13 June 2009

A right to childhood?

My usual browsing of the BBC news website landed me here. A collection of pictures showing children working, for long hours and with little pay. The most heartbreaking child in the pictures is one who is smiling, while holding her tokri of bidis to sell, in the manner of a beautiful dancer. This is a painful topic for me. I don't have a high tolerance for seeing others, particularly children, suffer; my ever ready tear glands swing into action quickly. But the irony is that when in India, I see such images often and I feel entirely powerless. What use are the tears?

During my stay in Bangalore, in the last half of 2008, I was in a meeting with a group of people in Lal Bagh when a child in rags intruded into the meeting and asked for money to buy medication. The story is recorded here. This story still rankles me and exposes my beliefs acutely to scrutiny.

When I first heard of Asha for Education it was when another friend was running a marathon for them. I put it down as another organization which collects money that ends up in a black hole. But while conversing with a volunteer I was forced to admit my hypocrisy: Yes, I complained about the lack of change in India, especially in children's education but No, I wouldn't even contribute my time let alone my money to see what I could do. Many times when you start with a broad idealist viewpoint you are quickly overwhelmed by the logistics required to achieve that vision. Sometimes, it is fear that prevents us from taking the necessary steps and sometimes, it is lethargy or a deadly combination of the two. Yet, it's little drops of water that make the ocean. So I ploughed in to Asha for Education, cautiously, first as a marathon runner/ fundraiser then as a volunteer who led their marathon program. It was only two years after my 'induction' into the Asha world that I started to feel something about stewarding a project. Now, I see a lot of children who deserve a better life and to whom, I am only able to offer a smile and at best, some candy. In a way it seems backwards; disliking watching children suffer and now, actively seeking it out. But, there was a consequence of this action I had not anticipated and doesn't make it so backward: the inspiration that these children provide me with.

I don't think this journey will ever end and nor will children all over India get a better life in my lifetime. I will have to continue watching their suffering knowing that my efforts make a very small iota of difference and possibly, mean more to my sense of self-gratification rather than to them. But I have also decided that something like this shouldn't stop me from trying my best, in the circumstances that are present and with the resources I have. This lesson was a consequence of a conversation I had a few weeks after incident in Lal Bagh. Over a lazy cold-coffee shake I was confessing my guilt, to my good friend B, about spending money on a shopping spree to get office going clothes when it could have gone to that young boy. In his characteristic blunt and effective manner, he asked me to put the brakes on my guilt and advised that I could offset it by setting aside a certain sum of money a year to causes I felt passionately about. His gyan was simple: stop whining and do what you can within your limits. Smart man, this B. Anyway, I have taken his advice and am implementing it.

I think I will keep re-visiting this topic as it something I feel passionately about and don't think am getting too far with. Nevertheless, one of the greatest joys moving back to India (besides eating golgappas everyday) would be an opportunity to meet more children and to teach them as well as learn from them.

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