I met Utpal more than four years ago. He was just a kid then, so young, so full of energy, and so clearly standing upon unstable feet. Like me, Utpal was living with the founder of Project WHY; we had both been taken in. Anou, Project WHY, and his boarding school have had shared guardianship of Utpal for most of his life and when he isn’t in boarding school he lives with Anou in her home, as her family. When I first met Utpal, he was like a mouse that lived in the house- everyone knew he was there but nobody ever saw him. The only proof of his existence was the missing food in the morning.
Typical of Indian schools is to assign massive amounts of homework during holidays so I would spend my evenings with Utpal chipping away at his pile of work. I dreaded these hours almost as much as Utpal himself did; we would both dispassionately paste photos of global warming into collages and draw maps of India or write short English essays until our heads wanted to explode and my voice was hoarse from yelling over the bad Hindi cartoons playing in the background. I think we both grew to resent each other a little bit, but we always recovered with a trip to the park or to the carnival rides outside of the Kalkaji Mandir.
I must admit to feeling nostalgic about these moments now; I haven’t been asked to help with homework this year. Instead, I’ve been invited to the movies or he has invited himself to Center visits I’ve done. I was surprised but elated when Utpal asked to go to the Women’s Center and then to the Yamuna Center with me and a group of donors. I’d never seen him willingly engage with new people for more than an obligatory introduction. I found myself spending much more time observing Utpal than the Centers. I was awed by his maturity, composure, and self-possession. He eagerly played with the students, teased me for already gaining weight from excess kachoris and baingan bharta, gently corrected my Hindi, spoke articulately to the donors, and like every good 15-year-old, insisted on using my phone for selfies. He looked out for me as a big brother would, telling me little stories about the kids or his visit to Project WHY with his boarding school; he made sure I tried everything and urged me to pump the water- although, I think his motives were a little questionable as he found watching me just hilarious. What I learned from my day was that Utpal has found confidence, in himself and in this world.
Utpal has always done well in school. He is incredibly intelligent, but that comes easily to him. What he has managed to achieve in the four years since I’ve met him is far more difficult. I am so proud of the person he is becoming, and although my place in his life is a small one, I cling to the connection. Utpal was just a kid when we met but so was I; we’ve both grown up and learned to walk on stable ground. And I think we both have Project WHY to thank for that.
For more on Utpal's story you can get Anou's book, Dear Popples: love letters from an unlikely mother, here.