Yesterday I was interviewed by the Sari Kids. It was for the film they are making on pwhy and that they plan to show to their friends and peers in business school when they got back. The film is replete with images and cameos of their month long stay with us and they of course, wanted me to give a brief account of what one could call the project why story: its inception and genesis, its achievements and failures and above all its dreams for the future.
I must admit I am always uncomfortable in front of cameras as most of the times one is unclear about the real motivation behind the shoot. But this one was different as we sat comfortably talking about pwhy. The camera just sat unobtrusively on a table and was soon forgotten. And what was intended to be a twenty minutes interview turned out to be an hour long chat with friends, notwithstanding the age difference!
It was easy to share the pwhy journey with these wonderful kids and I found myself talking of the very personal journey that was at the origin of pwhy, not needing to circumvent or colour any event for fear of having them misinterpreted or used without he proper context. The story was much the same as the one too oft recounted, but somehow this time it seemed much truer and heartfelt as they words flew uninterrupted. There was no pressure, no time schedule, no pointed questions, no drama. Facts followed each other, interspersed with personal comments and pointers. And for the first time I saw how almost picture perfect the pwhy story was. We had actually and with a reasonable amount of success met every challenge thrown our way and were in more ways than one ready to face the ultimate one: that of making pwhy sustainable.
The lights went out, the camera was switched off and yet for a long time I sat lost in my thoughts trying to make sense of all that had been said. The disturbing question left unformulated still in my mind: had the journey been worthwhile?
The words of Forest Witcraft came to my mind: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
When i first thought of planet why as a sustainability option for project why I had never heard of social enterprise and social business. It was simply a gut feeling that propelled me in this direction and with every step I walked, it just felt right.
From day one, it has been I must admit, an arduous journey. And yet I knew it was one that had to be made as the destination held its own pot of gold.
Two unrelated occurrences came my way a few days back : one was the gift of a book and the other a simple line in an email. The book was by Creating a World without Poverty by Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus, and the line in the email came from a young professional riled over the injustice she saw around her. It simply said: the other way to look at this is to assume that economic prosperity once established in a quorum population will ignite a string of social entrepreneurship. but that’s a wait and watch game. Strange synchronicity.
Mohammed Yunus’s views echoes what i have always felt and could not express. The world of philantrophy in which I have been always seemed to fall short of something. It was obvious to me that it could not survive the test of time. Business had always been an alien land where I never felt comfortable. The when you get your maximum, everybody will get their maximum often thrown at you by those holding capitalism at hart, was nothing short of galling. There had to be a via media.
The via media solutions that one saw around us also fell short: state run programmes, NGOs depending on donors to survive let alone grow, CSR initiatives that seemed out of place. The common denominator for all of these was that they espoused a state whereby one group remained a donor and the other a recipient. They all celebrated an unequal world.
Mohammed Yunus’s view tilts the balance in order to establish an equal world by redefining capitalism or let us say by adding a new dimension to the words capitalism. Businesses run with the same efficiency not to line deeper and deeper pockets but to change things and make the world a more even playing field.
The idea of Planet Why stemmed form a real need, that of ensuring pwhy lives on. As it slowly took shape it started looking like what is called a social business. A sound investment option in more ways than one. And though the road is still long and the journey far form over somehow I see light at the end of the tunnel.
So I will end by quoting Mohammed Yunus: Lets get serious about social business entrepreneurs. They can brighten up this gloomy world.
I have often wondered why pwhy came to be. A rather pointless question many may say as we are now in the 10th year of existence! And yet it is one that comes to my mind many times, always begging for an answer and never quite finding one.
The most obvious answer would of course be to reiterate our mission – arresting drop outs and keeping children in school – an on that account we have done pretty well. But there are innumerable organisations doing just that, and maybe better than of us. And does this explain the very organic manner of our growth, where we seem to take on new responsibilities at the drop of a hat, some a far cry from our stated mission!
Little Prakash once again makes me ask that question. A few months back we were content to see him play and laugh and thought that the story ended there. He was attending our creche and seemed happy. But then a few weeks back we realised that he was losing weight and suddenly he started looking more and more like his sibling. We took him to our doctor and were startled to find out that he be having hydrocephalus. A condition for which there is no cure and where the treatment is complex, expensive and delicate. It requires placing a shunt that needs life long monitoring. Something that a family like Prakash’s can ill afford. And yet untreated it can cause severe retardation and be life threatening.
The past few weeks has been a heady mix of events some thrilling, some just satisfying and some worrisome. The Board results came and went and the 100% result was accepted with a sense of deja vu, our eyes searching for toppers and we were rewarded as it is pwhy kids who topped their respective schools in both classes X and XII. Our land was paid for and though we still have loans to pay back and a whopping amount of money to raise for building planer why, we did feel a step closer to the day when we would be self sustainable. Those were the macro issues, the ones that seem in sync with all our mission statements and vision paper.
However the last few weeks were also replete with micro issues, those that concern individuals of no consequence, souls that no one would ever know exist: a 24 year old widowed mom who is attacked by a vicious disease; a 11 year old post heart surgery girl with a rare ailment, a father in need of help. And yet these almost invisible people did drop our way, almost as if guided by an unseen hand.
It is true that along the way, while we diligently applied ourselves to meeting our goals, mission and objectives, we were faced with many disturbing issues that needed to be addressed. Somehow it seemed impossible to brush them aside with a simple: we are an education based organisation. We simply accepted them and found the best solution we could, hence losing our carefully elaborated mission statements, vision papers and more of the same. To the outside eye we started looking more and more like a haphazard entity that never quite finds the words to describe itself.
We were never disturbed by this. On the contrary we found it to be the natural and obvious way to go happily adding on more whys to the already existing ones! Anything else would have been
unacceptable. And slowly we became who we are bringing to mind Frederic Nietzsche’s words: he who as a why to live can bear almost any how.
So to the question why did pwhy copme to be, the answer is simple: to bear the hows that came its way!
“A person taking stock in middle age is like an artist or composer looking at an unfinished work; but whereas the composer and the painter can erase some of their past efforts, we cannot. We are stuck with what we have lived through. The trick is to finish it with a sense of design and a flourish rather than to patch up the holes or merely to add new patches to it” wrote Harry S. Broudy. These words came to mind as I sat this morning browsing the pwhy pictures taken last week.
Had someone suggested a few months back that one would soon be seeing Manu around a table sharing a meal with his pals in a proper home, I would have smiled and told the person to stop dreaming, reminding him or her gently that dreams took time to become reality. It would have been akin to fast forwarding a film to reach the end without living through the story. And yet the picture you see is no trick photography, it is reality, one anyone can share each and every day. The foster care was not even an idea in our minds, at best it was a distant and impossible dream.
For the last week or even more I have been avoiding the much needed task of setting out to seek help for pwhy. Strange as I thought I had overcome my almost innate reluctance to ask for money and should and could have picked my virtual begging bowl without fuss, any time needed. But I guess inborn feelings stay longer than one thinks.
But what needs to be done, has to be done. I knew time was of the essence and the task I had to be undertaken. And in order to do so, it was time to take stock of the past. In Broudy’s words I knew that nothing could be erased or painted over and that the work had to be finished with flourish and honesty.
So here I am again seeking support to see pwhy through. Have we reached the middle of the road? I think we have. Much of we set out to do when we began had been achieved in ample measure. The class X results declared yesterday reinforce the point. All the children passed and in in both class X and XII it is a pwhy student that topped his school. Many had made the journey from street to home and many other achievements big and small dot our firmament. We have met every challenge that came our way and have done our best in finding the right solutions. The sustainability issue that had for long been our Achilles heel, has now been addressed as we have bought the land needed for planet why. There is no looking back!
However as I write these words we are in a tricky situation: that of having to raise funds both for the building and the day-to-day running of the project. And our needs have grown as many new whys dropped our way and could not be cast aside as that would have been defeating the very spirit of project why.
We do manage to raise a substantial part of our needs but still fall short. Perhaps the reason for this stems from what I will call the soul of project why. For almost a decade pwhy has been able to survive and thrive because it is infused with goodwill, one that has come from the innumerable kind souls who have answered each and every call for help. Were it to be fuelled by impersonal sources – no matter how regular and steadfast – alone, it would cease to be.
To many this may sound preposterous and even old-fashioned in a world where success is measured by the weight of bank accounts and the size of buildings. But for me that is not so. The mere fact that we have been able to grow and thrive is the direct result the immense love that we have received from people the world over, many of whom we have never seen. Our success is the outcome of the trust and belief that had come with each coin dropped in my begging bowl. We have reached where we are because pwhy has never afforded itself the luxury of sinking into comfort zones that would rob us of our very individuality and make us pallid clones of others. It is but natural and essential that we fall short, as this is what will enable us to always remain who we are. Ours is a work where patches and holes are banished, and each corner of the painting or note of the symphony is part of the whole.
On a personal level it is also essential that I retain the ability to beg humbly and shed any misplaced arrogance no matter how innate it be. Only then will the intangible and indescribable riches that are vital to the very existence of pwhy continue coming our way
It is now time to finish the story with flourish, one that cannot end without the presence of each one of you.
Haves versus Have Nots – what is the solution? Do we have the courage to look the problem in the eye and commit time, money and energy to really think about it and solve it one step at a time? Or will be just safely jump to either extreme of ignorance/arrogance on one hand or deep, unrealistic sympathy on the other????
This was the comment posted by a friend in response to my post out in the open. This after some interesting comments we exchanged. Some of the comments were harsh I must confess, particularly when I read them the first time. But I have since long curbed my instinctive urge to react immediately and take time to read things over and over again. And then one sees things in another light altogether and this helps makes to one again make one of the now innumerable course corrections needed.
Two comments struck particularly hard.
If I was to extend your sympathy equally to all mankind a lot of human crime could be justified... I sat a long time wondering whether this could be true. Right from the outset of pwhy our effort has been towards attempting to empower people to stand on their own feet and take charge of their lives. That is why we chose to give jobs to local people, mostly unqualified, tried to hone the skills they had and show them that they could rise above their present station in life. Today over 40 people have been able to do so and not only that have been able to perform exceedingly well. My class IX drop outs are today primary teachers who ensure that all children under their care pass their examinations year after year! And our dream is to try and instill in our students the desire to go back to their place of origin with new skills and expertise and share it with others. My harangue against the wall was in no way a justification of people illegally occupying land, but against those who have allowed it to go on for decades to garner ever increasing vote banks; against those who have looked away for a the few pennies dropped in their bottomless pockets!
As far as extending sympathy equally to all mankind, that is an impossibility for any human and I am not supernal. I fully agree with that people are not born equal as my friend puts it, but at the same time all Indians are protected by a single Constitution that does give them some fundamental rights!
The other comment that struck me was: There is no doubt that India cannot be a decent, forget great country, if its children and its impoverished are not given help to rise above their limitations and earn a dignified living but allowing them to illegally occupy public property is NOT a solution…it is the kind of wishful thinking we need to avoid so we come up with more realistic, sustainable, solid answers…
This is exactly what I have been harping about for 9 years. And sadly those who are meant up to find the realistic, sustainable, solid answers have failed totally. It seems that no one has the courage to look the problem in the eye and commit time, money and energy to really think about it and solve it one step at a time?
This is evident in string of supposed solutions proffered with obsessive regularity by the law makers: a wall to solve a habitat problem, the have a girl leave her to us to solve female infanticide, designer uniforms to solve the abysmal state of government education ans so on. It is time that we as civil society reacted and made our voices heard. Just being armchair philosophers and not even moving out of it to exercise our franchise will perpetrate the state of votes for a pouch of hooch and governments that will continue their hidden and wily agendas.
India’s problems cannot be solved by a flick of a magic wand. It also needs all approaches and between extreme arrogance and unrealistic sympathy lies a middle path that tries to extend positive help and also attempts at trying to shake people out of the state of inertia they have allowed themselves to sink in.
In a land when Bhakti and Karma are both ways to reach the sublime, I guess our approach is also valid.
Among the very serious questions fielded at me yesterday was the oft stated one about who would take over pwhy. Till date the question was asked by all and sundry buy yesterday it was raised by someone I hold in high esteem ans hence required an honest and well thought answer.
For a long time I have know that this is one issue that had to be addressed and resolved. The question of sustainability has kept me awake many a night and has troubled be many a times. It is very early that we realised that the crux of the matter lay in our ability to become sustainable and free of constantly having to sing for our supper each and every day. True that for project why to live on beyond my days on this planet two essential things were required: a committed team who would see with their heart to do the work on the field and an entity to provide the elusive supper!
The former was easily done. The later was easier said than done. The fund sustainability issue went through many trials and failures till slowly a nebulous idea emerged that of planet why and unlike others each time one thought of it the image became clearer and clearer. Today planet why is but a few hurdles away and it will come to be for all the right reasons.
So when once again the question about who would take over pwhy came my way again, I realised that it would simply be planet why. Strange? But do bear with me for a while. Unlike pwhy that needs to be fed every day, planet why has within it the ability to make its own supper and also provide many suppers to other pwhy activities thus becoming the lifeline of pwhy a task till now done by one single individual and thus making pwhy look extremely fragile and vulnerable.
But that is not all. Unlike other possible sustainability options, planet why is imbued with the spirit of pwhy. It is just not a commercial activity, but one that offers a haven to many lost souls, one that provides training and work possibilities to pwhy alumni, one that enables us to expand our activities and reach out to new children and empower new communities. But above all it is one that has immense potential of growth and thus becomes a constant challenge to those who will steer it and who will then hold their destiny in their won hands.
What better inheritor could I have found?