Poor Kids Take a Magical Bus to a Transformative Journey for a Better Future

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Magic Bus Houston Board with Sangita Pal, Matthew Spacie,
Manoj Bajpayee and Gala Underwriters
Photos: Bijay Dixit

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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON:  Almost four decades after the British ceremoniously exited the Sub Continent and left behind a shattered but euphoric India, another Britisher came to the work in the city with the Gateway of India at its shores and was shattered and appalled by the depths of poverty that he saw. Deeply overcome with a desire to raise them out of their misery, he sought his own independence from his comfortable executive position and began to work with the poor in Mumbai.

“I came to Bombay 30 years ago (as COO of Cox and Kings, then India’s largest travel company) and this city of 25 million had a huge impact on me,” said Matthew Spacie, 48, as he sat onstage in an armchair being interviewed by the screen actor Manoj Bajpayee. “I started a search on how to help poor people and it led me on a journey to understand why people live in poverty. I couldn’t understand why India had tremendous resources but there were people living on the streets.”

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Magic Bus Houston volunteers

One day, Spacie recalled, he saw fifteen boys loitering in the streets and, on an impulse, he started to coach them to play rugby, a sport he himself played regularly at the Bombay Gymkhana. He built on this experience to instill discipline, team spirit and hard work in them and was amazed that he was able to help each one of them find a job within 12 months. He was beginning to formulate a way to address the roots of poverty and came up with the idea of Magic Bus in 1999, launching it in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai.

The Idea has changed his life and those of 450,000 kids who have gone through his education and vocational centers in the past 26 years. He resigned his job in 2001 and though still a British citizen, settled in Mumbai, married an Indian woman, Ashima Narayan, a photographer and film-maker (Meri biwi Hindustani hai. Meri biwi bohot sundar hai, he said in the smattering of accented Hindi he speaks) and lives in Lower Parel. He was recognized for his work and knighted as a Member of the British Empire in 2007.

Spacie was in town for the second annual Magic Bus Benefit Gala held at the Westchase Marriott hotel on the city’s westside, held on Saturday, September 19 and attended by around 350 people. The event was organized by the Houston Chapter of the Magic Bus (other chapters are in New York, the UK, Germany and Singapore), with President Amit Bhandari, the head of the BioUrja Trading, LogiBo and West Plains fuel commodity supply firms and his Board Swatantra Jain, Jugal Malani, Dr. H.D. Patel, Dr. Sunita Moonat, Gopal Savjani, Brij Kathuria and Mona Parikh.

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Magic Bus 2nd Annual Gala Underwriters

The event opened up with a montage of Manoj Bajpayee’s films shown on three screens inside spherical frames, an artifice contrived by the ever inventive mind of the technically savvy Brij Kathuria, who spent countless hours on the stage details. Bajpayee had flown in from Mumbai especially to attend as guest of honor (see page 12) and strode up to the stage to receive applause and took his place in the armchair setting to conduct the interview of Spacie. Emcee Pooja Lodhia, a reporter from KTRK ABC13 TV, radiant in a gold thread and sequined sari introduced both Bajpayee and Spacie as well as the other surprise guest who had flown in from Mumbai, Sangita Pal, a young 18 year-old from the slum of Dharavi who has graduated from the Magic Bus system and hopes to go onto college.

Bajpayee expressed admiration of the work that Spacie has done in creating Magic Bus, adding that years ago, when he first went to drama school, his mentor was Barry John, an expatriate Britisher and how coincidental it was that another Britisher was now mentoring young people on their road to success. Spacie explained how 450,000 children had so far joined Magic Bus and how it was able to channel their ambitions so that there wasn’t a mismatch with their abilities, how Magic Bus was able to bring people together and encourage them to send their kids. “We have built 30 vocational centers so far and next year hope to add another 50,” he added.

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From left: Sangita Pal, Matthew Spacie & Manoj Bajpayee

Bajpayee shifted his attention to Pal asking her about her experience as a child born in Dharavi who had joined Magic Bus when she was 7. “Before Magic Bus, my life was limited to the home, and now I have learnt leadership skills,” she said, “and how it can take me further.” She explained how she lives with 6 others in one-room in the slum and is currently in college. “My friends who are now married and have kids wish they had joined Magic Bus too,” she added. Changing roles, Spacie then interviewed Bajpayee about his life journey to become an actor which he answered with much appreciated honesty.

After the interview, Bhandari and Spacie opened the floor for questions from the audience and a donation drive which Bhandari pledged to match dollar for dollar, adding that they had already collected $280,000 before the gala. Figures released later showed that the event had mustered $480,000 for Magic Bus. The evening rolled into dinner, which, along with the appetizers, was catered by Dawat Catering and an entertaining bhangra segment by the Rice University Student group. Ambiance was provided by Nalini Kannan of Décor One and by music from DJ Nish Naik.