Sunday, November 29, 2009

Martha Rose

Martha and Tom's visit to India has so completely occupied my life for the past few weeks I have literally done almost nothing but plan for it and then revel in it. This morning, the day I take them to Delhi for their return flight to the US, I am awake at 4:30 AM, unable to comprehend that it is already about to end. I am feeling such a mix of emotions: sadness that is over, pride in it having gone so beautifully and utter amazement at what their coming here has accomplished.

Here they are at the airport in Delhi one week ago (Tom, as usual, eternally ON: who could say he had been traveling for the past 24 hours?).

Martha is my oldest and dearest friend outside of my family. We met in 5th grade and we have been close ever since. By a strange series of coincidences, we ended up in the same field - though on different continents and from different angles: she has a Ph.d in Special Education and is the head of a teacher preparation program at Salve University in Newport Rhode Island and I, with no official qualifications, am running a foundation for children with special needs in India.

Over the years, I have grown more and more dependent upon her for new ideas and approaches to our work. She has recommended books, films, computer programs - all in an effort to work more effectively with our kids. As every suggestion turned out to be a winner, it finally occurred to me to ask her to come over herself and be the next speaker in our Sir Rata Tata Trust Distinguished Lecture Series.

But because we don't believe in keeping anything simple and because we DO believe in the principle of faida utthao, we also asked her to do a seminar for principals, a workshop for mainstream school teachers and a training session for special educators. While I did feel guilty for making her work so hard, the benefits to the Foundation were so diverse and manifold, I overcame my remorse. She was a triumph.

Each audience was so different that her presentation was, by necessity, different as well. Yet the essential message was the same: Focus on the learner - not on the teacher, not on the test, not on the syllabus. What do we want our children to possess when they emerge from school? A long string of memorized facts and figures (the agricultural products of Madhya Pradesh, the height of Mount Everest, the mean temperatures of the Sahara) or "Enduring Understandings"?

Enduring Understandings, a concept developed by two brilliant educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, on whose research Martha bases much of her own work, include the ability to think creatively and analytically, the ability to research, to connect, to perceive patterns and relationships and to work constructively as part of a team to design new solutions for problems and challenges as yet undreamed of.

She laid out the grand design in summary form in the first lecture and then filled in the gaps over the rest of the week with educators at various levels in a series of specific sessions which were fascinating, informative, provocative and funny. Over and over, she reminded each group of their professional skills - reassuring them that including every child and designing the classroom so that all could learn was what they were trained to do. It's not that difficult, she kept saying.

The metaphor she used was an instructive one, especially in India, where food and hospitality are so central to our lives. Think of a large family gathering, she said, which all of us have hosted at one time or another. In planning the meal, we prepare a central group of standard party dishes which almost everyone will be sure to like: karhai paneer, dal makhani, aloo jeera, gobhi masala, raita, poori. But for Masiji, who can't eat anything fried, we make sure to have plain chapatti; for Bhaiya who is on a strict diet, we have some raw salad, dal without the tarka and steamed vegetables. And because half the people love mirchi and half can't take it, we have two separate versions of every dish.

We have all done this countless times. In the very beginning, for the inexperienced cook, it can be a daunting task. But for the old pros, it's a piece of cake. We do it with our eyes closed. And we don't think of Masiji or Bhaiya or the 50% who don't eat mirchi (or the 50% who do) as having "special needs". They are all just part of the family.

That was Martha's message: There aren't special children or typical children - there are just children. There aren't my children or your children - there are just our children. And just as Masiji has the right to her chapatti and Bhaiya has the right to his salad, every child, regardless of learning style, has the right to an education.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Our Own Miracle

Ten years ago, our doctor told us that Moy Moy probably only had a few more months to live. She had been having up to 16 major seizures in a day and her decline in every sphere had been precipitous. Although at that point she was eating on her own and could still walk with assistance, she was virtually non-verbal and less and less responsive each passing day.

We didn't argue with our doctor. Ten years seemed like a generous amount of time for a child who had been born on the side of a road, 12 weeks premature, weighing in at one kilo. We felt we had been lucky to keep her for this long.

But Moy Moy had her own plans and she didn't consult with us or our doctor or anyone else about how she would organise things. She simply did it: defied the odds, carried on, and taught us all a thing or two in the process.

As year after year melted into the next, we realized what a gift each year, each week, each moment actually is. Living under a death sentence ("she only has a few months left" never left our mind) concentrates the mind wonderfully. How precious this breath is. How lucky we are to be alive.

And to have our Moy Moy - still with us, still here.

Today Moy Moy turned 20, and to celebrate, we invited the entire Foundation and a few scattered friends who (for reasons unknown) are not in the Foundation.

I spent the day making cakes (FOUR!) and organising chairs, flowers and water glasses. In-between, I found a few moments to give thanks for the joy this young woman has brought to so many lives, for the purpose she has helped us to discover, for the mission she has created and is now responsible for. . .

Sunday, November 15, 2009

67 Years Old?

Anne Bruce is a remarkable woman.

Who does this? A retired pediatric speech therapist, with years of experience working with children just exactly like ours, and still much in demand in her native Scotland, decides to leave it all and set out for India, where she knows no one, and work for over five months as a volunteer in the Latika Roy Foundation.

That was almost two years ago. But the experience was so good - on both sides - that she agreed to come back again, which she did in August, staying until the end of October.

Those are the bare-bones facts. But how to describe the energy, the passion, the love for what she does and the children she does it for?

Try this: after her first stint with us in 2008, Anne returned to Edinburgh and started fund-raising. She was absolutely determined that we would have a computer and a range of communication technology which would allow children to play with and use computers to express their needs, desires and choices. Along with a band of loyal and devoted friends, she organized a Ceilidh (a musical evening with dancing and food) in her town and managed to collect over 2000 pounds. She then bought scads of equipment (including a talking, singing monkey) and shipped it all to us in advance of her arrival.

"Goodness Brings A Downpour" is the name of a very odd little children's book we had when our kids were small. The title has always stayed with me because, as odd as it sounds, it's true. Anne's generosity and determination created its own ripple effect: when I told a friend in Mumbai about the amazing software she had brought for us, that friend went out and raised the money for three more computers so that each center could have its own!

There is really no end to the stories of Anne's presence here, of her wisdom and compassion and warmth, of her concern for children and staff alike, of her sense of humor and her sense of the absurd and over all, her keen intelligence and her passion for helping children to communicate.

This trip, in spite of my being fifty times as busy as I was on her last visit, I felt as if we spent much more time together and got to know each other on a deeper level. Maybe it was just that we had two long drives together (and car rides - even on India's chaotic roads - are my favorite place for conversation). Maybe it was because of all the emailing we had done in the time she was away (she is a gifted writer, on top of all her other talents, and an excellent correspondent). Maybe it was because now I knew what a talent she has for friendship (both times she was here friends and family made the journey all the way out to visit her; one friend, worried she wouldn't have enough to read, sent her a book every single week of her stay).

Maybe I just don't know why. But I think it's true.

The day before she left, we finally made it out to a beautiful place in the mountains to visit a women's group which makes patchwork quilts. Anne wanted to buy one for her little grand-daughter to be and we were both dazzled by the beauty of the place, the loveliness of the women and the amazing quality of the quilts they made.

We had a wonderful time looking at and choosing between the glorious designs they had on display and we amused them and ourselves by agreeing on an extremely girly-girl pink hearts and bows quilt for the baby only to decide, right at the last moment, to ditch it and go for a much quirkier, original and interesting one with roosters and chickens in a range of colors and poses we found fetching and delightful.

The image that will stay with me from Anne's most recent visit (for she has promised she will return again!) is this one:

Calm, thoughtful and a little bit "I lift up mine eyes to the hills." From whence cometh our help? My money is on Anne.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ten Seconds To Change Your Mind

Gmail has added a new feature: After you send an email, you get this message: "Your message has been sent. Undo."

You then have ten seconds to change your mind. Hit "Undo" and you are instantly reassured: "Sending has been undone."

Nice touch. But ten seconds? I went to my "Settings" page and found that while I actually have two options, ten seconds is the generous one. The other choice is to change my mind in five.

Impulsive as I am, thoughtlessly sending emails of indignation, self-righteousness, fawning admiration and too-clever-by-half sarcasm, my regrets come late at night while trying to fall asleep. "Why did I hit send?" I groan (again). "Why didn't I hit save instead? Why didn't I just sleep over it?"

Thanks for trying, Gmail, but I guess it's not fair to expect to find self-control, restraint, prudence and mature judgment on a free email service. Maybe I should upgrade.

Anand Leary, Birthday Boy

Anand turned 26 this week, marking a decisive change in our relationship. He is now older than I was when he was born. The moment of realization that this is true, that your child has become an adult, is always startling, I suppose, but in fact it's part of a process that has been going on for years - a process that for us has been (SO LUCKY!) mostly graceful and fun and a delight to look back upon.

Anand. His name means Bliss, Joy or "All Happiness" (as my father-in-law translated it for me once) - and he is that for us.

A friend of mine told me when he was young that in bringing up a child the important thing is to emerge with a person you want to spend time with, a person whom you like, a person who makes you laugh, a person who makes you glad to be alive.

That's Anand.

As usual, I know mothers should not brag about their own children, but what to do? I can't help it. When Cathleen arrived in the US to start college, Anand (who was still a struggling student himself) met her at the airport and took her first to the Apple store where he bought her a laptop. Then off they went to Verizon, where he bought her a top of the line cell phone. And the monthly bill for phone calls? "Put it in my name," he told the woman behind the counter.

Many people are generous. Anand gives with an alacrity and elan that makes you feel you are doing him the favor by receiving.

Anand has always been my computer consultant - the one I automatically turn to when anything goes wrong. But lately I've been calling him for other things too - design questions, of course - but also strategy for our awareness campaign, how to handle tricky human relation issues at work, time management, the next big thing . . . I respect his advice and ideas and I look forward to his unique perspectives. He's thoughtful, analytical and smart.

And funny! I keep a list of things I need to ask him about handy, but what I most look forward to is the way he makes me laugh. He makes me glad to be alive. Anand. All Happiness.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


An important and ongoing activity of the EIC - making splints and other assistive devices - gained momentum this year through the quiet and dedicated efforts of one of our most faithful and talented volunteers - Barbara Angert, an Occupational Therapist presently based in Dehradun and a long-time supporter of the Foundation.

Barbara is an amazing person. Unbelievably skilled and experienced, she has a generosity of spirit which can only be explained by her faith in God and her belief in service to God's people. I met her one very lucky day - seven years ago! - in Rama Market, of all places. Cathleen and I were shopping for cloth and there was this woman I had never seen before chatting to the shopkeeper in excellent Hindi. How could I not know her? Dehradun is a small place when you are a foreign woman who speaks Hindi. There are not that many of us.

So finally, I had to ask.

"Who are you?"

Barbara told me she was an Occupational Therapist and that she worked with kids with disability.

"You don't!" I said, awestruck.

"I do," she said, puzzled.

A few days later, she arrived at the EIC and the rest, as we say, is history.

Children attending The Early Intervention Center are often in the process of learning to walk. Because so many of them have Cerebral Palsy, when they try to stand, their brains send the wrong messages to their leg and ankle muscles - resulting in a range of painful and disabling conditions. Their ankles become weak, their foot arches might collapse or they end up in contorted and awkward positions. Although learning to walk is still possible even with these conditions, it is MUCH more difficult. And later in life, the deformities produced can cause pain and serious arthritis.

The answer? The marvelous science of orthotics. Braces and splints can be designed which hold the child’s feet and legs in the anatomically correct positions during the crucial learning-to-walk phase. Properly braced limbs make it possible for the child to concentrate on acquiring new skills of balance and righting because her brain doesn’t have to put so much energy into controlling muscles which have a mind of their own.

The Foundation, with Barbara’s skill and leadership, has been able to provide a wide range of orthotic devices for many EIC children. In the past year, this department has expanded, with Barbara training our current crop of physiotherapists to make the splints themselves.

Orthotic devices are extremely expensive and often not carefully made here in Dehradun.

Our goal is to establish a full-fledged Orthotics unit to serve any child in Dehradun who needs it.

Because every child deserves the love and devotion that Barbara brings to her work.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Missed Chance

Today I bought a small assortment of expensive fruits and vegetables. Mushrooms, a green pepper, two papaya, one tangerine, half a kilo of chikoos and one sitaphul (come to India and I will treat you to some!). I was at my favorite vendor's and he was teasing me about how little I was buying. Just then, a boy stopped and asked how much the onions were. "20 rupees a kilo," the man told him abruptly, turning back to me.

I glanced at the boy, who was now telling his mother - who stood off to the side with a young girl - the price. All three of them were bone thin. The girl was carrying her chappals in her hand and on her head she had a bundle of what looked like household equipment, all wrapped up in a piece of cloth.

The mother shook her head at the 20 rupees and motioned to the boy to continue walking. My vendor took no notice whatsoever.

I moved toward the girl. "Where are you coming from?" I asked her. She smiled shyly, then turned away.

I wanted to buy them the kilo of onions, but I felt shy too. I walked to my car and as I opened the door, I looked back at them. All three had stopped and were staring back at me.

I got in the car and drove away, thinking of all the stories I have read of people down to their last dime, for whom only a miracle will get the onions, the subway fare, the medicine. I could have been the miracle. But I let social embarrassment (what will they think?) get in the way.

I have been thinking of them ever since - that little tableaux on the side of the road: the Holy Family, thinking about onions for their evening meal but not having the 20 rupees to acquire them.

How often do we miss the chance? It won't save the world, it won't bring about Peace In Our Time, but why not buy someone the onions they are craving? Why not, Why NOT? Next time. This is a promise. Next time I will not let anything stand in my way.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Next Generation

Today was the valedictory celebration for the graduates of our second Teaching Assistants Training program. When I arrived, they were all still dancing, but as soon as they saw me they got very serious.

Luckily, this didn't last too long.

What was very obvious - even in the brief time I was with this group of vibrant, vivid women - was how much they had to share and how thrilled they were to be doing it. Lunch was scheduled for 1:30, but they had so much to say about the course and how it had changed their lives that we didn't get to eat until after three. It was truly inspiring to listen to them. My father, who doesn't have a word of Hindi, was enchanted. Late into the evening he kept remembering them: "I don't know what they were saying," he kept repeating. "But they were so beautiful! And so articulate. Even I could tell that!"

Like Vandita, for example. When I first met her, she was a quiet, soft-spoken girl who was too shy to say much. Today, she couldn't say enough about how much she had learned and how it had all changed her life. She was echoed by so many others in the class. Several mothers talked about how they used to yell at their children and even hit them when they misbehaved. They said that now they couldn't do that anymore. Now they could understand why their kids were doing whatever they were doing and hitting and shouting - suddenly - just seemed counterproductive as a response.
Manju and her team are simply amazing trainers. I'm not putting anyone down, but I met this group of women when the course first began three months ago. They were nice, to be sure, but you wouldn't have looked at them twice: ordinary housewives, for the most part; hadn't traveled, hadn't read a lot, hadn't had much experience outside of the conventional worlds into which they were born . . . and yet here they were at the end of three months passionate about the new world they had had a glimpse of. Over and over, I heard them talk about the "new direction" their lives had taken and the gratitude they had for the teachers who had shown them the way.
The teachers! For me, hearing them praised was one of the best parts of the celebration. These are all people I have known for years and years, and try as I might, to me they are still as young as they were the day I first hired them. Yet here they were being referred to as "Ma'am" and "Sunitaji", being quoted and respected and even revered by their students. Wow.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Would Deepa Do?

My dear friend Deepa Bhushan turned 50 on November 1st . Her children organized a birthday party for her and they invited me and Ravi. Ravi and I seldom go anywhere together (That's life. We would love to. We can't.) - and I was the lucky one this time.

The Bhushans are a funny clan. They pretend they aren't into birthdays and other sentimental observances and their celebrations are heavy on the jokes and teasing. I know they are as emotional as anyone else, and particularly about Deepa, their jewel in the crown, but somehow when it came time for the testimonials at her party, I got all shy and self-conscious. There was so much I wanted to say that I couldn't say a thing. I just kept taking photographs and practicing my speech in my head, hoping someone would force me to the mike.

No one did (which I intend to resent for quite some time to come), so here it is in writing instead.

The first time I met Deepa was soon after her marriage. Her husband's cousin, settled in the US, had come to our place to meet Ravi and Prashant had accompanied him. Soon after, we were invited to their place for what I assumed was dinner - 6 o'clock. Dinner time, right?

We had a house guest at the time and of course we brought him along too. Six o'clock on the dot. Deepa was the life of the party. She served pakoras, pizza, sandwiches and cake and I kept thinking that these were the appetizers and that dinner was still to come. I held back, thinking: "If the appetizers are so amazing, what will the dinner be like?"

By the time it was clear that we had been invited for tea and not dinner, I was too deep in my delicate appetite role to change course. I left hungry, but fascinated by the woman who had invited us. (But not as much as Ravi and our guest were . . . they were speechless with admiration. "What is wrong with you guys?" I asked as we all sat around the table back at our flat, eating toast. "Deepa to bahuthi soni hai," Ravi sighed. "She's very special," Arun agreed, looking a little dazed.)

Luckily, I am not the jealous type. And besides I was just as smitten.

Deepa and I were pregnant at the same time - she with Manav and me with Cathleen. We did our prenatal yoga and stretching together and were each present at the other's delivery.
I gave birth to Cathleen at home, so she had no problem. For Manav's delivery at Holy Family Hospital, I had to sling a stethescope around my neck and pretend to be a doctor to get into the labor ward.

Over the years we have shared experiences, sorrows and joys, advice and recipes and we have watched our marriages and our children flourish and grow with pride and amazement.

I wanted to tell the gathering at her birthday party that night about the novel I dream of writing one day - a novel about Deepa and her galaxy, a novel which would chronicle the vast network she has created of relatives, friends and colleagues and which she sits at the center of, effortlessly (it seems!) connecting, nurturing, repairing, restoring . . .I've never seen anything quite like it. Every time I phone her she's on the way to visit somebody in the hospital or taking someone to the train station or buying supplies for an elderly relative or attending a naam karan ceremony or taking a friend who needs cheering out for lunch. The list of her engagements boggles the mind. She is endlessly there for others, yet somehow maintains her own equanimity and balance.

Deepa is one of my life's anchors. She reminds me of all the important things: to drink a cup of tea, to eat well, to get enough sleep, to call the kids, to think things through. WWDD? is a question I often ask myself. In difficult situations requiring judgment, maturity, resolve and kindness, I know I will not go far wrong if I can just figure out the answer: What Would Deepa Do?

And if I can't decide on my own, I know she's just a phone call away.