Thursday, May 05, 2016

Things never get back to the day they were #ThrowbackThursday

There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were wrote Dwight D. Eisenhower.

One of the most difficult moments we have had to face at Project Why was the death of a child. But sadly children die. Over the years we have lost children, too many. Some may live on in the memories of their loved ones, but in poor homes, where life is a battle to survive, grieving is a luxury you may not have. And children rarely get their place on the wall with the customary garland draped on it. According to religious custom they do not even get a decent funeral and are buried on the riverbed with no grave or dumped in the river with a boulder tied to their little wrapped bodies.

We would like to share their tiny life stories in the hope that these become their obituaries.

Sonu contracted polio at a very young age. His family was very poor and did the best they could which was not much. His legs froze in a sitting position and would remain so. He had to be carried everywhere. He was one of the first students in our Special Class and we loved his gentle ways. He always spoke softly and never wanted to bother anyone. It must have been terrible for him to ask for the help he so needed.  One day he caught a fever that he was unable to recover from. He died in the very fetal position he had braved the world in, without a sound, tiptoeing gently out of this world


Rohan and Puja were two delightful cousins studying in our crèche. One evening they went to the temple next to their home, never to return. A day later one of their shoes was found near an open drain at some distance of their house. The approach to the drain was across a vast expanse of open land dotted with thorny bushes and trees. To reach it you had to cross a busy road that even adults fond difficult to negotiate. The children had definitely been abducted and murdered.

In spite of Project Why’s best efforts, the case was closed and the deaths deemed to be an accident. The life of two tiny slum kids is not worth fighting for.


Arati was 3 when she first came to Project Why with her two older siblings. She had lost her mother and her father was a drunk. She lived in a home so tiny that her father who was six feet tall had to sleep with the door open and his feet hanging out.

She joined our crèche and was happy. One summer morning she came to class licking a bright pink candyfloss. She was in good spirits and went to class as usual. Sometime later she felt sick and was vomiting.  We tended to her and she was soon back to her normal self.  Later that night she got high fever and was taken to the local doctor who recommended she be taken to the hospital a good 40 minutes drive away. She never made it.

What killed Arati? The pain of losing her mother, poor nutrition, inadequate care, an abusive father who beat the children mercilessly, the quack unable to treat her, the long drive to the hospital or simply the total lack of love, one we were unable to make up for.



Rajani was a special child. She was 11. She was the granddaughter of Tau, the head of the Lohar Camp where we held classes. She was beautiful but was mentally challenged. No one in her clan understood why she could not walk or talk or be like children her age.  Her mother simply left her with her grandmother who spoilt her silly. She was very shy, almost wild. It took a long time to persuade the grandparents to send her to Project Why. She did come and soon began to interact with other children and started learning basic living skills. But God had other plans for her. He took her away one fine morning, leaving us more than a little lost.


Anil was born with a congenital heart defect. Every breath he took was an effort and he could barely retain any milk. He needed surgery and we managed to raise the funds but the little soul gave up before we could help him.


She tiptoed on to our planet quietly almost as if she wanted no one to notice her lest we let her walk into our hearts. She would slink softly behind her loud mother, hiding her face lest you lost yourself in her huge melting eyes. She would sit in a corner patiently waiting for us to finish whatever we were doing. Sandhya knew she was a temporary guest.

Sandhya was what they call a blue or cyanotic baby, where the heart is malformed and the blood deprived of oxygen. Since 1944 a simple surgery called a BT Shunt can repair the damage. For Sandhya's family the cost was exorbitant, but friends pitched in and she was operated upon. However she did not make it. Maybe she knew that hers was not a life worth living in society’s eyes.


Saheeda was a beautiful young girl. She was hearing challenged and in a country like India where inclusion is not practiced, she was never able to go to a regular school and build a future. She was one of our students and though sometimes a little stubborn, she was pure delight. She had learnt stitching and was all set to begin a beauty course which would open new doors to her.

We had gotten her a state-of-the-art hearing aid and she was discovering new sounds and learning to speak.

One day she went to the village and contracted fever and was hospitalized but was not getting better. The state of medical facilities in our villages is rather poor. Her family brought her back and admitted her in a hospital in Delhi but it was too late. Once again God had other plans.


Nanhe was one of us for six year during which his incredible smile made us forget our worries and woes. He could not speak, barely walked but was able to lighten up the darkest room.

Nanhe was born with a simple mind and a broken body where everything seemed wrong. In his short life he lived with excruciating pain and was subjected to humiliating investigations, painful jabs and uncounted operations. But he never lost his smile.

One may wonder what a little broken soul like Nanhe could mean to us, how a little seemingly useless being could become such an important part of one's life. It is once again a matter of looking with one's heart. Nanhe was undoubtedly an Angel that the God of Lesser Souls sent our way. His message was simple and clear: no matter what, life is still beautiful and no matter how bad it looks, it is still worth a smile. And the little chap lived by the book; even in his worst moments of pain, he never lost his smile. And when you looked at him smiling you suddenly felt uplifted. No matter where and when, in a hospital ward where he lay or in his tiny hovel Nanhe smiled.

Today he smiles in heaven.

It did not take long for everyone to fall in love with little Sohail, with his huge head, tiny body, shrill voice and incredible smile. He had hydrocephalus, a condition when fluid builds up in the skull and causes the brain to swell and leads to brain damage. Sohail had difficulty in maintaining his balance and walked awkwardly. Yet he loved dancing and would do so leaning against a wall. He was a clever imp!

His parents talked of an operation, actually the placing of a shunt to drain the fluids. This operation was not without risk as it could leave him paralysed. A date was fixed but as is always the case in India, the day given was a year away. In the meantime we began alternative therapies which helped him walk better. We had high hopes.
But that was not to be. A simple fall in his home was all it took for his soul to fly away.

One death we mourn every day is that of Manu, the challenged beggar who was the reason for Project Why to begin. If there was one meaning to his wretched life, it was to teach us all that no life however miserable is worthless and every life has a mission. His was to set up Project Why. This would take more than two decades of wandering in filth, two decades of being riled and abused, two decades of walking the same beat so as not to miss the moment when that person would come and the two would meet.

Manu would live another decade beyond that tryst. His presence would take care of the faltering steps, the doubts and uncertainties, the moments when giving up seemed an option. All it took to get on course was his smile. Any giving up would be an insult to his life.

One day Manu knew it was time to go. The foundations were strong and the edifice would last. It was time for him to report back to his Maker.

For us it was time to honour his memory and ensure Project Why would endure.

God Bless these little souls. Each one marked our lives and made is better people.

May they Rest in Peace

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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Project Why's French Connection #GivingTuesday

It was French Week at Project Why. A group of members of Enfances Indiennes,  visited Project Why and gave its children a French Break!

Project Why's French Connection is strong and steadfast. Not surprising as its founder had deep links with France! But the real bond began over a decade ago when the visit of a man with a huge heart led to the setting up a support group in France called Enfances Indiennes. Every alternate a year a group from this organisation visits Delhi and spends time with the children of Project Why.

This year the children were in for a surprise. Enfances Indiennes decided to take some of the children for an outing.  But that is not all. This visit would be the coming together of the two Indias. Let me explain. Another man with huge heart -who has been providing lunch to the Yamuna children and spearheaded a donations campaign through his many restaurants across India- decided to board the wagon. The result: a visit to an industrial kitchen and a talk on career options followed by a scrumptious lunch and a special treat for the Yamuna children.

The chefs who brought the food to the children experienced a magical moment as the chefs discovered the little persons they had been cooking for. Their resolve to do more was visible in their eyes. Again one India was meeting another.

There was another added surprise: a visit to the Science Museum and India Gate for all the Yamuna centre kids. These children had NEVER been out of their fields.

Xavier (Enfances Indiennes) and Kabir (Mamagoto) were there too to make the picture perfect.

The Yamuna children, who live in a bubble in the heart of the big city they have never visited set off in the big blue bus. There were many such sights, ones we take for granted and have even stopped seeing. For these kids, however, all was new and welcomed with loud clapping and joyful shrieks. A real eye opener.  After visiting India Gate came ice cream time: the famous orange bar! They had completed the rite of passage of every Delhi kid.

The visit to the museum was also exciting. The children were welcomed by the staff of the museum who guided them through the many wonders. Our thoughts go them as a day later this very museum was completely destroyed by fire.

The last event on the calendar was a lunch at Anou's with the 7 boarding school kids. Everyone had a great time.

Project Why's French Connection is one of a kind as it has the magic wand that brings the two sides of India together in a celebration of all that is good in the world.

Enjoy some special moments


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Into the twilight

Six years ago, I gathered the courage to write a requiem for a dream. The dream was Planet Why the guest house with a difference that would have allowed Project Why to be sustainable. In a nutshell, Planet Why was a guest house indeed, but would have also been home to Project Why's special needs children when their family support dwindled with time as parents faded away and the next generation took over. The gentle souls once loved and cared for would suddenly find themselves at the mercy of people who considered them a nuisance. That is the plight of mentally challenged people in a country that has scant support for them. They too fade away in a tiny corner of a home where they are not wanted, let alone loved.

This happens across the board, in rich as well as poor homes; the difference is an invisible golden cage versus iron bars.

This was a reality one became aware of very early in Project Why's journey. Manu was the perfect example.

Hence, no matter what direction the dream took, there was a constant: Planet Why would be a place where the special children of Project Why could live and die with dignity, a place where they were loved and tended to till their last breath.

Planet Why was not to be. At first a series of serendipities made us believe that everything would happen. The land was bought, feasibility studies done, architectural plans drafted, budgets made. However we were unable to find the needed funds, in spite many promises. Finally the dream had to be laid to rest. Manu for whom it all began breathed his last leaving us lost and looking for direction.

Planet Why too was relegated to some obscure corner of our minds.

But  dreams have a nagging way of remaining at the surface and need a simple prompt to come alive. They never truly die.

This is what happened recently.

For the past weeks S our die hard special section inmate has been absent. In the initial days we thought it was yet another mood swing and she would be back. When more days passed a phone call was made and we were informed that her mother was sick and wanted Shalu near her. This was understandable as her mother had been ailing for some time. More time passed and it was decided to go and visit her to find out the situation and offer assistance if needed.

The reality left us speechless. S's mom is in a bad way and the house in being looked after by Shalu. That is not all. There is a baby a few weeks old that is also left in her care. It was heart wrenching to see her scuttle around trying to do her best with a smile, knowing in her heart that her mom is very ill. It was heartbreaking to see the unspoken question in the mother's eyes" what would happen to her child after she left? It was heart wrenching for us to have no answer.

The  girl we saw was a far cry from the often stubborn and yet adorable little woman who is the soul and spirit of her class. A mean dancer S is always at the forefront of every fun activity and can bring a smile on the sternest face.

It was uncanny how everyone who visited her immediately thought of Planet Why! Never was the need of Planet Why more real than at this moment. It was for people like S that Planet Why was conceived. A place where she could dance with abandon into the twilight.

The Planet Why Land 
This is what Planet Why would have looked like!

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Damyanti (w)rites for Project Why #

Project Why has taught me two values often forgotten: compassion and gratitude. If one is the art of giving, the other is that of receiving. When we talk of giving, our minds tend to veer towards money; often charity is equated to funds and undoubtedly it is a huge part of any charitable venture. Yet the kind of giving I am talking about here is not at all about money.

I write this post to convey my deepest gratitude to a wonderful soul who has never stopped giving to Project Why.  I am talking of Damyanti Gosh of Damyanti (w)rites! From the very instant she came into Project Why's orbit and adopted us as a preferred child, she began giving. This was before she even met any of us in person! Damyanti has always been there for Project Why. She has helped us in every way possible and is still doing so by giving us her time, her knowledge, her counsel, her advice, her love, and even funds when needed most.

Today she is helping us put our house in order and take our first steps on the road to sustainability by giving Project Why a much needed makeover.

When I first met her I was bowled over by her incredible smile that can light up the darkest hour; probably that is the biggest gift of all for me personally. I do not feel alone anymore.

I thank this beautiful soul for a very precious gift. For any writer, creativity is a very personal space you do not want to share with anyone. It is your personal happy place, the bubble you hide in when you want to be just you and one that you jealously guard. Imagine my absolute delight when she told me that she would 'give' that space for one whole month to Project Why as part of her A to Z challenge.

For the past 26 days every story in Damyanti's blog has been a Project Why chronicle, each crafted with love and tenderness. She evokes every aspect of Project Why, be it the people or the causes, with  restrained and dainty strokes that make you want to know more. And that is what she has set out to do: take Project Why to the world even if it meant sharing her own personal world.

No words can express the feeling of gratitude that overwhelms me.  It is a privilege and honour to know Damyanti. There must be some higher force at work here.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gypsy Souls #ThrowbackThursday

If we exist then He exists; if we do not then how can He!
(on the existence God)
Tau Head of the Rana Pratap Lohar Camp
“Have you ever met someone for the first time, but in your heart you feel as if you’ve met them before?” wrote JoAnne Kendrick.  This is exactly the feeling Project Why had when it first saw the Lohars of Rana Pratap camp.

The Lohars are a nomadic Indian tribe of ironsmiths. They hail from Rajasthan (Chittorgarh) where they accompanied the ruler in battle to repair arms and shoe horses. When Maharana Pratap Singh lost the battle of Haldigath in 1576 and went into exile, the Gadia Lohars swore to wander and never settle. And they have been wandering ever since.  After independence in 1947, about 100 clans came to Delhi and settled in different parts of the city, along roadsides where they continued to practice their trades and live under the sky. One such camp was located close to Project Why.

It was in 2005 that Project Why first saw the children of the camp and was completely bowled over. These were bright kids with sparkling, eager eyes and smiles to die for. Unlike other children they seemed fearless and eager to connect. Here was another Why that needed to be answered but there was a hitch: convince Tau, the Head of the Clan.

It took a few minutes for Anou to succumb to the wisdom and kindness of this gentle soul. An unlikely yet real friendship was born between them. For the 5 years the camp remained standing, Anou would often go missing to be found sipping tea and in deep conversation with Tau.

Life in these makeshift camps in not easy. The camp is located next to a red light where cars rev and the air is foul. And yet over 100 people, old and young lived there with utmost dignity. They never stopped smiling. Never mind if water had to be carried across a busy road; never mind if every so often the authorities came and destroyed the camp in a cat and mouse game that had its own rules; never mind the bitter cold or scorching heat that entered their flimsy homes. Life was a celebration and who better than gypsies to celebrate life to its fullest.

If the men beat the iron it is left to the women to sell the wares. The money collected would determine what would be eaten in the evening.

Project Why ran a creche and a primary centre for the children of this camp and it was a joy to teach these eager beavers.

That is not where it ends. The plight of these people and the discovery that there were promises made to them- as validated by the few scraps of official papers that had survived the many destructions of the camp- led Project Why to taken on its first activist challenge. A PIL (public interest litigation) was filed in the High Court. Sadly nothing came of it.

The Lohars of Rana Pratap camp survived many destructions but the Commonwealth Games in 2010 would be their nemesis, as the camp would be destroyed and the 30 odd families scattered across the city.

The stretch of road where they lived that was such a vibrant and happy place is now a stretch of sidewalk. Each time one drives past, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of loss and sadness. The Lohars are missed dearly by all at Project Why.

Nomads always move on, don't they

You can share some glimpses of their lives in these images.


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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mercury Rising #GivingTuesday

waiting for water

This picture was taken near the Project Why Okhla Centre at the time when the tanker delivers water for an entire community. This is when children dash out of class to reach the tanker in time, having already placed their buckets or cans well in advance. This is also when we do not interfere, as Project Why is no match for WATER!

In most slums in Delhi taps run dry in summer and water is supplied through tankers. You have to fill enough water for all household chores until the next tanker arrives. For those of us who have access to tap water and the means to create sufficient back up, it is impossible to imagine what it means to survive with a few pans of water.

The heat is on and the mercury is rising. It touched 44 C a few days back. A few moments in this scorching heat is enough to send your head spinning and make you long for an air conditioned room. Some of us have that luxury, but for those living in slums the story is different.

Many of the homes in the slums have corrugated iron or asbestos roofs and ceilings that are so low an adult cannot stand. The only opening is the door. There are no windows or any form of ventilation. The tiny space is often shared by five or six people.

In the day these tenements turn into ovens, making it impossible to sit inside them. This is when women sit outside their doors, the men simply go out, the children run around in the sun. The sky is better than an asbestos sheet.

Project Why is a place where children can come to stay cool. The space is large; we have fans and coolers to provide respite and a place to study. That is one of the reasons why from day one, Project Why decided to remain open during the summer holidays as that is a time when children need us most. Boys and girls come together and as many have gone to the villages, we are able to accommodate the ones who stayed behind.

Summer is another moment which requires the survival tactics of those who have so little. Complaints are few if any and smiles are ever present.

a house in the slum

Durga's home

welcome drink

cooling in the park

Ice cream man

orange juice to the rescue

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Project Why's Women centre # Throwback Thursday

The Project Why Women and Children Centre saw the light of day to answer yet another deafening why.  It was 2006 and we had two women in a desperate state who needed help. One woman was ready to get out of rehab and needed a safe place to stay, a kind of midway home. The other needed financial assistance for a hip surgery, but more than that, needed a place where she could stay during her recovery. And here began the story of the Project Why Women and Children Centre, one that grew organically like all else at Project Why.

The first hurdle was to find a place for these two women to stay. Easier said than done. In India women from the lower strata who drink and suffer from mental conditions or women who are HIV+ are not welcome anywhere, and in a land where nothing remains a secret you cannot hide reality for long. In the span of a few months we had to move three times! This could not continue. Our two ladies still needed help and a solution was critical.

After much thought we decided to alter the approach and expand the scope of our intervention. The only way to be accepted in a community was to answer a need and often children were the ones who helped get acceptance. The rest is history.

A quaint building was found where one wing was perfect for a residential programme and the other was ideal for a children’s centre akin to the ones Project Why already ran. It worked.

When the two ladies were ready to take leave and resume their lives, Project Why decided to again alter the women’s outreach and use the space vacated to run vocational programmes. Stitching and Beautician Training were the two skills Project Why chose, as they enabled women to work either outside or within their homes, as many come from traditional families.

For the children Project Why ran an after school programme.

The Project Why Women and Children Centre is a no-frills affair. Space is used judiciously and the terrace has been turned into a space where multiple classes are held simultaneously. On the children’s request computer classes were started and the computer section is also a big hit with some of the ladies.

The Project Why Women and Children Centre is a vibrant and spirited place where women and children are busy transforming their lives.

The Project Why Women Centre is a large family of 300 children, 150 women and 15 staff members under the patient but firm direction of Dharmendra.

Enjoy some glimpses of the Project Why Women and Children Centre.

Dharmendra in charge

Classroom being set up

Class in session

Class in session
Computer Class

Stitching Class

Learning to repair the sewing machine


Women's meeting

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