Wednesday, December 29, 2010

India: Where Even Simple Pleasures Are Not Simple

This is the time of year when many of my friends turn up in Goa, Kerala, Thailand and Singapore. It's cold here in Dehradun and it seems right to get out if one can. I'm one of those who can't. My house is too complicated (three people with disability means vacations by the seaside are not happening), and anyway my purse is too small.

I don't mind. I console myself with the "simple pleasures" in life. Beethoven. Candles. Homemade bread. And, at this time of year, a fire in our very own fireplace.

What a treat. I buy wood for 5 rupees a kilo (what a bargain!) and all day I look forward to that moment when Moy is in bed and the biddies are in their room and I will light the match beneath the grate.  I may also pour a glass of wine, I may write letters, I may read a book. I may just stare into those flames and pretend that they are the ocean.

This afternoon, anticipating this evening's "simple pleasure," I set the fire up early. I tore up newspaper and crumpled it under the grate, set up the kindling in a neat little triangular pile, then laid in the logs on the side. Naina, Moy Moy's babysitter, watched me doing it with interest.

"I get my wood at the tea gardens, Didi," she said. 

"Oh? Do you also have a fireplace?" Even as I asked, I knew the answer would be no.

"I've got a chula set up outside," she said. "That's where I cook our food."

Naina's gas cylinder ran out a few days ago. Gas is in short supply lately and it's unlikely she will get one for at least a month. So my simple pleasure is her dire necessity. Before she can have a cup of tea in the morning (I wander sleepily out to the kitchen whenever I happen to wake up and switch on the electric kettle), she has to gather sticks, fan the flames and boil water and milk.

It is nearly midnight now and my fire is dying. I'm going to bed.  But I go mindful of how lucky I am, how blessed, and of how easy it is to forget that and how stupid.

Friday, December 24, 2010

An Open Door At The Christmas Inn

Like every other good Christian growing up in the West, the story I heard about Mary and Joseph and the Inn at Bethlehem  went like this: there they were, a young, friendless couple, penniless, forced by circumstance to travel in the final days of Mary's pregnancy. Realizing she was about to give birth, they knocked on a door and were turned away because there was "no room in the inn."

That phrase conjures such horrors in the minds of people like me that it has reverberated down through the ages - no room, no room, no room. It has become a metaphor for Christ himself in a world which is hostile to the message of love and simplicity he came to teach. No room for you, Jesus. Find somewhere else to be born. Not here, not here. Our doors are closed.

But what a PR coup this is. What a twist on what most likely actually happened.

Living in India for nearly 30 years, I have a different take on the story. I think Mary and Joseph turned up at what passed for an inn in those days, at their income level. They certainly would have known better than to have asked for a room at a Best Western or the Taj. The inn they chose would have been a dharamsala, a place for poor people like themselves, a place where weary travelers huddled together in whatever space they could carve out for themselves - on the floor, wrapped in their own capes and rough blankets.

Was that a place for a young woman to give birth? Right in the midst of all the others? I think the innkeeper, who was probably poor himself, did the best he could in the circumstances, the way the poor always do. I think he thought creatively and compassionately and suggested the stable as quieter, more private and, with the heavy bodies of the animals filling up the space, warmer too.

And who turned up first to greet the newborn? Not the Mighty Three Kings, who arrived almost two weeks late, bearing useless gifts of the kind Jesus would warn against when he grew up. No, it was the shepherds, also poor people, who came in haste across the fields to see this thing which had come to pass.

In the popular legend, the innkeeper is the villain and the shepherds are just a bunch of villagers frightened by an angel into leaving their flocks and rushing pell-mell to see what was up. The Kings, on the other hand, are stately, thoughtful men of wisdom and gravitas, men who studied the skies and planned their journey in advance, even to the last detail of the gifts.

I'm not trashing the kings. Frankincense and Myrrh have their place in this world, I suppose. But as we reflect on the story again this Christmas, let's spare a kind thought for the innkeeper who did his best at the very moment he was asked; for the shepherds who left everything they possessed to go and pay their respects immediately, not waiting for the shops to be open so they could buy a suitable gift first.

Because a woman about to give birth needs a place this minute. And a newborn king would like to meet his subjects today.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tis A Gift To Be Simple . . .

The moment when Santa Claus arrives is the most anxiously awaited part of every Latika Vihar Christmas celebration. The children pretend to be cool and unconcerned:

but every single one of them is poised, hoping to be the first to spot him:

When he does arrive, it is pandemonium - every year, without fail. And every year the only way to restore order is for Santa to threaten to leave if everyone doesn't sit quietly and wait their turn. Yet, it is not difficult to understand the children's amazement at what is happening nor their concern that it could be over before their turn comes around.

I mean, here is this guy they have never met, walking around with a bag full of candy and gifts, and just handing it all out.

These are children who don't have much. They are not bone poor, but the current price of onions means their parents aren't buying them; they have one sweater or jacket each; the day it is washed is the day they shiver with the cold. And they know, better than most children, that good things run out quickly and that there is no reason to assume that they will be among the favored few who get whatever is going around.

Except at Latika Vihar. Even though they make no assumptions, have no sense of entitlement, at Latika Vihar, they are indeed the Chosen Ones.

 Child after child was called by name to meet Santa . . .

and their universal astonishment and delight was the perfect antidote to the jaded consumerism of the West where children have lists and expectations and suffer sad disappointment when things don't quite match their hopes and dreams.

It made me cry to see the looks on their faces, the disbelief that these shiny packages could really be theirs:

and though my American mind is already working feverishly to think of a way for next Christmas to bring them even shinier and more wonderful gifts, the lesson these children are teaching me is that more is not, in fact, more and that part of being overwhelmed and astonished lies in limits and simplicity.

Latika Vihar is about love and gratitude. It's really that simple. And that simplicity? A light to the nations.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sleeping Through The Night

Becoming a parent means letting go of many things, not least of which is unbroken sleep. We all understand this and most of the time we accept it with good grace. It's part of the deal and most of the time, it happens when we are young and energetic enough to take it in stride. Anand was born when I was 25, Cathleen when I was 28 and Moy Moy came along when I was 31. Sleepless nights for feeding, changing nappies, nursing sicklings and soothing nightmares were part of the fabric of my life as they grew from babies to toddlers and then teens.

I thought often when they were all small of my mother with seven of us and how she said when the youngest was finally sleeping reliably through the night that she had just gotten used to it, that it wasn't until she actually got to sleep as much as she needed that she realized how tired she had been for all those years.

I'm still tired. Moy Moy is 21 now, but we wake up with her every single night. She needs to be changed, she needs to be turned, she may have a seizure and she needs to be held. Her coughing wakes her and then us and we get up to reposition her on the pillows. When she is sick, we set the alarm to wake  to give her her medicines. She sleeps in our bed which makes things easier and more difficult at the same time.

Last night I had the beginnings of a bad cold and an idea occurred to me after Ravi had gone to bed. I could sleep in the guest room.

Guiltily, but before I let myself dwell too much on selfishness, I got out a soft white quilt, pulled my lumpy old pillow out from the middle of our enormous bed (specially designed for three) and crept upstairs. I fell into a sleep so deep it seemed like an inky black well, lined with velvet, and didn't emerge until after eight this morning. I woke confused - where was I? - and rested as I can't remember being in a long, long time.

Not complaining! Just reporting.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Song For An Inclusive Christmas

Here's a song I wrote for a Christmas concert a few years ago, set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy.

Children, hear the Christmas story
Ages old and yet still new
How the Lord of power and glory
Came to earth a child like you

Born to simple village parents
In a stable filled with beasts
To remind us of his promise
That the greatest is the least.

Bethlehem now calls us homeward
Find the stable bathed in light
Enter in, behold the baby
Ruler of both day and night.

Bring your gifts of joy and friendship

Hearts that love are never small

Clothe the naked, serve the homeless:


Peace on earth, good will to all.

Fast away the old world passes,
Hail the new sun in the sky

Casting beams of love and blessing
Bringing peace that never dies.

Join your hands with those beside you
Let the walls between us fall:

Greet the stranger, feed the hungry
Peace on earth, good will to all.

Build the road of peace before us
Build it wide and deep and long

Shield the slow, remind the eager
Help the weak and guide the strong

None shall push aside another,
None shall let another fall

Sing with us the Christmas message:
Peace on earth, good will to all!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Our Man Vickers

Tonight when I turned on the tap and no water came out, I thought about Vikram. Again. For, maybe, the 200th time today. Ravi and I have often remarked that without Vikram, our home would come to a screeching halt. Though we never take him for granted, we have only a dim idea of all that he does, and when he isn't around, we suddenly realize how much that entails.

Turning on the pump is just for starters. There is the locking of the gate each night and the shopping for Masiji and Mummy (they are running short of biscuits right now and one of them - he would know which - needs more medicines). Washing dishes after dinner (my hands are already rough and dry), tea-making at five, helping me lift Moy Moy from her wheelchair into the stroller - the list is endless. He has assigned most of his chores to himself, so it's only in his absence and slowly as the days wear on that we realize "Oh no. That too!"

Vikram had a cerebral hemorrhage on Tuesday. It began with a blinding headache, followed by vomiting, dizziness and disorientation. We didn't find out until the next morning when Ravi went upstairs to see how he was feeling, realized immediately it was more serious than Vikram had let on and called me to take over (Ravi is hopeless with anything medical).

I called Sebastian and the moment he heard that there was visual disturbance as well, he asked me to take him to a neurologist right away. An MRI confirmed the bleed and he was hospitalized here in Dehradun that night.

This could totally be a post ranting about medical care in India, about pseudo-hospitals where untrained nurses roam the halls and the dirt is pushed around the floors the better to spread the grime, but today I just want to talk about Vikram and the strange ways of the heart.

By Thursday we were convinced that the doctor in charge wasn't taking things seriously enough. Even with Sebastian right there at every step, we couldn't instill the urgency we (and all our medical contacts in Delhi, Mumbai and the US) believed should be there. So we decided to transfer him to Delhi by ambulance (another pseudo experience, grist for another mill: this is about Vikram).

These are just a few of the people who came to see us off as we set out in the ambulance on the long ride to Delhi. Two more were in the ambulance with me. Others had already gone home having spent the night with him in the hospital. Many more were busy orchestrating the cash needed for admission to the hospital (another rant, this is about Vikram) and still more were praying. Vikram is a dearly loved man.

It took us seven hours to get to Delhi and my doctor friend was waiting for us in the emergency room at Apollo, one of the largest private hospitals in the country. At last we felt like we were really in a hospital:

Systems were in place and Vikram was settled into a bed with speed and efficiency.

But the long process of understanding why a healthy 37 year old man could possibly have had a brain hemorrhage was only just beginning. Test after test after test - and so far, almost a week after the event, we are no closer to understanding that than we were the day it happened.

What we do know, however, is how much we all love him - healthy or not. The outpouring of concern and support has gone beyond any normal expectations. People from around the world - anyone, in fact, who has ever stayed in our house and encountered this quiet, lovely, funny man, eaten his amazing food, learned from him how to make chapatties - have written, sent money, prayers and messages of hope, joy and faith.

If the support and love of family and friends can work miracles, Vikram has no need to worry. Miracle will follow miracle and wonders will never cease.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A House, A Home

Masiji returned to our home this afternoon. Ravi's 83 year old aunt has been living with us for the past four years. She shares a room with her sister (Ravi's Mom) who is 93 and though most of the time they get along pretty well, there are days that feel vaguely reminiscent of the sibling rivalry we endured when our children were young. Mummy can't stop bossing and Masiji's feelings are always getting bruised. I negotiate, comfort and cajole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

That's fine. I can deal with the ups and downs of a relationship this solid and well-established.

What I find difficult is the way each person's views, values, preferences and tastes have to be incorporated into the fabric of a home. When you marry, you choose your spouse (most of the time) based on common understandings and principles. The inevitable adjustments are part of the experience and a good marriage is full of compromise. You bring up your children according to your shared views and values and while this too can be both challenging and revealing, I've found it enriching and (most of the time) a pleasure.

But a joint family presents challenges that even I (I grew up in a house with three resident grandparents and a long train of aunts, uncles, cousins and strays) can find difficult and exasperating and at times even infuriating. I could not be luckier with my mother-in-law. But her sister is another thing entirely.

I love Masiji. I am lost in admiration for the life she has endured. She lived in a shack on a footpath for years after the partition riots that swept India immediately following Independence. Her family lost everything. She witnessed scenes of unspeakable brutality and violence. She cooked meals for her family over a fire on the street, the wood for which she gathered as best she could. She carried water in a brass vessel on her head. No indoor plumbing. Five children, one with a severe disability. She endured.

So if she insists on making the dahi by wrapping the vessel in my favorite tea cosy and then again in a towel and then again in an old black shawl, what the heck? And if she must use a hair oil that stains the bathroom floor and a knee balm that stinks up the whole house, how does it matter? She's entitled. She endured.

But there are those prejudices that also endured: the fixed beliefs about Muslims, about poor people, about  servants who are just waiting for you to turn your back so they can steal your sugar or help themselves to butter on their bread.

And I cannot abide the fact that these prejudices keep creeping their way into MY home, making this a place where damage control is always required, where I have to sneak into the kitchen after she has left and reassure my cook that she really can eat whatever she wants, that she needn't be furtive or anxious, that I am in charge, not Masiji. Because you know what they say (and it's true): if you have to insist that you're in charge, you're not.

Yet when I think about inclusion and all the lovely things I am so fond of saying, I know my fuming about Masiji is beneath me. My friend and guide Manju once remarked that most elderly women in India are insecure, worried in some fundamental way about their right to be where they are. For Masiji, who lives with her nephew and not her son, this is more true than usual.

So I swallow my outrage, make sure my cook has plenty of butter for her bread and sugar for her tea, and carry on. This is my home. But it's hers too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Birthday For The Babies of Uttarakhand

Ever since we started Karuna Vihar, we've worried about the babies we never get to, the ones whose parents haven't heard of us, who have no idea that there is a whole world of possibility for their children. It happens because they don't have good doctors who know about early intervention and are willing to refer them to us, because they are too poor to see a doctor in the first place or because they live so far away from Dehradun it's as if they are in another country.

We worry about them partly because it's just not right that any child misses out on the chance to develop to his or her full potential and partly because the nation can't afford to lose what they have to offer.

All of our work with anganwadi staff and community health workers has been motivated by this concern: how can we let people - especially mothers - know about early intervention? How can we get to the babies before their parents give up on them? Because the first five years of life are amazing. And the first three are crucial.

Our early intervention centre began with a simple assumption, as articulated by its guiding spirit, the late Dr Linda Upadhyaya: "The most important professional in a child's care is the mother."

Our family-based program trains parents - usually Moms - to work with their own babies in a carefully designed plan to make the most of potential and ability. We look at what children can do, rather than what they can't. We create exercises, games and activities which are part of everyday routines yet which enhance communication, mobility and cognitive development.

As far as possible, we want the babies to have fun and the moms to not be burdened with additional responsibilities. So physio happens during the regular bath time; speech therapy occurs while Mom is making rotis or chopping vegetables.

Early intervention the way we do it is about enhancing regular, everyday life,  making the most of ordinary opportunities -  not about adding more work to an already packed day.

And it works. Over the years, we've seen babies learn to walk, talk and take turns. We've seen them learn to pay attention, adapt to their environments and play with their friends. Just as important, we've seen parents come to accept their children as they are, even when they don't learn to walk or talk or take turns.

If there is any miracle cure out there, early intervention may just be it. It's a sure-fire way to change attitudes before they get set in cement and the best antidote on the market to despair and pre-conceived ideas.

But we still worried about those babies whose parents hadn't heard of EI. What would happen to them?

Guess what? We just got a grant to open an Early Intervention Centre in Uttarakhand's biggest hospital! The government hospital, the one where everyone comes when they have a problem. This is HUGE, and all of our friends and supporters - those who believed in us from Day One - have reason to rejoice today. Your belief has sparked a revolution. The State of Uttarakhand agrees with you.

We are building a state-of-the-art centre at the Doon Hospital which will cater to the needs of thousands of children in our state. Finally, our dream of making Uttarakhand a model for the nation is coming true. It's all happening here. (We need a speech therapist, a counselor, a developmental therapist and a special educator. Spread the word. It's all happening here.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gia's Little Brother Gets A Chance

Last month I posted a story about a girl named Gia. This one is about her little brother, Kartik.

Gia's persistent questions about Moy Moy's inability to speak turned out to be because her own brother had the same problem. When I visited her in her home, I learned that this little boy, aged 2, was left alone for most of the day.

His mother worked as a domestic servant in a house in our neighborhood. Her employers gave her a squalid, cramped room in the back of their compound to live in and told her that her son was not allowed to play in the garden or come into the house where she was working. She had no choice but to leave him on his own for hours each day.

When I met him, I was struck by his intelligence and sense of humor. He watched me carefully and warily, then smiled in a shy, startled way when I made a funny noise. This, I thought as I left, is a job for Karuna Vihar.

I love KV. All I need to do is tell the story and instantly a galaxy of skill and compassion swings into action. Sebastian, Pushpa, Manju - everyone was waiting.

Me, I waited two weeks for Nisha, Kartik's Mom, to bring him in to meet the Trinity. Then I said "To hell with the professional approach. I'm going to bring that boy in myself."

Not surprisingly, Nisha wasn't the problem. She would have liked to have brought him in for the assessment I had told her about.

The problem was the people she worked for.  I realized that the moment I met them at the gate and asked if Nisha was at home. They looked at me as if I had asked if I could borrow their car for the week.

"Nisha?" I repeated. "I think she works here?"

Nisha wasn't at home, I was told, even as I saw her appear at the end of the driveway, then disappear back into the house. Typical "owner" behaviour. I was not daunted in the least.

Ten minutes later, Nisha and Kartik were in my car, speeding off to Karuna Vihar. The team there received us, took Kartik off to play and sent me on my way. They had it all under control.

A few days later I learned that Kartik had also been assessed by Anne Bruce, our volunteer speech therapist and that she had concurred with the initial assessment: Kartik's problem was simply a lack of human contact, too few opportunities to play, to communicate, to be. Prescription? Latika Vihar. 2 hours a day, 5 days a week.

This evening I met Nisha and Gia on the road to LV. Kartik had been there since 3:30, but Gia had tuitions - as we closed at 5:30, her time was limited.

With only half an hour left, she was desperate to get there herself. She jumped off the blue bicycle, handed her bag to her Mom and ran.

We watched her take off together, then I followed to see what she was so eager about.

It was pretty simple, and her desperation to be there almost broke my heart. It was everything: the dance, the music, the pottery, the art and craft, the books, the toys . . . all the things she had never had as a child which, suddenly, were available. She couldn't believe her luck. But she also couldn't neglect her responsibility to Kartik. "He doesn't want to come with me," she said, looking longingly at the pottery class. "Just go," I told her. "we'll take care of him.

Puja, our brilliant special educator, made sure he had a friend, even if she had her own agenda and the long, slow process of including Kartik began.

Ultimately, whatever happens for Kartik must happen for Gia as well. No child can be "rehabilitated" in isolation. Each one is part of a family, part of a community, part of this world.

The wonder and excitement Gia feels at Latika Vihar is the way forward for Kartik. As she experiences the joy of discovery, he will feel safe enough to trust it himself.

Her voyage will take her in one direction; his may be in another. We aren't here to say one is better than another. We just want to see them unfurl their sails and embark: engaged, confident, free.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Downsizing To New Heights

Four years ago, we got a big grant to set up a Resource Centre for People with Special Needs. Part of the funding included rent for a new building and we lost no time in finding a fancy, spacious one - right next door to my house, as it happened.

It was a theatrical house with an ornate, spiral staircase, a balcony on the inside and immense glass windows everywhere. Everything was marble and carved wood, there were enormous amounts of storage space and each room had its own bathroom. There were even two kitchens.

Our funding also allowed for furniture and curtains and we had a ball setting ourselves up in royal splendor.

But as pleasant as it was to work in such exalted surroundings, I don't think we were any more productive or creative, nor did our efficiency improve. Indeed, there was a little sense of embarrassment and furtiveness about having such a luxurious office and I, at least, often found myself explaining to guests that "actually, the rent is quite reasonable given the size of the place."

But in fact, it was the size of the place that was the problem. It was so large it was difficult to fill, especially on the days when the awareness team was out in the field (which was most of the time).  Giving it to one of our space-starved children's centres wasn't an option because a) it wasn't kid friendly having no garden to speak of and very steep stairs right in its centre and b) our landlords didn't want kids in their house because they thought it would disturb the neighbors (since I was the next-door neighbor, this logic was lost on me, but they were firm about it).

So last month, faced with a budget crisis, we decided to give it up and move to a smaller, less expensive place. That place is a building which - one way and another - has been part of my life almost since the day we moved to Dehradun 22 years ago.

369/1. The Old House. The Guest House. Latika Vihar. The Foundation's First Office. The Training Centre. We have called it many names, but its nature - steady, solid, good to the core - has never changed.

369/1 was our first home in Vasant Vihar. Ravi and I moved into it when Anand was six and Cathleen just short of three. It was here that Moy Moy joined our family and here that the children lived and grew for ten years. When it got to be too cramped for us ( it had only two small bedrooms and Mummy had moved in and guests were a constant feature), we moved to a larger place, but we couldn't bear to give it up completely. Not only did it contain many of our most treasured memories, its landlords - Pramod Tyagi and his wife  - are two such generous and gracious people.

They never raise the rent, for one thing. We have to do it on their behalf periodically, which is saying a lot, given our active fundraising genes and our preference for saving money wherever we possibly can. But even we know there are limits to taking advantage of people. Especially these people. Something of their good-heartedness must have gone into the bricks and the plaster because so many good things have happened to us here.

So we hung on to 369/1 over the years and used it to house many different activities including, at one time, the Foundation office itself -  it was a homecoming of sorts when we returned to it on Monday, but one which involved squeezing our somewhat bloated selves into a much smaller place.

So before we moved, we went through a purge at the big office:

sifting through alarming piles of papers, books, correspondence, old photographs and slides (remember slide shows?) and an astonishing collection of things which had no business being in an office in the first place (Gift items galore: Silver bowls! A statue of a deer with enormous antlers! A Buddhist tapestry!).

Finally, we wedged our furniture and the winnowed down contents of our desks into our new digs:

and though now no cats will be swung in the course of our days (we used to swing so many in the other office!), there is joy in the Foundation. There is more of a spirit of togetherness now, as we regularly bump into each other in passing and overhear each team's conversations and plans. We are saving Rs 21,000 per month in rent. It cost us Rs 500 to shift all our stuff yet we earned Rs 400 from selling all our recyclables to the kabari-wallah. And, best of all, on the day of the move, the Tyagis paid us a surprise visit. We sat and had a nice chat with them for about half an hour, catching up on each others' lives. And then as they said goodbye, Pramod pulled out his check book and gave us a donation of Rs 5001 - "I wish we could do more," he said.

He has no idea.