Since July 2020 when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma I have been compelled to stay away from my beloved Project as I was immuno compromised and that mixed with the Covid pandemic was a heady toxic cocktail. Over the past three years I have been to the project a handful of times. However I keep in close touch with the Project thanks to the innumerable pictures posted every day in the famous Project Why WhatsApp group.
Pictures of children studying diligently, of children playing, singing, dancing, painting with fervour, of visitors dropping by, Pictures of the meals at the Yamuna centre; pictures of celebrations. Sometimes children are prompted to share their thoughts and dreams as was the case recently when a group of children were asked what they want to be when they grow up. The answers were heartwarming: engineer, teacher, IAS officer, police officer, bank manager and even artist. The list is endless, the dreams are big for only if you dream big can you aspire to see your dreams come true.
We at Project Why strive to give wings to all these little big dreams and hope to make as many as we can come true. And we have seen many come true over the last two decades.
When I see the pictures of these children holding their dreams for all to see my heart fills with joy, my eyes go moist and my throat constricts. I feel blessed but also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task but nowhere ready to give up.
Over the past two decades I have felt the presence of a very special God, the God of lesser beings as I chose to call him or her! This very special God has helped me at every stage and brought so many miracles in our lives. It is to this God that I pray everyday to give me the strength to soldier on no matter what.
Soldier on I will.
So help me God.
2022 turned out to be a rewarding year after many months spent wondering how we would carry on. The pandemic had been a huge blow though we managed to stay the course even on choppy seas. Thanks to all our well-wishers, friends and supporters who never stopped believing in us, we continued our work in spite of all the challenges, with Project Why looking a far cry from the vibrant space it was packed with children and replete with smiles and laughter. The small masked groups of children sitting far from each other, the sanitization between each class, the online classes for the few who had the resources to take them, in no way reflected the spirit of Project Why. To say the least, these were sad times.
But the clouds lifted slowly in the beginning of 2022 and by April 2022 we were almost back on course. At the end of 2022 classes were again jam packed with long waiting lists! But the pandemic had taken its toll on the education graph of our children. Two long years without proper studies, when children got promoted without any teaching having been done. Suddenly a student who was in class VI in 2020 was now in class VII! Needless to say, she was completely lost. It was a huge challenge for our teachers but Project Why teachers are one of a kind and took on the challenge head on. A lot of planning had to be done, but in no time new methods of teaching were adopted, new groups made according to the level of the children and work began in earnest. By the end of 2022, the teachers were pleased to see that most of the gaps had been bridged and were confident that the remaining would be by the close of the academic year in March 2022.
By the end of 2022, the Project Why family was back to its strength of 1200 and we were all happy and relieved. It was not all studies. We resumed our fun activities too. The children went for outings to different places: the crafts museum, the rail museum, the garden of five senses and the Red Fort. On children’s day 45 children were treated to lunch by Azure Hospitality at several outlets of their Dhaba restaurant chain. It was a unique experience. The staff were treated to a day long outing at Pratapgarh Farms courtesy Enfances Indiennes. A wonderful day of fun and bonding.
As always, the children did us proud. Everyone passed their school and Board examinations and two of our students from Okhla got into Delhi University cracking the new All India Entrance Examination. This motivated us to look at beyond class XII. We decided to begin career counselling and also started Spoken English classes and coaching for competitive examinations for Government jobs. These classes are taken by a Project Why alumni and are open to Project Why alumni and the community. The classes are free of cost.
We celebrated all festivals with fervor and fun. The children sang and danced, made posters and wrote slogans and sweets were distributed to all. 2022 was also the return of our volunteers, with Felix, a young volunteer from Germany spending six weeks at the Yamuna centre. We are expecting more volunteers in the coming year.
It was a year when the Gods were kind to us.
In January 2022 we were in a precarious situation on the funding issue. Things looked gloomy as we were short of funds and did not know where to go. But then the Universe sprung into action. The better half introduced us to the Trivedi Foundation who generously accepted to support the Khader and Yamuna centres for a year. Meenal Madhukar, one of our board members brought Mr. Adish Jain into the picture. He and his wife Asha visited the Okhla centre and decided to adopt it for ‘as long as it existed’! That was a huge moment for us. Another board member introduced us to Avantika Chopra who decided to help us full on. She led a crowdfunding initiative with the Fuel-a-Dream platform and managed to raise over 24 lacs. She also helped us increase our visibility in India something we were always wanting to do. She brought in the Max India Foundation who decided to adopt our Giri Nagar centre. We have now inducted Avantika to our Board as an Advisor.
Our regular donors continued their unstinted and generous support be it Enfances Indiennes, Project Why UK or Asha for Education. And to our utmost delight Project Why Germany came back after a short break during the pandemic. We are grateful to each and everyone of them. Their valued contributions allowed us to fill in the gaps and at times undertake much needed repairs. They are the ones who have allowed us to continue our work for over two decades now.
We hope that the Trivedi Foundation and the Max India Foundation will continue their support in 2023.
We will continue to work towards sustainability as only then can I be sure that Project Why will live beyond me. With each passing day my team is taking on more responsibilities and is now communicating with donors. I wait with bated breath for the day I become redundant.
We move into 2023 with renewed fervor and faith.
My eternal gratitude to my team, my Board and all our donors, well-wishers and supporters who stay the course. Without them Project Why would not exist.
Miracles are again waiting to happen in 2023.
I have a lot to be grateful for! We survived the pandemic almost unscathed. Thanks to our die hard supporters we were able to ride the storm and find our way back to days gone by after two years of uncertainty.
Schools have now reopened and we are inching back to a new normal. The children are back and the centres are once again humming with activity. The sound of children laughing albeit behind masks is nothing short of heart warming. New patterns have emerged with smaller groups and longer hours but that is a small price to pay. Everyone is thrilled and ready to go.
The gods too are smiling and showering us with their choicest blessings. After years of a hand to mouth existence, where every end of month found me gnawing at my nails wondering how we would meet the expenses of yet another month, we finally were able to secure some long term funding. Two of our centres, namely Khader and Yamuna were adopted for at least a year and Okhla was adopted for as long as it would exist. And to crown it all, a crowdfunding initiative yielded far more than anticipated. Our long term funders continue to be by our side. We can breathe easy, at least for some time. This is a first for Project Why. I am enjoying every minute, at least for the time being. I know that the search for funds will have to resume and we are ready for that when the time comes.
But today I want to express my gratitude to those who ensured that this year will be an easy one. Khader and Yamuna was adopted by the Trivedi Foundation thanks to the unrelenting efforts of my life partner. Okhla was adopted by the Jain Foundation thanks to our dear board member Meenal and the fundraising effort was made possible by the dynamism and never say die attitude of Avantika and her band of friends. To all of them I say ‘Chapeau Bas’!
We may have to face another upheaval as Delhi schools may shift to a single shift mode thus making our present model of boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon redundant. Children will only be free post lunch and the team is busy working out a new pattern. We may have to change timings and run the centres till late evening. But we are ready for that too.
We will also have to find new activities for the mornings where the centres, barring Yamuna, will be empty. Many ideas are being mooted: sewing classes, spoken English classes, adult literacy classes etc. This will take a little time to set up but I am sure that by the end of the summer vacation we will be ready to go.
New and exciting times await us and I am looking forward to them.
For now I am simply busy being grateful.
In April 2022 I turn 70. A milestone in any life. A time when you feel the need to pause and look back at the years gone by. A time to look at your life with utmost honesty: the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joy and sadness. Seven decades is a long time and I do not intend to subject you to life long reminiscences. Today I just intend to look back at the last two decades.
2000 is a watershed moment in my life as that is when Project Why began its work on the field. Project Why is undoubtedly the sum of my existence as I poured into it all that I had learnt and experienced over half a century as well as my hope and dreams: be it the lessons learnt at my parents’ knee, the joy of becoming a parent, the challenges faced at the workplace, the anger felt at all injustice, the desire to change things and so much more.
Project Why became the new challenge I embraced in my 50thyear. As my thoughts travel back I remember the little street and tiny mud house where it all began. I remember how Manu’s plight seared my soul and compelled me to find the first answer to that very resounding why. That was the beginning of an exhilarating journey where the sky was the limit. From a mere 20 we became 40 then 100 and reached 1000 in no time. We opened new centres in different locations, each to answer yet another why. Our enthusiasm was almost hubristic but somehow the Universe helped us in extraordinary ways bringing us support from the world over.
I look back at the wonderful family we became: the children, the teachers but also a plethora of people from many lands who came and volunteered with us and left an indelible mark in our hearts. Some even came back many times! Very precious legacy.
But it was not just a fairy tale. Project Why brought to the fore the many social inequities, the injustices and the ever growing gap between the privileged and underprivileged. This compelled me to raise my voice. This is how I began to blog. The attitude of the powers that be was nothing short of incomprehensible leading to ugly spats. But we overcame all.
This walk down memory lane is meant to be honest and I would be failing if I did not look at the failures, the biggest one being our inability to seed a proper sustainability option. It is not that we did not try. Our biggest attempt was Planet Why. Alas we were unable to raise the funds needed. If I look back with brutal honesty one would have to admit that the ‘success’ of our hand to mouth existence clouded our ability to see the writing one the wall. What we resorted to was crisis management. Not the best way to go.
Once again we face a crisis. True we will need to go into crisis management mode, but it is time we looked beyond. It is time to build our sustainability model. That is what I pledge to do as Project Why deserves to live beyond me.
So much for reminiscences. Time to look at the year gone by. In a nutshell 2021 was the year we seeded Project Why 2.0. It took a while as the situation on the ground kept changing. Schools barely opened and online teaching was here to stay. However the past year had taken its toll on the education of children from underprivileged homes and it became imperative for us to work a hybrid model that would address the situation. Project Why 2.0 aimed at bringing back children to school. That is what we are in the process of doing.
It was not an easy year. I end it with abundant gratitude to my team, the Board, and our supporters and funders who stayed with us in these harrowing times. Without them Project Why would not be.
I do not know what 2022 will bring us. I just know miracles are waiting to happen.
Mataji breathed her last yesterday evening.
I met her for the first time in May 2000 when I had gone to her in the throes of the deep grief I had sunk in after the untimely death of both my parents. For years I had just lpcked myself up and lost the key. No doctor, or soothsayer had been able to help me get out of the hole I had sunk in. It was the young woman who came to do my nails that hesitantly told me about her as she feared I would not accept to go to a slum as that is where Mataji reigned. But my grief was so raw that I was willing to go every and anywhere I could find solace.
She lived in a temple, where Gods and humans lived side by side in perfect harmony. The tiny abode was a cornucopia of eclectic things that the senses took time to get used to, but notwithstanding the initial shock, it was the feeling of peace and love that embraced you as you stepped in the tiny door. I found myself going day after day to that haven of peace. Slowly I shared my grief and the loss I felt and she gently just kept telling me that it would all be OK. All I needed to do was to transform the negative energies I had let myself sink in to something that would make my parents proud.
I did not know how but as I spent time with her, the answer came. To all of you who have followed my journey the answer was Project Why!
It is Mataji who found us the first tiny slum tenement that we would buy and begin our work in. It is in a corner of her home that we set up our first office and it is with her blessings that became who we are today. She helped us weather every storm and fought with the community when detractors raised their ugly heads.
For almost two decades my day would begin with a stop at her temple and a lovely cup of tea shared with her. It was the highlight of my day. But with the pandemic and then my being diagnosed with multiple myeloma that lovely ritual stopped.
For the last year or so I hardly met her. With my immunity being at its nadir I gad to remain locked up in my home and got news of her ailing health from Shamika or Rani. Even today I will not be able to pay my respects. But Mataji and I have her heart connect and I know she knew that she was always in my heart.
For Project Why its is the end of an era. The only way we can honour Mataji is by continuing our work with renewed commitment with the hope that she continues showering our blessings on us.
I have lost a mentor, a guide, a friend….
May she rest in heavenly peace.
I has been months since I have not written a word. It is not that I did not want to write. I just could not. Each time I sat at my computer hoping to write something, my brain would go mushy. Thoughts would vanish or become incomprehensible and the ensuing frustration would make me shut my computer in anger. I had heard of ‘chemo brain’ but never knew that it would be so debilitating. My chemotherapy stopped way way back in October 2020, but the side effects are still here with me the biggest one being this d**** chemo brain!
But today, the head seemed lighter and the urge to write was strong. So here I am trying to string one word after the other in the hope that I come up with something coherent. I will just let my thoughts flow and try and remember the past few months.
The biggest joy that came into my life was little Inaya. She landed in my lap on a cold January morn looking at the me with big eyes filled with trust and hope. She was 7 months old. Inaya is my granddaughter, Shamika’s adopted child. A real gift from God! And as I looked into her eyes I too was filled with hope: hope that all will be well, that the clouds would lift, that I would heal from my terrible ailment, that Project Why would be safe for years to come. In short that all my dreams would come true.
Inaya brought with her the strong belief that nothing is impossible. You just have to hold on like she did for 7 long months in an orphanage waiting for someone to rescue her. What I learnt from that is that no matter how bleak things get, there is light at the end of all tunnels.
Inaya is 15 months now and has set the mood for our household. She is a feisty little person who has each one of us dancing to her tune. There is no room for sadness; only laughter and joy.
Since she has come my health has improved and I am now feeling well. I am out of the stranglehold of conventional treatments – chemo etc..- and into alternative therapies. My blood counts are holding and the myeloma seems to be in check. I hope I can sail this course steadily.
Project Why took a set back and is in the process of reinventing itself. Our teachers have met all challenges head on and fine-tuned their online teaching approach. Due to the pandemic we have lost some children but have now open our doors to new entrants as the present online teaching enables us to do so. But online teaching is not sufficient for underprivileged children and hence we have decided to call students in tiny groups – maximum of 4 at a time – to clear their doubts and help them in this critical situation.
The sad reality is that the pandemic has hit education at all levels, but more so education for the less privileged. We need to come up with a flexible approach with on line and face to face teaching. We are in the process of doing just that.
Our staunch supporters have stood by us and hence we were able to remunerate all our staff even during the pandemic but our secure funding meets about 60% of our needs so we still need to find new avenues to raise the shortfall. We are trying to approach institutions and corporates. Fingers crossed!
At this juncture we do not know what the future holds. Are we going to see more lockdowns and new deadly waves? Are schools going to reopen soon? Will life ever go back to what it was? To the last question the answer seems to be no! We are going to have to come up with a new normal where masks and social distancing will be par to the course. We just need to accept the new normal and carry on.
The fact that I could write this blog is yet another miracle. Has the time come to say Bye Bye chemo brain! I certainly hope so. But I will take it one day at a time and let Inaya lead the dance.