Commonality and not differences

commonalityMy maid, who happens to be a Muslim was here when my sister-in-law was fasting once, abstaining even from water. The season was summer and it was quite difficult to not drink water. My husband and others kept telling my sister-in-law to have something to eat or  at least drink water. “You may get dehydrated in this heat,” she was told. Still, she stuck to her decision and did continue her fast saying “God will take care of me just like He takes care of everything else”.

The next day, my maid while giving a glass of water to my sister-in-law said, “You are right, Didi. God does take care even when we fast during Ramadan. I have been told by so many not to fast but have never felt tired or weak all through the month. They both smiled for they had completely understood each other.

This really was a true moment of solidarity. We often think of all the differences we have with each other but the fact is, we have more in common with each other. Especially in the area of faith, we all believe in a higher power, whatever we may call it. What really matters is we know we will be taken care of as there is someone up there, who always has our interest at heart.

As seen in the little anecdote above, people who understand the true intent behind an act always see the commonality and never the differences.  This is how solidarity is born.  Through and with complete understanding. Without trying to do this, we often keep criticising and judging others which is why even something like a fast, music or prayer is criticized and condemned. Instead, if we just take a moment to look at another’s statement or situation with complete understanding, the world would indeed be a better place.


Victim to victor

There are many things we just ignore and push under the carpet. One of them is that of social evils like child abuse. This is an issue all of us usually ignore as we somehow think it happens to others and never in homes that seem to be educated. There are some like Harrish Iyer, however, who have moved from being a victim to a victor.

harishiyer“My uncle was giving me a bath when I was 7 years old, and that’s when it first happened. At 12, I began to get gang-raped by his friends, and I would bleed but keep quiet as I felt I would not be considered ‘man enough’ to not bear pain?”, he says. As it was his own relative, he did not know what to make out of this seemingly regular event.

Harrish decided to make the motto of his life to be the protection of other children from sexual abuse. He has become a mentor to many and is guiding them on how to take care of themselves.

Throwing off all poisons

Carrie Fisher, the late actress and writer said. “Resentment is the poison you swallow hoping the other person will die.”

This did not mean he wanted to punish and take revenge on anyone. “Though I have been through 11 years of hell I don’t think the world is a bad place. I thank my bullies, because they got me to a place where I have the opportunity to touch other’s lives. I believe that hate only destroys the person who indulges in hating, not the person being hated so I don’t wish to spend my energy in hating my uncle.” Thinking about life and its ramifications in general, he continues “If I could, I would send a therapist to help my uncle. He also needs to be helped, after all”.

We can see that he has indeed grown as a person in all areas, always focussing on what he can do and NOT making his life that of victimhood.


Rays of hope

In an era where there is so much of confusion  and conflict in religions, there are rays of hope that do show us that humanity is still alive.

perspThere are some  who have struggled to restore balance and justice in society and some who have achieved this by just being who they are. These are not just famous people but ordinary, commoners who know what is right and wrong.

This reminds of the time I had spoken sometime back to Teesta Setalvad,  who was and is passionate about communal harmony and amity.

Teesta Setalvad had resigned from mainstream journalism only because she was keen on promoting justice and peace. She is the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace, the editor of Communalism Combat and runs an organization, KHOJ,, that encourages children to discuss and understand issues in society.

When I asked her what was her most memorable event in all the work she had undertaken, she shared, “In December 1992, post Babri Masjid violence  had made Bombay burn with the Shiv Sena-BJP leading the violence. I encountered an amazing story there. A building with entirely Muslim residents had been attacked on the night of December 6-7 and they survived only because of Vimla Tai Khaonekar the mother of the Shiv Sainik leading the mob set to burn the building.

She came out, fully clad in her nine yard Maharashtrian saree,and dared him to go past her. The aggressive Shiv Sainik confronted with the moral force of his mother, slunk away. The grateful residents narrated the story of their saviour, I wrote about it in The Sunday Observer and fortunately she received the Mayor’s medal for bravery. It is such acts of unsurmountable courage and conviction that need to be told so women like Vimla tai become our role models.”

I completely resonate with her and truly echo her sentiment of trying to focus on real courage and bravery.

On another note, we know Teesta has faced and is still facing a lot of travails but the hope that she still has in humanity is laudable.

Teesta and yes, people like Vimala Tai make me certain that we will surely overcome the malaise in our society of hatred of all kinds, slowly but surely.

Empowering the disabled

Among the many inspiring people I have encountered in my life, Javed Abidi is someone I am happy to have come across and interacted with.

javedabidiBorn with congenital spina bifida, a developmental disorder, Javed went abroad, got trained as a journalist and did become very well known in the field.

Later, he decided to join the disability movement and has truly make a difference. He has now traversed the world on a wheelchair, advocating the rights of the disabled. Considered a pioneer of the Cross-Disability Movement in India, he was instrumental in the drafting and passing of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, and in the setting up of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in 1996. He has been its director since 1997. In October 2011, he was appointed world chairperson of Disabled People’s International (DPI), a global organization working for the rights of people living with disabilities.

In the process, Javed has introduced cross-disability culture to the movement. This has been vital for getting groups dealing with physical and mental disabilities to learn of, and listen to, each other. He sees the lack of information-sharing and communication between disability groups as having kept them apart and virtually disinterested in larger issues of the field. Thus he is spearheading nationwide surveys and researches – the first in the history of the movement – to assess the roles, potential, strengths, and weaknesses of the citizen, business, and government sectors vis-á-vis the disabled. The results have exposed grave areas of weaknesses and spurred the movement to address them.

Javed has been systematically training these various disability groups in campaigning and negotiating skills, and helping them to campaign in the political arena for disabled rights. Through lobbying and recourse to litigation (in an historic public interest case that will affect considerations of the disabled in Indian airports), Javed is now concentrating on the successful implementation of the recently passed Disability Act. Simultaneously, as head of the National Council for the Promotion of Employment of People with Disability (NCPEDP), he is working with the corporate sector to define clear employment policies for the disabled within their agenda.

The latest success he has had is spearheading along with others, the passage of the disability bill by the Rajya Sabha in the winter session of 2016.

Many sceptics still say this may achieve nothing much but the fact is, each step does make a difference in the journey of the society becoming a little more human and yes, humane too.


Igniting Umeed (hope) in little hearts

aseemslibIn India, there is always a lot of debate on Right to Education and the opportunities that need to be given to children. We all agree children should have the right to education. We agree there should be more schools, colleges, et al. Somehow we just ignore a whole section of the populace, who are all around us but have no hope for even basic education and a hope to access books. Unless all children are included in our thought process at least, it is impossible for a society to progress. Fortunately, there are some people who are doing this.

Sheela’s (name changed on request) son Aseem died suddenly in a car accident in 2013. She and her husband were devastated. “When Aseem left us suddenly, the earth opened up and swallowed us whole, the volcano and holocaust that followed left only shrapnel and debris all around. For many months we could not breathe eat or sleep, and performing simple functions of daily living seemed impossible, “ she says. After a while, they picked themselves together and wondered what to do next. “There was only one thing we wanted: to keep him with us at any cost. Of course this was the one thing we could not do. So the next best thing was to keep alive books, which he loved next only to life. “

They went to his school, St Columbus, to offer books, but found that the school had enough and  children of his school like many other main stream schools -do not read; as they have graduated to computers and the internet. They then went to Aurobindo Ashram to offer books, hoping the population here would be more welcoming, but met with the same fate.

In the meantime, they had begun to offer food in Aseem’s name to children of an orphanage nearby -Ummeed Aman Ghar, at Mehrauli, where street children were given shelter, food, clothing, medical help and education. There, they saw that the children did have some  books, but these were torn, dusty, dilapidated and lying in disarray. Suddenly, it struck them as the perfect place to give books.

They sought and got permission from Aman Biradari , the NGO that runs the place to start a library. They agreed but they offered no financial support with some of them even a little sceptical on how it would succeed. They were even discouraged by some to give books here as the children were not really literate. The debate about whether a library should come first or literacy should come first, the chicken -or- the- egg story baffled Sheela and her husband, but they were determined and hence, started with the chicken!

The birth of the library

“On 17th October 2011, about six months after we had lost everything in our life, we started Aseem’s Library with 300 books and a bookshelf, “ says Sheela, with pride.

She would spend hours hiding here, with the boys, crowding around new books, making lists, reading to them, telling them stories, of how books can be a friend, and fun too. “All I wanted was to be with books and hence, with my son,” she says.

This did take off in a surprising manner, “The boys surprised me with their reception and respect and love for the books, they made lists, cleaned the place, protected and read the books, and wanted more,“ says Sheela. Sheela and her team soon developed their own Honeycomb Methodology to connect children with a book. Multiple activities of literary nature, art and craft, brain teasers, games and sports, dramas and debates, helped to crack different children in different manners. Outings and competitions built a sense of equality in them, keeping them engaged with a productive book or game or puzzle kept them away from fighting and non -productive occupations like drugs and reduced negativity and anger. Being appreciated for the largest number of books read or maximum attendance every month , or seeing their art display decorating the corridors, built a sense of belonging and pride and confidence in them. It soon became a matter of pride to be called a member of Aseem’s library.

The ripple effect of positivity

There were no funds or support as such but the universe did help them all along. When people came to know the benefits, the demand did increase. “We had no time or money to meet the demands, but friends and family came forward and we found great librarians. The children everywhere, boys and girls, in homes and custodial centres, all loved and welcomed the books,” she says.

Now the library is treated as a place of first intervention for healing a traumatized child when he enters the facility. It grows to be a source of recreation, it inspires learning, imparts general knowledge, and life skills and supports academic progress.

It has been four years now, nearly all the 3400 users who are underprivileged, from the streets, flyovers, rag pickers or trafficked and abused, rescued from dysfunctional or non existent families have learnt to read and yes, even write.

In August 2012, Sheela produced a book of stories written and illustrated by the boys, based on their own experiences and fictional stories they wrote. The book Ummeed-Hope was launched in the Book Fair in front of 60 other mainstream schools and libraries. This was an hour of pride, the children had arrived and the library was here to stay.

This itself can teach us many lessons of life.

Sheela has indeed epitomised what one of the authors in her books, young Ramzan says, “As I struggle hard every day to shape my destiny, I wait for the answers and if I don’t get them, I pledge to make them myself”. Incidentally, Ramzan lost his father when he was in the second grade, because of which the financial  condition at home deteriorated and he started doing odd jobs. Now, with the help of Umeed, an NGO for helping the underprivileged, he started schooling again and has never given up on studies or life.

After speaking to Sheela and reading the books of the children, I certainly have moved a wee bit higher in my Umeed (hope) for India and the world itself.


For details of the books and/or the library, contact B 119 Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi 110017, or +91-9810440506.


RTE – is it really possible ?

What I have realised is that the right to education IS possible but only if citizens participate.. For instance, Masoom for education, run by Nikita Ketkar, is one such endeavour.

Nikita Ketkar did a project through a PUKAR fellowship in 2006-2007, when she was working in a regular job in DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation). This research project revealed that since night school students are mostly those who work during the day, they have a deep personal thirst for education that brings them to these schools. But the lack of infrastructure and resources proves an impediment in the learning process.
“How difficult it is for these children to continue studying. I don’t know if I could have done it,” Nikita kept thinking. Her anguish at the conditions there remained. Issues of nutrition, counselling and motivation were starkly obvious. She had laid them all out painstakingly. But was that enough? Who would take it forward, she thought. The admiration at the heroic efforts of the children, who overcome all odds to continue studying, coupled with her distress at the conditions kept gnawing at her. She never could feel the project was complete though her report was submitted. She kept thinking, “There is no use of this report if it is going to just be filed as an academic project.”

With this, came the next step. After all, who could be better at taking the concrete steps that were required than her?

When I take leave of Nikita, I realize that we as a nation can succeed by understanding the whole issue and working with the government, ensuring transparency and interacting with others who care about the country to improve the nation. India has leaped forward in so many areas. Surely, we can achieve success in this area too, with people like Nikita. The minimum we can do is to understand her travails and give her as much support as we can. Nikita’s dream now is to reach all night schools in Mumbai. Knowing her grit and record of accomplishment, it would not be long before this would happen.


Prerana, changing lives.

A person I am proud to have met is Priti Patkar

Recently, I was extremely happy to speak to one of the children of the prostituted women, who is married and well settled now thanks to Prerana’s efforts and her grit.

This got me thinking about Amir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate where Sunita Krishnan talks about prostitution, the oldest organised crime in the world and says “The most difficult hurdle is changing the mindsets of people”. Yes, we accept people who have committed many crimes but often do not accept the victims of crimes.. This has to change if our nation has to change.

Do view the links below to understand more..

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