrate Republic Day with us. My gratitude to young Ritu Saini for sharing her smile and confidence with my staff and children and showing us that beauty lies in the soul.
Ritu acts in Chaapaak, the recently released movie about acid attack survivors. The story is based on the life of Alok Dixit. Please support them by seeing the movie!
Today as I sat fearing for tomorrow, wondering how we will continue our work beyond April 2020, where will we find the missing numbers and so on, I decided to give myself a feel good shot. I have always said that Project Why is replete with miracles. It was time to revisit at least one and why not the very first one which we sometimes tend to forget: the bag lady miracle. Cryptic, is it not?
Rewind to the summer of 2000.I had landed in the street where it would all begin. I had met Manu and decided to ‘do’ something for him. I had met children and parents who urged me to teach their children English. A small jhuggi was available for sale in that very street. Things were falling in place but I did not have access to any funds to buy any ‘property’! I did not know who to go to. At that time miracles and angels were no part of my lexicon.
I use to often go to the market near our home in the evenings just for a stroll. A new bag and shoe shop had opened recently and was owned by a young woman who I befriended. I found myself sharing all my plans for Project Why and even told her about the jhuggi for sale and about how it would help us start our work. All this was mentioned ‘en passant’ and we were soon talking of other things and viewing her latest collection.
A few days later she called me and asked me the price of the jhuggi. I was taken aback but told her it was 90 K, a number way beyond my imagination at that time. I fell of my chair when I heard her next words: I am buying it for you!
The rest is history. In a few days the jhuggi was ours and she even gave us money to repair it. We were all over the moon. The bag lady remained in touch for some time but then vanished and I was unable to locate her in spite of my best efforts. That is when I realised that miracles happened and that angels looked just like us.
The jhuggi allowed us to seed Project Why. In hindsight I now believe it was a message to tell me I was on the right track and that no matter what impediments would come there would always be a way out. The last twenty years have been ample proof of that.
Remembering the bag lady has not only filled my heart with gratitude but given me the belief that another miracle is on its way. I wonder what this Angel will look like.
Note: The picture above is of the said jhuggi with the merry band that steered Project Why. This was the only snapshot I could find as in those days we did not have digital cameras.