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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mornings with Lakshi

Having two young children living upstairs is a pure and simple delight. Vijay and Lakshmi, Vikram's kids, are 6 and 3 and one way and another they are in our house a good part of every day. Vijay, a serious young scholar, comes for his lessons with Mummy every day without fail at precisely the appointed time.

Lakshmi comes whenever she feels like it, stays for as long as she cares to, answers if she wants to and dances if she doesn't. She is enchanting in the way only a child one has no responsibility for can be.

She is tiny, and perpetually in motion, always busy with very important projects.

Knowing she has excellent parents makes her occasionally fresh replies seem witty and funny (we know she won't be allowed to become a brat)

and her miniature size makes everything about her adorable and impossibly fetching:

Here she is reaching for the toast I made for her - cut into "lady's fingers", just like my grandmother used to make for me:


She watches the world of our home like a seasoned observer, alert, astute, amused. Occasionally, she leaves a little toy behind -

a tiny reminder of how lucky we are, we grownups, to still have small ones in our lives, watching, learning, existing so fully in each moment that we cannot help but remember that the true teacher is the one who is truly present.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Changing the Channel

Most days when I walk listening to my Ipod, I choose the very funny NPR News Quiz show: "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" or upbeat quick music to inspire an equally quick pace. But sometimes, I like to surprise myself with something like Rapture.

Classical music is an acquired taste. I still remember my parents trying to foist it upon us - completely unsuccessfully. One week we got to the TV Guide before they did and saw a full-page ad for Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic the next Sunday. In desperation, we tore the page out of the magazine, hoping they wouldn't notice.

And if classical music is a hard sell, opera is just a big joke - everyone's favorite thing to imitate and make fun of.

I first got a glimpse of its power and depth in The Shawshank Redemption, a prison movie from which my favorite scene is when the hero, a literary, poetic man convicted for a crime he didn't commit, manages to broadcast a Mozart duet (The Marriage of Figaro/Duettina: Sull'Aria) to the prison yard. Men of all kinds - from hardened criminals to juvenile offenders - slowly stop what they are doing to listen as the music swells and grows from the loudspeakers. The looks on their faces change from surprise to confusion to astonishment and, as one of the oldest prisoners recounts, though no one had any idea what those two ladies were singing their hearts out about, no one wanted them to stop.

That song is on this album. I still don't know what they are singing, though I know I could google the title and get a translation. The thing is, I don't want to know. I just love the emotion that comes through in the voices, the rising and falling chords of music, the depth of understanding and longing and majesty the whole piece conveys. The words might just spoil it.

I play opera when I need to be inspired, when I want to be drawn out of my ordinary existence and reminded of the heights the human spirit is capable of, the great leaps of imagination, the plummets and cascades of disappointed love, the sadness and the grief, the joy and the wonder.

I played it in the background when my children were young (they called it Mom's AHHHH music) and I never forced them to listen. While at university, Anand had a part-time job selling subscriptions to the Handel and Haydn Society and was their all-time top performer (old ladies would call the next day to make sure that nice boy ANN-AND got the bonus he was entitled to for convincing them they couldn't pass up this chance to hear such sublime music). Cathleen sings soprano in her parish choir and loves the more intricate compositions.

Me, I just wander around my neighborhood late at night, listening to Mozart, Puccini and Handel, rejoicing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Hindi Revelation

There are these funny little moments when you realize that even though you think you know what your mother tongue is, you don't. When you realize you've been speaking another language for so long that its eccentricities have crept into your "own" tongue and that your own tongue has changed forever.

This evening, Vikram told me that one of the tires on my car was flat. He had used the car in the morning on a rough road with many sharp stones and though it had seemed fine when he drove back into our driveway in the morning, it was now, seven hours later, like a pancake.

"Aacchaa", I said in Hindi. "Lagta ta ki teek tha, lekin slowly, slowly, patta lagta ki . . " ("You thought it was fine, but slowly, slowly, you realized. . . ")

Vikram finished the sentence for me: "Han. Puncture hogaya." ("Yes. It was punctured.")

He was on his way out the door to change the tire as he said this. I remained inside, surprised and amused by my use of the "slowly, slowly" construction which didn't give him a moment's pause, even though it was in English.

Well, how to unravel this little linguistic complexity? Vikram's comfort with my English-Hindi, my adoption of his language's oddities, his unconscious use of the English technical word "puncture", our joint cooperation and understanding?

Why bother? It works. We now officially speak each other's language without having giving up our own. It's what I love about India. The embracing, inclusiveness of this country which absorbs the best of whatever is out there yet retains what is best about itself.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters

How often are our prayers like these? All neatly spelled out, in a range of primary colors, and then left to flutter gaily and bravely on the prevailing winds?

I love the spirit of these prayers, the sweet abandon, the clean and simple faith which believes in the power of a song on the breeze, a praise to the skies: for the collective good, with no thought of one's own particular needs.

No bleating, no whining, no begging. Just another voice in the choir, calling on God to bless the world, the wind, the colors, the living and the dead, the whole great creation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Turning the Tables

Maybe we're just a bit mean. But when a group of wealthy, entitled students came to us for a 3-day workshop to help them understand what it is like to have a disability, we couldn't resist actually showing them.

They were late. By an hour and a half. So we felt justified in locking the gate:

and putting a sign - in Hindi, which most of them couldn't read - explaining that the key was on the arch above the gate:

and that on no account were they to climb up to get it down. The gate would break. They had to think of a better plan.

They arrived in a mob, all irritated about having been stuck in traffic for an hour and a half and anxious to begin.

First their teacher called me several times to say there was a lock on the gate. Cheerfully, I agreed (from inside the building, watching him on his phone as I spoke with him), but nonetheless insisting that they come on in. I hung up. He called again, sure I hadn't understood. I said "Yes, I know. Come on in." He called again. I hung up. Slowly they deciphered the sign. Shouted their protests. Demanded that the teacher call me yet again. And then began to find alternatives:

It was the stick and the tall boy which finally did the trick.

But when they finally gained entrance, it was with an air of aggrieved annoyance, not triumph. We talked to them about how every day, every moment is like that for people with disability and their families. How it's not a game, how it's not fun and how often a person is alone trying to find the way in with no friends to share the experience or help with ideas and solutions.

Did they get it?

Hard to say.

When asked to make fun of people with disability, they joined in with alacrity and panache. We are counting on the nights, those moments in bed just before sleep when the memory of the day's events replays and alone with their thoughts they consider what might have been different and how their own role in the scheme of things can influence for good and for bad.

We are praying for the good.

We believe in the good hearts of our children.

Monday, November 1, 2010


I have always been fascinated by twins - haven't you? Apart from assuming I would have a set of my own (my mother was a twin, her mother was a twin and my father's father was too), I have always wondered about twins' life in the womb: how much do they talk? What do they know about each other? Is every relationship in life measured against this one?

Well, I didn't get twins, but my nephew and his wife did (and he's a nephew by marriage, not even a rightful beneficiary of my excellent twin genes!). So when I was in Mumbai, of course, I hurried right over to meet the babies.

This is Aryaveer, the not-so-little boy who, compared to his sister, Suhani,

is a bit of a hulk.

But no worries. They are both adorable.

Given my curiosity about their life together in the womb, I was particularly interested in their communication styles. They did not disappoint.

"Tell me everything", she says.

"What?" he replies. "Here? In front of everyone?"

"Oh." she says. "Maybe you're right. Too public."

"Way too public."

"Hey," she says. "You over there. Can you help us out? We need a little privacy."

"Oh my gosh," he says. "I can't believe you said that."