Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I love the Guru Ram Rai kids. Guru Ram Rai, the son of the seventh of the ten Sikh Gurus, is considered the founder of Dehradun (in India, where I live) and his followers are still based here. Among their many good works are a chain of schools which all look almost exactly alike and which specialize in very basic education for lower middle class children.

We have three of those schools in Vasant Vihar - one is around the corner from our Karuna Vihar school for kids with special needs and one is just two blocks down from our College for Vocational Training. You'd think they'd be used to us by now.


The picture above is how I usually see these kids: eager and curious and full of fun. They are AMAZED by me: How are you, Auntie? I am fine, Auntie. What is your name, Auntie? Where are you from, Auntie? And so on. When I take out the camera, chaos ensues as they push each other out of the way to pose, and then jostle into position to get a look at the results.

Today was a little different. Today I had Moy Moy along. We had set out for a walk to the cycle-walla to get her stroller's tires filled with air just as the Guru Ram Rai schools got out for the day. This has to be seen to be believed, but trust me when I say that those children throng the already crowded streets with zero regard for safety or decorum or the slightest worry about making it home in one piece.

Moy and I were swept up in the flood and at first I welcomed it - the Guru Ram Rai kids! Hello, Auntie! What is your name, Auntie?

Except that today no one said a word. Not a single child smiled. Strangely silent, they walked by us in pairs or sets of three, staring in horror at Moy in her buggy. Some smirked, some poked the ones they were with to be sure they had seen: "So big! In a pram!" I heard one saying. As they walked past, almost every child turned back to keep looking.

It was very hard. I felt like crying. Moy Moy doesn't speak, so I don't know exactly how it felt to her, down there at waist level, watching all those children staring at her, perhaps wondering what they found so strange, perhaps wishing we hadn't come out at all.

We got the tires filled and we made our way back home. On the main road, we saw a family in the distance. Two men, one holding a baby, a woman, and two school-age children. The children were animated and excited. Long before we reached them, they were waving and calling out to us: "Hello, Didi! Hello Moy!" I heard the older one explaining to her parents: "It's Moy!"

They were Latika Vihar kids. They knew Moy Moy because she is one of them. She goes to Latika Vihar too. To them, she isn't that strange big child still riding around in a buggy. She isn't frightening or peculiar or someone to stay far away from. To them, she is a person with a story and a great stroller and a name. To them, she is Moy Moy.

I want to tell this story to people who don't believe in inclusion.

I can't get mad at those Guru Ram Rai kids when they stare at my daughter (even though I do). It's not their fault. They've never seen anyone like her. They've never seen anyone like her because we make sure that they don't. We keep kids like Moy Moy out of their schools and their playgrounds and their lives and then we expect them to be tolerant and accepting and inclusive.

How absurd.

It doesn't work like that. People accept what they understand. People accept what they have experienced. By keeping children with special needs away from their peers, we are guaranteeing their lifelong isolation.

I want to tell this story to people who don't believe in inclusion.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Use of Space

While in Portsmouth with my sister and her husband last week, I saw this beautiful cemetery and I asked Mary to pull over so I could take a photo.
It was F-R-E-E-Z-I-N-G. I cannot remember ever having been so cold. The wind tore in off the sea and cut right through my coat and my gloves (when I stepped out of the car - so warm! why did I have to take this picture??? - the wind almost lifted me in the air and dropped me like a clod in the street) and I was a little afraid my camera would also freeze in the confusion.

So the photo is not my best, OK? It was just too painful standing there, thinking and composing and getting all the variables lined up just right (remember how long I have lived in the tropics!).

But I think I captured the cold loneliness and the finality and the grey certainty of death. And the youth of so many who lived and died in the 19th century and the grief they endured as part of their sojourn here on this earth: the child lost at the age of two, the wife at 27. (Can you read the Harding gravestone? Can you see how the Batsons counted age in years AND months, aware, perhaps, of how precious each day was?)

That cemetery space was prime property: on the sea, on the main road, with views in all directions, close to town yet not crowded. At Portsmouth New Hampshire prices, was it a waste of space, given, as it was, to the dead?

I don't think so.

On this trip, more than any other, I was mindful of the need for reflection, the need to be FORCED to stop, to pause, to consider, to contemplate, to recognize that this life we live is fleet and passing and charged with meaning only if we have something meaningful to offer. Crouched there in the cemetery, trying vainly to protect myself from the icy knife-like winds, I understood that like Martha Batson (52, just one year older than me) or Mary Harding (27 - oh, my life at that age! So full of promise and joy!), this life is my only chance. It has to count. It has to mean something.

I love cemeteries for the lives they hold and the promise they proclaim. I love them because they make us conscious of each passing moment as if it could be our last. As if it could really be our last.

And I love them for the way they remind us that while this life is the only one we have, it is also the gateway to the eternal mystery of the life beyond.

Martha Batson. Mary Harding. And me. Do all in the atmosphere of eternity. There are worse ways to live.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wholesale Flower Market

Where did I get the idea that a flower market would be full not only of beautiful flowers but kindly, gentle, friendly men who would be happy to meet someone there for love of the beauty and the joy of the blossoms and the growth and the promise that flowers imply? Just where did I get that idea?

Well, now I know.

What an interesting experience. For years I have wanted to go to the wholesale flower market in Delhi where flowers are available at a fraction of what they cost in the shops and where they are fresher and more abundant than anything we can dream of here in Dehradun.

All that is true: abundance, dewy-fresh, rock-bottom cheap. But the vendors! The fellow-customers!

With the exception of a few other intrepid souls like me and Martha and Tom, and this father and his color-coordinated son, there to buy a few pretty arrangements for our own homes or the day's puja, most of the people we met were fierce working men: purposeful, determined and aggressive. This was a daily task for them and there was nothing remotely sentimental about it. Grab the glads, fix a good price and move on to the roses, the gerberas or the chrysanthemums, then get back on the road.

It was instructive and yet another reminder of how differently each person views the same thing - depending upon the lens she/he has been given and her/his proximity to life's edge.

Our lens, for the moment, is a soft focus one and the edge is a comfortable distance away. The flowers we bought lasted longer than any I have ever seen, but the questions they raised have a life all their own.