Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A DEEP connection

“Would you like to give back to society?” Sujata enquired one day on our return from an aerobics class. “We could teach our maids’ children here in the neighbourhood.”

 The idea appealed instantly and with not much thought given to a plan or a vision, we had set up DEEP Foundation, our NGO. Development through Education and Empowerment (DEEP Foundation) is what we set out to do and since charity begins at home; Vasant kunj was where we started. We learnt we were not the first to think of teaching children from lesser privileged backgrounds. Col Ramakrishna and Mr Prasad of Srijan Foundation were already doing so. Children from the neighbourhoods of Mehrauli, Kishangarh and Ghitorni flocked to a local park or the community centre for classes. We made an offer of taking classes for 3 days a week while he managed the other days. I’m sure he held our intent of a long term investment with some skepticism; but gave in to our idea.

Our first event with 35 kids of ages varying from 8 to 14 years, was ‘piggy bank painting.’ The kids absolutely loved it and there was no looking back for us. We got our friends excited about our work, inviting them to take sessions too. From non fire cooking, picnics, art and craft classes, story writing master class, story telling sessions, theatre, cultural festivals, debates, quiz competitions, puppet shows, career guidance talks; there has been no dearth of fun and excitement at the school. When the school moved to a space of their own in Mehrauli, the kids very proudly named it the School of Happiness(SOH). The children have been part of our drives with our partner NGOs for distribution of clothes from Benetton, school bags and setting up of the Henny Penny Libraries.  

While the focus has been on inculcating sound values and life skills; we have also helped them with functional literacy in a few subjects. English was a subject they aspired to learn but found it very tough too. What I taught them one week would be forgotten by the next week. The repeated mistakes and the sheer lethargy; had my patience running thin. I questioned whether it was even necessary for them to learn English. Every time I’d be at the point of giving up, there was a flicker of hope. Someone in the class would demonstrate progress or would share their aspiration of becoming an English teacher someday. Its these moments that kept me going; even though my regularity suffered on account of my consultancy work.

As the years progressed, a deep familial bond got developed. Festivals and birthdays were celebrated with much gusto. Their love and warmth reflected in abundance in the homemade cookies, the elaborate birthday cards, the tight hugs, the twinkle in their eyes when they see you. With the ceaseless adulation they shower on you, staying on terra firma was not easy! Challenges pertaining to school and college admissions were addressed collectively.  One of the students had low attendance and was being debarred from taking his final exams at the government school close by. When I met the school principal, she didn’t hesitate to narrate a litany of his shenanigans. I listened in horror, feeling the shame that any parent would. Today when I hear him speak of his responsibilities towards his family and his pursuit of a career, one can only be filled with pride. Sujata helped another boy take music lessons before he could get admission into a college. That support has helped him follow his passion and eke out a living as a music teacher. There are several heart warming stories of how these children have tapped their potential. The shift in their outlook and changed lifestyle demonstrates the big leap that they have taken given their modest background, clearly surpassing their parent’s expectations.

I don’t see them very often these days. The children have flown the nest, ready to take on the ways of the world. As they find their place in the sun, they draw comfort from the fact that there is the emotional safety net of the School of Happiness. Not just from us as teachers but also from each other.
Each time I see them, they continue to amaze me with their confidence, maturity and style. Many only choose to speak in English, even if you try conversing with them in Hindi. When did these kids grow up, I often wonder.

“ Ma’am if you are comfortable, I can teach you Excel”, “ Maam , you sit, we will manage everything”,“ Now that I am a teacher, I know how difficult teaching can be. I now realize what you went through when we were your students” ,  “ You taught us how to speak and pursue our hobbies”, “ If it weren’t for you my life would have been very different.”,  “ You are our guru- who removes darkness for light to enter” “ If you need any help, give me a call” “ This teachers day we would like to honor all our teachers.” They give umpteen occasions of joy and pride to all of us.

It takes a village to raise a child. The School of Happiness has provided them the emotional security of an extended family, the inspiration to dream big and the moral guidance that their school or homes may not have provided. It is a sterling example of community living, a blurring of lines between the haves and have nots, an idea for inclusive growth. It represents a wonderful collaborative effort of like minded people who have responded to a call of their hearts.  I consider my association with these children (I can’t seem to call them adults!) as an immense privilege; for what I have received in terms of love and warmth is immeasurable.

The DEEP foundation motto of “igniting the light within” was a modest effort. The children have held on to their spark and are fanning it to keep it burning bright. As they move ahead in their life journeys, may they pass this light to their children. I for one, am looking forward to reaping the joys of a grandmotheršŸ˜Š

A film made by the kids captures the spirit of the school of happiness

Monday, August 7, 2017

Art Appreciation series 6th August 2017

The 6th of August 2017 will be cherished for a long time to come. What started out as a desire a few years ago saw the light of day yesterday. As lovers of art, Arupa, Radhika and I had been thinking of ways and means in which we could develop more ‘rasikas’ amidst us. With the population of art lovers progressively diminishing, we felt a dire need to do something that would enable people, particularly the youth to imbibe it in their lives. Slowing down to absorb the countless hues of its eternal beauty will provide the ideal way to balance the frenetic pace of a digitized world. Faced with the trials and tribulations of our humdrum daily existence, the only refuge we can seek is in our rich cultural heritage of art and tradition. It is only when we lose ourselves in its splendour can we truly find ourselves.
All great ideas come to fruition in the midst of great company and good food. So over the most delectably sinful tiramisu at our favourite jaunt, Elma’s , we crystallized our idea by commencing an Art appreciation series. Rasa Aparupa ( the name embodies the essence and beauty of art and it also has our names Radhika, Arupa and Aparna in it) endeavours to expose our attendees to different forms of art once a month. The artist will not just demonstrate but also interact with the audience to explain its many facets. Celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer, Ragini Chandrashekhar kickstarted our monthly series with a scintillating performance at the Sangeet Shyamala centre for arts.
Spurred by a noble idea but with minimal experience in event management, we faced many teething troubles. With just two weeks to plan; our biggest worry was to get an audience going. From knocking on the doors of nearby schools to embassies and active facebook promotion, we left no stone unturned. Thankfully there were about 60-70 eager students and parents in the audience. Director general, ICCR Mr Amarendra Khatua was kind enough to grace the occasion. He was constrained to leave early but not before according us glowing compliments for the initiative and the first two presentations by Ragini.
We were keen to start our show on time at 11am. At 930am the open air auditorium was a mess. The floors were dirty and the stage had not been set up as per our request. Clad in our saris Radhika and I were about to pick up the broom; when the lady arrived, flummoxed as to why there was such urgency. Till 10:30am there was no sign of the light and sound technician and we were getting restless as the testing had not been done.  We had assumed that he would be able to manage the stage set up but at 1045am he announced nonchalantly, “ laptop nahin hai CD ke liye”. Once again Radhika and I scurried around looking for one. A parent, waiting in the lobby for his daughter ; was keying in furiously on his Mac. Both of us pleaded with him to lend us his laptop for an hour. Seeing us flustered, he very sweetly consented to giving us his machine. Just when we were heaving a sigh of relief, the technician announced that the aux cable to connect to monitors is missing. With no time to even give him a piece of our mind, we had him racing to the nearby store to buy one. This was at 11am when we were all set to commence. Quite nervously I had to tell Ragini that we might have to do a lecture demonstration without music. Had I been in her place, I would have hurled a host of expletives for poor planning; but she kept her composure. In the sweltering heat the audience was getting impatient. Arupa , charmingly took to the stage with our inaugural address and held their fascination for as much time as she could before inviting Ragini. I must have chewed up all my nails in sheer panic of running the show without music. I had visions of how shame faced we would be among our fraternity of artists and aficionados. I prayed desperately for a miracle.  
Ragini started by explaining her piece. With Janmashtami round the corner, Krishna took centre stage. The children looked at her with such amazement. Her abhinaya of an impish Krishna pleading with his mother, Yashoda to go out and play; reminded them of  disagreements with their parents. 
“ Krishna is actually bhagwaan but also like us na didi" one of my kids remarked on our car ride back. “So if we have to be like him we can be both naughty and God like.” I was quite tickled by this response as also her desire to learn this dance form.
Just as Ragini had finished her introduction and turned to go back stage,  I saw the technician charge into the auditorium, sweating profusely but excitedly flashing the cable in his hand. We had our hearts in our mouth as he plugged in the cable. The monitors came alive and the melodious notes of the pushpanjali filled the auditorium. I sank into my chair now with relief and began to enjoy the performance.
As I reflect on the session yesterday, it gives me goosebumps. The arrival of the cable just in the nick of time was definitely a miracle. It was as if a higher force had supported our endeavour and magically stepped in to save the day. It is no coincidence that both our technician, Radhe Shyam and the helpful parent, Krishnan embodied the spirit of Krishna in times of distress.

The deluge of compliments that followed for the artist as well as us made it all worthwhile. It had left us exhausted but also very pleased at the thought of a new beginning. Planning such events requires a lot of effort and an eye for detail. Krishna may not be there to rescue us each time but I’m sure our learning from yesterday will help us from the next session onwards. Here’s hoping that what we commenced on friendship day will grow from strength to strength in the coming months. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Not veiled anymore

More than ever, the unfolding of events in the last year has left me stumped. Call it naivety or sheer stupidity, the fact is that I have been stunned on several occasions. What I thought lay interred in the subconscious manifested itself with unimaginable intensity.

Among my circle of friends it is not uncommon to hear of splits, divorces and remarriages. In one case, a widower acquaintance of mine, initially devastated after the untimely death of his wife, appeared to be getting restless about his single status. His search for a partner led him to the women in his friends’ circle, many of whom were married. But what started out as a lark turned out to be a successful venture! Not one but two married women in his group responded favourably to      his overtures. Surprisingly, he had a choice and after having a brief affair with both of them he chose one. When he announced his intentions to friends and family he was met with shock and disgust. The bewildered husband of the woman he eventually married had no clue how and why his wife left him. And to think that just a few months before, I had been feeling sorry for my widower acquaintance. Now I was only consumed with disbelief over his audacity of having an affair and getting remarried within 15 months of having lost his wife of 15 years. I was taken aback at the speed with which circumstances changed for him and the woman he married. I questioned my naivety in what I thought was a content relationship for the woman. With two kids in tow and in-laws living in, was it that easy to toss out an alliance, I wondered. Obviously the frustration that lay buried for quite some time had been exposed for her, and was defused by her newfound love. 

In a drawing room conversation with some other friends, I happened to express my disgust at the recent assault on filmmaker Bhansali. The conversation then steered towards the BJP government and its Hindutva mindset. Much to my horror, some of my friends lauded the government’s overt efforts to promote it, displaying a sense of nationalism intertwined with religion. Before I knew it, I was at the receiving end. I never realised I had friends who harboured non-secular sentiments. I was completely overthrown by what had just emerged from the shadows. A sharp sense of disconnect from the very friends who I had been proud of; was palpable.

Last year I was in London during the Brexit campaign. At that time I believed that this was the age for collaboration and inclusivity, and the idea of Britain moving out of the EU was a ludicrous one. Everyone in London seemed to think so too. You can imagine my shock when I woke up one morning to the news of Brexit. This is unthinkable, there must be some mistake was my first reaction. It only gradually emerged that a large proportion of the British public, whose voice had not been captured by popular media, had nurtured xenophobic sentiments all along. What lay nicely tucked away from public view was rising like the proverbial Phoenix to find its place under the sun. 
When the world was recovering from the upset over Brexit, we were in for another one. There has been no leader in modern times who has faced such massive opposition from the world as has Donald Trump. But who are these people who voted for a man like him? Why haven’t they been seen or heard all this time? Why had the world believed and assumed that Hillary would win? In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, it was only natural to believe that inclusiveness, multiculturalism and cooperation was on the rise. But Trump’s victory proved that divisiveness and isolationist tendencies were taking centre stage. Like a bolt from the blue what was unthinkable had surfaced.

I now realise that nothing can be taken for granted. Assumptions need to be questioned from time to time. While I continue to alter my own notions of people and societies, I wonder what will help in minimizing the extreme polarities in views that we see today. Technology and innovation might have made the world a global village but are bonds within societies strengthening to keep pace?

It is becoming apparent that harmony is hanging by a thread, easily blown away by the slightest wind of discontent. Insecurity like a wildfire, stamps out confidence with ease. Narrow-minded perspectives are gathering momentum faster than expansive and more tolerant ones. Frustration brews silently for days on end and then bursts out with ferocity. The fabric of deep connections, meaning, tolerance and an unwavering strength of character is weakening. Somewhere the expression of thoughts and emotions have been repeatedly throttled  leading to deep resentment, anger and insecurity. If people had the opportunity to ventilate these feelings without fear and hesitation, there would be a reduced sense of isolation and anxiety associated with it. From our families to communities and our nation, the time and mind space for having genuine heartfelt conversations is getting limited. The pace of life is restricting the depth of dialogue that we as humans need to have to keep our bearings intact.

Are couples having enough conversations about the fulfillment of their needs and values? Are the voices of the marginalized getting enough air time? Are we allowing people from the lower socio economic strata into our lives to blur the divide? Is our insecurity about ourselves inhibiting us from being tolerant about divergent views? Are we letting go of our fears to allow for possibilities to take its place?

The task of building harmonious families and societies is a slow process, but one that is begging for our collective attention. The unveiling of the psychological distress, is a pointer for me and indeed all of us , to step into action on a war footing. Perhaps facilitating authentic dialogue with oneself and with sections of society may be a foundational step in that direction.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reveal n Revel

A favourite pastime of mine is to mindlessly flip through photographs posted by friends on Face book. While feeding my voyeuristic tendency, I realized how dated my notions on fashion were. I don’t seem to have kept pace with the norm or the ‘in thing’ as they say. My view on fashion has been to wear what looks good on you or what suits your body type. Shopping, for me is a time consuming affair as countless outfits get junked till such time as I find the perfect fit. A good fit most definitely means one that hides my flaws. Increasingly I see women and particularly those in my age bracket, wear western outfits of varying shapes and styles. Little wonder then that they look so similar, the only difference being that only some are able to carry them off with panache. At the cost of sounding racist, I feel a flowing fitting gown or a little black dress has a low probability of looking good on an Indian body type and structure, n the same way that a bindi or a saree seems out of place on a blonde. Yet there seems to be a fanatic attempt to don a western attire.  Moreover they seem to hold this deep abiding view that revealing has a direct correlation with looking young. A display of unaesthetic arm pit bulge is acceptable because sleeveless or an off shoulder is what you should be wearing. Looking pretty is not of consequence here, it’s keeping up with joneses that ups your sexy, cool and stylish quotient. Strangely enough the most hideous of pictures on face book manage to get several likes and  “oh you look gorgeous and young” comments. No matter how much one tries to cheat the shutterbugs by posing sideways, ladies, the tummy bulge stares right into it. Pouting doesn’t make them look young, the harsh , 'I have arrived' kind of look is a complete give away. The western dress has clearly trumped the Indian attire to make it look retrograde. Its fashion faux pas of the highest order if one turns up in one at a social do. And heaven forbid if you decide to don a sari, be sure to pair it with a blouse that reveals more than it conceals. Sometimes I wonder if it’s stuck to the bulging body by sheer will power.

40s is the decade when tell tale signs of aging start showing up. The love handles, the sagging breasts, stomach bulges need a clever fix to keep it under wraps. But the bold woman of 40 is unabashed in her display of flesh. Some might say that this exhibitionism is a sign of unrestrained expression of her self.  It seems to me that there is unmistakable denial of age and a desperate and despicable attempt to look 21 again. Peer prodding and appreciation is another reason why she may be emboldened to expand her wardrobe. With youthfulness scoring higher than aesthetics, I question my own notions on dressing. Am I really in tune with the times or am I  fuddy duddy? If a deeper psychological meaning be drawn from this out of sync conservatism, am I hiding something by not revealing? J

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Midnight Splendour

For someone who sleeps like she is dead to the world, waking up at 230am is extremely unusual. Last night, when I turned in my sleep, I was awakened, as if by an invisible force, to witness the most spectacular sight. My room was bathed in the golden hue of the almost full moon. It was brighter than never before and I was delighted to be in the centre of its radiant beam. Right above it was a star, the moon’s knight in shining armour, perhaps. They tore apart the dark cloudless sky, with their soft,warm glow, heralding the festival of love. I sprung out of bed and stepped  into the balcony to soak in every minute of this midnight splendor. It suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t seen stars in a long while ( no pun intended!) let alone star gazed. As I sat on the balcony window the silence was soothing, goosebumpy and the fading winter cold invigorating. Forty minutes later, a light haze masked this Valentine couple. The strained howl of the neighbourhood pariah dogs jarred the silence of the night. I’m excited about re living this experience tonight and join the dalliance of the magnificent moon and the shimmering star. 

Friday, February 7, 2014


In the wee hours of a cold winter morning, she knocks vigorously on my door. I stumble towards it in my somnambulist state and she greets me with the most radiant grin. Her hair tied neatly in a bun, her sari draped clumsily around her a good five inches above her feet, she walks in purposefully and then questions with some authority on why I haven’t surfaced yet. Not in a condition to engage in conversation I scurry back to my bed. I catch a glimpse of her do the unthinkable, she discards her woolens like unnecessary baggage and picks up the broom. She seems to be on a mission; quite like Arvind Kejriwal is, armed with the same weapon! I am by now buried under several layers of warmth thanking my stars for not having to earn my bread in such brutal circumstances. Moving rapidly from room to room she enters mine and without any hesitation she opens the balcony. The cold draft that charges into the room makes me dig myself deeper into the layers of blankets covering me as she lets out a chuckle. “ Did you know it rained last night but surprisingly it’s not that cold, I wonder why”,  “today is colder than yesterday, because it’s windy,” “its so foggy today, I couldn’t see my neighbor’s house, but I feel the sun will be out by noon” ,“ Do you think it will snow someday?” Even before I can get to the morning newspaper she has delivered her rustic but reasonably accurate version of the weather bulletin.  In her very endearing way she gets me to peep out of my covers to respond to her. And then just as I am drifting back to catch some more sleep she turns up with the basket of clothes tucked under her. “Only these many clothes for washing?” She asks in a tone of admonishment.  I look at her completely bewildered “More you ask? It’s so cold, why do you want to wash even these? Let it be.” She looks at me equally flummoxed. “No I won’t get time during the day so I will wash them now” she responded.  I ask her if she has been missing sweeping my dad’s room since he is sleeping. “No don’t worry, he wakes up by the time I’m done with the rest of the house.” She has it all worked out. I don’t need to say or do anything. I wake up to a house that’s nicely swept and cleaned and never has a day gone by when I haven’t thanked the Lord for her presence in my life. In the evening on my walk, I’m greeted by the same cherubic smile as she struts swiftly to her next place of work. When the weather clears a bit and I am in a more wakeful condition, I plan to ask her. “Laili, what drives you every morning, to start a day of drudgery and monotony with such unbridled joy and enthusiasm?” I wish I had even half her untiring spirit.

A DEEP connection

“Would you like to give back to society?” Sujata enquired one day on our return from an aerobics class. “We could teach our maids’ childre...