ACTS Harmony, a children’s choir comprising 24 children from ACTS Secondary School, Electronic City, came to our Centre this morning, bringing in Christmas cheer with their carol singing. The delicious oranges they got each of us were not a patch on the sweetness of their voices and smiles. The harmony in their music was not reflected in the environment around our Centre however. Towards the end of the performance, there was much distraction caused by some neighbours who gathered outside the Centre after calling the local Police Patrol vehicle.

A long standing opposition has built up over the last 7 years to the presence of children and adults with special needs in this neighbourhood. For the nth time this morning, the neighbours gathered to express their irritation and anger over the disturbance we apparently cause them in their daily lives. The disruption they caused on the street outside was as discordant as the music on our terrace was harmonic. Though we do not ever use microphones and do try to keep the sound levels under check, the objecting neighbours have expressed their disgust about the artistic nature of our work.

As arguments were flung at us and voices raised, it emerged that the “free and happy” nature of our work is irksome to some of the neighbours who asked us if this is what we call work. “Why don’t you go somewhere else if you want to sing, dance and play so much?” was just one of the milder judgements passed. The complaint was that our children have no future to make but the neighbours have “serious” lives to take forward; they have exams to write and jobs to apply for. Our work (and the children’s development) therefore, are not important and the world, has to revolve around their needs (since it “mattered more, finally”).

As we were regaled with very beautiful music on the terrace, we knew that what “mattered more, finally” to us was very different from what the complaining neighbours wanted to live for and by. We respect the need for academic investigation and progress; economic growth; achievement and all of that but we are exposed to a world where we see time playing out very differently and from very closer quarters. Every moment is truly a new opportunity where anything could happen. None of the regular milestones are met inside this world, most often. The journeys we see the children making could also be from sitting position to standing – not just a journey from place A to B. It is our role to be patient, to enter inside every moment and offer our presence, compassion, support and love. This could be fairly challenging in itself, given the conditioning that is primed towards prioritising “normalcy and speed.”

Yet, the children teach us to watch this conditioning and dismantle it very carefully. The priceless gift we receive from the children is to look at the world from outside of the frames that were placed on our eyes. These thoughts, we knew, would not hold water with neighbours who simply want to “sanitize” us out of their environment.

What threw a new perspective on the whole issue was the visiting children’s voices. “Why are they not proud of what you do?” asked one high school student. “Will they calm down if we sing for them?” asked another. “Please come to our school with all the children. It will be like a picnic. We will host a grand celebration for you all with more instruments and children and festivities!” was another suggestion that came up. That children instinctively veer towards inclusion came through so clearly this morning.

Thus it was that our terrace was filled with as much warmth and cheer as the road outside our Centre was filled with cutting cold remarks and judgements made by neighbours who just want us out of their immediate environment. The heated exchanges happening outside the Centre were the exact opposite of the instinctive exchanges of pure joy and love that were happening on the terrace during the Houseful performance.

Though the doors of the Centre were opened to the complaining neighbours and the Police, not one of them entered the space to see what we do. They have left for now but what remains with us is a certainty that our goal to work towards inclusion using the arts needs to be taken forward, with even more zest and enthusiasm.