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Charity begins at home. Literally.

In August 2010, I had recently quit my long time job as an English teacher at one of the famous preparatory management schools in India and finished my M.Phil degree. I did not have any immediate plans to start a PhD and frankly, joining another job did not appeal to me in the least. As I bobbed about the city, indulging myself in the Spanish language, dance classes, cooking classes, candle-making, home improvement and training college girls in singing, I realized that there was only one thing that used to give me satisfaction before and this was the only thing I wasn’t able to do jobless. Giving back. My only joy in life is to be able to give something back to the world that has given me so much to begin with. And although I would very much like to attribute this philanthropic side of me to films I have watched, like ‘Please Give’ and ‘Pay it Forward’ or books I have read, like ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ or even ‘Quentins’, in all truthfulness, I am just wired this way. I truly believe that most of us have been given enough, in all departments which matter, and we have been given all this without asking, and that is why it is by default our duty to keep giving back, without being asked for anything.

My little workshop

So, this article is about how I got back to giving back. As I was saying, in the late summer of ’10, I was thinking of how to occupy my time doing something worthwhile, which would satisfy my personal and social expectations from myself. Then came Rakshabandhan, and as usual my entire extended family gathered at our house to celebrate the festival. In the midst of those celebrations, my little cousin, aged 9, came up to me requesting that I help her in her drawing assignment for school. I was curious as to where she learnt this fact about my drawing abilities and she pointed to my other cousin, now grown up, who used to get colourful sketches of Bharatnatyam dancers made by me for her dance scrapbook. And it came rushing back to me! I used to draw so much! I used to make dress designs, caricatures, calligraphy fonts, madhubani animals, figures and portraits and what have you[D1] . I also used to make greeting cards. For every one and on every occasion. Even my aunt, the older cousin’s mother, reminded me of all the cards I had made for them over the years and that she still has them in safe keeping. And then I thought, maybe I was actually good. You know, not like good because everything you do at 12 is praised beyond belief and put up on the refrigerator but really, truly good at something. And right then and there, I asked my present relatives if they would at all be interested in buying handmade greeting cards to send to their known ones on occasions like New Year’s and Deepawali? At the time, I thought their enthusiastic optimism was another veiled attempt to indulge a child of the family but I was soon proven wrong.

I spent the next week doing two things: gathering every single art and craft supply I could find around the house and spreading the word that I am doing something. Within three days, I had managed to create samples for most important occasions, around 20 cards in total, and put them in categories like ‘general celebration’, ‘birthday’, ‘children-birthday’, ‘wedding’, ‘anniversary’ and ‘congratulations’. Next, I made a mock-up stencil of font designs that people could choose from, 10 or so, and pasted the sheets at the back of my scrapbook (my catalogue titled ‘Joy’). And then I started taking rounds, making phone calls and generally advertising my cards shamelessly. Thankfully, people responded very quickly and the oncoming festive season did not hurt either. Rolling orders and bulk orders together, I was looking at over a 500 cards ordered in a matter of weeks. And priced between 50 and 100 INR (with exceptions for cards that were too specific, themed or required extra penmanship/matter or crafting), that was a nice wee amount for my little charity kitty. Long story short, between September 2010 and March 2011, I had managed to rake in more than 30,000 INR making these cards. Then came the time to put this money to good use.

Pens and pencils and books, oh my!

My grandmother’s sister, who lives in a village in U.P., runs a registered school for the local children. In fact, it is a school where all my cousins and I myself have had ample opportunities to pretend to be teachers at one point or another while little impressionable kids from farming backgrounds have looked upon us with great aplomb and wonder. I admit it was more than a little narcissistic. However, the one thing I always used to notice was how these kids never seemed to have nice paper to write on. They did have decent pens, your regular Reynolds and Cello, but not good quality paper. And I, as a writer and a lover of calligraphy, have always found a certain bond between the writer and their paraphernalia that cannot be explained nor questioned. Well, I knew I  wanted to do something for kids and now I had the chance. My ‘dadi’ had called her sister, my grandmother, with a query regarding red ink pens because exam season was approaching and she needed bulk packs. When my grandmother asked me to go buy some, I asked her if we were going to go to deliver them in person or was my cousin going to pick them up and take them over later. She shrugged, her non-committal response and I got my window.

The same afternoon, I went to the wholesale stationery market in Chawri Bazar (you have to be an Old-Delhite to understand) and bought a selection of pens, pencils (fancy ones), notebooks, drawing books, notepads and some other little items of variety that I thought the kids would appreciate without choking on them. Then I came home, segregated the items and packed a few of the fancier ones. The following weekend, my cousin and I drove down to the village, with a familiar feeling of going on vacation (every summer since we were kids) and a fresh feeling of doing something good. We emptied the dicky of the car right in the veranda of the schoolhouse and from then on there was no stopping us. We spent almost two schooldays holding competitions, quizzes and races, handing out little prizes to winners and the runners-up. And on the third day, we took out all the notebooks and writing instruments and handed them out to the students in classes 5-8, because they were the ones old enough to get good use out of them. Since then, I have sold more cards, collected some more funds and sent some colouring books, easy to read story books in Hindi and Basic English and quiz books for higher classes to the village school and I have to say, my report card has all smiles on it!

To conclude, I know that everyone is busy and will probably not find this realistic enough to follow or even believe but I did it and I loved every minute of it. I don’t do it as much now because frankly, I take pride in my artwork and instead of churning out less-than-perfect 20 cards, I would rather make 5, which will be worth paying for. But the point is, I honestly think that little kids are looking to be engaged, to be challenged and wowed and all their teacher needs is the right kind of instrument. With those small story books and nice looking stationery, I could see that there was a certain joy in their little hearts as they practiced their math tables or took down a dictation. And I would be the happier for it if I could continue contributing to little hearts’ joys like this for the years to come. This is my purpose. This is the story of ‘Joy by Kay’.

Karishma Gaur