Two Angels landed in my life without any warning and changed my life forever. The first was Manu. Manu was the kind of being you pass on the street and never look at. To many he would be just a beggar who seemed deranged and bedraggled. He roamed a street I passed regularly. I often wondered what could have got him there, but it was a fleeting thought that disappeared in a trice. But one fateful day the heart rendering cry he let out as he was being riled by someone pierced my heart and soul in a way that I cannot describe in words. It was like a deafening cry for help targeted at me and demanding to be heard. I did hear it. The rest is history, something I have written about time and again. Manu was a mirror to my soul, the reason that really made me take the less travelled road. His mission as I see it was to show me the way at a time when I was somewhat confused and did not know which way to go.
All I knew at that instant was that I had to help him. How to help a beggar who roams the streets is not written in any book, you just have to find your way. And in finding my way, a larger plan enfolded called Project Why! I made myself a promise that no one knew till maybe much later. Manu would one day have a warm bed, a set of friends; would share a meal around a table, and would watch TV to his heart’s content.
To many it would have sounded ludicrous but to me it became a life and death decision. At that moment the ‘how’ and ‘when’ were of no consequence. As time passed we moved a step at a time towards a dream that rested in the recesses of my mind.
Project Why grew by leaps and bounds. Every day was better than the previous specially for Manu. He was bathed, fed and had his own bed in the veranda of what was our office. And when we launched our class for special kids, he was Roll no 1! So to some perhaps it could seem that the game was over, never mind the dining table or the TV. Not not for me. The small challenges and big ones we managed to overcome gave me the audacity to start dreaming big, too big. Was it hubris? I do not know. Maybe. The idea emerged in my mind when we began thinking about long term sustainability. While on the ground the ideas were mundane – chocolates, earthen lamps, candles, paper bags and even pongamia oil soaps – my mind was busy conjuring what came to be know as Planet Why! In its first iteration that was in my head it was to be a place where Manu and his mates could grow old and die with dignity. I imagined a green building, with terracotta bricks and old style floors, with arches and little windows that would let the breeze in. It would be Manu’s home, and workplace as he was able enough to learn gardening. And the strange things is that many believed in this dream. We bought the land, drew the architectural plans and set out looking for funds.
But then on a cold January Day in 2011, my dreams did not fit with those of the Gods of Lesser beings.
They decided Manu had completed his mission and he breathed his last leaving me lost and rudderless. There would be no Planet Why for Manu.
The best I was able do was craft a small residential unit where Manu and a bunch of special and regular kids lived together. Yes there was a dining table, there was a TV, there was a refrigerator and cold water and special treats. Often it was Manu who decided the menu and of course we never ran out of biscuits, Manu’s all time favourite. Manu died quietly after having had his tea and biscuits. The Angel who sustained and protected me for more than a decade flew away leaving me with one unanswered question: did I fulfil the silent promise I had made to myself.
When I feel a little lost ,all I have to do is look at his smiling face that sits on my wall frozen in time and remember that the only way to honour his memory is to continue my journey.
In March 2003, the day after Holi, we learnt that the ‘little boy next door’ had fallen in a boiling pot and, was believed to be dead. We barely knew him, as the family had shifted to Giri Nagar a few days earlier. We felt sorry for the baby, and went on with our lives
A few days later, we heard that the baby was not dead, and was back from hospital. When we saw him, we were shocked. A little bundle swathed in bandages, a bewildered look in his little eyes. The hospital had sent him back, telling the mother that he would not survive. We thought otherwise. With the help of Sophie a young nurse from Belgium and Rani we fought day and night… And six weeks later, Utpal smiled and we knew we had won.
Utpal is a lovely fellow, endearing in his ways, bright and intelligent. We discovered that his mother was bipolar and alcoholic and tried our best to have her ‘dry’ up but to no avail. At the tender age of 4, Utpal went to a boarding school.
We continued to try and rehabilitate the mother but one fine day she vanished. Utpal was shattered and had to go for counselling. We obtained his guardianship from the Child Welfare Committee.
There were some hurdles along the way but we overcame them all as Utpal the brave heart is a survivor. And as he grew up, we saw him transform into a lovely teenager with a heart of gold. He is always willing to help others and never shirks away from any responsibility given to him. He is not your straight A kid but a wonderful all rounder who is a born artist, a mean skater and an incredible dancer.
He cleared his class X and chose to take on humanities as science was not his subject! He is in Class XI and is a Delegate Appointee of his school. During his breaks he volunteers at the Khader centre, his first home. He teaches the children dance and art and has walked into the heart of every child he reaches out. Utpal Bhaiya is a very special person.
We hope and pray that he will shine and live the life God has destined him to. We tend to spoil him a little, but as was said by a specialist in children’s trauma: “Never forget that there was a time when Utpal spent one third of his life in pain”
Think about it and then like us, you will agree that Utpal needs all the love he can get.
UTPAL, BABLI, ADITYA, VICKY, MEHER, MANISHA, YASH
Like all else at Project Why the boarding school project began as an answer to a deafening why. In the summer of 2006 Utpal found he was without a home as his mother had to be admitted in a rehab urgently and the ‘father’ stole all he could from their minute home and vanished. Utpal needed a safe house and the answer was a good boarding school. He joined school at the tender age of 4.
Four years later a potential donor wanted to give some children a better chance in life and requested us to select 4 children who could also be sent to the same school. Vicky, Babli, Nikhil and Aditya were the chosen ones and after spending a year in a residential facility we ran in order to groom them for the school, they joined Utpal.
It needs be said that the dream of having children from the poorest of homes rub shoulders with children from more privileged ones was a dream dear to us and this was a God sent opportunity. Many detractors felt that such deprived children should not be sent to better schools, as if these were hallowed ground, but we were confident that these children would prove that if given a chance, they would shine and do us proud.
Later they were joined by Meher, Manisha and Yash.
Nikhil left the programme after class VI.
They are incredible kids and are doing extremely well both in academics and extra curricular activities
The first batch will graduate in 2019 and we wait with bated breath for that day to dawn.
SPONSORING HEART SURGERIES FOR THOSE MOST IN NEED>
True Project Why is first and foremost an education support programme but when seeing with your heart is its watchword then it takes no time to widen your horizons. Answering every Why that comes our way has been our endeavour and what can be a more deafening why than the cry of a helpless parent in search of support to repair her child’s broken heart. And when you help repair one, it did not take long for others to follow!
Sanjay’s story starts with a camp of the Lohars
of Maharana Pratap, which has a longstanding relationship with Project WHY. The Lohars (ironsmiths) are a nomadic Indian tribe from Rajasthan (Chittorgarh), known to repair arms and shoe horses. One of their camps, containing 30 families, was located close to Project WHY Govindpuri centre. The sight of the Lohar children running and playing amongst the traffic light caught the attention of Project WHY. In 2005, The Project WHY Lohar Centre began, offered a crèche and primary school support for the children. Though the Lohar Centre no longer exists, Project WHY continues to employ people from this community.
Sanjay Padiyar, was one of seven children in the Padiyar family residing in the Lohars camp. Like his forefathers, Sanjay seemed destined to become a blacksmith. However, it soon became apparent that Sanjay’s dreams were much bigger. Having joined Project WHY classes, he finished his schooling. Through the recommendation of his sister, Project WHY employed Sanjay as a resource person. Sanjay was a primary teacher, and took the responsibility to teach at Project WHY for five years. His gentle ways and boundless patience made him a great favorite with the children. Despite his progress, he still took showers on the roadside, convinced that people like him could not transform their lives.
A French filmmaker, Camille Ponsin, visiting Project WHY in 2009, and maked a documentary on Sanjay’s life – Bollywood boulevard: From the Slums to
the Spotlights (AndanaFilms). Sanjay revealed his true dream on camera. “I want to be on the stage of the world. A model,
a Bollywood star”. It was not to be films, but that documentary led Sanjay Padiyar to the fashion ramp. In 2010, Sanjay walked the ramp for a top designer, Narinder Kumar, at the Lakme Fashion Week. In June 2011, Sanjay walked for Agnès B at her Paris Show, and has become a “poster child of rags to riches”.
Sanjay is living his dream and the showers on the street side seem like a distant memory. He continues to model, and has also now opened his own gym. He has become a beacon of hope to his community who hope to follow in his footsteps and achieve their dreams.
Anita’s relationship with Project WHY started in 2002 when she was a young girl studying in Class 3. Her father comes from Bihar and moved to Delhi in the late 80s to look for education. Due however to financial problems, he was forced to start working in the nearby factory at an early age and settled in the Giri Nagar area.
In 2004, with Anita in Class 6, her father, the family’s sole earner, was told that there was no work in the factory and told to take a two month ‘break.’ Whilst her mother had previously devoted her life to running the house, she was forced to begin running a stitching and embroidery service from home. In an effort not to make her family suffer, Anita’s mother combined this income with her life savings to support their lifestyle.
Anita is a glowing example of the opportunities that Project WHY can create. She attended
the centre in Giri Nagar untill Class 12,
and recorded consistent scores of 75-80% throughout her school career. As one of our brightest students, she secured admission to the prestigious Delhi University to do her B-Com in 2012.
Anita returned to us after graduating, wishing to provide the same opportunities to similarly underprivileged children. Her parents were supportive, indeed they knew she was safe with us and did not want her working anywhere else. As one of our oldest and most successful students, we were happy to take her on as a primary teacher. She then went on to teach some of our brightest secondary students in 2012.
In 2015, she came to us with the news that she would have to leave the job, as her parents had found a boy in the village and wished for her to get married. We had no choice but to accept this. Yet, four months later, Anita returned and asked to resume her old post, which we were happy to give her. The boy’s family had demanded a large amount of money as ‘dowry,’ claiming her to be dark in skin and apparently not sufficiently pretty. Yet Anita, as a product of Project Why, had learned to speak for her rights. She knows her self-worth, beauty and value to society and refused to get married under these conditions. She therefore spoke to the family herself to reject the boy and the forced marriage.
Dowry or Dahej is the payment in cash or/and kind by the bride’s family to the bridegroom’ s family along with the giving away of the bride (called Kanyadaan) in Indian marriage. It runs across all class and caste. Although Dowry was legally prohibited in 1961, it continues to be highly institutionalized and prevalent. The groom often demands a dowry consisting of a large sum of money, vehicle, house, furniture, and electronics. The dowry system puts great financial burden on the bride’s family
At Project WHY, we pride ourselves in discussing prevalent social issues such as caste, dowry, violence against women and sexual abuse. We believe that we have made our resource persons fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. Anita, at that moment, stood up for her rights and refused to get married on those terms and conditions. “I am as good as any girl on this planet,” she voiced.
Today, Anita is back teaching and continues
to value education above all else. Together with her mother, she is funding her brother’s B-Tech from IP University, at a cost of INR 60,000 per year, striving to give him the same opportunities in life that she had. Concurrent to her work as a Secondary teacher, Anita is now pursuing her M-Com. She wants to apply for a government job, from which she feels she can have an impact on an even wider scale. Yet always thankful of her roots, she will never stop supporting Project WHY, both through donation and through education.