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The way they say ‘thank you’
Displaced children from the minority Yazidi sect who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, wait for aid at an abandoned building that they are using as their main residence, outside the city of Dohuk

Image: The Independent

“RO-MI-TA. Got it? Come on, read my lips again. RO…” the tiny classroom separated from other rooms by a plywood wall on two sides carries the echo of 24-year-old Poonam. I stand beside her to face a 6-year-old sitting across a round blue table looking intently at Poonam’s emotive lips as they swish and sway to make some movements known, some sounds unknown. “She is one of our brightest students,” Poonam says proudly as she can’t stop enlisting Divya’s achievements at various competitions. Her strength: She can read lips. Others can’t. “Oomeetaa,” Divya says finally, giving me a moment so overwhelming that I take minutes to recover. How does she say her own name, I ask Poonam after recollecting myself. “EEvyaa,” the little one utters.

It’s Saturday. Divya shares the blue, round table with around 10 other kids. One sits on a separate desk in a corner, a bit far from the table and next to Poonam. He has got “rage issues”; needs special attention, Poonam tells me.  “A lot of parents don’t send their kids to school on Saturdays. On other days, you can expect a lot more crowded classroom. Including this group, we have some 70 students in the school,” she says. “Saturdays are usually devoted to art and music. But they have their exams starting this Monday. So, we are studying,” she continues as she makes her way to Varun’s desk who is trying to memorise numbers using wooden blocks.

We are standing inside the premises of Kanshi Giri Temple in the north Indian city of Panipat, a few miles away from the national capital New Delhi. The first floor of this temple has been witnessing the shrieks and silence, laughter and melodies of hundreds of such students since the last 10 years. Some move on after receiving their training, some stay; they are bound to stay.

The first time I visited the school, I got perturbed to see a 49-year-old man bellowing in a classroom, screaming at the wall. “He doesn’t like any noise in the classroom. This is how he reacts sometimes. Otherwise, he is a nice kid,” Ashu’s mentor had told me later. What is his mental age, I ask this time as I see him sitting quietly, looking intently at his teacher in the room. “He is five. He has been here since the genesis of this school. He has a very supportive family. Every morning, they send him to school, pick him up in the afternoon when our driver is not available, pay for his expenses… ”

There are two million mentally-retarded children in the country, a report presented at the Third Asian Conference on Mental Retardation three years ago said. And only 0.02% of them have access to schools. What worries me is the condition of those who don’t have supportive parents like Ashu’s or those who don’t have parents at all. I ask several mentors at the school if they have such a kid at their school but most of them seem to be at a loss of words. “There is one girl though that comes from an orphanage,” says one at last. Who pays for her training then, I ask. “There are many kids here whose families cannot pay the fee. But we have some patrons. Together with their help and some little donations, we somehow make ends meet,” she replies.

“The total number of special schools increases each year, but their quality remains the same,” a psychiatrist says. “Lack of space is one of the major problems faced by the institutions,” the report adds. And, perhaps epics can be written on the social stigma and lack of acceptance these kids face. Some are discarded by family, some by fate.

“Lack of funds, space, support…every enterprise would have these problems. Here, every kid’s requirement is different from others. Some can’t hear you, some can’t speak to you. Some need blocks, some need books. At best, we can hire 4-5 teachers with the support we receive from patrons and temple authorities. Then, the support staff is also needed,” school principal Kamlesh Dua says.

“It may take decades to dispel myths and stigma, and create opportunities for them. It really is a difficult job” a patron at the school says. “But you know the times when kids choose you over their parents to ‘chat’ about their annoying neighbour… you can’t tell me about a better  reward or better form of gratitude in the world. That’s the best possible way they could motivate you and more importantly, thank you…”

I let his words permeate the air for the next few minutes. Saying them goodbye, I lift the huge packet of chips and cookies that I brought along and make my way to the classrooms again. Perhaps, the little ones can never get tired of hugging you and excitedly waving at you. I am busy distributing the little yellow and pink packets while occasionally stealing a glance at the fierce carom match between the 7-year-olds Akash and Karan. Nobody really knows who is winning but Akash cannot stop laughing at every stroke that hits the board.

Suddenly, I feel a gentle pat on my arm. I turn around to see Junaid, Priya, and two others standing behind holding the brightly-coloured cookies and chips packets. They put their right hand on their stomach, the left on the head, and bow down a little. I ask Poonam what it means. She says, “That’s the other way they say thank you…”

Virgin souls, traded bodies: A visit to Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light area
sex-workers

Source: Reuters

Clad in a red net sari, she emerged out of the crowd on a bustling street. Having a voluptuous frame, she walked towards me. With her long, dark hair neatly tied in a bun, she wore minimal jewelry and a red lipstick that contrasted with her fair skin. A little timid in her appearance, she stood in front of me, her gaze unwavering. “I will never bring my daughter here. Will never push her into this business,” she said. “Does she know of your profession,” I asked as I tried to find some expression on her melancholic face. She shook her head. “Unaware of the reality, she lives with my mother,” she said, looking at me with her big brown eyes.

“Her age?”

“Seven.”

Well, not a very decent question to ask but have you ever been to a red-light area? If yes, then you know what I mean when I say: Bustling street, dingy houses, plunging necklines, garish makeup… In fact, it was a little difficult for me to believe that it was exactly how I had imagined. I could not help feeling amazed at how our filmmakers could replicate the environment with such precision.

So, here it begins. The sun had just set in the Indian city of Calcutta. At around 7 in the evening, we entered the street, which is known to house over 11,000 sex workers, making it presumably the largest red-light area in Asia.

As we entered Sonagachi, we saw two cops sitting quietly. One of them stiffened as we approached them. “Working on a news story is fine but if anything happens to you over there, we won’t be responsible,” he warned. The thrill, treading a forbidden path gives!

So, with my eyes on the street ahead, the rustic charm of Calcutta behind, and three friends by my side, I marched ahead. And there we were, finally! It was marked by a few women standing on each edge of the street, confusingly staring at us. Blue rickety houses welcomed us with their windows giving us a sight of some women sitting on a bed. A few steps ahead, some more such women and then plenty of them, flirtatiously smiling, posing, fiddling with their hair. Some wearing traditional Indian saris, some short dresses…all decked-up with a coquettish air around them.

The youngest I saw must have been 12. Sporting sindoor (a red or orange-coloured powder worn by some married Indian women along the parting of their hair) and their lips painted bright pink, they stood among the more ‘professed’ of the women, half-nervous, coyly smiling at the passerby. For your information, prostitution is illegal in India, though I hope you didn’t miss the mention of those cops stationed outside the street! That is why, a lot of female sex workers wear this powder, just in case they get caught.

My olfactory senses had surrendered to a well-lit betel nut shop across the street. The drunkards hovering around kept the environment lively. It perfectly reminded me of a few Bollywood movies I had seen.

Busy watching the extravagant display of feminine charms, I suddenly felt a disturbance. We were stopped by a man. “Sir, what are you looking for,” he asked slyly. “Oh, a pimp! Not bad,” I thought. We ignored, he insisted. “Sir, why don’t you tell me what you are looking for” he kept repeating. It did take us a little bit of an effort to ward him off before we could move on to reach the end of the street, the dreaded zone, as the cops would call it.

As we reached there, these things became only more pronounced. Looking around, we were able to locate the temple that was supposed to act as the threshold of the ‘core area’. Around 10-15 middle-aged women, two cops sitting idly, and a drunkard getting beaten up, ostensibly, for making ruckus- that’s how the area around the temple looked like.

As we stood there watching the drama, a few women from the group came forward and asked us where we had come from. We said a thing or two and let them take over. “Why have you come here? Huh? Don’t you know it’s such a bad place,” asked a woman wearing a black kurta, her dark hair tied in a bun. She must have been around 40. Another woman in white joined her, “Yes, go out at once,” she said chidingly. The woman in black kurta then interrupted, “My child, it’s not a place for decent people. They won’t be able to distinguish between you and us. Are you getting me?” She went on. Thinking of her last sentence leaves me startled even today. These were her words spoken in Hindi: “Beta, tum logo ki toh izzat hai. Tum hamare jaise nahin ho.” (My child, you are not like us. You have some dignity).” I wanted to speak, speak something to her but seeing the other enraged women and cops join them, I thought it was better to remain silent and leave.

Luckily, we were followed by a little man. Turned out to be another ‘agent’, a pimp, and a self-proclaimed drug peddler. In an hour-long conversation we had with him, he shared the dark details of the well-lit area. From flesh trade to rampant drug peddling, he discussed it all.

“Here you will find women as young as 12 and as old as 60. Some come to earn money, some to satisfy themselves,” he said carefully avoiding mentioning forced prostitution. “And how much do they earn every day?” I asked. “Madam, it all depends on the body of the woman. The more desirable the body, the more price it attracts. Some of them even charge up to Rupees 4,000 (around $63),” he said.

“And the police?”

Haha! The dogs take free services and don’t even pay us,” he said promptly. “They raid the place every day. Do you see the vehicle that just came out of the street?” he said pointing at a police van. “They take us to the police station, extort money and set us free. Every day,” he added.

“What about AIDS and other sexual diseases?”

“A lot of women here have these diseases but you see they don’t tell anyone. But it shows on their faces…Besides, how can they afford the expensive treatment?” he added after a pause. “The number of cases just keeps on rising with the population. “Abhi ye hain, kal inke bache honge (Today they are in the business, tomorrow their kids will take over),” he said giving off a feeling of pessimistic perpetuity.

“Is there any woman here who has vowed not to bring her kids into this profession,” I asked him. Had I not asked him, we would not have met the woman in red sari I spoke to you about in the beginning.

To recollect my thoughts, I saw a myriad of emotions there-laughter, freedom, pain sorrow, subjugation, greed, care, solidarity and finally, hope.

I saw women laughing around, chatting loudly. I saw women wearing mismatched clothes walking confidently. That woman wearing a red top with a low neckline walked so freely sporting an attitude that I rarely see in women around me. Do we often think of these women when we talk about breaking stereotypes?

I saw women who could unexpectedly step into a motherly figure for a stranger, forbidding her to visit ‘wrong’ places. And finally, I saw women possessing a resolute spirit underneath a gloomy face, working hard to give a bright future to her daughter.

If only I could talk to them for a little longer, if only I could say to the woman in black kurta– You deserve to be respected as much as I do or any other person on the earth does. Your profession cannot, just cannot, take away your dignity…

(A version of this article appeared on HuffPost and a Network 18’s website.)

 

How I got my 53-year-old father to eat his vegies
salad reuters.jpeg

Photo: Reuters

“Do you know what else we can do with this bread? We can roll it over like this or may be fold it like this and there we have… a pocket bread! Whoa! And what do we fill this pocket with? Potatoes, carrots, peas…Yay! Take a bite!” The games he involved me in, the tricks he employed to make his kid eat her vegies. To be honest, the ‘pocket trick’ was invented by my mother. I must have been five. But my meals would rarely go unaccompanied by the myriads of stories my dad would create and tell me, about animals, cars, the boy who didn’t like to go to the school, only to get me to eat my vegies.

If it were a five-year-old, I would have invented games, told stories, but it was my 53-year-old father. It was different. It was difficult…Read more at The Huffington Post.

Why my 5-year-old cousin wants to become a homemaker
Girl child- Reuters.jpg

Photo: Reuters

“Ing-jee-nial!” she would say when someone asked her what she wanted to become as a grown-up. Of course, she didn’t know what an engineer did. She was barely four. I am yet to figure out where she heard theword first but I have to admit that I loved this question for the soft trill that followed and more importantly, the area of work she had apparently chosen for herself.

It was around the time she cut her fifth cake when we had this conversation:

Me: How is it going, young engineer?
Her: No. I want to become a homemaker
Me: Uh… Why?
Her (with a sad, and an almost tired face): If I become an engineer, I would have to work both at the hospital (her mom works at a hospital and she naturally assumes that every workplace is called ‘hospital’) and in the kitchen.

Now, I would not waste time on how I responded, though I would love to know how you would have handled the situation.

The point is if the daughter of a pharmacist and a former economics professor, who sees her father buy groceries, iron her school uniform, drop her to school every day is harboring such thoughts, how immune do you think your children are? You may work 13 hours a day like your husband, may have denied his surname, may boast of the thin onion rings he is capable of making, may have a Facebook timeline flooded with posts celebrating women empowerment but hey, are you sure you are dividing your domestic responsibilities equally?

Who is the first one to run to the kitchen in the morning or when you two get back from work in the evening? How often do your kids see you doing laundry while their dad plays Nintendo with them? Who is the one to decide the menu and coordinate with the domestic help (if you have one)?

Your kids see it all. She sees it and internalizes that she will have to do it for someone someday. He sees it and assumes that someone will do it for him someday. On a side note, when your car needs servicing and your living room needs a clean-up, your kids, no matter how young, know who will take on the car and who will head for the living room.

When Simone de Beauvoir started writing, Europe had a considerable strength of educated women, thanks to the generation of Mary Wollstonecraft. The World War II-hit continent also saw a large number of women join the workforce and take up challenging roles in the industry, thanks to the generation of Virginia Woolf. “We are no longer like our partisan elders; by and large, we have won the game,” Beauvoir wrote. But what troubled this French woman and British feminists was the nature of double shifts women were working in — paid employment outside the home and unpaid employment within the home. Working outside had only added to the workload of women, they noted. It would be actually interesting to chalk out our trajectory since then. How far have we traveled?

As for the 5-year-olds at your home, yes, cook a wonderful meal for them. They deserve it. But let your husband do it tomorrow.

(The article first appeared on HuffPost.)

Take a tour of the kitchen Bill Clinton visited in Jaipur
akshaya-patra-food

Photo: Akshaya Patra Foundation

A distinctive blue bus carrying the images of smiling children passes through the state capital everyday. The bus is known to carry thousands of smiles like the ones displayed on it. It is the bus which carries food for 92,763 children, prepared by hundreds of people working at Akshaya Patra kitchen.

As former US President Bill Clinton reaches Jaipur, we take you to the famous kitchen he visited on Wednesday.

Claimed by many as the largest kitchen in northern India, Akshaya Patra feeds children in over 1,000 government schools in the capital. It also prepares food for 5,000 daily wage earners and Anganwadis.

To many, it sounds astonishing that it produces over 2 lakh 50 thousand rotis, 6 ton dal and 5 ton rice in mere three hours. As chapattis, being the integral part of the north Indian menu, several roti making machines, having the capacity to roll out up to 2,00,000 rotis from 600 kgs of wheat flour, have been installed in the kitchens.

“The inspiration for the foundation came 13 years ago, when the organisation chairman felt that no kid should stay out of the school to work or share the financial burden of the family. This is when the novel idea of preparing mid-day meals was worked on,” said an Akhaya Patra Foundation  official.

The work at the kitchen begins early in the morning to meet the target of transporting the mid-day meals on time. The kitchen has well-trained cooks and production supervisors to manage the work.

Like this, 21 other kitchens work across the nation as part of a programme run by a non-profit organisation, Akshaya Patra. Established in the year 2000, the organisation aims to to feed 5 million children by 2020. The first kitchen was established in Jaipur in 2004.

As part of a health programme, the former US President visited the kitchen to get a glimpse of the working process.

(The article first appeared on a Network 18 group’s website)