gift unwrapped

Some of you may remember the very special gift I had sought this year for my b’day. Yesterday was unwrapping time as team project why gathered for a day long workshop and everyone read their essays ( for want of a better word). I must confess that I was really thrilled as everyone, even those who were illiterate had made the effort to produce a page.

When I began the workshop by asking each one to read what they had written I was met with a volley of giggles, exclamations and no ways! But I held on and soon everyone settled and one by one they read what they had written. Some in barely audible voices, some with theatrical aplomb, and some amidst giggles. I wish i had done this exercise before as those few paragraphs were a deep insight into each and everyone. Having known most of them for many years now, I could validate much of what I had till then just felt intuitively.

They had been asked to write about how the years in pwhy had transformed them, it at all, and why should anyone one ‘love’ them. Some felt is necessary to eulogise pwhy and ma’am. Others were bold enough to state that they should be loved for this or that reason. Some went back to their school days and their relationship with their own teachers. There were even one or two who delivered a passionate speech on the state of the country.

There were however some heartwarming and even poignant common threads: new found self confidence, ability to talk to foreigners, realisation that they could achieve what once seemed impossible. All in all it was a great experience and one that met my secret agenda: that of getting each one of them to take on the running of their own centre. I explained to them that i wanted each one of them to feel responsible for the work they were doing, to make its budget, to list its assets, to maintain daily accounts and above all to state its relevance.

There were raised eyebrows, incredulous looks and much whispering. But step one had been taken towards a change in roles and I knew that this was a great moment for all of us at pwhy.

(to be continued….)

admission woes

admission woes

Some of you know Kiran. She has been part of pwhy since its very inception. She was actually born the day we began our work in Giri Nagar.

Kiran is a lovely child in more ways than one, and she is an extremely sensitive and humane person. Her favourite place at pwhy is the special section where she often spends time helping the teachers with their work and interacts with each and every child. The picture you see is when she lent her face for a make up class and sat a long time while Neha, Rinky and Shaheeda set to task.

Her family has always wanted the best for her and dreamt of putting her in a nice school. They were willing to pay a reasonable amount and had saved for it. When she was ready for class I they set about finding a school but soon found it was not so simple. Kiran had been to a playschool where she excelled but that was not enough. Tests ensued and the dreaded rejection that this intelligent child could not understand.

Her admission became a topic of daily conversations in her little home till the day one well wisher (or so called) stepped in and said he could get her a seat in a school. Kiran sat for the entrance test and got in. Her fees and other expenses – a whooping 15 K – were paid as everyone scrapped the barrel. Last week in her new uniform little Kiran set off to school. The same afternoon the well wisher – a true Shylock – asked his pound of flesh: 20 K commission!

Kiran’s story is shared here to underline a larger issue. What many do not realise is that this is the trend not the exception. More and more parents from what we like to call the underprivileged class are wanting to send their children to good schools. This is because the government run schools, particularly at the primary level are in an appalling state. Parents who are now second generation migrants to Delhi and respectable citizens with voting rights, are aware of this reality. The private schools or rather teaching shops that proliferate in slum areas have also been exposed as a costly and poor option. Parents want a good +2 school.

We have witnessed in the past years many parents from slums trying to get an admission for their children. This is often the case when one parent is educated. For many the search is futile and the child sent to a private unrecognised school, for others like Kiran things look possible till the hammer falls.

The child is now in school. If the money is not paid there is a likelihood of her being poorly treated or even dismissed. If the racket is exposed then the child will be ill treated for sure and finding another school is almost impossible. Paying the money is not an option as not only does the family not have the resources, but they are reluctant to walk this road.

Kiran’s story is the story of many children in today’s reality. I am a die hard believer in the common school system where children from many walks of life will learn together. But the writing on the wall points in a different direction as one hears more disturbing trends on privatisation of schools. Many do not realise that it will ring the death knell for a large chunk of India’s young population.

another tale of two Indias

Two young ladies age 6 and 11 visited project why last week. Their mom a high executive in the hospitality industry had brought them along as she felt it would be a good experience for them.

We went hopped from one part of pwhy to the other: from a building in a narrow lane, to a tiny shack in side a crowded slum, to the class in the garbage dump via the broken lohar camp to our smart computer centre.

The girls kept silent as they imbibed what they saw. As we bid good bye I could asked the younger one whether she would like to come and teach her peer group all the songs she learnt in her fancy school. her eyes lit up as she looked eagerly at her mom before nodding her head. Her elder sibling remained silent.

Later I asked my friend what the reactions of the girls had been and was not surprised when she told me that the little one was eager to come back while the older one had not said much barring the fact that it had made her sad.

Once again the two Indias were evident. The yet candid and unspoilt little one had immediately felt at ease and one with other kids her age as social and economic origins meant nothing to her, she was a child amongst other kids. The older one had more to deal with as she felt apart and different yet sensitive enough to feel sad!

Once again this vindicated my view of the necessity of a common school to bridge the now glaring gap between the two Indias.

Looking ahead from ground zero..

Looking ahead from ground zero..

One is often so engrossed in the now, that one forgets to delve into the realm of the after. Yet unless we take time to do that, we may remain frozen in time.

Spiritual masters often ask us to visualise the future if we want to see it realised. I guess there is some truth in that. We have many nows in our lives, each pertinent to a particular field of our activities and each requiring its own visualisation.

Maybe it is time for me to assess the now of pwhy and make some projections. Let us consider this instant as ground zero and dream a little.

A bunch of children of all ages and sizes were brought together under the pwhy aegis a few years ago with the sole purpose of trying to better their tomorrows. The first task was to keep them in school as education was often hailed as a panacea to all ills. We set about this task and completed it with success. Somewhere down the line we realised that what was offered as education was in no way going to make a difference to these young lives as much more was needed. So we set about qualifying and quantifying the missing elements or defining the true ground zero.

One common factor linked all our children: they belonged to an urban slum. That sole factor dictated the quality of their lives: poor habitat, bad education, abysmal medical health facilities, few employment options one one side and great expectations fuelled by urban dreams on the other. To lace it all a feudal attitude vis-a-vis those in power.

The fact is that most of what is mentioned – habitat, school etc – has fallen into this state of despair because existing government programmes have been hijacked down the road. And as the end beneficiary are often kept in the dark, no one is ever able to redress the torts.

Hence if we look ahead from ground zero and allow ourselves to dream a little what we see is a day when people will be in a position to ask for all that is rightfully theirs and has been lost in transition. We tend to forget or maybe do not give enough importance to the tools that we have been given. I refer to the Right to Information Act that enables every Indian to seek redressal for a few rupees.

If that day is to dawn, then one needs to empower people and teach them responsibility. And the only way to do that is to catch them young. It has now become imperative for us at pwhy to move beyond the books and curriculum and teach our children the art of being a citizen.

not yet time

A friend dropped by this morning. We had not met for a long time, yet there was a time when we shared the same ideas and concern and were all set to rebuild the world over innumerable cups of coffee. At that time we both taught in universities. We liked the same books, the same songs and shared similar aspirations. I cannot remember what was said and thought, but I do recall that we both felt deeply that things were not right.

Life took its course and he remained a teacher and still teaches in a prime institution. I left my comfortable, pensionable post as I had felt stifled. Family obligations saw me criss-crossing the planet and it was only a few years back that I set roots and felt I had reached my destination.

The last time we met, we only knew one side of the invisble divide that fractures our country and conjured the other the way we wanted to see it. But this time it was different, I had crossed the line and experienced first hand what reality was, seeing each and every of my preconceived notions being blown to pieces, and re-looking at the very issues we had debated upon with new eyes.

It took me but a few minutes to get to my pet subject and talk about my dream of seeing the children of India grow together, side by side, without any labels stuck to their foreheads, taking time to build their own. Somehow I had expected T to agree to what I said. I was astonished to see his reaction and stunned when he mentioned public-private partnership in education.

A pall was cast on what had started as a happy meeting. We fumbled through the next few minutes and bid farewell. For a long time I sat in silence wondering what had happened in those years to change things between us. Why was it that felt so deeply about bridging gaps whereas all others be it politicians, educationists and so forth maintained that solutions lay in widening the gap. Had history past and recent not given us sufficient proof of how the very fabric of our society was getting destroyed by the multitude of divisive policies we were following leaving far behind the ‘we the people of India..’ of our Constitution?

T’s reaction was disturbing as I knew that he was intrinsically a good person, truly wanting to see change. He taught the best minds and thus could impart new ideas and ideologies were he to believe in them. Then why a total rejection of a common school idea. And why on the other hand was my belief strengthened each and every day. What had happened to both of us who started much in the same way?

Maybe it was the fact that I had experienced the other side, or was it that time was not yet ripe, that our social baggage was so heavy that we were still not ready to accept our children rubbing shoulders with ‘their’ kids!

All these questions plagued me all day along.

Yet I was to be validated sooner than I thought. The evening news carried the following: the brutal murders of many young children in NOIDA have touched a chord around India. For the first time, residents of NOIDA’s bungalows are now venturing out, offering a helping hand to those who work in their houses.
The year 2006 was a year that saw so many conviction. Now taking the same spirit into 2007, the battle has just begun and so tragic as it is that it’s taken the horrific serial killings to bridge the glaring class divide between an urban slum and a swanky suburban town.(NDTVnews)

Sad that so many innocent lives had to be lost to see this. I wonder how many of the mothers must have sought help when the child disappeared. I can also imagine the reaction of the likes of me who must have offered kind words and maybe money but were unwilling to make that trip to the police station.

But it is not time to cry over what cannot be changed, but celebrate this new beginning and to ensure that this very fragile spark is kept alive. There are so many who can get justice if they have our support and maybe it is a way of redressing a system that has run amok. Filing a simple FIR, as one discovered today, is a nightmare even for an educated person. Simple rights have been usurped by a feudal attitude that sets the rules turning victims into accused.

One has to also ensure that this new found compassion does not become another power game or get hijacked on the way by those waiting in the wings for any cause to espouse to fulfil their own agendas.

I said earlier that maybe the time was not ripe for the elusive common school system. However I want to believe that if people have found it in their heart to reach out to their poorer brethren, then slowly they may also come to accept one day to have their kids share a school bench.

I guess the penny will drop when one comes to understand that in doing so we are not doling out any charity but investing in our own tomorrows.

a very special xmas gift

a very special xmas gift

Xmas has always been a time of joy and giving, of cheer and even miracles. As you grow up you stop believing in Santa, but there is always the anticipation of finding out what the little packets around the tree contain.

My xmas gift came a day earlier and in the most unexpected way. I had gone to fetch Utpal from his boarding school and attend his PTA! His teacher handed me his result and as I read it I realised that this was undoubtedly the most beautiful Xmas present one could get.

57/60 were he marks he got and an appreciation that included the word ‘excellent’. To some, my reaction would seem silly as Utpal is only 4+, but those who know him and have followed the journey of his life, this piece of paper is much more.

What a story of survival it has been. Barely 9 months ago Utpal had lost everything that makes a child secure and safe to the demon of alcohol. He had no home, no mom, no extended family and no support. Previous to that fateful day in April 2006, he had survived third degree burns and lived a life where each evening meal and night’s sleep depended on whether his mom had tippled nor not. Strange visitors, descents by cops and drunken brawls were usual occurrences.

When we found a school that would take him, there was an initial resistance: Utpal did not fit any mold, did not have the appropriate labels and social origins. But a young director took on the challenge and we waited with bated breath.

Six months and two school terms later, Utpal showed us what survivors are made of: he has a great support network in school ranging from the gently forbidding gatekeeper, to the class XII students and includes the hostel staff, the kitchen staff and even the principal. He still had one more point to prove, the one that rebuffs all the divisive policies that are kept on the boiler by dubious agendas and bear names like reservations or affirmative action. In the right environment, and with a peer group that cut across social and economic backgrounds, little Utpal topped his class in an English medium boarding school.

I have always said that the answer to India’s is a common school where children of all origins would learn together and from each other. Then each child just like little Utpal, will have the ability to make his place in the sun. It is not by creating a parallel school system, or by handing out a few seats and a few grace marks to humbler children that we will solve the now suspect education for all dream.

Utpal was an ideal candidate for begging at a red light. Drunk parents, a nicely scalded body and yet and incredibly beautiful face, and endearing ways. A little help from Mr God , and lots of help from friends who held on to our dream with us, made it possible for little Utpal to vindicate project why.

As I hold his result sheet in my hand, I stand very tall and believe in miracles!

merry xmas to all!

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