Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bright Shoots of Everlastingness

I feel so lucky every time I walk into our garden.

It is nothing compared to the gardens of many of my more talented friends, but it is ours and every single flower, every tiny blossom is a joy and a reminder of the beauty of the earth and the blessings of God . . .

There is plenty of space for friends to come and enjoy it with us, and tea served round the clock . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

On the Road

This one is for Natasha, who sent me such a lovely film clip this morning and who makes me smile at least three times every day, even though we have never met. Thanks, Natasha!

Indians don't generally drive and drink coffee at the same time. They look at me as if I am a little pathetic when I do. "Poor thing," they seem to be saying to themselves. "Doesn't have enough time to relax."

I actually don't do it very often - mainly because the roads here are so challenging you need all your wits about you while navigating them. But yesterday I had a meeting across town and I wanted to be on time and yes, I had no time to relax over breakfast. I dug out the one travel cup we possess, washed it thoroughly (hadn't used it in six months), filled it up with my signature latte and drove very carefully out the driveway and onto the road.

So there I was, not drinking my coffee because I was too busy weaving in and out, dodging the cycles and the bullock carts and doing pretty well until I got totally stuck behind a huge police truck, too wide to pass. It was open at the back and it was packed with young cops. They looked as young cops so often do: dull, bored, vacant. They were staring out at me, but it didn't seem like they saw me at all.

I was stuck, but I was listening to a great Josh Ritter song called "Bright Eyes," so I was feeling pretty cheerful and a little reckless. Suddenly I remembered my coffee. I reached out for my cup - still nice and hot, but just before taking a sip I happened to glance up at the cops. Same dull vacant stares, looking at nothing in particular.

I caught one's eye and gave him a big smile and raised the cup as in a toast. Transformation. Have you ever seen that happen? A whole crowd of stolid, serious men . . .

whose hearts seem to suddenly and visibly lift? Smiles appeared across every face in unison . . .

and they nodded and cheered me on as a space appeared on the right and I was able to pass their slow-moving truck.

(And no, these aren't those policemen. Do you think I wanted to get arrested for drinking coffee, listening to music AND taking photos while driving? But you get the picture. . . such a small gesture, such a lovely connection, my day made.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Love in Action

Some experiences are so powerful you have to let them settle a while before you can say anything coherent. And even then, words are inadequate.

The Camphill Community in Bangalore is a residential home for adults with mental handicaps. It's run by a Dutch woman and a South Indian man, along with a staff of seven local people and a host of young volunteers from all over the world.

When I was in Bangalore last month, my friend Shaila and I drove out to visit the place. We arrived to find all the residents on the front verandah of a beautiful, Laurie Baker style house. Each resident had a foreign companion and as we got closer we could see that Saturday was bath day. Everyone looked damp and very well-scrubbed and the volunteers were all busy clipping the residents finger- and toe-nails and cleaning their ears with Q-tips.

I mention this to dispel any notion that I am sentimental or unaware of the realities of taking care of adults with special needs. As we approached I heard the woman who soon introduced herself as Frances telling the volunteers to be sure to sweep well afterwards because, she said, "Nobody likes walking over someone else's toenail clippings."

This practical and matter-of-fact attitude permeated the whole place, as it must whenever there are adult bodies with child-like minds. The most basic of issues, which the rest of us handle ourselves and keep to ourselves, assume enormous importance in most communities of adults with special needs. But here it was background, a fact like other facts, and nothing more.

What was foreground, indeed, the ground of their being, was love. I have been to quite a few residential set-ups for adults with special needs but I have never seen anything like this one. This young man - his name is Gautam - is one example of where I got this idea from. He came and sat down near us as we talked with Frances and he seemed so happy just to be there, to sit close by and simply listen to us talk. Frances included him gently in the conversation, teasing him a bit, as a mother might her own child and then sending him off to do whatever it was he was supposed to be doing then.

I know that the "rights-based approach" is what we all subscribe to in our work and I know that every person with disability has the same rights that anyone else has. But I also know that there is no law that guarantees love and that without love, there is no real life.

I have seen set ups where people with special needs are well cared for (though in most I have seen even that is dubious). But that isn't what most people yearn for. What we all want, and people with disability are no different, is respect, dignity, love. We want to be accepted as we are. We want a home.

Camphill is founded on spiritual principles and the people who work in these communities believe in them deeply. The integrity and inherent worth of every human being is at the centre of what they believe - this was so evident in Bangalore it was hard not to get emotional. Shaila and I felt we were in the presence of something profound and remarkable. Yet, according to Frances, the gift is more often not to the residents but to those who take care of them.

So often, she explained, volunteers come because they want to do something for society. Yet they themselves are broken and in need of care - love affairs gone wrong, a lack of direction in life, a soulless marriage or an deadening career - and their year at Camphill allows them to be healed. By caring for people who are - willingly or not - out of the game of ambition and achievement and success, they are freed to step back and look at their own lives, to see what needs to be let go of and to move forward in a more genuine, truthful way.

I was struck by this photograph of Frances with the dog which they had - of course - rescued from the street. The respect and interest each seems to have for the other is the hallmark of what we saw at Camphill. There is nothing remotely sentimental about it: toenail clippings on the floor, I keep saying to myself. It's about reality, about respect, about dignity. It's about love. I saw it myself.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

One Woman's Center Is Another's Far Left . . .or Right

This is how we make our bed. The other day, a guest asked me why we kept the cushions off-center. We've been doing it so long I had forgotten it might look odd or a-symmetrical. But the reason is simple: The right side of the bed is Moy Moy's. She takes a nap every afternoon and if the pillows were in the center, they would get in her face. So we shifted them to the left - now they just look right that way.

Inclusion is all about tiny little changes. After a while, you don't even notice.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Design to the Rescue!

I used to think of design as being about frills: the fun, the beautiful, the quirky little extras you only have time for when the basics have been covered. But working with people with disability has made me realize that design is so much more than fancy flourishes. It's also about how things work best, about applying thought to the things people do every day and making it easier, more graceful, and, even, in some cases, possible.

I live in a family of newspaper-holics. We subscribe to eight different papers and Ravi and Mummy can't function until they've read their favorites each morning. I read The Hindu at work and The Times at home, and I don't mind waiting my turn till Mummy is through with it.

Except that by the time I get my hands on it, it's a mangled mess.

And I really can't blame her. She reads it in bed, her arms are short and she has arthritis so it's painful to turn the pages. For many years, I have just straightened it out as best I could and carried on (aren't I brave!).

Then, on a recent trip to Bangalore, I was waiting in a shop for a LONG time. To amuse myself, I picked up a newspaper the management kept available for other similarly bored customers. It was evening, and one would have thought the paper would be wrinkled and in tatters by then. But in fact it was as neat as it had just been delivered. As a connoisseur of pristine newspapers, I was intrigued. How did they manage it?

Design. Using the simple and elegant tool of staples and imagination in a preventive strike, some very clever person in Bangalore had solved the messy newspaper problem. I brought the solution home and was greeted with universal acclaim (well - almost: Ravi thinks it's a waste of staples).
Mummy loves it the most, which made me realize that for her, the messy paper was not only unpleasant to read but, considerate soul that she is, unpleasant to hand over to me.

Design Zindabad!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tiny Things

Yesterday morning I woke up with a sharp little pain in my right thumb. I couldn't figure out what was causing it and it wasn't bad enough to make me want to do anything about it, so I just ignored it, hoping it would go away.

This morning it was still there, more painful and a little red and inflamed.

This evening I finally realized it was a splinter, so tiny I could barely see it. I found a pair of tweezers (don't you love that word?) and a needle and went to work. It didn't take very long before I had it out.

It was so small I had a hard time believing it had caused me so much pain, or indeed, any pain at all.

And that led me to think about how many things we allow into our lives, give permission to to make us suffer - things which are not worthy of us, things which, by any standard, are small and insignificant and easy to remove (tweezers, forsooth, a needle).

I took that little splinter out and the pain vanished. Just like that - that's all it took. I want to remember this. Some things are not worth the pain.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mother India

The dining table was returned last night - as you can see in the photo, it's been shined and polished to a high gloss and we can now see our faces in it.

Please note the decorated chair. The table was returned just in time for Mummy's 93rd birthday (Yes, you read that right. 93 years old.). Decorating the Birthday Girl's chair is a family tradition which Mummy finds most amusing.

How does one get to this age so gracefully? I think Mummy should be studied and observed and documented. There is so much we can learn from her.

At an age when most people are only concerned with their own aches and pains and tiny little troubles, Mummy might complain once in a month about her bones or the cold or her increasing inability to hear. At an age when many feel bored and neglected and left out, Mummy doesn't have enough time in the day to do all she needs to get done. And at an age when most people feel mortality closing in on them with a sense of dread and fear, Mummy is a bit impatient (the other day she said to me very matter-of-factly: "What joke is God playing keeping me here so long? Haven't I done enough?")

Here are a few of her secrets:

Know your own body and what works for you. Except for ice cream, which she will NEVER refuse, she has zero indulgences. She knows exactly what to eat, drink, wear and do and she sticks to her regimen with an iron will. Delayed Gratification is a sign of emotional maturity and Mummy never makes the mistake of going for the cheap thrill of the moment. Except for that bowl of ice cream, she always takes the Long View.

Stay busy. Mummy's routine begins early in the morning with prayers, exercises and a glass of nimbu pani. She reads the paper thoroughly every day, then reads out loud to her sister whose eyes are failing. At noon, the first of her students arrives for a lesson. After lunch, she rests for around 15 minutes, and then the other students begin trooping in, all afternoon and evening in an endless queue. She is 93, but her mind is as sharp as a tack. She knows each student's strengths and weaknesses, knows when to push and when to cajole and when to call in the parents. She has their homework ready when they arrive and knows when their next exam is better than they do. STAY BUSY.

Remember it's not in your hands. Mummy understands better than anyone I know the concept of duty and responsibility. She does exactly what she should, and you can set your watch by her and measure every standard of integrity by her actions. But she never confuses herself with her Creator. She knows she has to do her duty and she knows the ultimate responsibility is the Upper-Walla's. That gives her her trademark serenity and sense of humor.

Did I mention I am her daughter-in-law but she refuses to add the in-law part? I wish everyone could have a Mummy like this one.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Missing Dining Table

Our dining table is gone for repairs and polishing. When I sent it off, I was told it would be back in three or four days. It's been five so far, but it feels a lot longer.

We are one of the only families I know that sits down together at the table for all three meals. Every day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is possible because Ravi and I go to work fairly late and lunch is possible because we live so close to our offices we come home to eat. And dinner, of course, is always possible.

What I hadn't realised is how important the table is.

Mummy and Masiji can't manage without one - it's too difficult for them to balance a plate on their laps. So now they eat at this tiny table by themselves, while Ravi and I perch on stools at the kitchen counter, for the duration, we say comfortingly.

But sitting by ourselves, we have started to actually have real conversations again. We choose the topic ourselves, speak at a normal volume, say things only once and use the shorthand married couples all have with each other.

Oh my gosh! So this is what meal-time conversation is about. Wit, charm, double-entendres, interesting facts, funny asides. I had forgotten.

Mummy and Masiji are both deaf. One prefers Punjabi, the other Hindi. Each of them has her own special interests, but the topics which they both understand and enjoy tend to be limited to family stories, the weather and the servants. And since it feels rude and exclusive to talk about things they have no idea of, as a rule, we stick to what they are interested in.

We're not saints. Those conversations are fairly boring. Given a choice, we prefer to tell each other spicy, colorful stories about the things we are interested in. Given a choice, we won't exactly choose to ignore the biddies, but in fact, that's what happens. Slip-sliding away. We lose the thread and hardly even notice.

The table doesn't let us.

When you have a table, you have to sit at it, all together, every meal. And when you sit together, you talk. Sometimes you have to shout, sometimes you have to repeat yourself, sometimes you bite your tongue and try not to roll your eyes. But you're together, you're talking.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Every parent loves a sleeping child. And a sick sleeping child even more so.

Moy Moy has pneumonia again - it's a regular winter event and we have gotten better at dealing with it each passing year, handling the chest physio, the nebulizing, the high fevers and the dangerous sounding coughs with - almost - practiced ease.

When we panic, Sebastian is always on call. If, for some reason, he's not available (as this year when he is in Holland on a fellowship), Vibha guides us long-distance from Mumbai and Dr Manish Jain is one of those old-fashioned docs who still makes house calls if required. We feel so lucky and so blessed by the community of support this young woman has inspired around us.

This morning, I gave Moy her first bath after the diagnosis (Ravi was away and the biddies weren't watching - no good Indian will allow a bath when a child is ill).

I put fresh sheets on the bed and flowers at the table beside her. Then I dressed her in a soft white sweater and covered her with the beautiful patchwork quilt the Foundation had given her for her 20th birthday . . .pink hearts. I gave her her breakfast and the five different meds she is taking, did the nebulizing and watched as she fell asleep - exhausted by all my ministrations.

Then I stood there just gazing at her for a while, overcome briefly by a wave of tenderness for my brave, sleeping child. Bless her.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Melanie Monsour: Walk Like You Dance

Today I walked to the market listening to music - something I almost never do here because you really need to have all your senses on high alert to make it through the streets in one piece. Today, though, I was listening to Leonard Cohen's Live in London and I didn't want to turn it off.

It's amazing music and I walked faster than I ever did (and I walk fast), but this time with a little jazz to my step that made me suddenly remember an old and dear friend.

Melanie Monsour was my friend in high school and my roommate in college and we went through some very interesting times together over which I draw a discreet veil.

The point of this post is the memory of Melanie walking.

I was with a friend and we were driving to pick Melanie up somewhere in Somerset, Mass. She had gotten tired of waiting for us and had set out to meet us on the road. From a distance (I can still see her now) we spotted her coming toward us: in a powder blue ski jacket, hands in the jacket pockets, rolling down the road as if on skates.

"How does she do that?" my friend (he was from Lebanon) asked, baffled.

"Do what?" I replied, so used to Melanie I no longer noticed anything.

"Walk like she's dancing."

Inner music? A soul set to sound? I don't know, but that's how I think of her and that's what came back to me in a rush today as I took my life in my hands listening to music and walking these mean streets of Dehradun.