By Jamuna Rangachari
Disturbed by the poverty and deprivation around her, Anouradha Bakshi decided to reach out and help in the process, she discovered her true purpose in life
A little girl peeps in and looks askance at me as I wait for Anouradha Bakshi in the ‘office’ of Project Why, which is a small shack–like building housed just outside the Girinagar slum, Delhi. From this ‘office’, I can see a bigger hall where children are busy drawing, painting and chatting. The dull walls are alight with colorful drawings and sketches, obviously made by the children.
All of a sudden, a quiet descends. The eyes of the children light up as a voice cheerfully singing the ditty “Kajra re….” is heard. Anouradha Bakshi, sporting casual khadi attire and a prominent tikka on her forehead, walks in humming the tune with two young girls in tow. The two girls are introduced to me as Shamika, her daughter, and Rani, whom she calls her Girl Friday.
Making sure I am comfortable, Anouradha recalls the time they arrived in India from Mauritius. It was a traumatic period. She was still recovering from the loss of her parents. In addition, the poverty and deprivation hit her viscerally. She was compelled to do something, but she did not know what. She began by distributing biscuits to the needy, but that seemed unsatisfactory, merely a token gesture. To add to her unease, Shamika was having problems fitting in with the Indian school system. The conflicts manifested at a physical level in the form of spondylitis, and Anouradha started using a collar.
“You must meet Mataji who helped Ma realise she must work at a deeper level, and ensured that the collar came off too,” interjects Shamika, and we all troop into Mataji’s home in the same vicinity.
Mataji, in her simple, cosy and comfortable home, is only too happy to share how she sensed the longing in Anouradha to improve the lot of her fellow countrymen. “I prodded her to act, and providentially, at the same time, Anouradha came across Manu, a mentally challenged 30-year-old who people in the neighbourhood fed, but treated almost like an animal,” says Mataji. “I am convinced God sent Manu to Anouradha. Both of them benefitted. Manu through the care he received and Anouradha because taking care of him became the genesis of Project Why.”
The entire story of Project Why now unfolds. In a little shack, they began by enrolling disabled children, and anyone else who wished to be taught. Initially, the students were taught spoken English. The early days were tough as they faced surliness and deep distrust from the residents in the locality. She was evicted from a park where she used to hold classes, driven out by shack–owners, and even openly abused. Soon, however, the neighbourhood was won over by her sincerity and desire to empower them.
As time went by, other challenges arose, such as the difficulty some students had in specific subjects at school. Each new challenge created a new activity. The number of children increased, their demands multiplied, new teachers were discovered within the tiny jhuggis and lanes, ad hoc classrooms were found, parks were cleaned, tents put up, unused pavements cleared. The motto was that any place would do, but no child was to be sent away. More and more parents began bringing their children over. There was a PTA, an Annual Day, street sports, cultural programmes, picnics, and above all, dollops of cheer and hope. A community had formed. Loud singalongs by children, volunteers bustling about purposefully, and neighbours pitching in to help became everyday happenings. Not all the students are schoolchildren. For instance, there is young Hussain, a runaway from Bihar, who began as a floor sweeper at a computer company, got interested in computers, and has mastered enough to teach computers to others.
Rani, a Giri Nagar local, and Anouradha’s right hand, takes care of the roster, time-tables and, very frequently, finds a home that will host a class in a hurry. She evokes the spirit of the place as she says cheerfully, “Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi!” (when you face an obstacle, invoke Mahatma Gandhi”). Young Shamika is happiest caring for children with debilities, and teaching English to eager-faced children.
‘When three-year-old Utpal fell into boiling curry and sustained third degree burns, Project Why jumped in, treated Utpal, and nursed him back to his joyful self.’
Money, of course, is a constant worry. Anouradha compensates by dipping into an inheritance left her by her parents quite often. None of this demotivates her. On the contrary, the hardship seems to have imbued her with resilience and a steely fortitude. Unsurprisingly, she finds the work “very satisfying”. In all situations, an inclusive approach is of paramount concern for Anouradha. Not surprisingly, Project Why prefers no institutional or government aid. It depends entirely on individuals and donations from supporters. It launched a funding initiative called Just One Rupee A Day (JORAD) which aims at creating a wide donor base where everyone is asked to commit Re 1 a day or Rs 360 a year. “A rupee a day is a sum that the poorest in India can contribute and feel included,” is the basis of this scheme.
What comes to Anouradha’s table is seldom dismissed without the most sincere consideration. An impoverished couple residing in nearby Sanjay Nagar once approached Anouradha for help in saving their son Raju, critically ill with defective valves in his heart. The cost of the surgery was said to be over a lakh rupees, which his teashop–owning father could not dream of raising. She spent a few days groping for ways to put the sum together. Then she decided to call upon her friends, Prannoy and Radhika Roy of NDTV. They warmed to the story and added an appeal that cited Anouradha’s phone number. Within 18 hours, enough money poured in from all over the country. There was going to be a surplus even, so Anouradha promptly began a growing fund to help other needy children, and has since helped other such children too. When three-year-old Utpal fell into boiling curry and sustained third degree burns, Project Why jumped in, treated Utpal, and nursed him back to his joyful self.
Activism for a purpose is her creed, and there is enough to be done in the city. For instance, a small tribe of Gadiya Lohars have lived for close to 50 years on Kalkaji Road footpaths. They are registered voters, have ration cards, and yet are regularly hounded by petty municipal officials. Anouradha speaks up for their rights, saying, “They are such a handsome, gentle people who are itinerant blacksmiths. Traditionally they used to follow armies in their exquisitely carved carts ‘gadiyas’ to service the arms and the horseshoes.” As with many other communities, the inexorable march of progress has rendered their livelihood defunct and exposed them to a harsh situation. Says Anouradha spiritedly, “They too have a right to existence.”
Two young children went missing one evening and were found dead in a drain. Anouradha marched into the police station to impress that death of two poor children was no less important than others.
Anouradha’s links with India had never severed, though she was physically away for many years. Her great grandfather shipped out to Mauritius from Bihar over a century ago as an indentured labourer, but never forgot his village, Barka Koppa, district Patna. He returned to take a bride …and dig a well for his village. Anouradha’s maternal stream in the meanwhile, was outspokenly nationalist. Her grandfather Gopinath Sinha, a freedom fighter, made jail going commonplace. Her mother-to-be, Kamala, had sworn she would not marry in an enslaved India. When India did become free, Kamala was 30 and a Red Cross truck driver running errands to mitigate the rigours of one of India’s many famines that the British had neither the inclination nor the wit to prevent.
Eventually she married Sri Ram Goburdhan – a barrister-at-law from the Inner Temple, and a licentiate from the University of Lille. In 1948, by then a judge, Sri Goburdhan heeded a call by Pandit Nehru, took up Indian citizenship, and became a diplomat. Anouradha was born in Prague, an Ambassador’s daughter, and raised in the lap of luxury in world capitals. She spoke French before she spoke Hindi or English. Life was a lark with cruises, parties, fine dining, and riveting cultural performances. Marriage to a rising executive meant postings abroad again. As the French translator to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and with connections in high places, her life seemed to soar closer to the clouds.
However, she was not content with being just ‘superficially’ Indian. For Anouradha is Indian in the true sense of the word. Even as her parents exposed their only child to the rationalism and fine arts of the West, they grounded her with a clearly defined Indianness. When both passed away in quick succession, it is from India that she sought her answers.
Spending her waking hours in her beloved slums, battling to raise money for her adopted brood of 500 young people, and riding a three–wheeler to the courts, to donors, to people with a say in governance, and anyone who might further the cause of her wards, she does not have the slightest doubt that this is the life she was meant to lead. She feels it has been worth it because Manu has begun to smile again. “This means he has forgiven his tormentors,” she claims, and wonders aloud if life’s purpose is to earn the forgiveness of those who have been wronged, thus including everyone into the picture.
For such a mission, India couldn’t be a better place of sadhana. Her father’s last words were: “Don’t ever lose faith in India.” Through her commitment, hard work, and open heart, she has made it a little more easy for the rest of us to have faith in India too.
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