I made a journey to Kupwara to meet the kids at Basera-e Tabbassum……..MS TILLOTAMA SHOME
AS our car stopped and the sounds of the engine died, the kids one by one ran out of the home to welcome us. They had never seen me before nor did they know I was coming. I was a stranger in every sense. Yet, as if galvanized by a thirst for human contact each of those shy kids, one by one embraced me in a hug and wished me ‘Good morning!’. The tactile experience of being embraced by 52 kids, is something beyond description! I was overwhelmed to say the least as the hugs and kisses continued for a good ten minutes. I had imagined perhaps receiving half this warmth, when I left BET after having worked with the kids and only if I had succeeded in winning their trust.
My first learning- The way you treat someone in the first 30 seconds of meeting them sets the foundation of that relationship for a lifetime. We are afraid to love at first sight because we are unsure of the others intent and self preservation kick in. The kids taught me to love unconditionally. As I got to know them better, I marvel even more at their ability to do so. Their childhood has been marred, violated by the senseless violence in Kashmir. Their loved ones tortured, gunned to death and daily life hijacked by curphews, gunshots, scarcity, constant displacements and lack of basic respect for the sanctity of life. How then do you embrace a stranger with such love, such openness and trust? How?
First, they must be extraordinary. Second, BET started by two mavericks with hearts of gold have created a home, not an orphanage that has nurtured them so painstakingly, with so much care that the violence witnessed by these little ones has slowly sublimated itself to a deep-felt humanity and a need to right the wrongs done to them simply by loving another and then another. Something became apparent to me. Suffering makes you cynical and hard when you are weak. But on the other hand watching these children I felt suffering is the only way to become more human if you have courage. BET has given these kids courage and love beside basic amenities and education. And that is what makes BET so unique. I have worked in non profit organizations for the last seven years in India and in New York and seen how the basic premise of each organization is compromised by the inability to sustain the feeling that got you there in the first place.
My second learning- Leadership at BET is a stunning model of unflagging responsiveness to things and people around you. Its founder Aadhik Kadam and its adminstrators Supriya and Salima are a motley crew that come from completely differing backgrounds and yet are so beautifully in rhythm with each other and offer a refreshingly unique flavour of leadership. Supriya, a TISS graduate daily interfacing with army and militants, teaching the kids English, making rotis and chai in the kitchen, ensuring their safe passage to school everyday, monitoring the learning of 52 kids, uniting with the kids in their Ramadan fasts…all with a smile and song! Her weakness, is Bhanu the mutt , recently adopted by BET. She breaks the rules for Bhanu. I caught her feeding Bhanu a painstakingly made layered parantha and letting her sleep in the same room as her! But she is not afraid of ferrying a sick kid to the hospital in the midst of a precarious curphew, and speaking her mind to the army officers taunting her.
Salima, well we never spoke much, she was invisible because of the speed at which she executed her responsibilities. She is a local Kashmiri, that came to work at BET on her own accord and I heard the most amazing story about her .A gas cylinder had burst in the kitchen and the fire was spreading. Supriya was paralysed. Salima swiftly ordered the kids to evacuate and she went inside the burning room and switched off the regulator. She later told Supriya, in the most matter of fact way, “Its better for one to die than many getting hurt.” Such prosaic thoughts fly around in BET amidst the most incredibly volatile situations.
Adhik is at the helm of ensuring the funding, running of the BET and juggles between the head office in Pune and Kupwara. Yet even in his sleep he is constantly thinking of how he can better the lives of these kids. Seeing him in action with the kids was a demonstration of a dialogic teacher who thrives on opening new spaces in the heads and hearts of these children. Dialogues ranged from the most coveted topic of Kashmir’s freedom, art, belief, identity, purpose of life, sunsets, to abstract discussions on articulating realities that cant be seen by the naked eye…He transformed from a loving caretaker, to a jester, to a musician, to playing the devils advocate, a confidante, and a parent with such ease.
The children themselves were taking care of each other with instincts that were beyond maternal. Each child took care of those younger then them , without being asked to. A 6 year old constantly carried her few months old baby sister without once complaining of her tiring arms. They have fundamentally redefined my notion of family and home.
I recollect my first morning in BET, as I brushed my teeth and washed my face in their bathroom with the usual nonchalance and pace of an upper middle class upbringing, I was shocked when I got out of the bathroom to see 7 little girls lined up patiently with face and legs contorted. But not a knock on the door to indicate their urgent and perhaps greater need to use that bathroom.50 kids and three administrators use ONE bathroom sans any drama or conflict. I suppose when you have witnessed your loved ones mutilated and killed in front of your eyes, your notion of love and patience takes on a new dimension. And the typical demands of childhood transform into a life of unusual selfless discipline.
My conversations with the girls about dreams was a revelation. Each of them have clear dreams of what kind of education, career they want and are unfazed by the reality of their situation. An urgent need that emerged from these conversations was their thirst to learn, become more capable of dialoguing with the world outside Kashmir. They felt the acute need to educate themselves in order for them to actively help other kids in similar situations. Their notion of love and romance outside Kashmir, in big cities like Mumbai was poignant. They felt that love went out of the window in Kahsmir after marriage, but in Bombay people were in love with love and couples remained in love forever. And yet their innocence was sharp enough to condemn why the more privileged in Mumbai cared nothing for the slums that grew around them and did nothing to clean the city or reach out to those who had nothing.
The 50 beautiful hearts that I had the privilege to work with have shaken me to the core and inspired a pro-active humanism that so easily takes on the dull patina of indifference and forgetfulness. Thank you for sharing your lives and love with me.
I am profoundly thankful to Adhik and Nitin for effortlessly bestowing on me the trust to work with these gems and their trust means the world to me.
The journey to Kupwara to meet the kids at Basera-e Tabbassum made me.