January 26th is the anniversary of the Indian Constitution which came into effect in 1950. I would have enjoyed watching the parade in person, but duty called, and I had to work. MSF had donated some blankets and toiletries to the Naaz Foundation, a non-government charitable organisation which is based in the slums and works with the poorest of the poor. I was representing MSF, together with our band of health educators, a couple of drivers and an administrator.
First stop was Burari, where the Naaz Foundation office is located. The weather was grim. Dull, leaden skies with low cloud and episodic rain. We parked up in an unpaved side street and waited for the action to begin. It did,unexpectedly when a gust of wind brought down the canvas awning. We visited the office where Naaz runs computer and IT courses for students in the slums. They guarantee a placement for every student who successfully completes their courses. What a wonderful way to help a young person shrug off the shackles of poverty.
Whenever I hear of an aid agency giving out blankets, I think of those old grey woollen blankets, which were never that warm anyway. But the blankets MSF provided are thick acrylic blend fleece, called “mink blankets”. I have one on my bed and it is as warm as a duvet, as well as being easier to wash.
The ceremony was delayed because of the weather, and when it did get underway an hour late, it started raining heavily. All the people sitting on plastic stools waiting to get their blankets were getting soaked, so they huddled at the side of a building. Meanwhile, puddles of rainwater were straining the awning. It began to leak like a sieve, trickling thin streams of water down the necks of the VIPs.
I could hear grumbling thunder and there were some flashes of lightning. Then there was a louder, more distinct noise of a squadron of Indian Air Force planes passing over. We couldn’t see them at all, because of the low cloud.
After the photographer had recorded the first half dozen people receiving their blankets, soap, towels, toothpaste and toothbrushes, I had to leave. I was already half an hour late for the Republic Day ceremony at Prayas, a Boys’ Home in Jahangir Puri. The roads were awash with rain, drains were overflowing, and the smell of sewage was overpowering.
Prayas is an institution and looks like a prison without bars on the windows. It has four or five floors, with two covered courtyards. We drove up and I tiptoed through a lake of rainwater to get to the entrance. The lightning had caused a power cut, so it was dark and forbidding inside. The 150 boys living at Prayas were all sitting in regimented rows, facing forwards. As I walked in there was a murmur and a hundred faces turned to see the strange white man.
The residents are children who have been rescued from the street or sweat shops where they work long hours for next to nothing. Their parents may have “sold” them as slave labourers, and they are working to pay off the debt. One child had been pushed off a train and was paraplegic. It was extremely touching how the other boys tended to him, raised his head so he could see the performers and generally befriended him.
Children performed a song, recited a poem or did a dance for their colleagues. A few pigeon feathers floated down from the high ceiling. The lights came on, to a resounding cheer from the lads. A dozen fluorescent light strips didn’t make a great deal of difference, but at least the sound system worked.
I reflected on what would have happened to these boys if Prayas had not existed – an appalling life of oppression and poverty.
My final appearance was at another Naaz Foundation blanket-donating event in Libas Pur, another slum. The rain had set in for the day and it was miserable. There was no delay to the proceedings and I went directly to the flagpole to unfurl the Indian flag. The flag was tied into a bundle containing rose petals and flowers. The three VIPs pulled the lanyard but the knot wouldn’t slip. When I jokingly offered to shin up the listing flagpole to unhitch the flag, the organisers looked at me in horror. “No, you mustn’t. We will fix it,” they said. One almighty heave later and a clutch of damp petals fell onto our heads as the flag was released.
Everyone sang the national anthem (I was beginning to know the words by now) and we finished off with a few calls of “Hindustan – Zindabad” and “Jai Hind”. We retreated to another leaky marquee and posed for photographs. The people who received the blankets looked rather shell-shocked. None of them was able to muster a smile. They queued in the rain and clung onto their gifts as they shuffled away.
We dished out fifty blankets in record time and hurried back to the vehicle to return to the office. I hadn’t had any lunch, so when I saw a crowd of people eating from polystyrene plates, I suggested we stop. “No, Doctor Ian, that is a charity giving away food to the needy on Republic Day.” No wonder it was popular.
I was soaked when I got home. There had been over an inch of rain, but it wasn’t warm and heavy, like a monsoon; it was more like a constant drizzling Devon December day. My room has an oil filled electric radiator but it doesn’t give off much heat. I changed into dry clothes and sat down in front of the television to watch the news coverage of the military parade down Rajpath to India Gate. Check out the police motorcycle formation gymnasts and the Border Force Camel-Mounted Regimental Band on YouTube. And the Prime Minister’s very fetching pink chiffon pugree.